Insight on the News - World
Issue date: 12/31/01
He has blown up U.S. embassies and car-bombed a U.S. military barracks. He
has hijacked U.S. commercial airliners and murdered Americans. He has
kidnapped and tortured a top CIA officer and vowed through terror to drive the
United States from his country. Do you know who he is?
If you guessed Osama bin Laden, you're wrong. The correct answer is Imad
Fayez Mugniyeh (pronounced MOOG-NEE-YEH), a Lebanese Shiite long
considered one of the world's most ruthless and elusive killers. The CIA has
been tracking him since 1984 when he masterminded the kidnapping in Beirut
of CIA station chief William Buckley, apparently on orders from Iran. Now
evidence is beginning to mount that Mugniyeh has deep ties to bin Laden and
his al-Qaeda network and may have been directly involved in planning the
Sept. 11 attacks.
"We know Mugniyeh has a relationship to bin Laden. We know that," one U.S.
official tells Insight. "Did he have a role in planning the outrages of September
11? We can't rule it out. Hezbollah is part of bin Laden's International Islamic
Front for Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders, and Mugniyeh is the head of
Hezbollah's special-operations branch."
Twice the United States spotted Mugniyeh on international flights and sought
to have him arrested. In 1986, he was leaving Charles de Gaulle Airport after
several days of secret negotiations with the French government. Although the
CIA provided a copy of the passport he was using, the French declined to stop
him. Nine years later, he was flying back to Beirut from Khartoum after a
meeting with bin Laden in the Sudan. The United States arranged for his
Middle East Airways plane to make an unscheduled stopover in Jedda, Saudi
Arabia, but the Saudi authorities refused to force him to leave the plane.
Neither the French nor the Saudis wanted him on their hands.
"Imad Mugniyeh is one of the most demonic of the militant Islamic leaders,"
says Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia. "He appears to
serve as a bridge between the 1980s, when the violence was primarily Shiite,
and today, when it is primarily Sunni."
Mugniyeh and his Iranian backers are Shiite Muslims; bin Laden and his
followers are Sunnis. Most terrorism analysts and Islamic scholars insist that
the two Muslim sects are on less-friendly terms than Catholics and Protestants
in Belfast. But when it comes to terrorism, they are dead wrong.
The eldest of four children, Mugniyeh was born in the village of Tir Dibba in the
mountains above the Lebanese coastal city of Tyre on July 12, 1962. His
father, Sheik Muhammad Jawad Mugniyeh, was praised as "one of Shia
Lebanon's best jurists" by American Islamic scholar Fouad Ajami.
As a high-school dropout, Mugniyeh was recruited by Yasser Arafat's Fatah
faction and later joined the elite Force 17, Arafat's personal security service.
Once the Palestinians were kicked out of Lebanon in 1983, Mugniyeh and his
two brothers, Fuad and Jihad, joined a new organization set up by Iran called
Hezbollah (Party of God). Its goal was to drive the Western powers out of
Imad Mugniyeh became Hezbollah's star recruit, reporting directly to Ali Akbar
Mohtashemi-Pour, Iran's ambassador to Syria. His terrorist pedigree began
with a bang when he organized the April 18, 1983, bombing of the U.S.
Embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people, including Robert Ames, the CIA's top
Middle East operations officer, and many of his best agents.
In October 1983, Mugniyeh was back at work. This time, with Iranian and
Syrian help, he plotted the twin suicide truck-bomb attacks in Beirut that took
the lives of 242 U.S. Marines and 58 French troops.
For many years Mugniyeh's personal involvement in those early bombings
remained obscure. It wasn't until he kidnapped the new CIA station chief to
Beirut, William Buckley, in April 1984 that the U.S. intelligence community
began to get a fix on him.
David Jacobsen was one of a dozen Americans and Frenchmen kidnapped in
Beirut in the 1980s by Mugniyeh and his pro-Iranian militiamen. At one point
he shared a cell with Buckley at an undisclosed location and remembers his
ordeal well. "I was chained to the floor; I was blindfolded. The person at my
feet, I later learned, was Terry Anderson, and the person at the head was Bill
Mugniyeh's guards tried to keep them from speaking to one another. "One of
the chilling moments for me and for Terry Anderson was to hear Bill Buckley
cough," says Jacobsen. "He was very, very sick. He was delirious. I heard him
say, 'I don't know what happened to my body; it was so strong 30 days ago.'"
