* Longtime military commander of the terrorist group Hezbollah
* Joined Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization in 1975
* Co-founder of Islamic Jihad
* A key planner of the 1983 bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 people
* Was killed by a car bomb in February 2008
Born to a prominent Shiite religious family in Lebanon in December 1962, Imad Mugniyah was the longtime military commander of the terrorist group Hezbollah. He was an ally of al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. Before the 9/11 attacks, Mugniyah, and not bin Laden, was the prime focus of American anti-terror efforts. The former had successfully carried out some of the most professional terrorist attacks of the 1980s and subsequent decades against a wide array of international targets.
Mugniyah was a most elusive figure, of whose face only two or three photographs were known to exist. The picture that, until his death in 2008, served as the U.S. Government’s official “wanted” poster was almost 20 years old. The overall lack of information about Mugniyah stemmed from the designs of the terrorist himself; he had methodically erased all records of his existence, including his high-school transcripts.
When Mugniyah was young, his family moved to the suburbs of southern Beirut, a region long associated with Shiite radicalism. With the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, Mugniyah joined Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, which operated numerous terror training camps throughout Lebanon. While still a teenager, Mugniyah rose quickly through the ranks of the PLO, soon becoming a member of its elite commando wing, Force 17, which carried out assassinations at the personal behest of Arafat. This kind of specialized training represented expertise unavailable to most young Islamic militants at the time.
In 1982, an Israeli military offensive expelled most of the PLO infrastructure from Lebanon. Mugniyah chose to stay, serving as a bodyguard to Sayyid Muhammad Fadlallah, the spiritual head of Hezbollah and a key ally of Iran. Then, together with fellow terrorist Hassan Nasrallah (who would go on to become Hezbollah’s secretary-general), Mugniyah formed the group Islamic Jihad, which served as a convenient cover for the greater Hezbollah organization. One of the few existing photographs of Mugniyah shows him walking alongside Nasrallah in 1995 in Lebanon.
The first shot fired in Mugniyah’s war against the West was fired on April 18, 1983, in Beirut. On that day, a van packed with 2,000 pounds of explosives slammed into the front of the U.S. embassy and exploded with such tremendous force that the front of the building collapsed. The attack killed 63 people, including most of the CIA’s Middle East leadership. Within hours of the attack, Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.
The suicide attack against the Beirut embassy was followed up later that year by an even more devastating assault. On the morning of October 23, most of the 300 U.S. Marines stationed in a compound near Beirut’s airport were sleeping in their barracks, having been deployed to the country to serve as a stabilization force. Then, at 6:33 am, the driver of a Mercedes truck drove straight through the front gate of the compound, past Marine sentries with unloaded weapons, and smashed into the four-story concrete barracks. The driver then detonated the explosive, estimated to equal the force of 12,000 pounds of TNT, killing 220 Marines and 21 other U.S. service members. Again, Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.
In one day, the entire situation in Lebanon had been drastically altered. The foreign forces would soon leave, wary of further terrorist attacks. With the abandonment of Lebanon by the international community, Islamic Jihad had carried out a virtual terrorist coup d’etat. Over the next ten years, Mugniyah and Hezbollah took dozens of Westerners hostage and murdered several others.
Numerous hostages, such as American Kurt Carlson, recall seeing Mugniyah, who spoke fluent English and commanded slavish devotion from his agents, supervise their imprisonment and brutal interrogations. The CIA believes Mugniyah was in frequent contact with Iranian intelligence officials, who were directly involved in the murders and the hostage takings.
While Mugniyah’s attacks concentrated on foreigners, his campaign of terror stayed geographically constrained to Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East during the 1980s. But this would change after the 1992 Israeli assassination of Sheik Abbas Musawi, a Hezbollah leader with close ties to Mugniyah.
On March 17, 1992, Mugniyah masterminded a mission where a pickup truck loaded with plastic explosive drove up to the front of the Israeli embassy in Argentina and detonated, destroying the building along with a nearby retirement home and a Catholic Church. Twenty-eight people were killed, and more than 220 were wounded.
