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The demise of Hezbollah’s terror chief / Chemical weapon red-lines

May 19, 2016

The demise of Hezbollah's terror chief / Chemical weapon red-lines

Update from AIJAC

May 19, 2016

Update 05/16 #04

Last week saw the death in an explosion of Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hezbollah’s most senior military commander and terrorist organiser, in unclear circumstances, near Damascus. Badreddine was the successor to Imad Mughniyeh, killed near Damascus in 2008, and is believed to have orchestrated the murder of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri in 2005. This Update deals with the implications of Badreddine’s death – but also includes a comment on the growing normalcy of the use of chemical weapons during Syria’s civil war.

We lead with veteran American journalist and columnist Cliff May, discussing Badreddine’s role in past and present Hezbollah activities. May notes Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif praised Badreddine, just as he earlier laid a wreath at the grave of his predecessor Mughniyah, yet all the US government was able to bring itself to say about this was that they “do not share” Zarif’s sentiments about Badreddine. May also says that while the terror chief’s death will be a serious setback to Hezbollah, the organisation will have little difficulty replacing him and can count on a cashed up Iran to provide that successor ample funding to continue both terrorism and Hezbollah’s major  role on the pro-Assad side in the Syrian civil war. For this article in full, CLICK HERE. An additional good summary of implications for Hezbollah of Badreddine’s death comes from Nadav Pollak and Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute. Another comes from Israeli acddemic Eyal Zisser.

Next up is a profile and obituary of Badreddine by Robin Wright of the New Yorker. Wright tells the story of how Badreddine was a major architect of the current era of Islamist terror, beginning with the 1983 suicide bombings against US marines in Beirut – which was the first attack to employ a technique Badreddine developed for using gas to increase the power of plastic explosives. His importance to Hezbollah was such that Hezbollah carried out repeated major terror attacks to gain his freedom after he was convicted and jailed in Kuwait in the 1980s – but he lived a playboy life under the pseudonym Sammi Issa following his release. For this fascinating portrait of a terrorist mastermind, CLICK HERE.

Finally, noted American columnist David Ignatius notes that the Assad regime is now reportedly using nerve gas against its opponents, but no one seems interested, even though this is a clear violation of the deal the US and Russia struck in 2013 to rid the regime of its chemical weapons. As Ingnatius notes, US President Obama backed down from his self-declared “red line” on chemical weapons use at that time on the grounds of that US-Russian agreement. Yet experts are now saying chemical weapons use is the “new normal” in Syria  but the US and Russia seem willing to tolerate this despite the agreement and their cooperation in some other respects in Syria. For Ignatius’ full argument, CLICK HERE.  More details on how widespread and normal chemical weapons use has become in Syria and even Iraq comes from Israeli academic expert Brandon Friedman.

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Article 1

A death in Damascus, grief in Beirut

Hezbollah and Iran mourn the loss of a master terrorist

Washington Times, Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Five years ago, during the optimistically named Arab Spring, Syrians staged peaceful protests against the ruling dynasty that had long oppressed them. President Bashar Assad responded brutally: In May 2011, he sent tanks into the suburbs of Damascus, Deraa, Homs and other cities to crush his critics. Civil war followed.

Experts, not least those in the U.S. government, convinced themselves that the rebels would prevail. There were simply too many angry Syrian Sunnis and Mr. Assad, a member of the Alawite minority, had too few loyal troops. Before long, Sunni jihadis from abroad began streaming into Syria to support the rebels. Among them were branches of al Qaeda, one of which splintered into the Islamic State.

Events then took an unexpected turn. Iran’s rulers, self-proclaimed Shia jihadis, regarded Mr. Assad as their most important ally in the Arab world — or, perhaps more precisely, a regent of their expanding empire. So they instructed Hezbollah, their loyal Lebanese Shia militia, to deploy fighters to Syria to defend him.

Last week, Hezbollah suffered a serious setback: Mustafa Badreddine, the 55-year-old commander of its military operations in Syria, was killed in an explosion near the Damascus airport. This might have been an Israeli operation. On the other hand, a long list of Syrian Sunnis would have been more than eager to send Mr. Badreddine home in a body bag.

