Security and Defense: Who was Imad Mughniyeh?

Classified Israeli dossiers on the terror master reveal his long history - and wide reach.

Imad Mughniyeh 224.88 (photo credit: Screen capture)
Imad Mughniyeh 224.88
(photo credit: Screen capture)
On April 6, 1992, a convoy carrying IDF commander in Lebanon Brig.-Gen. Micha Tamir was attacked as it crossed the northern border. The attack was carried out by Islamic Jihad gunmen, who had been waiting in ambush at the side of the road. Two Merkava tanks that happened to be positioned nearby, along with Tamir and other troops from the convoy, succeeded in killing the gunmen. Two IDF soldiers were also killed. Though the attack was carried out by Islamic Jihad, Israeli intelligence quickly discovered the fingerprint of the attack's real planner - Imad Mughniyeh, chief operations officer for Hizbullah. Mughniyeh's name had begun appearing on classified Israeli intelligence dossiers in the early 1980s, when he and a young Shi'ite sheikh named Hassan Nasrallah joined the ranks of the newly established Hizbullah. A former member of Force 17 and bodyguard of Yasser Arafat, Mughniyeh decided to stay in Beirut when the PLO was forced out by Israel in 1982. Though Mughniyeh had been involved in dozens of anti-Israel attacks before the ambush on Tamir's convoy, it wasn't until 1992 that someone - in Israel or elsewhere - decided that "enough was enough." The chosen location was south Beirut, outside a store owned by Mughniyeh's brother, Fuad. According to the recently published book, The Point of No Return - which provides a comprehensive history of Hizbullah - a car carrying a 50-kilogram bomb was set off at the entrance to the store, killing Fuad and three others. (Mughniyeh's other brother, Jihad, had been killed seven years earlier in an attempt on the life of Hizbullah spiritual leader Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, whom he was guarding.) Lebanon blamed the Mossad for the attack on Fuad. According to news reports, the Mossad had hoped Mughniyeh would attend his brother's funeral, and that there he would be killed. Imad stayed away. An attempt to capture him was made in 1995, after Washington was tipped off that Mughniyeh was on a plane from Beirut to the Persian Gulf. The Americans, who implicated Mughniyeh in the 1983 bombings of the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, asked Saudi Arabia to intercept the plane. Fearing revenge from radical Islamists, the Saudis got cold feet. On Wednesday night, however, Mughniyeh was killed in a meticulously executed car bombing in the heart of Damascus. For years he had evaded capture and, according to some reports, never slept in the same bed twice. "Israel and other countries have watched him for years," former Mossad chief Danny Yatom told The Jerusalem Post. "He was very slippery. He never gave interviews, and there were only a few pictures of him... He had special capabilities - a satanic and creative mind, and he never left tracks behind him." While his name was not as well known as that of Nasrallah, Yatom and other former Military Intelligence officers claimed this week that Mughniyeh was deadlier than al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden or his Hizbullah boss. In contrast to both, who also fill political roles, Mughniyeh was strictly involved in operations. "He was the mastermind of every major Hizbullah attack," Yatom said, referring to the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center that killed 85, and the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in the city two years earlier. He is also believed to have masterminded the 2006 abduction of IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, an attack that sparked the Second Lebanon War. His involvement in attacks against IDF soldiers in Lebanon was not a secret. In 1987, 18 soldiers were killed; in 1988, 20. After that, Mughniyeh was forced to flee Lebanon and go to Iran, due to internal power struggles. In 1989, the year he was in exile, the numbers of casualties dropped - to two soldiers killed. By the mid-'90s, he had returned to Lebanon, and the numbers again started to climb. According to former intelligence officials, Mughniyeh was not only wanted by Israel and the US. It is possible, they say, that he was killed due to an internal Hizbullah power struggle, or a falling out with his Syrian or Iranian patrons. DEFENSE MINISTER Ehud Barak is said to have a soft spot for assassinations from his days as a team leader in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) when, disguised as a woman, he infiltrated a PLO hideout in Beirut and killed three top operatives. In 1992, as chief of General Staff, he persuaded the government to approve the assassination of Nasrallah's predecessor at the helm of Hizbullah - Abbas Mussawi. Although this was never carried out, when Barak became prime minister, he oversaw the training for the assassination of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, in