On February 12, 2008 a car bomb exploded in Damascus, Syria, the casualty being a figure whose name signified terror during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Imed Mugniyeh is not a name which is heard as often as Osama Bin Laden’s in the realm of terror masterminds. However, the fact that Mugniyeh is widely regarded to be among others Bin Laden’s mentor (Another figure influenced by Mugniyeh was Yasser Arafat) is reason enough for the world to take notice of the latest development in the Middle East.
It’s interesting to note, that Mugniyeh was extremely meticulous in covering his tracks to avoid detection. It is said that Mugniyeh never slept in the same house twice, and never took the same route. He was said to be distrustful of his dozen bodyguards and even underwent facial surgery to protect himself from the long list of enemies he cultivated during his bloody reign. In addition, Mugniyeh enjoyed state patronage unlike any of his peers or successors. Mugniyeh was under the active tutelage of the Iranian state and particularly under the stewardship of the Iranian revolutionary guards. His support and trust with the Iranian government was displayed when he moved his family from Lebanon to Tehran in the aftermath of the civil war of the early nineties.
Mugniyeh’s ruthless success, made him rapidly rise in the ranks of the Shiite militant group- Hezbollah. He was the operational commander of the group and is widely credited for being actively involved in the planning and logistics during the recent war between Hezbollah and Israel. Additionally, he is notorious for a string of bloody attacks worldwide, particularly on Jewish and American targets.
In 1983, he orchestrated the US embassy bombing, which killed 63 people and wiped out the top CIA Middle East staff. That year, the Israeli command centre in Tyre was blown up killing scores of troops. Mugniyeh is also blamed for the 1988 torture and murder of Colonel William R. Rich Higgins, the most senior American intelligence officer in Lebanon. In the 1990’s, he has been blamed for the attack on the Israeli embassy and Jewish centre in Argentina. Additionally, he was the mastermind behind the attack on the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. In recent times, he has been held responsible for the planning the kidnap of Israeli border reservists, who continue to be in captivity. He carried a bounty of US$25 million from the FBI, and continually topped the list of most wanted terrorist for Israel.
Interestingly, Bin Laden who heads an organisation which widely views Shiite followers to not be true followers of Islam enjoyed a good relationship with Mugniyeh. According to Debkafile, a widely noted Israeli intelligence news website, a 5th August 2006 report states that Mugniyeh was the only undercover agent in the Middle East who enjoyed the complete personal trust of both Ayatollah Khomeni and Bin Laden.
The timing of the attack also carries a sense of significance. Coming as it did on the verge of the three year anniversary of the death of Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, who co-incidentally died in a car bomb in Beirut. Syria was widely blamed for the attack and faced worldwide condemnation for the continued presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon. This attack could probably be a subtle message to Damascus that it too is not immune from retaliatory strikes.
The only intelligence organisation which is capable of carrying out such an attack in the region is widely believed to be the Israeli foreign intelligence agency-Mossad. Mugniyeh has been on Mossad’s hit list for a long time. In an earlier assassination attempt Mugniyeh had a narrow escape when a car bomb intended for him, killed his brother instead. The Mossad agent Ahmad Hallak, was tracked by Lebanese Military Intelligence and Islamic Jihad and executed. While Mossad has understandably denied any role in the attack, it would mark the first known instance of successful elimination since the September 2004 assassination of a senior commander of HAMAS. Ironically, that operation was also conducted in Damascus.
Hezbollah as an organisation would be considerably weakened by the death of Mugniyeh. Particularly more so, when considering that Haj Hussein Khalil, the Hezbollah’s deputy for political affairs was killed in the same explosion. Mugniyeh’s importance in the organisation is manifested by the fact that Tehran had bestowed upon him the supreme commander status after the Lebanon war.
There exist murmurs of this being an inside job and that Mugniyeh may have been betrayed by his Syrian handlers. Speculations are that Hezbollah chief Nasrallah felt sidelined by Mugniyeh and therefore had him eliminated. However, what matters in the end is that a ruthless terrorist has finally met his end. As said by Israeli Environment Minister Gideon Ezra, formerly a senior intelligence officer-“I, of course, do not know who carried out the assassination of Imad, but he should be blessed”.