At the funeral in Beirut on Friday, large posters showed Badreddine wearing glasses, a camouflage cap and a broad smile — a happy holy warrior.

And why shouldn’t he have been? When not waging jihad, he led the life of a Lebanese playboy. In a vivid profile written last year, Beirut-based reporter Alex Rowell noted that Badreddine had “multiple mistresses” and frequently “entertained at his seaside home north of Beirut” in the Christian town of Jounieh.

Those women and guests probably knew him only as the yacht-owning, “Mercedes-driving Christian jeweler, Sami Issa” — just one of the aliases he utilized. (Under his real name, he never had a passport, a driver’s license or a bank account.) He also was a regular at the Casino du Liban, which Mr. Rowell recalls was once the “hangout of Sinatra and Brigitte Bardot — just a stone’s throw from the red light district.”

His alter ego, however, was “explosives virtuoso.” In 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a vocal opponent of Mr. Assad’s attempts to dominate Lebanon, was assassinated — 2,200 pounds of TNT detonated as Mr. Hariri’s motorcade was driving past Beirut’s landmark St. George Hotel. In 2011, the U.N.-established Special Tribunal for Lebanon indicted Badreddine, calling him “the overall controller of the operation.”

The massive car bomb explosion in Beirut on February 14, 2005, that killed Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 other people. Badreddine was indicted by a U.N. investigation for the murder of Hariri and 22 others.

Badreddine launched his career in terrorism while still in his teens. Family connections may have helped: His cousin and brother-in-law was Imad Mughniyeh, for years Hezbollah’s top military commander.

The two worked together to plan the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut that killed 241 servicemen. Additional attacks followed, including at the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait. Those landed Badreddine in a Kuwaiti jail.

In an effort to free him, Mughniyeh staged a series of kidnappings of Westerners in Beirut as well as at least three airline hijackings, including that of TWA Flight 847, during which U.S. Navy Seabee diver Robert Stethem was beaten, tortured and shot in the head — his body then dumped on the tarmac at Beirut’s airport.

In 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Its prisons were emptied. Iranian diplomats reportedly helped Badreddine make his way back to Lebanon where he rejoined Mugniyeh. Over the next few years, the duo turned the militia of Hezbollah (the name translates as Party of God) into one of the region’s most powerful fighting machines — far more powerful than, for example, Lebanon’s official armed forces.

Then, in 2008, Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus — according to some reports in a joint Mossad-CIA operation. Hezbollah’s leaders appointed Badreddine his successor.

Two years ago, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, regarded by President Obama as a leading Iranian “moderate,” laid a wreath on Mugniyeh’s grave in Beirut. And on Friday, in a message to Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, Mr. Zarif expressed his government’s condolences on the death of Badreddine, saying he had died “defending the ideals of Islam.”

“We do not share the comments attributed to Foreign Minister Zarif, and we continue to hold Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization,” John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said Friday. Note the restraint: The U.S. government doesn’t condemn Iran’s praise for a terrorist responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans; it merely does not “share” that particular appraisal.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry last week was working hard to “drum up some business in Europe for Iran” as a Wall Street Journal headline pungently phrased it. Iran’s rulers have been complaining that they have not yet benefited economically as much as they had expected from President Obama’s Iran deal.

Tony Badran, a Levant expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, thinks it likely that a senior member of Hezbollah’s Jihad Council — that’s what they call it — will soon be named to replace Badreddine. Among the candidates: Ibrahim Aqil and Fouad Shukr, both designated as terrorists by the U.S. Treasury Department. Neither is as colorful as was Badreddine. But they can expect to be well funded — thanks to the Islamic Republic of Iran, assisted by the Obama administration.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.



