Hezbollah announced the death of Mustafa Badreddine, its notorious senior military commander, in Syria early Friday morning. Badreddine was the successor of his brother-in-law and cousin Imad Mughniyah to the post, its highest ranking military official behind the organization’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, and his chief of intelligence.
Badreddine was one of the terrorists responsible for the 1983 Marine Barracks Bombing in Beirut which killed 241 American servicemen, among a long and bloodstained career.
Though initial reports – including from sources sympathetic to Hezbollah – indicated that Badreddine was killed in an Israeli air strike, the Party itself was more ambiguous. When prominent commanders, such as Mughniyah or his son Jihad, were previously killed, the Shiite party was quick to point the finger at the Israelis. This time, its official statement confirming Badreddine’s death refrained from identifying those responsible or vowing retaliation.
According to local sources, an Israeli jet breached the airspace over Damascus, entering the Syrian capital from its southern outskirts. The plane carried out a pinpoint strike on a Hezbollah unit stationed near Damascus International Airport. In the subsequent explosion, Badreddine and two Iranian paramilitary commanders were killed, and wounding others in the process.
Hezbollah’s statement confirmed that Badreddine was killed at the Airport, adding, however that the group was still in the process of determining whether he was killed “in an airstrike,” i.e. by the Israelis, “or by rocket or artillery fire,” meaning by Syrian rebels. The group maintained the ambiguity on Badreddine’s assassins during his funeral, with its deputy Secretary General Naim Qassem saying they would disclose their identity “within a few hours.”
Mustafa Amine Badreddine – also known as “Dhul Fiqar” – was born in a Shiite suburb of Beirut in 1961 and was a member of Fatah’s Force 17 along with Mughniyah. In the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the two joined an embryonic Hezbollah. Since then, his infamous career has been meteoric, distinguishing himself early on as an expert bomb-maker, whereas Mughniyah was the master planner. Shortly after joining the group, he and Mughniyah were tapped to lead the October 1983 Marine Barracks Bombing in Beirut. They oversaw and coordinated the entire attack until completion, watching from a nearby building as the barracks exploded. It was apparently during this attack that Badreddine developed his trademark technique of adding gasoline to the explosives to increase their destructive power.
Badreddine’s next exploit, once again alongside Mughniyah, was as part of the Kuwait 17 , who were members the Iran-based al-Da’wa, an Iraqi Shiite fundamentalist group. The group carried out a string of seven terror attacks in Kuwait on December 12, 1983, killing five people and wounding 86. Their targets included the American and French embassies, the Kuwaiti airport, Raytheon Corporation’s headquarters, a Kuwait National Petroleum Company oil-rig and a government-owned power station.
He was arrested a month later, and after a 16-week trial was sentenced to death by Kuwait for masterminding the attacks. Unrepentant, he ordered the failed assassination of the Kuwaiti emir in 1985 while still in prison. He remained there until he escaped in 1990 during the chaos of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, fleeing to Iran. With the help of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), he returned to Beirut and established Unit 1800 with Mughniyah, which abetted terror attacks against Israel from the West Bank and Gaza.
In 1992 he was placed in command of Hezbollah’s central military force, laying down its strategy to combat Israeli forces stationed in Lebanon, and taking an active role in planning many of the operations and attacks on the IDF until their withdrawal in May of 2000. Badreddine took the “lead role in planning and overseeing,” Hezbollah’s 1997 ambush of the IDF’s Shayetet 13 commando troops in south Lebanon, one of the heaviest blows suffered by the Israelis during their 18 year presence in the country. The commando force was making its way inland to assassinate a Hezbollah leader in the village of Ansariya, south of Sidon. Unbeknownst to the Israelis, Hezbollah had intercepted surveillance footage of the planned raid, and mined the area with explosives. As the force entered an orchard near Ansariya beach, Hezbollah fighters detonated the IEDs – killing 12 commandos, including the force commander – and opened fire on the attacking Israeli force.
Badreddine went on to coordinate the activities of Hezbollah’s Unit 3800 (previously known as Unit 2800) , which promoted attacks on Sunni, US and British forces in during the Iraq war, and the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. In 2011, the UN-established Special Tribunal for Lebanon indicted Badreddine for the murder, prompting an enraged Nasrallah to threaten to “cut off the hand” of anyone who tried to extradite him or his co-conspirators.
After that, he was rumored to have been replaced by Talal Hamayeh as the head of Hezbollah’s external operations and fled to Iran. However, Badreddine reappeared in Syria in 2011 to command Hezbollah’s military operations, and had a crucial role in uniting the disparate Iranian-proxy Shiite militias in 2012 to shore up Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. While in Syria, he led Hezbollah’s critical 2013 ground offensive in Qusayr, and in 2015, was commanding operations in southern Syria alongside IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.
Badreddine is the latest high profile Hezbollah commander to be killed in Syria, following on the heels of the assassination of Samir Quntar in late 2015, and the Mazraat Amal strike earlier that year which killed six individuals including Jihad Mughniyah, and field commander Mohammad Issa, responsible for the group’s operations in Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah quickly blamed Israel for both attacks.
However, Badreddine’s stature makes his death the most serious blow to the organization since Israel assassinated his predecessor Mughniyah in Damascus on Feb. 12, 2008, and that is likely animating Hezbollah’s reluctance to point an accusatory finger at the Israelis. Hezbollah’s overextension in Syria requires that the group react cautiously, lest it place itself in a situation where the magnitude of its loss requires a retaliation against the Israelis that will lead could lead to a larger war.
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