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Saturday, March 6, 2010

When It's Necessary and Desirable to Assassinate Terrorists


By Barry Rubin*
March 5, 2010

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), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org.
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