The CIA now believes that Buckley was tortured to death by Mugniyeh
personally, who extracted whatever secrets he could and then murdered him.
Buckley was honored by CIA director William H. Webster at a posthumous
ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on May 13, 1988, and a star in his
honor was carved into the wall of CIA headquarters &emdash; the 51st.
Mugniyeh burst onto the international scene with the brash June 1985 hijacking
of TWA Flight 847 from Greece to Beirut, where he held 39 Americans hostage
for 17 days. Wearing a ski mask, Mugniyeh prowled the aisles of the aircraft
looking for U.S. military personnel and discovered U.S. Navy diver Robert
Stethem. He tortured and shot Stethem, then dumped his body out on the
runway in full view of international TV cameras. Later, the FBI was able to
identify Mugniyeh's fingerprints in the rear lavatory of the aircraft and indicted
him for Stethem's murder.
Mugniyeh also murdered for personal reasons, including the release of a
family member. The man who initiated him in the art of bomb-making was his
brother-in-law, Mustapha Badr-el-Din, whose crippled legs prevented him from
joining a Beirut militia. Badr-el-Din plied his trade by designing the bombs
used in a series of devastating attacks against Kuwait. He was arrested and
sentenced to death for his crimes by the Kuwaiti government.
In April 1988, Mugniyeh orchestrated the hijacking of a Kuwait Airlines flight to
Bangkok. On board were three members of the Kuwaiti royal family. In
exchange for their freedom, Mugniyeh demanded the release of his
brother-in-law and 16 other Shiite prisoners in Kuwait, known collectively as the
The plane made a three-day stopover in the eastern Iranian city of Mashad,
where some sources believe Mugniyeh personally boarded the aircraft and
brought on additional hijackers and weapons. Next, they flew to Cyprus, where
two Kuwaiti passengers were murdered and dumped onto the runway in a
stunning replay of the TWA hijacking three years earlier. They ended up in
Algiers, where negotiators from the Iranian and Algerian governments, as well
as Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, arranged safe passage
for all the hijackers.
Intelligence officials believe Mugniyeh is seeking personal vengeance on the
United States and Israel for the deaths of his brothers, which explains in part
his willingness to lend his expertise to operations organized by other groups.
Mugniyeh's brothers were killed in retaliatory attacks in Lebanon believed to
have been carried out by Israeli and U.S. operatives.
"Bin Laden is a schoolboy in comparison with Mugniyeh," an Israeli-intelligence
officer told Jane's Foreign Report recently. "The guy is a genius, someone who
refined the art of terrorism to its utmost level. We studied him and reached
the conclusion that he is a clinical psychopath motivated by uncontrollable
psychological reasons, which we have given up trying to understand. The killing
of his two brothers by the Americans only inflamed his strong motivation."
His brother, Jihad Mugniyeh, died in 1985 when a car bomb intended for
Hezbollah leader Sheik Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah killed 75 people outside
Fadlallah's home in Beirut. Hezbollah blamed the CIA for the attack. His other
brother, Fuad Mugniyeh, died in December 1994 when another car bomb
exploded near the mosque where Fadlallah preached his weekly sermon,
directly outside of a shop owned by Fuad. The car-bomb attack reportedly was
ordered by Israel in reprisal for the bombing of the Jewish Community Center
in Buenos Aires earlier that year which killed 86.
In the 1990s Mugniyeh shifted focus from Lebanon and the Persian Gulf to
launch a series of dramatic international operations. On March 17, 1992, a
Hezbollah strike team leveled the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29
persons and wounding 242. Hezbollah said the attack was intended to avenge
the killing of Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi, whose convoy
was obliterated by Israeli helicopter gunships in South Lebanon one month
Next was the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) community-center
bombing in July 1994. Investigating Judge Juan Jose Galeano told Insight
recently, "There was lots of Iranian diplomatic activity just before the attack
which remains unexplained. They all got out before the bomb went off."
U.S. and Israeli intelligence sources believe Mugniyeh was involved in the
planning of the AMIA attack and may have parachuted into Argentina on an
Iranian service passport at the last minute to activate sleeper networks and
handle logistics for the bomb. "Hezbollah claimed responsibility for that
attack," a State Department counterterrorism analyst tells Insight, "and
Mugniyeh heads the terror wing of that organization."
