Tehran's Terror Master
By Patrick Devenny
FrontPageMagazine.com | May 26, 2005
Early on the morning of March 16th, 1984, William Buckley left for work at the American embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. Officially, Mr. Buckley, a decorated veteran of the Special Forces, served as the political officer at the embassy. In reality, however, Mr. Buckley was the embassy’s CIA station chief. On his way to the compound, Buckley’s car was stopped by a group of masked men, who forced him from his car at gunpoint. His assailants would later be identified as terrorists from the group Islamic Jihad, which served as an alias for the real perpetrators, Hezbollah. The circumstances surrounding the next 15 months of William Buckley’s life remain mysterious to this day. Hints of his plight were provided in disturbing video tapes, in which he appeared worn down and brutalized. It was later revealed that additional tapes were shot showing the CIA station chief being viciously tortured and beaten by Islamic Jihad members. Finally, sometime in October of 1985, Buckley died of pneumonia, no doubt stemming from the lengthy torture sessions. His main interrogator and tormentor was a 21 year old Lebanese terrorist named Imad Mugniyah.
Twenty years later, the butcher of William Buckley still plagues the free world. Imad Mugniyah is the current military commander of the terrorist group Hezbollah, overseeing an international organization which some American officials have dubbed “the A-team of terrorism.” Far less well known than his compatriot and sometimes partner Osama Bin Laden, Mugniyah is arguably more dangerous. Indeed, before the 9-11 attacks, Mugniyah was the prime focus of American anti-terror efforts, not Bin Laden. Comfortable in his anonymity, Mugniyah has successfully carried out some of the most professional terrorist attacks of the last two decades against a wide array of international targets. With Hezbollah currently flexing its muscle as a political force inside Lebanon, it would behoove Americans to remember that the leadership of this so-called “political” organization remains in the hands of dangerous extremists who think nothing of slaughtering hundreds of people at the behest of their masters in Tehran. Mugniyah’s very existence casts doubt on the idea that Hezbollah could ever be an honest participant in a future Lebanese democracy.
While the face of Bin Laden has been prominently featured in every world publication of note and is almost instantly recognizable, the real face of Imad Mugniyah is elusive. Only two or three photographs of the Hezbollah operative are known to exist. Further accentuating the mystery around Mugniyah is the fact that the picture that currently serves as the U.S. Government’s official wanted poster is almost 20 years old. This lack of information stems from the designs of Mugniyah himself, who has methodically erased all records of his existence, including his high school transcripts. What we do know is that Mugniyah was born to a prominent Shiite religious family in southern Lebanon in 1962. Some years later, 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 Palestinian Liberation Organization, which operated numerous terror training camps throughout Lebanon. Mugniyah, still a teenager, rose through the ranks of the PLO quickly, 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, Mugniyah formed the group Islamic Jihad, which served as a convenient cover for the greater Hezbollah organization. That close personal relationship would continue to the present day, as Nasrallah is the current secretary general of Hezbollah. One of the few existing photographs of Mugniyah shows him walking alongside Nasrallah ten years ago in Lebanon. The two fellow terrorists and their group would quickly gain the attention of the West.
The first shot fired in Mugniyah’s war against the West was fired on April 18th, 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. A clue concerning the real perpetrators of the suicide bombing was picked up by U.S. intelligence a month later, when it was revealed that a pre-attack cable from the Iranian foreign ministry had been sent to the Iranian embassy in Syria approving funding for a terrorist attack in Beirut.
The suicide attack against the Beirut embassy was followed up later that year by an even more devastating assault. On the morning of October 23rd, most of the 300 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, who reportedly was smiling, then detonated the explosive, estimated to equal the force of 12,000 pounds of TNT. The effects of the massive truck bombing were horrific, 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 went on a rampage, taking dozens of Westerners hostage and murdering several others. Major operations included the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985, where Mugniyah’s men shot a US Navy diver in the head and threw his body on the tarmac of Beirut International Airport. In a case that recalled the horrors of William Buckley, US Marine Lt. Colonel William Higgins was abducted in 1988 by a Hezbollah linked group known to be under the direct command of Mugniyah. Two years later, a ghastly video was released showing a man, thought to be Colonel Higgins, hanging from a ceiling after being tortured. Shortly thereafter, the dead body of Colonel Higgins was dumped on the side of the road in front of the US embassy in Beirut.
Numerous hostages, such as American Kurt Carlson, recall seeing Mugniyah supervise their imprisonment and brutal interrogations. He spoke fluent English, and commanded slavish devotion from his agents. At the same time, the CIA believes Mugniyah was in frequent contact with Iranian intelligence officials, who were directly involved in the murders and the hostage takings. It is a relationship that blossomed in Lebanon and continues to this day.
While Imad Mugniyah’s attacks had concentrated on foreigners, his campaign of terror had stayed geographically constrained to Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East. The American authorities could still regard him and his group as “over there”, limited to the perennially tumultuous region. Unfortunately, they were missing a critical development. Imad Mugniyah was about to defy the oceans that security officials naively assumed held him back. The impetus for this new strategy of offensive terrorism was the 1992 Israeli assassination of Sheik Abbas Musawi, a Hezbollah leader and close associate of Mugniyah.
