Nation Special

Death in Damascus:                                                                                                                             
Car bomb kills Imad Mugniyah, “The Fox”

Until Osama Bin Laden ‘exploded’ on the scene on September 11, 2001, it was Mugniyah who was considered the most wanted ‘terrorist’ by the US. If Carlos was better known as “The Jackal,” Mugniyah was referred to as “The Fox.” A reward of US$ 25 million was announced for the head of “The Fox”

It was Tuesday, February 12. An explosion occurred shortly after 10:30 pm in Tantheem Kafer Souseh, a suburban area of Damascus in Syria. It was a prosperous neighbourhood with an Iranian school and Police station in the vicinity.

A car parked near the Iranian school was the target of the explosion. The black sports utility vehicle was blown up as a bomb was detonated from underneath. The SUV was badly damaged in the attack.

“Like a shredded metal can,” according to Housham Nasaiseh, 19, who worked in a sweets shop nearby and who arrived at the scene a few minutes after the explosion. About ten to 15 other vehicles were damaged.

The Police were removing a body from the vehicle when he arrived, Nasaiseh told newspapers. Within an hour, the shattered vehicle had been towed away. By morning the scene had been cleared, and the only signs of the attack were a black mark on the ground and scars on the sidewalk and nearby buildings.

Hailed as a hero
It was in the early hours of Wednesday, February 13 that the identity of the man killed in the attack was known. It was Haji Imad Fayez Mugniyah, a top commander of the Lebanon-Syria based Hezbollah organisation. He was also linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

A television station run by Hezbollah, Al Manar, hailed Mugniyah as a hero. “With pride and honour we announce that a great Jihadi leader has joined the procession of martyrs in the Islamic resistance,” said a statement read on the station. “The martyr was killed at the hands of the Israeli Zionists.”

According to news reports, Israel officially distanced itself from the killing and, without specifically naming Mugniyah, said that it was looking into the attack in Syria.

But some former Israeli security officials did not hide their satisfaction at Mugniyah’s assassination. Danny Yatom, a Labour Party lawmaker and a former chief of the Mossad Intelligence Agency, called Mugniyah’s death “a great achievement for the free world in its fight on terror.”

In a statement, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, “Israel rejects the attempt by terrorist elements to ascribe to it any involvement whatsoever in this incident.”

Gideon Ezra, a minister from Israel’s governing Kadima Party and a former deputy chief of the Shin Bet Internal Intelligence Agency, told Israel Radio on Wednesday that many countries had an interest in killing Mugniyah but that “Israel, too, was hurt by him, more than other countries in recent years.”

Ezra said, “Of course I don’t know who killed him, but whoever who did should be congratulated.”

Most wanted “terrorist”
There was satisfaction in Washington too. “The world is a better place without this man in it,” said State Department Spokesman, Sean McCormack.

There was reason for McCormack’s observation because until Osama Bin Laden ‘exploded’ on the scene on September 11, 2001, it was Mugniyah who was considered the most wanted ‘terrorist’ by the US.

If Carlos was better known as “The Jackal,” Mugniyah was referred to as “The Fox.” A reward of US$ 25 million was announced for the head of “The Fox.”

Several US and Canadian newspapers outlined the alleged offences and crimes perpetrated by Mugniyah.
Mugniyah, who was also known as Hajj Rudwan, was one of the world’s most wanted men. American prosecutors charged him in the hijacking of the TWA jetliner in 1985, during which a United States Navy Diver, Robert D. Stethem, was shot dead and dumped onto the tarmac of Beirut’s airport.

He was also accused of arranging shipments of arms from Iran to Palestinian groups. American officials say Mugniyah was behind the 1983 bombing of the Marine compound in Beirut, in which 241 service members were killed. A car bomb at the American Embassy there in the same year killed 63 people, including 17 Americans.

The United States also asserts that he was behind the torture and killing of William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, in 1984; the kidnapping and killing of Lt. Col. William R. Higgins of the Marines, who was on peacekeeping duty in Lebanon in 1988; and in his capacity as leader of the Islamic Jihad Organisation, the seizure of a number of Western hostages in Beirut during the 1980s.

Israel accused him of helping to plan the 1992 bombing of its embassy in Buenos Aires, in which 29 people were killed, and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in the city, in which 85 people died.

“A” team of international terrorists
The embassy bombing in Beirut was a particularly sharp blow to the United States because a regional meeting of CIA operatives was underway and crucial personnel were killed.

