Mustafa Badr al-Din (“Zulfiqar”) and the Ansariya Operation

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By Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira
Source: The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

On May 2, 2019, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech to mark the third anniversary of the death of Mustafa Badr al-Din, who was the commander of the Hizbullah forces in Syria and was killed near Damascus on May 13, 2016. In his remarks, Nasrallah revealed new details about the Ansariya Operation, which was carried out on the night of September 4-5, 1997, against an Israeli commando force of Shayetet 13 operating in Lebanon.

Hizbullah military leader, Mustafa Badr al-Din (Arab press)

Nasrallah noted that Hizbullah had already revealed in the past that the information that led to the ambush of the Israeli force was collected through technical means. Nasrallah said Hizbullah had managed to intercept, in real time and over two weeks, images transmitted by an Israeli drone that showed the Shayetet 13 force’s designated landing area. Accordingly, Hizbullah prepared ambushes for the Israeli force in advance and succeeded to surprise it. Nasrallah has now added, however, that Hizbullah was able to discover that an Israeli force would land on the shore and that two or three fighters would advance toward Ansariya through an orchard-covered area. From this Hizbullah deduced that the force would be seeking a target to kidnap or kill—something they had not realized.

(Al Jazeera)

Based on this information, Hizbullah carried out a situation assessment. Taking part in it were Badr al-Din, who was appointed to command the operation; Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbullah’s security and military commander and Badr al-Din’s cousin and brother-in-law; Nasrallah himself and others. The strategy considered was to prepare an ambush for the two or three Israeli fighters who had landed on the shore and returned to it several times. Because it was clear to Hizbullah that these fighters were preparing a larger operation, it was decided to wait patiently, track them, and refrain from attacking them. And indeed, Nasrallah remarked, analysis of the information collected made it clear to Hizbullah that preparations were being made for a larger operation. Hence, it was decided to set an ambush that would await the larger Israeli force. The two senior Hizbullah commanders, Badr al-Din and Mughniyeh, personally went to the presumed locale of the ambush. They examined the nearby orchards and walked along the path on which—in keeping with the information that had been obtained—the Israeli force would proceed, and they devised a plan of action accordingly.

The problem that arose was that the orchards were not empty. Farmers came to work each day at sunrise and left after sunset. So it was not possible to lay a booby-trapped ambush in a place where the farmers arrived each morning and departed each evening, even though it was clear that the Israeli operation would be carried out at night.

They decided to prepare forces that would hide in the vicinity of the orchards. When the farmers left the orchards in the evening, the Hizbullah forces would plant explosive devices and wait in ambush all night. If the Israeli force had not arrived by the next morning, the explosive devices would be dismantled, the ambush called off, and they would go back into hiding.

And that, Nasrallah said, was how it went during long days and nights. Mustafa Badr al-Din, commander of the operation, stayed with his forces at all times. Hizbullah waited patiently for the Israeli force to land on the shore, make its advance, and fall into the Hizbullah ambush in the orchards. Thus, while in Israel it was thought that the ambush had been by happenstance, it turns out that it was planned in fine detail. The result was difficult for Israel: 12 dead and four wounded. As for Mustafa Badr al-Din, he entered the pantheon of Hizbullah military commanders.

Later, in June 2011, Badr al-Din was one of a group of operatives indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on charges related to the assassination of former Lebanon prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Mustafa Badr al-Din’s funeral (Iranian television/YouTube)

When Hizbullah sent its forces to the war in Syria in 2013 as part of Iran’s support for the Assad regime, Mustafa Badr al-Din was appointed commander of the Hizbullah forces in Syria. Nasrallah asked that Badr al-Din command the forces from Lebanon. Badr al-Din, however, demanded to be with and fight alongside his forces on the Syrian battlefield. His demand was granted. “Zulfiqar” racked up achievements in the war against the rebels in Syria. But the Hizbullah forces soon began to suffer losses, and as the fighting continued, they only increased. Bodies were returned secretly to Lebanon and buried in villages and towns in the middle of the night. The Lebanese Shiites, however, reacted bitterly to the fact that their sons were dying in a war that was not a jihad against Israel and were becoming cannon fodder for Iran.

Mustafa Badr al-Din was killed in May 2016 in an incident whose circumstances remain unclear to this day. He was supposedly hit by artillery fire or a missile at one of the Hizbullah bases near the airport in Damascus—a projectile that, strangely, struck him and only him. In an official announcement, Hizbullah claimed he had been killed by rebel fire. The investigatory committee set up by Hizbullah did not arrive at any definitive conclusion. According to the information disseminated, the blame for his death was pinned on harsh internal rivalries within Hizbullah—and, more so, specifically on the commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, who was the last to meet with him in a building near the airport. Badr al-Din had not agreed to Soleimani’s demands regarding Hizbullah’s tasks in Syria.  

Iran’s Commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, with Badr al-Din (Arab press)

In his recent speech, Nasrallah did not refer to the circumstances of Badr al-Din’s death in Syria and did not pin the blame on Israel or the rebels; nor did he promise to avenge the death of the most senior of Hizbullah’s military commanders after Imad Mughniyeh. On March 21, 2017, the then-Israeli chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, said the reports about Badr al-Din being killed by the Iranians were consistent with Israel’s information and testified to the depth of the crisis in Hizbullah.

This year in Iran there were no special events to commemorate Mustafa Badr al-Din. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made do with a short letter to Hassan Nasrallah in which he praised Badr al-Din. From the Revolutionary Guards, in whose service the Hizbullah military commander had operated since the beginning of the 1980s, not a single word was heard. This contrasts especially with the anniversary of Imad Mughniyeh’s assassination, which is marked with great pomp and splendor.

One might have thought that under other circumstances, certainly when an imminent crisis between the Revolutionary Guards and the U.S. Army threatens to erupt in the Persian Gulf or in other places where the Quds Force can activate its proxies in Yemen, Iraq, the Golan Heights front, and Lebanon, an appropriate place and time would be found to mention and commemorate one of the senior Hizbullah military commanders.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

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