On Wednesday, gunmen assassinated Hezbollah military commander Hassan al-Laqqis near his home in Hadath, south of the Lebanese capital of Beirut. It’s a curious attack on a senior Hezbollah leader particularly when analyzed in the wake of sectarian violence in Lebanon in recent months. Among the escalations in the conflict raging between rival Sunni and Shia groups in the Levant are attacks on checkpoints manned by Shia Hezbollah militants in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon near the border with Syria and, more recently, the claim of responsibility by Sunni jihadist group Abdullah Azzam Brigades for the bombing of the Iranian embassy in south Beirut on November 19.
“Neighbours at the quiet residential complex where Lakkis lived said that he arrived home alone shortly before midnight and was just getting out of his car in the parking space beneath his apartment block when he was shot several times in the head at close range by attackers apparently lying in wait.
They said two men were seen running away across some waste ground nearby. The neighbours had no idea that he worked for Hezbollah.” (BBC News, December 4)
Barnard observes the assassination in the context of recent events, specifically the ongoing Syrian war. Barnard offers some additional analysis on what al-Laqqis’ death could mean for Hezbollah and who ultimately may be responsible:
“Mr. Laqees’s death was a significant loss for Hezbollah, analysts said, and any of the group’s primary enemies — Israel, the Syrian insurgents the group is battling, or their backers, such as Saudi Arabia or Lebanese Sunni militants — could have had reason to want him dead. Mr. Laqees was variously described as running the group’s telecommunications network and working to procure strategic weapons.
Hezbollah is facing “a convergence of hostilities” from Sunni militants, particularly extremists who are increasingly dominant in the Syrian insurgency and consider Shiites apostates, and from its longtime nemesis Israel, said Kamel Wazne, a Lebanese specialist on Hezbollah.” (Barnard, New York Times, December 4)
“A senior Hezbollah commander was gunned down outside his home, the Lebanese Shiite group reported Wednesday, marking a further escalation in a shadowy series of attacks and bombings that risk drawing Lebanon deeper into the region’s simmering sectarian strife.” (Sly and Morris, Washington Post, December 4)
Sly and Morris go on to report that the claim of responsibility could be submitted by any number of actors in the region, especially in the context of the recent conflicts and the competing goals and motivations of potential culprits:
“’There are so many players around who could be involved in this,’ said Elie Hindy, assistant professor for international affairs at Lebanon’s Notre Dame University. ‘Hezbollah has created so many enemies around it — regional enemies, Islamist enemies, Israeli enemies — and that does not include invisible possibilities.'” (Sly and Morris, Washington Post, December 4)
In a reflection of the internet’s key position at the front lines of the battle for shaping public narratives after asymmetric attacks, a claim of responsibility for the assassination was issued on Twitter by the previously unknown Sunni Lebanese militant group that calls itself the “Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek Brigade”. Hezbollah has accused Israel of being behind the assassination while Israel has denied involvement. In reacting and responding to the death of al-Laqqis, while Hezbollah remained mum on the role of its fallen leader, Iran and Israel differed slightly from one another’s characterization on the role he played in group operations:
“Israeli officials denied involvement, and Israeli analysts said they believed that Mr. Laqees was targeted by radical Sunnis in Lebanon as part of sectarian tensions over Syria.
Hezbollah’s statement announcing the death, in keeping with the deep secrecy surrounding its military structure and operations, did not spell out what role Mr. Laqees played in the organization or how senior he was.
But Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency said he had run the telecommunications network, and Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, said he had played a significant role in obtaining weapons, including long-range rockets that, according to American officials, Israel had bombed several times to prevent them from being delivered from Syria.
Mr. Laqees was “the address on the other side of the efforts to smuggle advanced weapons systems from Syria to Hezbollah,” Amos Harel, an Israeli journalist who frequently writes about intelligence matters, wrote in Haaretz. He added that Israel could have been taking advantage of the chaos around Syria to target a Hezbollah leader.” (Barnard, NY Times, December 4)
For its part, Israeli officials strongly denied involvement in the assassination. Again, from Sly and Morris report filed with the Washington Post:
“‘Israel has nothing to do with this incident,’ Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told the Associated Press. ‘These automatic accusations are an innate reflex with Hezbollah. They don’t need evidence, they don’t need facts, they just blame anything on Israel.'” (Sly and Morris, Washington Post, December 4)
It is possible, however likely, that Hezbollah, a Shia extremist and terrorist group, has an interest in blaming Israel for the assassination. Al-Laqqis was said to be very close to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrullah. If the Shia extremist group were to identify rival Sunni militant groups as responsible for the attrition in their own ranks, it could inspire sectarian based violence in Lebanon and beyond. In recent months, Sunni and Shia extremists and militant groups have increasingly targeted one another with bombings and attacks, most prolifically in Lebanon. Just the previous day, Hezbollah’s top leader, the aforementioned Hassan Nasrullah, had accused Saudi Arabia of being complicit in the bombing of the Iranian embassy in south Beirut on November 19. According to a BBC News report on an interview Nasrullah did with Lebanon’s OTV television, Nasrullah noted that the group claiming responsibility for the attack on the Iranian embassy, the Sunni jihadist Abdullah Azzam Brigade, was sponsored by the Saudis. Nasrullah stated that:
“…he believed that the group was ‘linked to the Saudi intelligence services'”. (BBC News, December 3)
It is likely that Sunni and Shia extremist attacks and reprisals targeting one another will continue in the wake of al-Laqqis’ assassination this week. Given the recent context of the multiple levels of proxy violence in the wider conflict in the Levant, it is likely that conflict will escalate in the near term as Lebanon appears to be the main battleground in the mini-war between the two rivals outside of Syria. As usual with many of the incidents of assassination and attack involving rival extremist factions in the Levant, this incident has inspired more questions than it has answered.
More resources for further study of the topic and related events are linked below.
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