Army reserve Brig. Gen. Shimon Shapira, previously a senior
military-intelligence officer who tracked Mugniyeh's career, told Israeli journalist
Ronen Bergman: "This man isn't working alone. All his power comes from his
reliance on the Iranian intelligence service. None of his operations could have
been executed without their infrastructure. This infrastructure is very wide,
ranging from embassies [and] commerce delegations to all other Iranian state
activities. No one is overstating Mugniyeh's work because it represents the
whole of Hezbollah."
In 1996, Mugniyeh wanted to hit another commercial airliner, this time from El
Al. The name on the expertly forged British passport used by Mugniyeh's
operative was Andrew Jonathan Neumann. El Al's much-vaunted security failed
to notice anything suspicious about him or to detect the kilogram of
military-grade RDX explosive he was carrying when he entered Israel in April
1996 on a Swissair flight from Zurich.
Neumann wasn't British. He was a Lebanese Shiite named Hussein Mohammad
Mikdad. Luckily for his intended victims, he failed Bomb-making 101. While
mixing his deadly brew in an East Jerusalem hotel room, Mikdad blew off his
lower body. From his hospital bed he said he had been trained in Iran to
become "a heroic human flying bomb," detonating the explosive while
traveling on an El Al flight departing from Tel Aviv. "The operation was a
special gift" to Israel from Imad Mugniyeh, he said.
Before Sept. 11, the Israelis were picking up numerous signs that Mugniyeh
was planning new operations aimed at Israel and the United States. A top
Israeli military-intelligence official, Maj. Gen. Amos Malka, went on Israeli
television in June to warn that "bin Laden has tried, will try to reach us and
may even reach us here in Israel." He described recent attempts by bin Laden
to establish terrorist cells in Gaza and the West Bank and said bin Laden's
group was "planning an attack on U.S. and Israeli interests within the next few
weeks." Mugniyeh was believed to be involved in several of these infiltration
Russian President Vladimir Putin has fingered bin Laden, Mugniyeh and Iran
for helping to train Chechen rebels who fight against the Russian government.
Speaking in Germany just 10 days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Putin said he
had given specific information to the United States on Arab fighters in
Chechnya whom Mugniyeh had trained. "As a rule, activities of terrorists are
very coordinated," he said. "For example, on one Arab mercenary in Chechnya
we found instructions for flying a Boeing."
Jane's reported in October that for the last two years Iraqi intelligence officers
were shuttling between Baghdad and Afghanistan, meeting with bin Laden,
Mugniyeh and bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. Top U.S. officials were
briefed on these ties on Oct. 26, Insight reported ("Iran Cosponsors Al-Qaeda
Terrorism," Dec. 3).
Bin Laden first met Mugniyeh in 1993, according to his former chief of security,
Ali Mohammad. In a plea agreement entered on Oct. 20, 2000, in the
Southern District of New York for his involvement in the U.S. Embassy
bombings in Africa, Mohammad acknowledges that he "arranged security" for
the meeting that took place while bin Laden was living in the Sudan.
Mohammad said Mugniyeh's Hezbollah group "provided explosives training for
al-Qaeda and al-Jihad," the two groups most closely tied to bin Laden. "Iran
supplied Egyptian Jihad with weapons. Iran also used Hezbollah to supply
explosives that were disguised to look like rocks."
An earlier affidavit by FBI Agent Daniel Coleman, based on information
provided former members of al-Qaeda, reported that bin Laden personally
exhorted his followers to "put aside [their] differences with Shiite Muslim
terrorist organizations, including the government of Iran and its affiliated
terrorist group Hezbollah, to cooperate against the perceived common enemy,
the United States and its allies."
Mugniyeh and Iran go way back, and their close association disturbs some
analysts at the U.S. State Department, which is trying to rehabilitate the
regime of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. "There is no evidence that
Mugniyeh was one of the planners of the Sept. 11 attacks," a State
Department official tells Insight. "In fact, there is evidence to the contrary."
Separating Mugniyeh from bin Laden, Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq &emdash; with
whom bin Laden has formed increasingly close ties during the last six years &emdash;
has become an important goal for the professional diplomats, who are seeking
to limit the U.S. war on terrorism to a renegade Saudi and his band of merry
men holed up in Afghanistan. But, for FBI investigators and U.S. intelligence
analysts, the evidence is piling up of a consortium of groups and states that
defy commonly accepted boundaries. "Call it a terrorism clearinghouse," one
government analyst tells Insight.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.
Story Source: Insight on the News