The Washington Post has a long article today about how Mossad and the CIA collaborated to blow up Hezbollah’s chief of international operations in 2008. Here are the key paragraphs:
On Feb. 12, 2008, Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s international operations chief, walked on a quiet nighttime street in Damascus after dinner at a nearby restaurant. Not far away, a team of CIA spotters in the Syrian capital was tracking his movements.
As Mughniyah approached a parked SUV, a bomb planted in a spare tire on the back of the vehicle exploded, sending a burst of shrapnel across a tight radius. He was killed instantly.
The device was triggered remotely from Tel Aviv by agents with Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, who were in communication with the operatives on the ground in Damascus. “The way it was set up, the U.S. could object and call it off, but it could not execute,” said a former U.S. intelligence official.
The United States helped build the bomb, the former official said, and tested it repeatedly at a CIA facility in North Carolina to ensure the potential blast area was contained and would not result in collateral damage.
“We probably blew up 25 bombs to make sure we got it right,” the former official said.
The extraordinarily close cooperation between the U.S. and Israeli intelligence services suggested the importance of the target — a man who over the years had been implicated in some of Hezbollah’s most spectacular terrorist attacks, including those against the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the Israeli Embassy in Argentina.
The United States has never acknowledged participation in the killing of Mughniyah, which Hezbollah blamed on Israel. Until now, there has been little detail about the joint operation by the CIA and Mossad to kill him, how the car bombing was planned or the exact U.S. role. With the exception of the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, the mission marked one of the most high-risk covert actions by the United States in recent years.
The article touches on the legality of Mughniyah’s killing, with the US arguing that it was a lawful act of self-defense under Art. 51 of the UN Charter and Mary Ellen O’Connell claiming that it was perfidy. Regular readers will anticipate my skepticism toward the former claim, and there is simply no support in IHL for the latter claim. Perfidy is an act “inviting the confidence of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or obliged to accord, protection under the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, with intent to betray that confidence.” Mossad and the CIA did nothing of the kind.
Mossad and the CIA did, however, violate the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, which Israel ratified on 10 February 2003 and the US ratified on 26 June 2002. I don’t want to dwell on Mossad in this post; the analysis is the same as the one I provided here with regard to its assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Instead, I want to focus on the US’s complicity in Mughniyah’s death.
To begin with, there is no question that the bombing itself qualifies as a prohibited act of terrorism under the Terrorist Bombing Convention. Here is the relevant definition, Art. 2(1):
1. Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that person unlawfully and intentionally delivers, places, discharges or detonates an explosive or other lethal device in, into or against a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system or an infrastructure facility:
(a) With the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or
(b) With the intent to cause extensive destruction of such a place, facility or system, where such destruction results in or is likely to result in major economic loss.
Mughniyah’s killing satisfies this definition. The attack involved an “explosive device” and it was clearly intended to “cause death.” It also took place on a public street, which qualifies as a “place of public use” under Article 1(5) of the Terrorist Bombing Convention. Article 1(5) defines a place of public use as “those parts of any building, land, street, waterway or other location that are accessible or open to members of the public, whether continuously, periodically or occasionally.”
The CIA was also complicit in that prohibited act of terrorism, pursuant to Art. 2(3):
3. Any person also commits an offence if that person:
(a) Participates as an accomplice in an offence as set forth in paragraph 1 or 2; or
(b) Organizes or directs others to commit an offence as set forth in paragraph 1 or 2; or
(c) In any other way contributes to the commission of one or more offences as set forth in paragraph 1 or 2 by a group of persons acting with a common purpose; such contribution shall be intentional and either be made with the aim of furthering the general criminal activity or purpose of the group or be made in the knowledge of the intention of the group to commit the offence or offences concerned.
The language of Art. 2(3) easily encompasses the CIA’s involvement in Mughniyah’s death, given that the US admits the CIA built the bomb, helped track Mughniyah’s movements, and had the power to call off the attack.
The US will no doubt object to this analysis by arguing that the Terrorist Bombing Convention is intended to apply to bombings by terrorists, not bombings of terrorists. That objection would be valid had the US military been involved in the operation instead of the CIA. Justifiably or not, Article 19(2) of the Convention specifically permits acts that would otherwise qualify as terrorist bombing when they are committed by the military forces of a state:
2. The activities of armed forces during an armed conflict, as those terms are understood under international humanitarian law, which are governed by that law, are not governed by this Convention, and the activities undertaken by military forces of a State in the exercise of their official duties, inasmuch as they are governed by other rules of international law, are not governed by this Convention.
The CIA, however, does not qualify as the US’s “military forces” under the Terrorist Bombing Convention. Art. 1(4) specifically defines “military forces of a State” as “the armed forces of a State which are organized, trained and equipped under its internal law for the primary purpose of national defence or security, and persons acting in support of those armed forces who are under their formal command, control and responsibility.” The second provision does not apply, because there is no evidence the CIA was acting under the “formal command, control and responsibility” of the military when it participated in Mughniyah’s killing. And neither does the first provision: although there is no question that the CIA contributes to the US’s “national defence or security,” it is not an “armed force” under US “internal law.” According to 10 USC § 101, “[t]he term ‘armed forces’ means the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.”
The bottom line: the CIA committed an act of terrorism — actual terrorism, not figurative terrorism — when it participated in blowing up Mughniyah. The US military has the right to kill terrorists with bombs; the CIA does not. There is no doctrine of “close enough” in the Terrorist Bombing Convention.