The Changing Colors of Imad Mughniyah
Isabel Kershner
After years in the shadows, one of the world’s most wanted terror chiefs may be reemerging in a more deadly form than ever.
LIKE A CHAMELEON, IMAD Mughniyah, one of the world’s most elusive terror masterminds, relentlessly sought by the United States and Israel for the past 20 years, is back in another form.
Since the early 1980s Mughniyah, a Lebanese Shi’ite, has served as Hizballah’s "special operations" chief, in charge of the organization’s bombing, hijacking, kidnapping and overseas terrorism campaigns. He is credited with responsibility for a long string of terrorist outrages costing hundreds of lives, including the U.S. Marines base and embassy bombings in Beirut in 1983, and the Israeli Embassy bombing in Argentina in 1992. Now there are growing indications that after years of hiding in Iran, Mughniyah is back in Lebanon, coordinating links between Hizballah and Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qa’eda network. He is also believed to be helping Al-Qa’eda rebuild its terrorist infrastructure in the Middle East and Africa, following the destruction of its base in Afghanistan.
A combination of the two international Islamic terror networks of Hizballah and Al-Qa’eda would represent a nightmare for the counterterrorist community. And Mughniyah’s alleged involvement is particularly ominous for Israel, given the consensus in the Israeli defense establishment that the Iranian-backed Hizballah is now making concerted efforts to increase its influence in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
Having dropped off the radar screens of foreign intelligence agencies for some time, Mughniyah reappeared on the FBI’s list of 22 most wanted terrorists published in the aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of last September 11, with a reward of $25 million offered for information leading to his apprehension. In January, he was named by Israeli security officials as a key operator in the Karine A weapons ship affair, in which he liaised between the Palestinians and Iran. The Israeli security establishment is remaining tight-lipped about Mughniyah, refusing to give out any information about him at all. One defense official told The Jerusalem Report that Mughniyah is too much of a "hot potato," confirming that he is "very, very active." Officials in Jerusalem agree that Mughniyah is back in Lebanon, and suggest that he might be operating under different identities including that of Jawwad Nur al-Din, a previously unknown figure who was elected to Hizballah’s top decision-making Shura Council last summer.
A report in Jane’s Foreign Report published on September 19, 2001 first raised the possibility that Mughniyah co-directed the Twin Towers attack together with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s No. 2 in Al-Qa’eda. Citing Israeli military intelligence sources, the report indicated that the men were acting with Iraqi sponsorship. But Israeli intelligence has distanced itself from that report -- the former head, Maj. Gen. Amos Malka, "rejected it," informed sources told The Jerusalem Report. Since then, U.S. President George W. Bush has named both Iran and Iraq, as well as North Korea, as parts of the "axis of evil." Terrorism experts assume it is Iran’s involvement with the likes of Mughniyah, who is known as "Teheran’s man," that put the ayatollahs’ regime on the black list. "If Bush says Iran is evil, it’s because he knows," says a senior Israeli defense source. "Iraq is different. The Americans in any case have an open account with Iraq."
And though Israeli security officials won’t talk about Mughniyah or Hizballah-Al-Qa’eda links, Israel’s defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, told journalists in early February in New York that "more and more information is coming that members of Al-Qa’eda are entering Lebanon and joining Hizballah," and reportedly called Imad Mughniyah "worse than Bin Laden." Meanwhile, a recent report by German terrorism expert Rolf Tophoven has gained the attention of officials in Jerusalem. Writing in the daily Die Welt in early February, Tophoven states that one of Bin Laden’s top lieutenants, the Palestinian Abu Zubaydeh, is now in the Ein El-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon, in Lebanon, working on establishing a new infrastructure for Al-Qa’eda with the assistance of Hizballah. Basing his information on CIA and Israeli military intelligence sources, Tophoven writes that an important partner in this enterprise are the Iranian Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guards, based in Lebanon’s Syrian-controlled Biqa Valley. They are said to have helped hundreds of Al-Qa’eda operatives cross the border from Afghanistan to Iran, and on to the Iranian island of Kish. The Karine A, captured in the Red Sea by Israeli navy commandos in January, had also come from Kish. According to Tophoven, Abu Zubaydeh reached Lebanon on a similar boat.In a telephone interview with The Report from Germany, Tophoven goes further, suggesting that Mughniyah might even be a possible heir to Osama Bin Laden, along with Abu Zubaydeh and an Al-Qa’eda fugitive known as Adil, a former officer in the Egyptian army’s counterterror unit.
Tophoven, who used to serve as deputy director at the now-defunct Institute for Researching Terrorism in Bonn, says that the 300 Al-Qa’eda fighters in U.S. captivity at Guantanamo Bay are mainly low-level operatives. Bin Laden and "the 3,000 plus hard-core professionals," he notes, "are gone with the wind." While some are in Lebanon, others, according to Tophoven, have fled to Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and even Saudi Arabia, where the organization still has many "friends and secret contacts in the Saudi family." While he perceives only a loose connection between Mughniyah and the September 11 attacks, Tophoven says that even before September 11, Bin Laden had started reorganizing his Al-Qa’eda network to establish a "second front" that could continue regardless of his own fate. In this context, he says, Ayman Zawahiri was installed as commander of the Balkans area -- where he says thousands of Al-Qa’eda supporters operate under the guise of non-governmental organizations -- while Mughniyah was appointed commander of the Middle East and Africa. Tophoven also refers to rumors that Mughniyah has visited Germany for meetings in recent years, and points to a new assessment in German intelligence circles that the country has not only served as a "rest spot" for Islamic terrorists and sleeping agents, but as a location where operations have been planned.