retaliation for the 1991 Gulf War, and the Scud missiles fired on Ramat Gan. In other words, the assessment is that if Israel was behind Mughniyeh's assassination, Barak no doubt played a key role in the operation. Whether or not Israel was behind this particular assassination, however, senior defense officials say that having good working relations between the Mossad and the IDF is necessary for carrying out operations of this nature. And Mossad chief Meir Dagan has indeed developed strong ties with the brass, particularly Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Elazar Shkedy. WHOEVER IS responsible for it, Mughniyeh's assassination is significant. His death is a blow to Hizbullah operations and a boost to Israel's security, since any large-scale attack he might have been planning - possibly in response to the alleged air strike in September on on a nuclear facility in Syria - is now thwarted. The assassins' success in infiltrating Mughniyeh's security also sends a clear message to every Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist around the world, particularly to Khalad Mashaal, who lives not far from where Mughniyeh was assassinated. More importantly, his assassination serves a major blow to the Iranian-Hizbullah-Syrian triangle which Mughniyeh coordinated and directed. It is also a blow to Hizbullah Unit 1800, which he set up in the late '80s, and was responsible for the terror group's overseas operations, including the assistance it provided to Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While reprisal from the North is a possibility, it is deemed unlikely due to the current political unrest in Lebanon and the fact that a war with Israel would not serve Hizbullah's greater political interests. An attack abroad, however, is a different story, and may even be viewed as a tribute to Mughniyeh. According to Dr. Eitan Azani, former head of the Military Intelligence Lebanese desk and deputy executive director of the Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya, Hizbullah maintains an active presence and terror infrastructure in more than 50 countries. "Its international infrastructure is alive and well," Azani said. In September 2006, the US House Committee on International Relations held a hearing, entitled "Hizbullah's Global Reach," to discuss the potential fallout from the month-long Israeli-Lebanese conflict and the possibility of attacks against American and Western targets. The transcript of the hearing provides a frightening and detailed description of Hizbullah's long-arm capabilities, all established and directed by Mughniyeh. One of the witnesses at the hearing was Frank C. Urbancic, Principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the US State Department. In his testimony, Urbancic mentioned Hizbullah strongholds in South America - particularly in the area connecting Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay - where its supporters are actively involved in drug smuggling, arms trafficking, money laundering, fraud and intellectual property piracy. Hizbullah, Urbancic said, also maintains a strong presence in Shi'ite communities in West and Central Africa, whose members have significant control over the import of basic commodities and the diamond trade. "Hizbullah has assets around the world and it can mobilize them on a moment's notice," he said. "I am quite sure of that." Another witness, John G. Kavanagh, today the special agent in charge of the FBI's Omaha office and in 2006 section chief of international terrorism operations, told the committee of fears that Hizbullah operatives were also infiltrating the US via Mexico. In 2006, he said, the FBI concluded an investigation in Detroit in which 107 federal indictments were obtained, leading to the arrest of 58 Hizbullah operatives and the seizure of $5 million in property. "What we are seeing is a lot of supporters and sympathizers who are funneling a lot of money back to Lebanon for the cause, for the suicide bombers and the terrorist operations that are occurring in the Middle East," Kavanagh said, adding that this infrastructure was responsible for supplying Hizbullah with millions of dollars annually. Urbancic said the US was particularly concerned about growing ties between Hizbullah and the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez. "There is a large Hizbullah nexus to Venezuela... it is something that we are conscious of, that we are watching, and that we are very concerned about. And given the proclivities of the Chavez government, it is not a reassuring situation at all," he official said. All of this, a senior Israeli intelligence officer said this week, was the work of Mughniyeh, whom he called an "axis of terror" that connected Hizbullah with Iran, Syria, al Qaida, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. "The world is no doubt better off without him," former Mossad chief Yatom said. "But we need to assume and prepare for the possibility that revenge will come."