Article 2

The Demise of Hezbollah’s Untraceable Ghost

By Robin Wright

The New Yorker, May 13

Adnan Badreddine (left) mourns in Beirut beneath a billboard of his brother Mustafa, one of the architects of Islamic terrorism. Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY HASSAN AMMAR / AP Mustafa Badreddine, a cocky Lebanese bomb maker and one of the architects of Islamic terrorism, was buried Friday. He was Hezbollah’s top military commander, and, along with his brother-in-law Imad Mughniyah, who died in 2008, masterminded one of the longest-running sprees of violence—bombings, hostage-takings, assassinations, and airplane hijackings—in the Middle East. Badreddine, who was fifty-five, was killed in a mysterious explosion in Syria, where he commanded at least six thousand Hezbollah fighters who are propping up the regime of President Bashar Assad. A few months ago, he vowed, “I won’t come back from Syria unless as a martyr or a carrier of the banner of victory.” He came back in a box.

“Along with Imad Mughniyah and a couple of others, Badreddine initiated the era of modern terror in which we still live,” Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Lebanon, told me today. “I could not be happier that someone killed the son of a bitch.”

Badreddine gained fame for developing a sophisticated technique for using gas to increase the power of plastic explosives. It was used in the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine compound in Beirut, the largest loss of American military personnel in a single incident since Iwo Jima, in 1945. His name did not surface publicly until two months later, when a truck laden with forty-five large cylinders of gas connected to explosives careened through the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. The Embassy annex crumbled; shock waves blew out windows and doors for blocks, including those of the Hilton Hotel across the street. The driver, however, rammed into the wrong building, missing the main chancery, and only a quarter of the cannisters ignited. “If everything had gone off, this place would have been a parking lot,” an American diplomat told me at the time.

Over the next few hours, five other bombs went off in Kuwait City, including one at the French Embassy. The impact unbolted a large crystal chandelier above the ambassador’s desk that missed his head by inches. Suicide bombers also struck the control tower of Kuwait International Airport, the living quarters for American employees at Raytheon, Kuwait’s largest oil refinery, and its main power station. Badreddine is credited with the idea of attacking multiple sites at the same time—a tactic later adopted by Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and others.

“It was an extraordinary innovation,” Bruce Hoffman, the director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a longtime terrorism expert, told me. “You can’t underestimate his influence on the patterns and tactics of terrorism today.”

Badreddine didn’t get away with the Kuwait bombings. He and twenty others were caught, and seventeen were convicted. A Kuwait court sentenced him to death, but the sentence wasn’t carried out, and he proved as dangerous in prison as at large.

Badreddine, a Lebanese Shiite, worked closely with Mughniyah, who was his cousin as well as his brother-in-law. (Mughniyah married Saada, Badreddine’s sister.) They first trained together under Fatah, Yasir Arafat’s wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization. They were then among the early recruits for a new Shiite movement fostered by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

After Badreddine was sentenced, Mughniyah launched a spate of attacks to pressure Kuwait to free him. They included at least three commercial hijackings. The seizure of Kuwait Airways Flight 221 dragged on for six days in 1984. Two of the passengers—officials with the U.S. Agency for International Development—were shot, their bodies dumped on the tarmac in Tehran. In 1985, the hijacking of T.W.A. Flight 847 went on for two weeks. Robert Dean Stethem, a U.S. Navy Seabee diver, was shot, his body dumped on the tarmac in Beirut. And the ordeal of Kuwait Airways Flight 422, in 1988, lasted for sixteen days. Two Kuwaitis were shot, their bodies left on the tarmac in Larnaca, Cyprus. In each episode, the main demand was the release of the Kuwait 17, as Badreddine and his fellow-prisoners came to be known.

As that tactic failed to win Badreddine’s freedom, Mughniyah’s cell began to grab Americans off the streets of Beirut, launching a wave of hostage dramas that continued for seven years. Terry Anderson, the A.P. bureau chief in Lebanon, was held the longest. “My captors told me that they wanted their brothers freed from Kuwait,” Anderson told me. “They said Kuwait was an American puppet, and ‘We’ll capture Americans and they’ll tell the Kuwaitis to free our brothers.

“I’d tell them that wasn’t going to happen—and Kuwait wouldn’t listen even if they did,” Anderson said. “They would laugh and say, ‘We’ll know what we’re doing.’ “ Anderson was shocked when he heard—long after the fact—that the Reagan Administration had begun to negotiate a deal to supply arms to Iran in exchange for the freedom of the Americans in Lebanon.