The Israeli embassy in Argentina was located in a bustling downtown neighborhood of Buenos Aires. On March 17th, 1992, a pickup truck loaded with plastic explosive drove up to the front of the embassy and exploded. The embassy building was destroyed, along with the nearby retirement home and Catholic Church. 28 people were killed, and over 220 wounded. The next target was a seven story building in Buenos Aires that housed two Jewish business organizations. On the morning of July 18th, 1994, a white Renault van pulled up in front of the building and detonated. The building collapsed, killing 85 people. While confusion marred the initial investigations, it became clear to all parties involved that Hezbollah was the culprit, through its subsidiary Islamic Jihad, headed of course by Mugniyah. The smoking gun may have been delivered by an Iranian defector named Abdolghassem Mesbahi, a former senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Council. In testimony to Argentinean authorities, the defector claimed 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 September 11th, 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 none other than Imad 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 operates a powerful network of operatives inside the region, who help facilitate Hezbollah’s drug smuggling operations throughout South America. In addition, the bombing of Jewish targets inside Argentina were almost certainly connected to the Hezbollah presence in the Triple Frontiers. Telephone records show increased call traffic from Iranian officials to the frontiers region around the time of the bombing.
Mugniyah has 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 7.9 million dollars, 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 oversees the Canadian operations and, by extension, the American division. This reasoning stems from the fact that Dbouk was in direct contact with Hassan Hilu Laqis, a Hezbollah agent operating out of Lebanon who managed many of the procurement projects in North America. In a fax intercepted by Canadian intelligence, Dbouk assures Laqis that he is doing all he possibly can to help Hezbollah. In addition, Dbouk says he will do “anything”, and “he means anything”, to help the “father”. The Canadian prosecutor involved in the case, Kenneth Bell, stated that the father is in fact a codename for Imad Mugniyah. In addition, a recent report in the Washington Times suggested Hezbollah currently runs active cells in at least 10 U.S. cities. Mugniyah has never attacked a target in North America, but with tensions rising between the United States and Iran over the issue of nuclear proliferation, his terrorist network could rapidly become Iran’s weapon of choice against American targets. It would be a familiar role for the veteran terrorist, who, lest we forget, has the blood of over 250 Americans on his hands.
Mugniyah and Al-Qaeda
In 1998, American authorities captured former Green Beret advisor Ali A. Mohamed for his role in the twin terror attacks against U.S. embassies in Africa. Having been a relatively close associate of Bin Laden himself, Mohamed proved to be a treasure trove of information for American investigators. One of his statements, however, proved particularly troubling. In testimony delivered during his court case, Mohamed admitted that in 1994, he had arranged security for a momentous meeting in Sudan. There, Osama Bin Laden met Imad Mugniyah. He also stated that Hezbollah provided training for Al-Qaeda operatives in exchange for weapons and explosives. Indeed, this testimony corresponded with statements made by other Al-Qaeda officials, who told American investigators that the two had met several times in the mid 1990s, where they had discussed a greater degree of cooperation.
The two terrorist leaders may have also coordinated the attack on the Khobar Towers barracks complex in 1996. American investigators have long suspected Iran’s involvement in the bombing that killed 19 American servicemen in Saudi Arabia. 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. Additionally, the explosives used in the barracks bombing originated in Lebanon. The 9-11 Commission, however, recently suggested that Al-Qaeda may have also played a role in the bombing, suggesting some degree of operational cooperation between the two groups.
The influence of Imad Mugniyah with regards to the Al-Qaeda network has continued, and has strengthened as of late. It appears that at least part of the formal leadership of Al-Qaeda has shifted to Iran, where they stay in close contact with the group’s disparate assets. Men such as Saad Bin Laden and Saif al-Adel continue to plan attacks from Iranian territory, such as the massive Casablanca bombings in 2003. Other Al-Qaeda leaders and fighters have escaped through Iran following the war in Afghanistan. Hamid Zakiri, a former member of the Iranian terrorist coordination command, stated that Mugniyah was the liaison officer to Dr. Ayman Zawahiri and various other international terrorist groups. In addition to this relationship, Mugniyah personally oversaw the escape of dozens of Al-Qaeda figures to Iran, including one of Bin Laden’s wives and her infant child. Apparently, Al-Qaeda leaders have enough trust in Mugniyah’s abilities and intentions as to place their family members into his care.
“The Master Terrorist”
“He is the most dangerous terrorist we've ever faced. He's a--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.”
No small praise coming from Robert Baer, a 20 year veteran of the CIA’s clandestine services who once constructed a plan to kill Mugniyah in Lebanon. Imad Mugniyah, unrecognizable and relatively unknown, poses a serious asymmetrical threat to the United States and its allies. He has successfully avoided numerous American and Israeli attempts to capture or kill him. He has access to the massive amount of funding, estimated at 100 million dollars, that Iran annually provides Hezbollah annually. The secrecy surrounding Mugniyah allows him to travel relatively freely, especially in friendly nations such as Iran and Syria. His role in Hezbollah should chasten the Bush administration’s hopes that Hezbollah could eventually transform itself into a purely political organization. With terrorists such as Imad Mugniyah in charge, the idea that Hezbollah could accept a democratic Middle East is dubious to say the least. It should also be made clear to Lebanon’s Shiite population that national democratic reform cannot be sustained over the long term if an armed group like Hezbollah is involved. Instead of awaiting reform that will never come, the American government, with the help of our allies in the region, should seek to isolate this dangerous and inherently anti-democratic terrorist organization.
Patrick Devenny is the Henry M. Jackson National Security Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington D.C.