Imad Mughniyah seems to have had links with Al-Qa’eda for years. Ali Muhammad, an Al-Qa’eda operative tried in the United States for his part in the U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, revealed in his testimony that he had helped arrange a meeting between Mughniyah and Bin Laden in Sudan as early as 1993. Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on Hizballah and deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, adds that the suspects in the East Africa embassy bombings also mentioned individuals who had gone to Lebanon for explosives training from Hizballah. "The military manuals of Al-Qa’eda showed innovation in the making of explosives including RDX and C4," he says, "but there was an admission that some of its members had gone to Lebanon to get that expertise." If the relationship between Hizballah and Al-Qa’eda was previously confined to training and know-how, Tophoven suggests that it is now turning into one of much closer coordination. Ranstorp, for his part, stresses that the relationship between Hizballah and Iran is not "unidimensional, but is based on multiple linkages and points of contact between different power centers, clerics and foundations." Hizballah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, for example, is thought to be the personal representative in Lebanon of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Other Hizballah clerics have their own links within Iran.
"The best description for Imad Mughniyah is that he stands with one foot in Iran and one in Hizballah," he says. "The weight he puts on each foot depends on the security and operational needs at any given time." According to well-informed sources, Mughniyah was asked to leave Iran and returned to Lebanon in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Ranstorp cautions that Hizballah has always been very wary of involvement in international terrorism beyond its usual Middle East sphere of action. But he adds that the organization’s great strength lies in its capacity "to transform itself and mutate its strategic needs according to the situation." He calls Mughniyah "a mysterious, unpredictable dimension of Hizballah." As for doubts about whether the Shi’ite Hizballah could find joint ideological cause with a Sunni organization such as Al-Qa’eda, beyond the commonality of enemies, the precedent has already been set. Informed U.S. sources say that Mughniyah was tasked by his Iranian bosses some time ago to establish a triangle between Hizballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and to train the Palestinian Sunni militants in Hizballah camps in Lebanon. Palestinian Islamic militants had already established direct relationships with Hizballah when Israel deported over 400 Hamas activists over the Lebanese border in 1992. The deportees stayed in a makeshift camp close to the border in South Lebanon for months.
Senior Israeli sources say that Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza essentially operates as a branch of Hizballah, only getting paid by Iran on delivery of terrorist operations. The fundamentalist Hamas also receives Iranian contributions. Moreover, according to American sources, Mughniyah himself was found to be connected to the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, in which 19 U.S. servicemen were killed. Saudi Hizballah, a Sunni, Saudi Arabian terror group, carried out that attack. The explosives had been transported from Lebanon, through Syria and Jordan to Saudi Arabia by truck. Mughniyah runs his operations with the help of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Iranian embassies around the world provide the infrastructure.
IMAD MUGHNIYAH, WHO STARTed his career in terrorism young, is still only 40 years old. Born in July 1962 in the village of Tir Dabba in South Lebanon, he moved with his family to the Shi’ite southern suburbs of Beirut. He left school in the late 1970s to join the Palestinian Fatah organization and soon joined Force 17, Yasser Arafat’s elite commando unit. When the PLO left Beirut in 1982, Mughniyah and other Shiites who’d joined the Palestinian struggle, including Mughniyah’s two brothers, Jihad and Fuad, stayed behind. They were among the founders of Hizballah, a new Shi’ite organization formed in 1983, with Iranian backing, to rival the Syrian-backed, Shi’ite Amal militia and to fight the Western and Israeli presence in Lebanon. Mughniyah started out as the bodyguard of Sheikh Fadlallah, the spiritual guide of Hizballah. His operational talents were soon discovered, leading to his meteoric rise within the organization despite his lack of any religious authority in his own right. A series of devastating attacks on U.S. targets in Beirut followed. Mughniyah is widely credited with having planned the U.S. Embassy annex bombing in Beirut in April 1983, in which 63 staffers were killed. He is thought to have masterminded the double suicide truck bombing of the U.S. and French marine bases the same year, in which 242 U.S. marines and 58 French troops died. He then turned to the business of kidnapping Westerners in Beirut. Many were held for years. The CIA has reportedly been tracking Mughniyah since 1984, when he allegedly kidnapped the CIA station chief in Beirut, William Buckley, and according to some accounts, personally tortured him to death. The following year, Mughniyah personally boarded hijacked TWA flight 847 when it landed in Beirut. A U.S. navy diver, Robert Stethem, discovered among the hostages, was tortured, shot and dumped on the tarmac. The FBI reportedly found Mughniyah’s fingerprints on the aircraft’s lavatory walls, and has indicted the arch-terrorist for the hijacking.
