Posted by Joshua on Thursday, February 14th, 2008
Hizbullah leader’s death in Syria could trigger retaliation
By Nicholas Blanford | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
February 14, 2008
A shadowy senior Hizbullah commander, thought to have masterminded spectacular terrorist attacks in the 1980s, was killed Tuesday in a Damascus car bombing that will almost certainly trigger a retaliation from the militant Shiite group.
Imad Mughnieh’s legendary militant credentials, which are thought to include attacks on the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, made him a prime American and Israeli target for decades and a significant figure in the arsenal of Hizbullah, the Islamist political and guerrilla force that Washington calls a terrorist organization. Analysts say that with Mr. Mughnieh out of the picture, Hizbullah has lost a key asset in its ability to strike in Lebanon or the region.
“This is as big a blow as it gets for Hizbullah security. It’s even bigger than killing [Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah,” says Magnus Ranstorp, a Hizbullah specialist and research director at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College in Stockholm.
Mughnieh, in his mid-40s, was accused of killing more Americans than any other militant before the 9/11 attacks, and the bombings and kidnappings he is alleged to have organized are credited with ending American intervention in Lebanon under the Reagan administration.
He is believed to have overseen the April 1983 suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut and, six months later, the twin suicide truck-bomb attacks against the US Marine barracks and the French paratroop headquarters in Beirut, acts that killed nearly 400 people.
As of Wednesday morning, no one had claimed responsibility for his death. But many in Lebanon and Syria blamed Israel, who is believed to have carried out these sorts of targeted assassinations in Beirut and Damascus before.
The late-night blast Tuesday tore apart Mughnieh’s car, which was parked near an Iranian school in the Damascus suburb of Kfar Soussa. Syrian authorities have only confirmed that one person died in the blast.
Mohammed Habash, a Syrian Islamist lawmaker, said that Damascus needed more time to conduct an investigation before commenting publicly. “Israel is always aggressive and doesn’t respect international laws and norms and it has proved in the past that it doesn’t respect countries’ sovereignty, whether in Palestine, Lebanon, or Syria.”
Hizbullah confirmed Mughnieh’s death early Wednesday morning. “With all due pride, we declare a great jihadist leader of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon joining the martyrs,” said a statement carried by Hizbullah’s Al Manar television channel.
“This is a personal loss for Nasrallah,” says Robert Baer, an ex-Central Intelligence Agency officer who tracked Mughnieh in the 1980s. “[Nasrallah and Mughnieh] are basically the ones who made Hizbullah, in the sense of driving the West out [of Lebanon] in the 1980s, then turning that power against the Israelis” occupying south Lebanon.
Israel denied responsibility for Mughnieh’s death, but Israeli officials greeted his demise with joy. Danny Yatom, former director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, called the assassination “a great achievement for the free world in its fight against terror.”
Analysts say that a retaliation from Hizbullah is inevitable. When Israel assassinated Sheikh Abbas Mussawi, then Hizbullah leader, in February 1992, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was blown up a month later, killing 29 people in a revenge operation alleged to have been planned by Mughnieh himself.
“This is something that Hizbullah cannot let pass. Mughnieh was too much of a symbol,” says Timur Goksel, lecturer on international relations in Beirut and a former United Nations official in south Lebanon. “I don’t think Hizbullah will go for a big bombing, probably an assassination of a high profile target.”
Mughnieh’s death comes amid rising tensions in Lebanon as the country prepares to mark the third anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in a Valentine’s Day truck bomb blast in 2005. Hizbullah is organizing a large funeral for Mughnieh Thursday afternoon, even as a huge turnout is expected in Beirut to commemorate Mr. Hariri’s death.
While Israel and the US top the list of suspects behind Mughnieh’s death, some Lebanese were quick to point a finger of blame at Damascus.
“It could have been the Syrians,” says Walid Jumblatt, an outspoken member of the anti-Syrian March 14 parliamentary coalition. “Damascus is well protected, and I don’t think somebody else could do it.”