“Badreddine was no common military leader,” Bilal Saab, an expert on Hezbollah at the Atlantic Council, told me. “This is a man who was so important to the organization that Mughniyah felt the need to hijack civilian airliners to liberate him, to take American hostages to free him.” The lore—among the Lebanese, former American hostages, intermediaries, diplomats, and intelligence agencies—is that Mughniyah’s wife also badgered her husband to do something for her brother.

In the end, Badreddine was freed when Saddam Hussein’s troops invaded Kuwait, in 1990. Whether by intent or accident, prisons were emptied. Badreddine soon returned to Beirut. With the fate of the Kuwait 17 no longer an issue, a path opened for the release of the Americans still held by Hezbollah. Badreddine became central to the final rounds of negotiations, led by U.N. Special Envoy Giandomenico Picco.

On four occasions, Picco was picked up by masked men in Beirut, blindfolded, and put in the trunk of a Mercedes for the ride to an undisclosed place for negotiations with Hezbollah leaders. They, too, were masked, but Picco has no doubt that they were Mughniyah and Badreddine, he told me on Friday. “Badreddine was sitting on the end of a sofa. Mughniyah was sitting adjacent in an arm chair, and I was sitting in a small chair.” Eight men with automatic rifles were also in the room. Each session ran between two and three hours. The hostage drama, which involved dozens of Americans, finally ended when Anderson was freed, on December 4, 1991. He had spent more than six years in captivity, often chained to a radiator.

Over the next decade and a half, Mughniyah and Badreddine developed the armed wing of Hezbollah into the most sophisticated militia in the Middle East, capable of fighting Israel more effectively than any other Arab army or militia, including the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Badreddine was also linked to acts of terror inside Lebanon. In 2005, an explosion rocked the motorcade of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri as it drove from parliament to his office. Hariri was killed. In 2011, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, whose judges are appointed by the United Nations, indicted four Hezbollah officials and named Badreddine as chief coördinator of the Hariri assassination.

Making the connection had been difficult because Badreddine had kept such a low profile—at least under his birth name. The prosecutor, Graeme Cameron, told the court. “He has never been issued a passport. He has never been issued a driver’s license. He is not the registered owner of any property in Lebanon. The authorities have no records of him entering or leaving Lebanon. No records are held by the Ministry of Finance which would reflect that he pays any taxes. There are no bank accounts in any of the banks or any of the financial institutions in the country in his name.” He added, “Badreddine passes as an unrecognizable and virtually untraceable ghost throughout Lebanon, leaving no footprint.” He was still being tried in absentia at the time of his death this week.

Badreddine did, however, leave a trace as Sammi Issa, his most common alias. (He was also known, within Hezbollah, as Sayyed Zulfiqar, named after the sword given by the Prophet Muhammad to his cousin Ali, the father of Shiism.) As Sammi Issa, Badreddine liked casinos, had mistresses, ran a chain of Beirut jewelry stores, kept an apartment in the resort area of Jounieh, and had the use of a yacht. He reportedly once ignored an order from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to lower his alias’s profile.

In 2008, Badreddine rose to the top of Hezbollah’s military command after Mughniyah was killed by a car bomb in Damascus. Hezbollah blamed the Israelis, but Israel has never confirmed its role. Since Syria’s civil war erupted, in 2011, Badreddine has coördinated Hezbollah’s increasing activity there. One of the few known photographs of him shows him in military fatigues in Syria.

After his death, Iran quickly eulogized its Hezbollah ally. “Badreddine was all passion and devotion in defending the ideals of Islam and the resistant Lebanese people in their fighting against terrorism,” Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, said in a public message to the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The United States issued a quick rebuke. “We do not share the comments attributed to Foreign Minister Zarif, and we continue to hold Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization,” John Kirby, the State Department Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, said Friday.

