Israel kills terror chief with headrest bomb
Uzi Mahnaimi in Tel Aviv, Hala Jaber in Beirut and Jon Swain
NOTHING seemed very remarkable about the short, bearded man who mingled with other guests on Tuesday evening at a reception in Damascus, the Syrian capital, to mark the 29th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian revolution.
Yet before the night was over he was dead in the twisted wreckage of his car and the inevitable assumption was that Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, had killed him with an ingeniously planted bomb.
The news spread rapidly that the dead man was Imad Mughniyeh, an elusive figure known as “the Fox” who had been one of the world’s most feared terrorist masterminds.
Robert Baer, a former CIA agent who spent years on his trail, said Mughniyeh was “probably the most intelligent, most capable operative we’ve ever run across”.
As the Israelis rejoiced, Iran and Hezbollah, the militant Shi’ite group, which together had harnessed Mugniyeh’s expertise, mourned his death at a huge funeral in Beirut, where he established his terrorist network.
Mughniyeh’s mother, Um Imad, sat amid a sea of black chadors, a lonely, sombre figure as mourners held their hero’s picture aloft.
“If only I had more boys to carry on in his footsteps,” she sighed, confessing that she did not have any pictures of him, even from his childhood, as he had taken them away. He was the third of her sons to die in a car bombing.
With a price of $25m (£12.7m) on his head, he was always vigilant. Some say he had had plastic surgery to alter his face in an effort to elude the Americans and Israelis who blamed him for plane hijackings and other bloody attacks which killed hundreds of their citizens in the Middle East and as far away as South America.
He had grown accustomed to living dangerously and there was no reason he should have feared for his safety last Tuesday as he sipped fruit juice at the party at the Iranian cultural centre. Mughniyeh was on fairly good terms with everybody present – almost all the leaders of the Damascus-based militant groups were represented.
At 10.35pm he decided to go home. Having exchanged customary kisses with his host, Hojatoleslam Ahmad Musavi, the newly appointed Iranian ambassador, Mughniyeh stepped into the night.
Minutes later he was seated in his silver Mitsubishi Pajero in a nearby street when a deafening blast ripped the car apart and killed him instantly.
According to Israeli intelligence sources, someone had replaced the headrest of the driver’s seat with another containing a small high-explosive charge. Israel welcomed his death but the prime minister’s office denied responsibility. Hezbollah accused the “Zionist Israelis” of killing its “brother commander” but believed the explosive had been detonated in another car by satellite.
One witness said: “I held his head in my hands, kissed him farewell. His face was burnt but intact and he had received serious injuries to his abdomen.”
Whatever the truth about the bomb, Mughniyeh, 45, died as he had lived – violently. He was a product of the Lebanese civil war that transfixed western governments 25 years ago.
Born in a south Lebanon village, the son of a vegetable seller, Mughniyeh joined Force 17, Yasser Arafat’s personal bodyguard, when scarcely out of his teens. After the Palestine Liberation Organisation was forced to leave Lebanon in 1982, he stayed behind and joined Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite Islamic group that emerged in 1985 as a militant force resisting Israeli occupation.
He came to the attention of Sheikh Mohammed Fadlallah, Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, and rose quickly up the ranks. He was shaped into a remarkably effective terrorist as, under the auspices of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the organisation grew into one of the deadliest forces fighting Israel and America.
Western terrorism experts say he was the dynamo behind some of Hezbollah’s most lethal operations. These included the bombing of the American embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people and the attacks on the US marine and French paratrooper barracks that left more than 200 dead. It was Mughniyeh’s decision to kidnap Terry Waite, the Church of England envoy, as he tried to broker the release of other captives.
Another notorious act attributed to him was the hijacking of a TWA flight when an American passenger, a US navy diver, was shot and his body thrown onto the runway.
In the 1990s Israel made him a priority target for his involvement in two attacks in Buenos Aires – the 1992 Israeli embassy bombing, which killed 29, and a 1994 suicide bomb attack on a Jewish community centre, in which 85 died. Then he went to ground. The FBI placed him on its most-wanted list but had to use a 20-year-old photograph for its reward posters.
