As midnight approached one night last week in a Hezbollah-controlled district of south Beirut, the man widely considered to be the Lebanese terror group's tech expert was pulling into a parking garage under his building when assassins stepped out of the shadows and greeted him with a hail of bullets.
Hassan al-Lakkis, who some have likened to the "Q" character in the James Bond series for his expertise with drones, bombs and other deadly gadgets, had survived prior attempts on his life, but he would not be so lucky this time. Before his body was cold, fellow Hezbollah operatives were pointing the finger of blame at Israel, but given al-Lakkis' long list of enemies, it is hard to tell if Israel was behind the move or simply benefited from it.
“The Israeli enemy tried to kill Lakkis many times …but its attempts have failed until this foul assassination overnight,” read a statement from Hezbollah. "This enemy should bear full responsibility and all the consequences of this heinous crime.”
Indeed, al-Lakkis was reportedly on a Mossad hit list recently detailed in Foreign Policy magazine, which quoted a senior Israeli intelligence source who revealed that a roster of key Islamist terror figures had been marked for death in 2004 by the Israeli intelligence organization. Al-Lakkis was purportedly the last remaining name on the list.
Israel quickly took the unusual step of denying any role in the hit, and at least two fringe Muslim groups claimed credit. According to Lebanon’s Daily Star, a previously unknown group calling itself the ‘Free Sunni Brigades in Baalbeck’ claimed it was behind the assassination and another Sunni militia, the ‘Soldiers of Damascus,’ a bitter enemy of Hezbollah, also took credit.
Israel is not Hezbollah's only enemy in the area, especially since its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his nation's long-running civil war has angered various Islamic groups. That friction has touched off a wave of rubouts of rival Sunni and Shia figures this year.
Whoever killed al-Lakkis managed to succeed where an alleged Israeli attempt on his life in 2006 had failed. And while Israel denies involvement, it is not likely mourning the passing of the driving force behind Hezbollah’s drone development program. Al-Lakkis was also believed to have been Hezbollah’s man in charge of smuggling weapons to both Egypt and Gaza.
Foreign Policy magazine regional expert Ronen Bergman said Israel's list included targets from countries that make up the so-called Radical Front, people from Syria, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The targets are all figures who had been seeking to help develop a nuclear bomb and advance terrorism in the region, according to Bergman. He highlighted Syrian Gen. Muhammad Suleiman and Hezbollah’s chief military commander Imad Mughnieh as having been top of the pile. Like al-Lakkis and others, they have turned up dead, and none by natural causes. The secret list is likely to have included those who died in the following incidents:
- December 2011 – A massive explosion – reported at the time as an accident - at the Alghadir missile base, near Tehran, killed Maj. Gen. Hassan Moghadam, an Iranian missile expert, trained in China and North Korea and believed to have been a pivotal figure in Iran’s nuclear development program
- February 2010 – Mahmoud al-Mabhoukh, a top Hamas official in Gaza responsible for buying weapons for the terror organization, is smothered in a Dubai hotel room. His death, allegedly at the hands of the Mossad, caused a scandal at the time.
- August 2008 –Syria’s General Muhammad Suleiman, a close advisor to Assad and the man responsible for procuring weapons for the regime, was reportedly shot dead while relaxing on a beach. A year later Wikileaks reported a U.S. State Department cable that suggested more than $80 million in cash had been found in the basement of Suleiman’s home.
- February 2008 – On the United States “most wanted” listed, top Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughnieh died when his car blew up in a suburb of Damascus, Syria.
- May 2006 – Mahmoud al Majhoub (aka Abu Hamsa), the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, died along with his brother in a car bomb in Sidon in Lebanon.
- March 2004 – Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound firebrand cleric and leader of terror group Hamas was struck by a missile fired from an Israeli Apache helicopter gunship as he was being wheeled along a street in Gaza. He was succeeded by Abdel al-Rantisi, who himself was killed less than month later when his car was also hit by a missile believed to have been fired from a helicopter gunship.
Some experts believe the hit on al-Lakkis does not bear the hallmarks of an Israeli operation.
“There are a few things that suggest that in this instance it might not be Israel - or at least not them directly,” Anna Boyd, manager at London-based IHS Country Risk MENA, told FoxNews.com. “If we look back at past assassinations that probably were conducted by Israel – for example the Mabhouk assassination in Dubai - they have been careful to have some kind of exit strategy for the assassins.”
“In the al-Lakkis case he was shot at very close range and there was a much higher risk that those that did it were going to be detected and captured, suggesting it was more likely to be someone local who did it,” Boyd added.
Al-Lakkis was close to Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan al Nasrallah, whose forces are armed and inspired by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rarely seen in public due to fear of assassination, Nasrallah, regardless of who the perpetrators of the al-Lakkis killing actually were, will doubtless have been shaken by the killing of such an important man from his inner circle, regional observers agreed.
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on twitter @paul_alster and at www.paulalster.com