Some analysts suggest that Damascus may have seen advantage in delivering up Mughnieh to his enemies to curry favor with the US at a time when Syria is under intense international pressure. While America’s $25 million reward for Mughnieh is a potential motive, the imminent establishment of an international tribunal to judge Hariri’s killers also may have spurred Damascus’s leadership to cooperate with the Americans over Mughnieh. Syria is widely suspected of involvement in Hariri’s death.
Mughnieh was born in 1962 in the southern Lebanese village of Teir Dibba. He grew up in Beirut’s southern suburbs where as a teenager he joined Force 17, the elite unit of the Fatah faction headed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
After Israeli forces expelled the Palestinians from Beirut during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Mughnieh joined a group of Shiite Islamists then coalescing under Iran’s guidance in the Bekaa Valley. The group became Hizbullah and Mughnieh, despite his youth, was considered one of its most capable figures.
In addition to the 1983 attacks in Beirut, in 1985 Mughnieh led the hijacking of a TWA airliner in Beirut in which a US Navy diver was killed. He is also alleged to have run the networks of kidnappers who snatched dozens of foreigners in Beirut in the mid- to late 1980s.
“The man was a murderer and murdered people who had nothing to do with Lebanon,” says Mr. Baer, the former CIA officer. “But at the same time, he believed he was fighting an anti-Colonial war. He was a disciplined soldier in a manageable war, unlike Al Qaeda, which is completely unmanageable.”
• Julien Barnes-Dacey contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria.
Imad Mughniyah, who was assassinated Tuesday in Syria, was a man of the Middle East's shadows. He was a terrorist mastermind behind political causes. For him, though, it was as much about the fight as the cause. He shunned the light. He never gave public speeches or lectures. He is not known to have given any press interviews, not even to sympathetic or politically aligned journalists. Western reporters who sought the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hizballah's help to arrange a rendezvous were politely but sternly advised not to go there.
So, did the CIA or some other American intelligence agency finally do Mughniyah in? Everyone, including some of his friends, may have had a motive.
U.S. officials told TIME today that Mughniyah had traveled to Iraq to train the Shi'ite warlord Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Mughniyah, says one American official, was Hizballah’s "chief of external operations" and "considered the key to their military activity." U.S. officials acknowledge that American spy agencies had intensely been tracking Mughniyah the past five years as he moved between Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.
Apart from his ties to Hizballah, Mughniyah was also believed to have worked closely with Iran. A U.S. official confirmed reports that in 2006, Mughniyah accompanied Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a trip to Syria and met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In the 1980s, he had been accused of everything from bombing the U.S. embassy and U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut to the kidnappings of American journalists, academics and the Beirut CIA station chief. More recently, some have claimed that Mughniyeh collaborated with Osama bin Laden. After al-Qaeda's top guns, Mughniyah has the highest price on his head of any terrorist wanted by the FBI — $5 million.
Hizballah immediately blamed Israel for Mughniyah's assassination in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday night. Israel's Mossad spy agency is a reasonable suspect, given Israel's determination to bring him to justice for his alleged involvement in the 1990s bombings in Argentina of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center. Israeli intelligence has a good history of eliminating terrorist masterminds, even when they are located in unfriendly Arab capitals.
A U.S. official told TIME that Mughniyah had been linked to the 2002 discovery of 50 tons of weapons by Israeli Navy commandos who intercepted a freighter called Karine A in the Red Sea. More recently, said the U.S. official, Mughniyah was connected to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers that led to the July 2006 invasion of Lebanon.
The Israeli Prime Minister's office issued a statement denying any involvement in Mughniyah's killing. A senior ex-intelligence official told TIME: "The Americans wanted him, so did the Saudis and the Lebanese Christians. We weren't the only ones." Still, the former official, who asked not to be identified, has been hunting Mughniyah for over 20 years and described him as "a fanatical killer." "It was as if a big stone had been removed from my heart," he said.