Despite these difficulties, the CIA came close to capturing him. The Israelis were also hot on his trail. “We tried to knock him down several times in the late 1980s,” revealed David Barkay, a former major in unit 504 of Israeli military intelligence who was in charge of Mughniyeh’s file.
“We accumulated intelligence on him, but the closer we got, the less information we gleaned – no weak points, no women, money, drugs – nothing.”
Mughniyeh lost two brothers, Jihad and Fuad, in car bomb explosions in Beirut. In 2000 he was targeted by an Israeli sniper in southern Lebanon. But in Meir Dagan, who became head of Mossad in 2002, he faced a committed opponent under whose leadership the organisation built a strong record in assassinating Israel’s enemies.
Israel fought a bitter 34-day war against Hezbollah in 2006 to eradicate it in southern Lebanon. It believes that Mughniyeh was instrumental in rebuilding the group after the war, rearming it with Iranian-made Fateh 110 rockets which are capable of hitting Tel Aviv and which it fears could be equipped with chemical weapons.
Informed Israeli sources said that at the time of his death Mughniyeh was working for the Syrians on a terrorist attack against Israeli targets. This was to avenge Israel’s airstrike on what was believed to be a secret nuclear site in Syria last year.
Since Mughniyeh’s death, Israeli embassies and Jewish institutions around the world have been on high alert. “I’ve no doubt the Syrians and Iranians will retaliate,” said Barkay.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s general secretary, warned in a fiery oration at Mughniyeh’s funeral that Israel had committed a “major stupid mistake”. It was now “open war”, he said.
In Lebanon, a close friend of Mughniyeh was certain that he would be avenged by Hezbollah in an attack that, ironically, he had prepared himself before his death. “Most likely the retaliation when it comes will be one that had been planned and masterminded by Imad himself,” said Anis Al-Nackash, a Lebanese expert on Hezbollah.
He said Mughniyeh had prepared a variety of “spectacular” attacks to be executed by Hezbollah if one of its top leaders was assassinated. These were now being dusted off and updated.
On the day Mughniyeh was buried, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, summoned Dagan from his cottage in Galilee to Jerusalem.
“It was a one-on-one meeting,” said a source. But it is believed that Dagan was complimented by his boss and told that he would stay as head of Mossad until the end of 2009.
Time will tell whether, as Israel fervently hopes, Mughniyeh’s death has gravely weakened his organisation or if the effect has merely been to harden Hezbollah’s resolve.
The Israeli security service, Mossad, is thought to have killed six other militants abroad since Meir Dagan became director in August 2002:
December 2002 Ramzi Nahara, Israeli agent who defected to Hezbollah and planned attacks against Israel. Dagan knew him personally. Killed in Lebanon by car bomb
March 2003 Abu Mohammed Al-Masri, Al-Qaeda member building cell to target Israeli border with Lebanon. Killed by car bomb in Lebanon
August 2003 Ali Hussein Saleh, Hezbollah explosives expert. Killed by car bomb in Beirut
July 2004 Ghaleb Awali, Hezbollah official with links to activists in Gaza Strip. Killed by car bomb in Beirut
September 2004 Izz el-Deen al-Sheikh Khalil, Hamas official liaising between headquarters in Syria and members in Gaza and West Bank. Killed by car bomb in Damascus
May 2006 Mahmoud Majzoub, Islamic Jihad official liaising with Hezbollah. Killed by car bomb blast in Lebanon
This is a fascinating story. Although most money seems to be on the Israelis, even the Iranians have been credited with the assassination of Mugniyeh. Some say Mugniyeh was planning a major attack, others say that Iran "offed him" because he could implicate them in 9/11. Some day we may find out who did it, for now though, we'll have to be satisfied that it was done.
Stratfor says that due to logistics, we can expect "spectacular" retribution no earlier than mid-March. They point to the two 1992 and 1994 Buenos Aires bombings as well as two "less impressive" 1994 bombings in London. Stratfor says Hezbollah will most likely pull some plans "off-the-shelf", are most likely surveilling several targets right now and will most likely strike softer targets in Asia, Latin America or Africa.
Hezbollah's standard MO has been to claim "...its attacks using pseudonyms, such as Islamic Jihad Organization or Organization for the Oppressed of the Earth." It will be interesting to see how accurate Stratfor's advice and information is.