In 1985, Jihad Mughniyah, who had taken over Imad Mughniyah’s job as Sheikh Fadlallah’s bodyguard, was killed along with 75 others when a car bomb exploded outside the sheikh’s home in Beirut. Hizballah blamed the CIA. Mughniyah, who has always masterminded Hizballah’s "special operations" as opposed to the organization’s struggle against Israeli troops in Lebanon, seems to have turned his attentions to a specifically Israeli target only in 1992. Then, utilizing an established Hizballah network among the Shi’ite expatriate communities in the South American "triangle" of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Hizballah blew up the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 and wounding hundreds. Hizballah immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in Beirut, and said it was in revenge for Israel’s assassination of Hizballah secretary general Abbas Musawi in southern Lebanon a month earlier. In May 1999, the High Court in Argentina eventually issued an extradition warrant for Mughniyah in connection with the bombing. Two years later, in July 1994, a massive bomb destroyed the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association community center, also in Buenos Aires, killing 87. Hizballah and Mughniyah are widely suspected of involvement in that attack as well. In what Hizballah saw as Israeli revenge, in December 1994, Lebanese agents planted a car bomb in Beirut which killed Mughniyah’s second brother, Fuad, along with three others. In an October 2000 article about Mughniyah in the Israeli Yediot Aharonot, Ronen Bergman wrote that there were those in Israel who were "sorry to hear that he was not among the dead."
SINCE THEN, MUGHNIYAH AND his Iranian bosses appear to have turned their attentions to trying to infiltrate Israel directly, though so far with little success. The most notable attempt was in 1996, when Hussein Mikdad, a 33-year-old Lebanese Shi’ite, blew himself up while trying to make a bomb out of a kilogram of RDX explosives in his room in East Jerusalem’s modest Lawrence Hotel. Mikdad had entered Israel a few days earlier on a Swissair flight, with a forged British passport in the name of Andrew Jonathan Charles Newman. A member of Hizballah, Mikdad had worked as Sheikh Fadlallah’s accountant before being picked and trained for a terrorist operation, apparently because of his language skills and passable Western looks.
Mikdad was blinded and lost his legs and one hand in the premature explosion, but survived. From his Israeli hospital bed, he reportedly told investigators that he’d planned to explode the device on an El Al flight out of Tel Aviv as "a special gift from Mughniyah." By other accounts, he was intending exploding the bomb in a crowded place in Israel. Mikdad was later returned to Lebanon as part of a deal for the return of the corpses of Israeli soldiers. Since Mikdad, there have been at least two other attempts at infiltration and information-gathering on behalf of Hizballah and Iran. In 1997, a German citizen, Stefan Smirks, a convert to Islam and member of Hizballah, was arrested in Israel following a tip-off from German intelligence. And another Lebanese-British citizen, Jihad (Gerard) Shuman, was arrested in January 2001. Hizballah is also known to be trying to recruit operatives among Israel’s Arab population. While the hunt for the elusive Mughniyah goes on, Israel finds itself in a particularly complicated and delicate position. Hizballah, and by implication, its kidnap and terror operations chief Mughniyah, were the last known address for missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. Ronen Bergman relates in his October 2000 account that when Uri Lubrani, the Defense Ministry’s veteran coordinator of Israeli affairs in Lebanon, was handling negotiations for Israel’s kidnapped and missing soldiers, he once held a brief phone conversation with a man in Beirut who identified himself as Mughniyah. Lubrani had been sitting with a Lebanese contact in a European capital at the time. Lubrani refuses to comment on the affair.
Meanwhile highly placed sources in Jerusalem have told The Report that Mughniyah is "likely one of those responsible" for the kidnapping of Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman and reserves colonel who was lured to Beirut from Europe and has been held hostage there for 16 months. Israel continues in its efforts to free its hostages and MIAs, and the bodies of those who have been given up for dead, with German mediation. Hizballah’s Nasrallah, who often plays cruelly with the hostage issue to the Israeli audience, recently declared that some kind of deal might be in the works. And the Lebanese press reported in February that Hizballah might be willing to hand over a videotape of Tannenbaum in return for Israeli maps of minefields in South Lebanon. Mughniyah, for his part, continues to elude capture. He slipped away from the American net at least twice: once in the 1980s when France let him go despite a tip off from the United States; and once in 1995 when he was on a flight from Khartoum to Beirut that was supposed to stop off in Riyadh. The Saudis reportedly got around the U.S. authorities’ request to detain him by canceling the flight landing. One of the only two photos known to exist of Mughniyah is now on the FBI website, along with the notice of the $25 million reward. But with rumors rife that the terror mastermind has undergone several rounds of plastic surgery, it is assumed that he may well be totally unrecognizable. Now, with reports of Mughniyah’s growing alliance with Al-Qa’eda and Bin Ladin’s lieutenants, the potential risk to Israel and the West appears ever more potent and dangerous. It is no secret that many counterterror officials see Mughniyah as the personification of evil. Problem is, nobody can really tell what evil looks like.