In the John Le Carre world of Middle East terrorism and politics, however, it's impossible to rule out the wildest of conspiracy theories, including that Mughniyah's friends in Syria or Iran may have found his continued existence to be an inconvenience. Or, they may have believed it was politically useful to demonstrate that they can be relied on to control terrorism in the Middle East — as long as the U.S. doesn't try to go after the regimes in Damascus or Tehran. With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem
….Born in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, in July 1962, to farmer parents, Mughniyeh grew up with two brothers, Jihad and Fouad, and later moved to the capital’s southern suburbs, where he attended school. He spent a year studying at the American University of Beirut.
Mughniyeh later joined “Force 17”, a special military unit that was tasked with protecting Fatah’s leadership in Lebanon (Yasser Arafat, Abu Jihad and Abu Iyad) and became a veteran sniper. After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Mughniyeh oversaw the transfer of weapons from Fatah and the PLO to the nascent Lebanese resistance, represented by Amal and Hezbollah.
Following the three-month siege of Beirut and the PLO’s departure from Lebanon to Tunisia, Mughniyeh joined the Amal movement and later Hezbollah, at the same time as the party’s current leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Anis Nacchache, a Lebanese who had led a failed assassination attempt on the former Iranian Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar in Paris, in 1980- after he announced his opposition to Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime- first introduced Mughniyeh to senior officials in the Iranian embassy in Beirut.
According to Abu Wafa, a former leader in the revolutionary guards, Mughniyeh stood out from other enthusiastic young men. On his first trip to Iran, in the early 1980s, Mughniyeh proved his military capabilities and excelled in his training. After three months of basic training, he traveled with other Lebanese Shiaa young men to the Iranian front and took part in several daring operations behind Iraqi lines, according to Iranian military leaders.
Imad then joined Hezbollah and was appointed by, Ahmad Motevaselian, a leader in the revolutionary guards in Beirut at the time, as the Party of God’s intelligence chief. His leading role in three operations made Mughniyeh’s name on the top of most-wanted lists in the United States and France: the bombing of the US embassy in the Lebanese capital in April 1983, in which 63 US and Lebanese individuals were killed, the bombing of the US Marines barracks in Beirut, in which 241 died and the bombing of the French barracks in the Bekaa Valley, which killed 58 French soldiers.
Mughniyeh was also tasked with protecting the life of Sheikh Hassan Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, but with his exceptional abilities in field command and leadership, he became the head of the party’s special operations branch.
Mughniyeh disappeared from view for two years and re-emerged on board a kidnapped TWA flight in Beirut international airport in 1985, where he killed one of the passengers, a US Marine.
That same year, a car bomb exploded in front of Fadlallah’s house, killing 62, including Imad’s brother Jihad.
Mughniyeh also participated in the attempt to release a relative who was part of a group known as “Dawa 17” imprisoned in Kuwait after attacks on the US and Kuwaiti embassies. The men were released after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. He later kidnapped several westerners and released some of them, in the wake of secret negotiations with the Reagan administration.
According to an Iranian source, who met Mughniyeh on more than one occasion in Iran, the elusive figure had undergone plastic surgery to change his facial features in 1990. He then returned to Beirut incognito, under a new name and a false identity, with an Iranian diplomatic passport. Using several forged Lebanese, Syrian, Iranian and Pakistani passports, Mughniyeh successfully planned and executed a number of terrorist operations in Argentina in the mid 1990s, including the bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994, killing 85.
During his constant traveling, Mughniyeh met Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri in Sudan, where al Qaeda’s leader had established training centers in farms, while the revolutionary guards were also active in the country, under the guise of “Jihad for construction” organization, which was responsible for building roads and installations. When Mughniyeh’s cover was blown, he returned to Iran where he underwent a second operation and completely changed his look.
Between 1997 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mughniyeh traveled between Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan and northern Iraq, and assisted al Qaeda leaders to cross from Afghanistan to Iran. He then played a role in moving fighters loyal to bin Laden from Afghanistan to Iraq, through Iranian territory, by exploiting his relationships with the revolutionary guards, al Zawahiri, Saad bin Laden and Mohammed al Islambouli, whose brother assassinated the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
In 2005, he was tasked with organizing relations between the different Shiaa armed factions in southern Iraq. Mughniyeh then became the field supervisor of the revolutionary guard’s intelligence bureau in the region. That same year, he traveled to Lebanon through Syria, accompanied by Iranian officials, under the name of Sayyid Mehdi Hashemi, an Iranian national with a diplomatic passport.
