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Commander Became Prototype of Extremism

British soldiers aided rescue operations in 1983 after the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon was bombed, killing 241 U.S. service members, in one of many attacks attributed to Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah.
British soldiers aided rescue operations in 1983 after the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon was bombed, killing 241 U.S. service members, in one of many attacks attributed to Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah. (By Bill Foley -- Associated Press)

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By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

Lance Cpl. Eddie DiMarco was the only survivor who saw how it happened. The big yellow Mercedes truck circled outside the Marine compound in Beirut, strangely gaining speed, until it broke straight for the building where a battalion of Marines slept. DiMarco, on guard duty at the four-story concrete building, was haunted by the driver's expression.

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"He looked right at me . . . smiled, that's it. Soon as I saw [the truck], I knew what was going to happen," he later recalled.

Within seconds, the vehicle, laden with the equivalent of 12,000 pounds of explosives, set off the largest non-nuclear explosion since World War II, killing 241 U.S. military personnel.

It took two years, but U.S. intelligence eventually linked the 1983 bombing of the Marine compound to Imad Mughniyah, the high school dropout who became the prototype for a generation of extremists -- the enigmatic architect of the most notorious attack against U.S. targets until Sept. 11, 2001.

"Long before Osama bin Laden, there was Imad Mughniyah," said Bilal Saab, a Hezbollah expert at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. "He introduced catastrophic suicide terrorism and many other tactics now used widely by many groups throughout the region."

The United States issued a sealed indictment against Mughniyah in 1985 -- three years before bin Laden formed al-Qaeda.

With Marines planning to mark this year's 25th anniversary of the barracks attack, the Marine commander at the time, Col. Tim Geraghty, reflected yesterday on Mughniyah's death in Syria. "It's very fitting that it was a car bomb. It was long overdue," he said from his home in Phoenix. "The fact that he was still active with a $5 million bounty on his head showed his genius for maintaining and running terrorism operations all this time."

For a quarter-century Mughniyah, pronounced Moog-NEE-yah, eluded intensive American pursuit, demonstrating the difficulty of capturing extremists targeting the United States.

Mughniyah's battle was a family affair. His Islamic Jihad, an embryo of what became Hezbollah, began abducting American hostages off the streets of Beirut in 1984 to win freedom for Mustafa Badreddin, a cousin and brother-in-law. The two men had been a deadly team. Mughniyah was the master planner, Badreddin an explosives expert for the Marine bombing and an earlier suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon, according to U.S. officials at the time. Badreddin developed a trademark technique of using gas to enhance the power of already sophisticated explosives.

Badreddin was later imprisoned and sentenced to death in Kuwait for a series of 1983 bombings, including attacks on the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait City. But the United States and Kuwait both resisted Islamic Jihad's demands for the release of the 17 men held for the attacks in order to free the Americans.

The hostage drama dragged on for seven years. At one point, the Reagan administration traded arms to Iran in exchange for persuading Mughniyah to free three hostages in 1986. After the deal was complete, Mughniyah captured three more Americans.

The saga ended only after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991 and opened up its prisons, allowing Badreddin to slip back into Lebanon. Iran later paid off Mughniyah in exchange for the final hostage releases.

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