Mugniyah’s next target was a seven-story building in Buenos Aires that housed two Jewish business organizations. On the morning of July 18, 1994, a white Renault van pulled up in front of the building and detonated. The building collapsed, killing 85 people. An Iranian defector named Abdolghassem Mesbahi, a former senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Council, told Argentinean authorities that Mugniyah had been one of the senior planners behind the attack in Buenos Aires, along with Iranian intelligence.
The twin bombings in Argentina highlighted Mugniyah’s campaign to develop an infrastructure within South America. In 1994, the Hezbollah leader personally visited the “Triple Frontiers”, an area forming the border nexus of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil that has historically sheltered smugglers and criminals. As many as 30,000 Arab Muslims who celebrate the anniversary of 9/11 inhabit the small region. Nearby, Hezbollah holds weekend training camps, indoctrinating Arab youth in the extremist literature of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The main mosque in the area was blessed by Mugniyah’s old boss, Sayyid Muhammad Fadlallah. Hezbollah agents regularly extort money and “donations” from various businesses and Muslim organizations, sending the substantial funds back to Lebanon. Mugniyah personally operated a powerful network of operatives inside the region, to help facilitate Hezbollah’s drug-smuggling operations throughout South America.
Mugniyah also sought to extend Hezbollah’s reach to North America. In 2000, federal authorities arrested 18 men in North Carolina for smuggling cigarettes and other financial crimes. The FBI later revealed that the smuggling ring, led by Lebanese immigrant Mohamad Hammoud, had made a $7.9 million profit, which was then sent to Hezbollah. Through a series of associates, Hammoud worked for a man named Mohamad Dbouk, a senior Hezbollah asset who helped run Hezbollah’s extensive criminal operations in Canada. Testifying before the U.S. Senate, U.S. Attorney Robert J. Conrad confirmed that Mugniyah directly oversaw the Canadian operations and, by extension, the American division.
In 1998 American authorities captured former Green Beret advisor Ali A. Mohamed for the role he had played in the twin terror attacks against U.S. embassies in Africa (which killed more than 220 people). Having been a relatively close associate of Osama bin Laden, Mohamed proved to be a treasure trove of information for American investigators. In testimony delivered during his court case, Mohamed admitted that in 1994, he had arranged security for a momentous meeting in Sudan between bin Laden and Mugniyah. He also stated that Hezbollah provided training for al Qaeda operatives in exchange for weapons and explosives. This testimony agreed with statements made by other Al-Qaeda officials, who told American investigators that bin Laden and Mugniyah had met several times in the mid-1990s to discuss increasing the level of cooperation between their respective organizations.
Bin Laden and Mugniyah may also have coordinated the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers (Saudi Arabia) barracks which killed 19 U.S. Servicemen. American investigators have long suspected Iran’s involvement as well. The group that supposedly carried out the attacks, Saudi Hezbollah, was led in the 1990s by a close lieutenant of Mugniyah and was trained in Mugniyah-run camps in Lebanon.
Robert Baer, a 20-year veteran of the CIA’s clandestine services, said the following about Mugniyah: “He is the most dangerous terrorist we’ve ever faced. He’s a … pathological murderer. Mugniyah is probably the most intelligent, most capable operative we’ve ever run across, including the KGB or anybody else. He enters by one door, exits by another, changes his cars daily, never makes appointments on a telephone, never is predictable, will show up–he only uses people that are related to him that he can trust. He doesn’t just recruit people. He is the master terrorist, the grail, we are after since 1983.”
Mugniyah was killed by a car bomb in Damascus, Syria on February 12, 2008. Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah promptly blamed Israel for the assassination and threatened to retaliate against Israeli targets.
This profile is adapted from the article “Tehran’s Terror Master,” written by Patrick Devenny and published by FrontPageMagazine.com on May 26, 2005.