First Person: We've not heard the last of Mughniyeh's clan

Mughniyeh's assassination went largely unacknowledged by the US and virtually unreported by the US media.

By DON MELL
February 28, 2008 19:27
First Person: We've not heard the last of Mughniyeh's clan

mughniyeh mourning 224.8. (photo credit: AP)

I'm not exactly sure when I first crossed paths with Imad Mughniyeh, but I suspect it was sometime between the summer and fall of 1981. As a young journalist who was new to Beirut, I quickly found myself spending a lot of time in the company of Yasser Arafat and his inner circle. At the time, Mughniyeh was one of Arafat's security men. Unlike Arafat, Mughniyeh never became a worldwide household name. But his impact on the United States and the American psyche is incalculable. Over the next quarter century, Mughniyeh - and the attacks he masterminded - were responsible for more deaths, maimings and kidnappings of Americans than anyone else other than Osama Bin Laden's 9/11 hijackers. Yet Mughniyeh's recent assassination in the Syrian capital of Damascus, with all of its implications, went largely unacknowledged by the US government and virtually unreported by the US media. This consistent lack of historical perspective and insight from American political leaders and the Western media on the subject of terrorism and its use as a foreign policy strategy by our adversaries is dangerous and regrettable. In the 1970s and early 80s, the PLO established itself as a government within a government in much of southern Lebanon and its capital, Beirut, and the PLO served as the paymaster for the many young Lebanese men like Mughniyeh, who became caught up in the factional gangsterism that prevailed in Lebanon throughout its civil war years. In 1982, Arafat and the mainstay of his PLO were gone from Beirut and southern Lebanon, pushed out by the Israeli invasion, the IDF's two-month siege and occupation of Beirut, and American diplomacy. US Marines, as well as French, Italian and British troops, had landed in Beirut as part of the peacekeeping deal that ended the Israeli-PLO war. At first, the Lebanese, especially the Shi'ites, liked the "protection" the Marines provided them as they patrolled Beirut, ensuring the IDF would not return. Meanwhile, the Shi'ites and Beirut's other factions quietly rearmed themselves under the noses of those multinational troops. It wasn't long before things started to unravel, and on April 18, 1983, a new weapon was introduced to the Lebanese theater of violence, along with the organization whose name would become synonymous with this particular form of terrorism. The weapon was the suicide truck bomb. The organization was Hizbullah. The target was the US Embassy in Beirut, which was just a few blocks down from my apartment along Beirut's seaside corniche. At the time of the attack, a meeting of the top CIA officers in the Middle East was taking place at the embassy. The suicide bomber destroyed the building, killing 63 people - including eight CIA officers - effectively wiping out America's intelligence capabilities in the region. Many were stunned by this method of attack. Who would drive a vehicle filled with explosives into a building? And who could convince someone to do this? The answer, we soon learned, was Imad Mughniyeh, who was one of Hizbullah's founders, and who would quickly rise to become its military and operational chief. SIX MONTHS later, Mughniyeh lashed out against the US again. This time I came perilously close to being one of his victims. The situation to the south of the airport had deteriorated to the point where the Marines were engaged in pitched battles with the Shi'ites in Beirut's southern suburbs. The Israelis had pulled back to the Litani River, and the Shi'ites didn't need the "protection" of the Americans any more. They and their mentors in Teheran had other plans for Lebanon. The Shi'ites, the largest sect in Lebanon, wanted power. The Iranians wanted a proxy in the Arab world. Hizbullah represented both. Only American military presence stood in the way of these goals. The question for the Iranians and their Hizbullah proxies was how to get rid of 1,800 Marines and the US Navy's Sixth Fleet without collateral damage to themselves. The answer came on October 23, 1983. The roof of the Marine headquarters barracks at the airport, known as the BLT, provided the best vantage point for a journalist covering the daily violence that raged around the Marines. Recognizing this, the Associated Press had round-the-clock staff coverage on the roof. The evening-morning shift of October 22-23 was mine. Fortunately for me, I missed my shift, thanks to a late-night going-away party for a colleague heading back to the States. At 6:18 a.m. that morning, Beirut was awakened by two huge explosions. Twin suicide bombers hit the American and French headquarters, completely obliterating the BLT and the 241 Marines sleeping there; scores more were injured. Fifty-eight French troops were to die that morning, as well. More Marines were killed that day than on any other day since the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II. Mughniyeh achieved his objective: The Americans were gone in four months. The Marine bombing wasn't the last of Mughniyeh's calling cards of 1983. In December, a series of bombings took place in Kuwait, that included the US Embassy. The subsequent arrest of Mugnhiyeh's brother-in-law and his death sentence by the Kuwaiti government would set the stage for my final encounter with him. Meanwhile, with the western military forces out of the way, Lebanon slipped back into anarchy, with the Druse and Christians at each other's throats in the mountains surrounding Beirut, and the Shi'ites and their Muslim allies taking over west Beirut. Hizbullah took full advantage of the lack of law and order in west Beirut and embarked on what would be a two-pronged strategy. One, the systematic elimination of western influence in Lebanon, and the other, an attempt by Mughniyeh to free his brother-in-law. A series of high-profile kidnappings of westerners took place in 1984 and 1985. Each sphere of influence had its victim: priests and relief workers, diplomats, educators, businessmen - and journalists. ON MARCH, 1985, my experience with Mughniyeh's reign of terror became personal. That morning, my friend and colleague AP Chief Mideast Correspondent Terry Anderson was dropping me off at my apartment after a game of tennis. That's when Mughniyeh's men came for him. I will never forget the look on Terry's face as they dragged him away at gunpoint. Nor will I forget the man with his gun to my head. He and the rest of the kidnappers made no effort to conceal their identities. They wanted a witness to Terry's kidnapping, and they chose me. It would be nearly seven years before I would see Terry again. I left Beirut two weeks later. Mughniyeh continued his path of terror, hijacking TWA Flight 847, bombing Israeli targets, and with the help of his allies in Teheran, building Hizbullah into an organization virtually unrivaled in its terrorism capabilities, and into one that seems almost eager to provoke conflict with Israel, regardless of the consequences. Today's threats seem like a replay of events leading up to the Israeli-Hizbullah "summer war" in 2006. OVER THE years, Hizbullah has inched towards respectability in Lebanon, with representation in Lebanon's parliament. But just beneath the façade is the Mughniyeh-inspired assemblage of bombers, kidnappers and militants, which got its legs in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when the IDF started distributing weapons to the Shi'ites in an effort to counter any resurgence of Sunni-supported PLO activity in southern Lebanon. For Israel and America, the early arming and encouragement of the Shi'ites may well turn out to be as unfortunate as America's arming of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, who morphed into the Taliban and gave Osama Bin Laden the sanctuary that allowed him to plot his attacks on the American mainland. Despite Mughniyeh's death, we have not heard the last from the Mughniyeh clan. Israel gets this. I am not sure America does. The writer, a former Beirut-based Associated Press journalist, owns a consulting firm in the U.S.


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