Media reports said that, although Mugniyah had not been accused of planning new attacks in more than a decade, American officials referred to him and his Hezbollah peers as the “A” team of international terrorism because of their cold professionalism and secrecy.

Widely believed to have undergone plastic surgery to avoid detection, Mugniyah had not been seen in public for years and was thought to have moved between Iran, Syria and Lebanon at various times. Before 2001, he had been involved in more terrorist attacks against Americans than any other person, newspapers said in reference to US$ 25 million American bounty on his head.
Who was “The Fox” and what was his background? What is his life story?

I draw extensively from a paper written by Carl Anthony Wege in 2006. It is titled “Iran’s terrorist asset: A history of Imad Mugniyah.” Here are summarised extracts:

“During the last quarter century, it was Haji Imad Fayez Mugniyah that helped to guide Hezbollah’s covert operations and who served as an operative for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Born in Tayr Dibbuth near Tyre in southern Lebanon on July 12, 1962, he was the oldest of four siblings from the extended family of Sheikh Muhammed Jawad Mugniyah, a prominent Lebanese cleric of the Musawi clan.

During Imad’s childhood, his family moved to the Bir al-Abed section of Beirut and he was barely a teenager of 13 years when Lebanon’s civil war broke out in 1975. The crucible of the war transformed Imad Mugniyah into an effective terrorist. He apparently joined Fatah in 1975 (where he served until 1982) and shortly thereafter was recruited by Fatah’s Force 17.

Entry into Hezbollah
Due to his young age, the opportunities in Force 17 were necessarily limited but it was probably around this time that Mugniyah had his initial exposure to bomb construction through his later brother-in-law, Mustafa Badr al-Din. Mugniyah and his brothers Faud Mugniyah and Jihad Mugniyah, all stayed behind after the PLO evacuation of Beirut following the Israeli invasion of 1982.
Thereafter, Shiite militants from Islamic Amal, Lebanon’s Daw’ah and the Association of Muslim Ulema in Lebanon formed the Hezbollah Organisation under the auspices of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Shiite clans such as the Hamiya, Musawi, Aqeel, Shahadehs and Ezzedeen facilitated the Guards’ incorporation into Lebanon’s Islamist Movement. Imad Mugniyah’s familial relationship with Shiekh Muhammad Jawad Mugniyah cemented his religious ties within the Musawi clan and to the larger Shiite community.

This, combined with his experience in Fatah, facilitated his entry into the new Hezbollah Organisation, where he was responsible for the personal security of Hezbollah Spiritual Leader Sheikh Fadlallah in Beirut. Mugniyah may have first become acquainted with Fadlallah through hearing his sermons at Beirut’s Bir al-Abed Mosque, located in the district of Beirut where Mugniyah grew up.

In 1983, Imad Mugniyah married his cousin, Sa’ada Badr al-Din, and had two children during that decade. The children were Fatima Mugniyah, born in August 1984, and Mustafa Mugniyah, born in January 1987. In September 1991, Mugniyah’s wife and children were moved to Tehran for security reasons.

Mustafa Mugniyah, Imad’s son, is now coming to an age where various intelligence services will have an interest in him, but currently there is little concerning him in open literature.

Imad Mugniyah’s most important patrons were found in the al-Quds Force, a special operations unit part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and various elements of Iran’s Intelligence organs. The direct operational link between Mugniyah and the Revolutionary Guards is likely through the Protection and Intelligence Department supporting the al-Quds Headquarters facilitating external operations.

Mugniyah was involved in operational supervision of multiple Hezbollah terrorist activities throughout the 1980s. In the aftermath of the 1985 TWA 847 hijacking, he left the security of Fadlallah to his brother Jihad Mugniyah and moved into the Hezbollah Security Apparatus. It was this entity that initiated the hostage taking and other operations under Hezbollah auspices using the name Islamic Jihad (al-Jihad al-Islami) throughout the mid-1980s.

Mugniyah was personally absent from Lebanon during the later part of 1987 when he was in northern Iran. He went to Qum in January 1988 and returned to Lebanon in 1990. Mugniyah became progressively more distant from day-to-day Hezbollah operations and more closely associated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

The relationship between Imad Mugniyah and the Revolutionary Guards was one of mutual exploitation. Mugniyah acted as a Guards asset by filling an important niche in many operational environments furthering Iranian foreign policy goals.

Conversely, Mugniyah had a great patron in the Guards with the infrastructure and resources of a state to facilitate Mugniyah as a notable in his own right both in Hezbollah and within the Musawi clan. This enabled Mugniyah to create his own client and patronage networks as a terrorist facilitating his operational capabilities.