In early 2006, reports indicated Mughniyeh had been seen in the city of Basra, where he is alleged to have been facilitating the entry of Mehdi army fighters into Iran, to take part in military training. In April, Mughniyeh was said to have returned to Lebanon where he held senior positions in Hezbollah's intelligence services and, according to Israeli sources, planned the operation to kidnap Israeli soldiers, based on orders from Iran’s revolutionary guards.
"Gathering intelligence in Shiite neighborhoods is complex, of course, the nature of the neighborhood almost didn't allow them to walk around on foot and look at things, neither were they able to drive around in a rented car. One of the buildings in the street matched the description given to them in an intelligence briefing by a local agent. After several turns in the area at different hours of the day, a car that was also seen at his office was noticed parked outside the building on the residential street. The next day, when they waited for him to leave the neighborhood in the early morning hours, they identified the man himself and his car. Now was the time to move. He finished assembling the bomb quickly and lifted it carefully – nobody enjoys walking around with a kilo of explosives in his hands. He quickly moved towards the car and crawled underneath it, took out the tools from his pocket, and placed the bomb under the chassis." (Duet in Beirut, Mishka Ben-David, 2002)
No need to wait for the book on Imad Mughniyeh's demise in Damascus. It may already have been written.
Duet in Beirut by former Mossad operative Mishka Ben-David is a work of fiction, but owes its wealth of detail to the author's intelligence experience. Published in Hebrew six years ago, it describes a Mossad hit team traveling to Beirut, stalking the head of Hizbullah's foreign terror department and assassinating him in a car bombing. Perhaps unfortunately for Mughniyeh, it was not translated into Arabic; had he read it, he might have taken greater precautions. ….. (Continue)
|Bush orders sanctions against Syrian officials|
Bush, in an executive order, said he was expanding penalties against senior government officials in Syria and their associates deemed to be responsible for — or to have benefited from — public corruption. The order did not specifically name any officials.
Bush signed the order a day after Imad Mughniyeh, one of the world's most wanted and elusive terrorists, was killed in a car bombing in Syria nearly 15 years after dropping from sight. The one-time Hezbollah security chief was the suspected mastermind of attacks that killed hundreds of Americans in Lebanon and of the brutal kidnappings of Westerners.
"The world is a better place without this man in it," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "One way or the other, he was brought to justice."
The White House said Wednesday's executive order built on one Bush issued in May 2004 that banned all U.S. exports to Syria except for food and medicine. His earlier action followed long-standing complaints that the Middle Eastern nation was supporting terrorism and undermining U.S. efforts in Iraq.
The 2004 order also banned flights to and from the United States; authorized the Treasury Department to freeze assets of Syrian nationals and entities involved in terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, occupation of Lebanon or terrorism in Iraq; and restricted banking relations between U.S. banks and the Syrian national bank.
The U.S. had complained that Syria was supporting militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and failing to stop guerrillas from crossing the border into Iraq.
A White House statement on Wednesday said Syria was undermining efforts to stabilize Iraq and allowing Syrian territory to be used for that purpose.
Syria's government "continues to pursue other activities that deny the Syrian people the political freedoms and economic prosperity they deserve, and that undercut the peace and stability of the region," according to the statement.
"Syria continues to undermine Lebanon's sovereignty and democracy, imprison democracy advocates, curtail human rights and sponsor and harbor terrorists," it said. "The United States will continue to stand with the people of Syria and the region as they seek to exercise their rights peacefully and to build a brighter future." Lebanon is gripped by turmoil as Syrian-supported Hezbollah struggles for power with the U.S.-backed government.
Just last June, Bush signed a proclamation barring U.S. entry to people it says are undermining the stability of Lebanon and its government.
Syria held political and military sway in tiny neighboring Lebanon for some three decades. Besides armed troops on Beirut streets, Syrian intelligence forces were often a shadowy but pervasive force in Lebanese daily life.