Israel has no shortage of reasons to welcome the demise of Hassan Lakiss, the senior Hizballah commander who was assassinated outside his Beirut home just after midnight on Wednesday. According to Israeli security officials and Hebrew press reports, Lakiss sat at the right hand of Hizballah’s elusive leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who ordered hundreds of missiles fired into northern Israel during the 2006 Lebanon war. He appeared to be the group’s primary liaison with Syria, where Hizballah fighters from Lebanon have proved critical in tipping the military balance in the civil war toward the regime of President Bashar Assad. Most critically, Lakiss was in charge of procuring the advanced weapon systems that Syria was supplying to Hizballah — including anti-aircraft missiles and a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile that could have changed the military equation with Israel.
But while Israel has acted repeatedly over the last year to destroy those weapons before they could reach Hizballah strongholds in Lebanon, it had no role in Lakiss’ death, three Israeli security officials tell TIME, speaking on condition they not be identified further because they are not authorized to speak publicly. The Israelis assess the assassination as spillover from the conflict in Syria, where Lakiss had visited repeatedly in recent months, they say. Sunni extremists have posted claims of responsibility online, and whatever the crediblity of those posts, Israeli officials assume Lakiss was killed by Sunni militants fighting Hizballah and Assad, and striking boldly on Hizballah’s home turf of southern Beirut. “He was very very close, one of the closest — to Nasrallah,” one senior Israeli official says. “This strike will leave Nasrallah in the bunker for a long, long time.”
In Syria, Hizballah and its sponsors, Iran and Syria, are arrayed against rebels supported by a constellation of Sunni Muslim governments, and just 24 hours before Lakiss was killed, Nasrallah singled out Saudi Arabia‘s intelligence service as responsible for the Nov. 19 bombing of the Iranian embassy in Beirut; a Sunni militant group called the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility. But when Lakiss’ death was announced, Hizballah immediately — perhaps reflexively — blamed Israel for the killing, which reports described as an ambush carried out by at least two people, one driving a motorbike that spirited away the primary shooter. But Israel issued an official denial, which was reinforced — in the logic specific to assassinations in the Middle East — by an absence: Thursday’s Hebrew press carried no ambiguous remarks from senior officials or coy observations about Israeli capabilities. Such hints flowed freely in the wake of unexplained explosions in Iran, the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and, not least, the 2008 assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hizballah mastermind killed by an explosive secreted in the headrest of his car. Israel has not specifically denied involvement in any of those. Its silence tends to be discreet.
In life, Lakiss was not nearly as notorious as Mughniyeh, whose face is now featured on Hizballah coffee mugs and souvenir pens. But Israel’s secret services had been following him closely for more than a decade, the senior Israeli security official tells TIME. The official describes the commander as tasked with special operations and complex assignments, often relating to armaments. “He was an entrepreneur of terror,” the official says. It was Lakiss, according to this official, who pioneered Hizballah’s development of “suicide drones,” designed not for reconnaissance but to penetrate Israeli airspace and detonate on a pre-programmed target. “He saw at an exhibition that Israel had these kind of drones and said, ‘I think we should have some.'”