By the early 1990s, Iran’s foreign operations extended to Sudan where Mugniyah was said to have been introduced to Osama bin Laden in 1993. Throughout the 1990s, Mugniyah apparently worked to establish Hezbollah support cells everywhere from North Carolina to Latin America to Africa.

Operational maturity
Mugniyah’s current age and value as an operational asset for the Revolutionary Guards preclude his direct involvement in risky operations. The kidnap operation against Israeli Defence Force soldiers that ignited the recent Israeli-Lebanon war, for example, was unlikely to have merited his participation. If he was involved, his actual role would have likely been mentoring the commanders who did carry out the operation.

With the dawn of the new century, Mugniyah acquired some maturity as a terrorist archetype. His elevation to such maturity is witnessed by his accompanying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Damascus to meet with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad earlier this year to discuss security issues for both states.

Yet details and particulars about his personal life are scant, and reports lacking public documentation concerning him are plentiful. Although the passage of time may degrade Mugniyah’s ability to directly engage in operations, his longevity has created in him a sense of strategic vision.

Demonstrating Mugniyah’s operational maturity, Hamid Zakiri, a defector from the Guards’ al-Quds Force, argued that Mugniyah himself facilitated the escape of senior al-Qaeda personnel to Iran after September 11.

This included some of Osama Bin Laden’s close family members. Zakiri also alleged that Mugniyah took an active role in organising Shiite resistance in southern Iraq.

The resiliency of Hezbollah in its conflict with Israel shattered the strong confidence in Israeli arms and is becoming a source for inspiration and tactical doctrine among Islamists. The unexpected ability of Hezbollah to withstand a rather concerted Israeli effort to rout the organisation and pacify southern Lebanon was built in part by Imad Mugniyah.

Eluding capture
According to media reports, Mugniyah had eluded capture because other nations in the region showed little interest in joining the hunt for him. For example, American officials discovered in 1995 that Mugniyah was on a commercial flight that was supposed to stop in Saudi Arabia, but Saudi officials refused to allow the plane to land, frustrating the attempt to arrest him.

In recent years, American officials sometimes received information on his whereabouts in Beirut. But according to several former American officials, the United States did not act on such tips, apparently out of caution about conducting a dangerous operation to capture Mugniyah in Beirut.

The CIA long considered Mugniyah’s organisation more dangerous than al-Qaeda, largely because his group was backed by Iran, even as al-Qaeda began to attack American targets in the late 1990s.

Some reports said that American Intelligence officials believed that Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad Organisation, working with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, had a list of American facilities around the world they were prepared to strike whenever they received orders from Tehran.

But those attacks never materialised, and many American officials became perplexed in recent years over whether Iran had decided not to use terrorism as a weapon against the United States, at least outside the war zone in Iraq. As a result, it is unclear how big a threat Mugniyah posed, at least directly to the United States.

Mugniyah, a Shiite allied with Iran, and Bin Laden, a Sunni from Saudi Arabia, would not seem to have been natural allies, yet there is evidence of contacts between them. They held at least one meeting in the 1990s, possibly to discuss a terrorist relationship, according to statements made in federal court by a former close aide to Bin Laden.
Mugniyah’s funeral was held on Thursday, February 14.

Threat to Israel
Accusing Israel of killing one of his top commanders, Hezbollah Leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to intensify his group’s conflict with Israel and to retaliate against Israeli targets anywhere in the world, said media reports.

Sheik Nasrallah, who has been in hiding since 2006 because of Israeli assassination threats, spoke to thousands of mourners via a televised image.

A band played the Hezbollah anthem, then the Lebanese national anthem. After prayers, a letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was read out by Tehran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. Then Nasrallah appeared on the screen, bringing the audience to its feet. Many wept.

At crucial moments during the speech, audience members pumped fists in the air and chanted “Labayka, Nasrallah!” — roughly, “Nasrallah, we are ready to fulfil your commands.” Outside the hall, loud bursts of celebratory machine-gun fire echoed in the streets.

Nasrallah, during his belligerent speech, called the killing of Mugniyah a “big mistake” that would be avenged. “The blood of Imad Mugniyah will eliminate them,” he said, referring to the Israelis.

According to analysts, if Hezbollah were to strike at Israel outside the borders of the two countries, it would be a sharp departure from the group’s current policy.

Ironically, the last time it did so was in the mid-1990s, when Mugniyah was accused of planning bombings of Israeli targets in Argentina.

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at djeyaraj@federalidea.com)