By Anthony Shadid and Alia Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 14, 2008
BEIRUT, Feb. 13 -- The killing of Imad Mughniyah, a shadowy Hezbollah leader blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and Israelis in some of the most spectacular attacks in a generation, ends a 25-year pursuit of a man whose brand of political violence matched devastating carnage with ruthless effectiveness.
Hezbollah accused Israel of his killing and called for a show of strength Thursday, in the Shiite Muslim group's stronghold in southern Beirut, to mark the death of a man its supporters celebrated as a legend. Israel denied it was involved in the car bombing Tuesday night in Damascus, but Israeli and U.S. officials hailed his death.
"The world is a better place without this man in it. He was a coldblooded killer, a mass murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "One way or another he was brought to justice."
Mughniyah's elusiveness rivaled only Osama bin Laden's and stretched over many more years. Until Sept. 11, 2001, the violence for which the United States blamed Mughniyah represented some of the deadliest single strikes against Americans, at home or abroad. In 1983 and 1984, the U.S. Embassy was bombed twice and the Marine barracks in Beirut were destroyed in a bombing that killed 241 U.S. service members. The attacks devastated American interests in the Middle East and effectively drove the United States out of Lebanon.
"He was one of the most dangerous terrorists ever on Earth," said Danny Yatom, former head of Israel's foreign intelligence service, the Mossad.
At the scene of Mughniyah's death, only a black patch on the asphalt remained from the explosion that tore apart a Mitsubishi Pajero in a newly built, upper-class Damascus neighborhood called Kafar Soussa. By Wednesday evening, the site was again open to passersby, although glass from shattered windshields still littered the ground.
One witness, who declined to give her name, said the explosion occurred about 10:15 p.m. and blew parts of the car into her apartment. Her husband said the blast hurled Mughniyah's body into the building entrance about 15 feet away, severing his arms and legs. He was dead by the time rescue workers arrived, she said. Other residents told her that the bomb detonated as Mughniyah opened the car after visiting Iranians who live on the building's second floor. "We hadn't seen him here before," she said.
Syria had no official comment. Although there have been periodic clashes in the capital involving radical Islamic fighters, the country's authoritarian government prides itself on the security it maintains, particularly in Damascus. Even so, some in Lebanon speculated that Mughniyah's slaying after so many years of having eluded his enemies could have been carried out only with Syrian involvement.
Word of his death came Wednesday from Hezbollah, whose television station al-Manar interrupted its programming with a Koranic recitation.
"With pride and honor, we announce the martyrdom of a great resistance leader who joined the procession of martyrs in the Islamic resistance," said a statement read on the station and published on Hezbollah's Web site. "The martyr, may his soul rest in peace, has been a target of the Zionists for more than 20 years."
The group called on supporters to begin paying condolences Wednesday. By afternoon, party officials and members of parliament, in cars with black-tinted windows, were arriving at a sprawling tent in a gritty southern suburb of Beirut. On a stage, a coffin wrapped in a yellow Hezbollah flag was encircled by baskets of flowers under a poster declaring Mughniyah "the great leader and martyr." It was unclear whether the coffin contained Mughniyah's remains.
"What they don't know is that today, by killing one Imad Mughniyah, they will give birth to another hundred Mughniyahs. Every time they kill one of us, hundreds more will be born," said one mourner, who would give only her first name, Zahra. "They consider him a terrorist. For us, he is a hero who was fighting our enemy."
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini called Mughniyah's killing "a blatant example of Israeli state terrorism," according to Iran's state news agency. Hosseini said Mughniyah's death would open "a new page in the brilliant history of people's struggles with the Zionist regime."
Hezbollah made no explicit threat to retaliate, but Israel braced for a response.
"No matter who did it, they're going to blame us," said Yossi Alpher, a former senior official in Mossad. "There almost certainly will be an attempt at revenge."
Mughniyah's life mirrored the ebb and flow of Lebanon's conflicts, as well as the evolution of Hezbollah, which has risen from its beginning as a clandestine group after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon to become one of the key political actors in the country today. Throughout, its military wing has borne the imprint of Mughniyah, described by Lebanese officials as more action-oriented than devout.
Among his Iranian allies, Mughniyah was reportedly called "the fox." In Lebanon, he was widely known among his supporters as Hajj Radwan, his nom de guerre.
He first came to light after 1982, when Lebanon was still mired in civil war. He was reputed to be the commander of Islamic Jihad, a pro-Iranian group that coalesced into Hezbollah, which officially emerged years later. He was blamed in the kidnappings of many of the more than 50 Americans, Frenchmen, Britons, Germans and other foreigners who were abducted during the civil war's grimmest days.
His name emerged again in 2006, when he was said to have played a role in organizing Hezbollah's defenses in Lebanon during the 33-day war with Israel.
"This is a loss of a major pillar in resistance work. He was an expert at making victories and building fighting capacities against Israel," said Ali Hassan Khalil, a member of parliament with Amal, a Shiite group allied with Hezbollah. "He played an essential role in all resistance activities, especially the last war."
Mughniyah's whereabouts were always a matter of speculation. People said he was in the southern village of Tir Dibba, where he was born to peasant parents, or somewhere in Iran, whose government had reputedly issued him a diplomatic passport. Few pictures of him existed, and he was said to have undergone plastic surgery more than once to conceal his identity.
Over the years, both Israeli and U.S. agencies had pursued Mughniyah, but until Tuesday he had frustrated his enemies' best efforts.
"The fact that he was able to stay alive all this time is a credit to his capabilities," said Yoram Schweitzer, a retired Israeli intelligence official.
Yatom, the former Mossad chief, said Mughniyah trusted almost no one and never made himself visible -- traits that made him exceptionally difficult to track.
"The system around him was very, very tight and compartmentalized," he said. "Few people knew about his movement and what he was doing."
In 1994, Mughniyah's brother was killed by a car bomb in Beirut, and reports at the time suggested Imad Mughniyah had been the target. A year later, FBI officials traveled to Saudi Arabia to take custody of him during a stopover of a Middle East Airlines flight from Khartoum, Sudan, to Beirut. But Saudi officials decided not to cooperate and refused to allow the plane to land, angering U.S. officials.
In one of the more dramatic episodes, Lebanese officials, exploiting a monitored telephone call, traced Mughniyah to Paris in 1985, only five months after the hijacking of a TWA jetliner, to which he had been linked. He was staying at the Hotel de Crillon, a luxurious hotel across the street from the U.S. Embassy. Tipped off by the Lebanese, U.S. officials asked French police to arrest him and turn him over. Instead, as previously reported in The Washington Post, French agents met with him several times over a six-day period, according to a source closely involved, and worked out an agreement to release him in return for the freedom of a French hostage.
Correspondents Griff Witte in Jerusalem and Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran and special correspondents Lynn Maalouf in Damascus and Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.