- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2008

Before al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, there was Imad Mughniyeh, a top Hezbollah leader willing to kill, kidnap and maim en masse — until yesterday when a car bomb in Syria reportedly ended his decadeslong terror run.

Mughniyeh, one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists, was linked by U.S. officials to training anti-U.S. militias in Iraq in 2006, but he gained infamy in the West as early as 1985 in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847. Shi’ite militants killed Navy diver Robert Stetham, a passenger on the plane, and dumped his body onto a Beirut runway.

“He was certainly one of the most dangerous terrorists on the planet,” said one among several U.S. counterterrorism and military officials who privately hailed Mughniyeh’s death as a key success in the war on terror. “He’s been involved in every major Hezbollah attack in the last quarter-century.”

The list of attacks to which he is linked includes: the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63; the 1983 bombing of the barracks of U.S. and French peacekeeping forces in Beirut, killing 241 Marines and 58 French paratroopers; and the 1984 kidnapping and killing of the CIA station chief in Beirut, Lt. Col. William Buckley.

No group took responsibility for the attack, but both Iran and Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, blamed Israel.

“After a life full of jihad, sacrifices and accomplishments… Haj Imad Mughniyeh … died a martyr at the hands of the Israeli Zionists,” said Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with the Jewish state in 2006.

Hezbollah announced that it would hold a mass funeral today in the Shi’ite suburbs to the south of Beirut.

FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said the death in Damascus, if true, “would be good news in the ongoing fight against terrorism.”

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said, “We welcome the news that Imad Mughnieh’s life of terror has finally come to an end.

“From Beirut to Dhahran, he orchestrated bombings, kidnappings and hijackings in which hundreds of American service members were killed,” he said. “Hopefully, his demise will bring some measure of comfort to the families of all those military men he murdered.”

Mughniyeh, despite being a Shi’ite radical, is thought to be responsible for helping organize Sunni-dominated al Qaeda with early support, U.S. officials said. He also aided Shi’ite insurgents in Iraq, led by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

“It also appears that he may have been to Baghdad in 2006 and that he may have been involved in the training of al-Sadr’s Shi’ite militia,” one U.S. official said.

U.S. officials said they could not rule out an Israeli link to the car bombing because Mughniyeh, thought to be in his late 40s, was behind the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers in 2006. Israeli officials denied involvement in the attack in a written statement yesterday.

Israel’s intelligence service in the past has taken direct action, including bombings, against terrorists who have conducted strikes on Israeli targets.

Despite taking a lower profile in recent years, “Mughniyeh was still very active and still very dangerous,” said one senior U.S. official.

The official said Mughniyeh traveled with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Damascus for meetings with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

A second official said Mughniyeh’s death will be a blow to Hezbollah. “He devoted the bulk of his life to terror, and was absolutely key to Hezbollah operations over the decades against a range of targets.”

A classified Defense Intelligence Agency report stated thatMughniyeh “was in charge of the execution” of Marine Corps Col. William Higgins, who was captured by Hezbollah terrorists while serving the United Nations on a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon in 1988. The report provided grisly details from a videotape of Col. Higgins’ hanging that was obtained by Syrian security agents. It showed Mughniyeh directing the execution of Col. Higgins in a windowless room thought to be in an apartment building in West Beirut.

Mughniyeh was nearly captured in 1995 as he traveled from Iran to Sudan. Rather than cooperate with the FBI, the Saudi government tipped off Mughniyeh to the operation, intelligence officials said.

Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

MAJOR ATTACKS

The following are major attacks linked to Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a car bomb blast in Damascus, Syria, according to Hezbollah.

• April 1983: Suicide bomber rams van packed with explosives into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 persons, including 17 Americans.

• October 1983: Suicide attackers carry out near simultaneous truck bombings against barracks of French and U.S. peacekeeping forces in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French paratroopers.

• March 1984: Lt. Col. William F. Buckley, CIA station chief in Beirut, kidnapped and eventually killed in the beginning of a spate of kidnappings linked to Hezbollah.

• March 1985: Associated Press chief Middle East correspondent Terry Anderson kidnapped and then held for more than six years.

• June 1985: Lebanese Shi’ite militants hijack TWA Flight 847 heading from Athens to Rome, flying it back and forth between Beirut and Algiers. At Beirut’s airport, the hijackers shoot U.S. Navy diver Robert Stetham, a passenger on the plane, and dump his body on the runway. Most of the 150 passengers were freed during the three day hijacking; some were held for two weeks. The U.S. indicted Mughniyeh for his role in the hijacking, and he was put on FBI’s most wanted list with a $5 million bounty for information leading to his capture.

• March 1992: A pickup truck packed with explosives smashes into the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 persons.

• July 1994: A van packed with explosives levels a seven-story Jewish center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 persons. Argentina issues an arrest warrant for Mughniyeh in 1999.

Source: Associated Press

The Washington Times


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