The real issue is the deep bench of loyal, trained fighters that Mughniyah and Badreddine built over three decades—and how one of the world’s more notorious extremist movements will fare without its commanders. “Will this hurt Hezbollah? It’s going to be a major psychological blow. It’s a big hit,” Crocker, the former ambassador to Lebanon, told me. “I’d love to think it’s going to weaken them, but I doubt it. It’s like finally nailing Osama bin Laden. Hezbollah’s leadership always knows that any of them can disappear any minute, so it’s probably pretty well prepared.”


Article 3

Can Assad keep crossing the ‘red line’?

David Ignatius

Washington Post, May 13

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has another chance to enforce its botched “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, given new reports that President Bashar Assad’s regime has used nerve gas against extremist fighters and may be planning more such attacks.

Obama’s decision not to retaliate against Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 has become an emblem for his larger foreign policy, which critics argue hasn’t been forceful enough in Syria and other places. Obama justified his restraint by citing the diplomatic agreement that was brokered by the U.S. and Russia to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal. But new Israeli reports question whether Assad has complied.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, apparently relying on a government source, reported on May 2 that Assad’s forces used sarin gas in late April against Islamic State fighters after they attacked two Syrian air force bases east of Damascus. Stockpiles of this deadly gas were supposed to have been removed from Syria in 2014.

Given the international silence, Israeli officials are said to fear that Assad will keep striking with the banned weapons. “With the continuation of fighting in Syria, it is reasonable to assume that the regime won’t hesitate to use these weapons again, especially after already having done so … without any reaction,” an Israeli source told me.

The alleged use of sarin is another sign that Assad appears ready to breach any diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the war. In recent weeks, his forces, backed by Russia, have struck a hospital in Aleppo run by Doctors Without Borders, a pediatric hospital there, and a U.S.-backed humanitarian group in Idlib called Syria Civil Defense.

Chemical weapons have become part of “the new normal” in Syria, according to a report in February by the Syrian American Medical Society. The group said that in 2015, there were 69 chemical weapons attacks in Syria, mostly chlorine bombs dropped by Assad’s air force.

The Assad regime often justifies such attacks by saying it is bombing the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. But these jihadists are intermingled with civilians and moderate opposition groups in ways that make the non-extremist groups targets, too. As Assad has pressed his campaign in Aleppo and elsewhere, the “cessation of hostilities” negotiated by the U.S. and Russia in February has frayed badly.

The possibility that Syria retains chemical weapons was noted recently by Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. “There are still questions. I am not able to say whether Syria has declared everything or whether Syria continues to possess some chemical weapons or some munitions,” he cautioned. Uzumcu also noted “extremely worrying” signs that the Islamic State has used mustard gas in Syria and Iraq.

Obama administration officials are concerned about continued Syrian use of chemical weapons, but they see significant differences between the recent reported incidents and the size and scope of the 2013 attacks using sarin and VX, which are believed to have killed more than 1,400 Syrian civilians.

Diplomacy remains the administration’s focus in Syria — and the partnership with Russia seems to be expanding, rather than shrinking, despite its setbacks. To bolster the cease-fire, U.S. and Russian officials have been discussing the location of “protected” Syrian opposition groups. Officials from the two countries are said to talk daily in Geneva and by telephone to Syria, arguing over which areas are legitimate extremist targets and which should be avoided. This shared “domain awareness,” as one official describes it, illustrates the extent of quiet Russian-American cooperation.

But Syria shows the limits of this great-power diplomacy. Russia can’t seem to control Assad, even when it attempts to do so. And the U.S. has been unable to force opposition fighters to disentangle themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. Assad, once seen as a mild-mannered ophthalmologist, has proved a headstrong, brutal leader who has spawned the equivalently vicious Islamic State.

Finally, there remains a gaping hole in the U.S. strategy for capturing the Islamic State’s strongholds in Raqqa and Manbij in eastern Syria. Washington wants this fight to be led by Sunni Arabs, but the only reliable fighters America has found are Syrian Kurds from the YPG militia — which, to complicate matters further, is viewed by Turkey (a NATO ally) as a terrorist group.

Who will bell this cat? Are Presidents Obama and Putin really ready to tolerate a situation where the use of chemical weapons is seen as “normal,” despite a Russian-American agreement that they should be banned?



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