When It's Necessary and Desirable to Assassinate Terrorists / Prof.B.Rubin

There has been a huge international controversy about the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a leading Hamas terrorist, in Dubai on January 19. I have no idea who did it but have some points to make on the subject.

1. Generally speaking, media coverage almost never (in Europe) or only minimally (in the United States) talks about what Mabhouh actually did to merit his end. The New York Times had the following paragraph at the very end of its story:

“Mr. Mabhouh had a role in the 1989 abduction and killing of two Israeli soldiers, and was also involved in smuggling weapons into Gaza, Israel and Hamas have said. Israel officials say the weapons came from Iran.”

It would seem that there would be more discussion of the deeds of such people so they are not portrayed, at least implicitly, as innocent victims. Readers could weigh the assassination against their crimes, which would otherwise go unhindered and unpunished. Mabhouh was probably in Dubai arranging more arms' shipments from Iran so that Hamas could go to war again, causing deaths on both sides. He was a real war criminal, in contrast to the bogus ones fabricated by the terrorist-sponsoring dictatorships which seem to have so much influence on the "human rights" agenda.

2. As long as Western states do nothing to help bring Hamas or Hizballah terrorists to justice, and since Israel has no way of getting these people before a court, it has no option other than the extra-judicial one. Remember that an Israeli cabinet minister is more likely to face prosecution in the United Kingdom nowadays than a terrorist who has murdered Israeli civilians.

Some European countries--France and Italy have admitted as much regarding past deals--have secret agreements with terrorist groups to allow them to operate freely as long as they don't do attacks within the country. Other terrorists--like the Palestinians who hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship and murdered an American citizen or one of the Libyan masterminds of the Lockerbie plane bombing that killed scores of passengers, mainly Americans--have been released from prison without completing their terms.

This point of international culpability in letting certain terrorists escape or function isn't brought up, explained, or seriously discussed: What do you do if specific people are attacking you and there’s no other option to stopping them? If the United States could assassinate Usama bin Ladin or other top al-Qaida terrorists whom it could not capture shouldn't it do so? Of course it should.

3. There is a cliché when talking about counter-terrorism to the effect that getting a specific individual doesn’t matter as there is always someone to replace him. But in terrorism, as in other aspects of life, there are more effective and less effective individuals. Since Israel eliminated Hamas’s master bombmaker—who not only made bombs but trained others--in 1995, less capable people replacing him in that line of work have managed to blow themselves up a lot.

The terrorist Imad Mugniya, who someone killed in Damascus, was a unique individual since he had personally worked with the Palestinians, Hizballah, Syria, and Iran. Given his energy, ability, and connections he was not really replaceable.

Mabhouh was in a similar position, the top Hamas arms’ procurer who enjoyed the trust of the Iranians and who knew how to get lots of rockets and other equipment quickly and consistently.

These are not people who merely carried out a specific attack but those who make possible the staging of dozens of attacks.

Of course, terrorism doesn’t go away—expecting that it will do so is a Western act of wishful thinking—but the point is to reduce the number and effectiveness of attacks, and thus the number of casualties.

There are other advantages to eliminating key terrorist operatives. Often it can spark factional conflicts which make terrorist groups spend more time on internal battles. It also sparks mistrust among terrorist partners. If Mugniya can be assassinated in the neighborhood of Damascus that is the most secure place in all of Syria, can Iran and Hizballah trust Syria? Where did the leak occur? Who is infiltrated by the enemy?

Indeed, though outsiders may understate this reality, there is more than a seed of suspicion planted. Perhaps Iran or Syria or Fatah or some other faction in Hizballah killed Mugniya? Perhaps Fatah or Iran or some other faction of Hamas killed Mabhouh.

By the way, although it doesn’t seem to make the headlines so much, other countries including the United States (certainly in Somalia and Yemen) have taken out specific terrorists. Doing so more would be a good idea, if the cases are carefully selected and in the absence of any option to grab them from some state providing safe haven.

Proposition One: if you truly understand that the terrorist groups are going to try to kill you no matter what you do, it removes the fear of making them angry.

Proposition Two: If you know the world is going to criticize you no matter what you do, it removes the fear of making them angry.

That’s Israel’s situation. It is also the situation of a lot of other countries which admittedly face a lower level of risk but also don’t realize the first proposition. At the same time, though, they have far fewer problems with the second.

But what’s at issue here is not revenge for past attacks but the prevention of future ones, a very careful and well-informed thinking through of what actions would weaken terrorist adversaries and save the lives of the civilians they are aiming to kill.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Watch the Themes, Not the Headlines

Posted: 25 Feb 2010 12:19 AM PST

By Barry Rubin

A basic principle is to look at the underlying interests and perceptions of specific governments and states, not the immediate headlines, if you want to know what countries or mass movements are going to do. Over and over, however, we see stories that prove false in a few days yet probably leave a lasting impression to the contrary on readers.

For example we keep seeing phony trend stories can be said about Hamas or Hizballah moderating, Hamas and the PA reconciling, a great new deal offered by Iran over the nuclear issue, and many other such items.

That thought is prompted by a recent flurry of stories that the Palestinian Authority is about to return to negotiations with Israel. In fact, for reasons I’ve outlined repeatedly in this blog (relating mainly to the radical nature of internal Palestinian politics) that isn’t going to happen for a long time.

Another story we keep hearing is about how Russia or China are about to support real sanctions on Iran. Yet every time an official from those countries makes a statement it is to the contrary. Here’s the latest from Oleg Rozhkov, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official. And note he is very clear:

"We are not got going to work on sanctions or measures which could lead to the political or economic or financial isolation of this country. What relation to non-proliferation is there in forbidding banking activities with Iran? This is a financial blockade. And oil and gas. These sanctions are aimed only at paralyzing the country and paralyzing the regime."

And that’s a regime with which Russia is quite friendly.

I just wrote a piece pointing out that since the Obama administration wants the EU to endorse the sanctions, it needs a unanimous vote there. This means that countries like Luxemburg and Sweden can now block, or water down, sanctions. Yet it doesn't end even there! As Der Spiegel explains, reporting on what EU leaders are saying:

"But the West also wants to secure the backing of countries such as Brazil, Turkey and the Gulf states for sanctions. That would make it harder for Iran's leadership to argue that it's being victimized by a `Western conspiracy' or the `vassals of Israel.'"

This is crazy. Nothing will make it harder for Iran's leadership to make such arguments because they will do so no matter what happens! How long will it take to get all these countries on board? How minimal they will demand sanctions to be! And Turkey is now practically Iran's closest ally.

Here is a serious crisis where the Western states want to avoid Iran getting nuclear weapons or a war erupting to stop that from happening. Yet they are either frozen into near passivity or want to do less than the minimum and throw away the time available for peaceful and effective action. True, they are somewhat affected by a desire not to lose money from trade with Iran, yet Britain, France, and Germany along with others are ready to move forward.

What is lacking? While a number of elements can be cited the number-one item on the list should be: the lack of American leadership. I don't here mean some kind of bullying or ordering, but I do mean a serious type of determination, prodding, and belief that the United States should lead even if not everyone is in the consensus.

This situation reminds me of an old Romanian joke used to explain about corruption. The lights are turned out, a piece of ice is passed around for a while, and then the lights are turned back on. "See," says the host, everyone's hands are wet but there's nothing left.

So what will be left of sanctions and when will there be any? Not much and not soon.

And what is going to be left of American leadership?.Same as above.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.

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