His name is almost unpronounceable, and his face is hardly familiar. But if the FBI maintained a “Ten Most Wanted Terrorists” list, Imad Mughniyah’s name would be at the top.
“Mughniyah is the single most dangerous terrorist at large today,” says Oliver B. Revell, the FBI’s executive assistant director for investigations. “Since 1983, he has been the most virulent and most dangerous terrorist acting against U.S. interests in the Middle East.”
So far, according to U.S., Israeli and European officials, Mughniyah has been tied to the abductions of six American, one British and five French hostages, as well as to three hijackings and two mass bombings that killed more than 250 Americans--"at least!” stresses a U.S. counterterrorism specialist.
‘His Special Touch’
“There’s a lot more in which his special touch has been felt,” the specialist adds. Israeli sources believe he also has gained control over two Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon.
Mughniyah’s shadowy life illustrates why the U.S. war against terrorism has seen so much frustration and failure. This man, who has apparently masterminded more deadly attacks than the legendary Carlos and who has had more recent impact than the Palestinian renegade Abu Nidal, may prove to be one of the toughest adversaries of the incoming George Bush Administration as it grapples over the nine Americans still held hostage in Lebanon.
Mughniyah’s is a life shaped by the violence of the Arab-Israeli struggle, the passion of Islamic fundamentalism and almost unfathomable loyalties to family and clan that play such a critical but shadowy role in the Arab Middle East.
Two Greatest Defeats
Reagan Administration officials acknowledge that the leader of a tiny cell of Lebanese Shia Muslim extremists who call themselves Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War) was a key figure in their two greatest foreign policy defeats: the 1983 suicide bombing of the Marine compound in Beirut that led the United States to abandon its Lebanon initiative and the hostage seizures that ultimately resulted in the Iran-Contra affair.
For all the attention he has received from U.S. and other authorities, Mughniyah--pronounced Moog-NEE-yah--remains one of the world’s most enigmatic figures.
He was originally trained and supported by Iran, but he has increasingly taken his own lead to fulfill a personal agenda.
“Whatever his connections, past or present, it appears he no longer takes orders from anyone, even former mentors in Lebanon and Iran,” says an American counterterrorism official.
Of the nine American hostages still held in Lebanon, two are under his direct control and at least three others are said by U.S. sources to be “within his easy reach.”
Groups with four different names hold the Americans, although they are all believed to fall generally under the umbrella of Hezbollah, or Party of God. “The other groups tend to follow Mughniyah’s lead,” says a Justice Department source.
After the 1983 Marine barracks bombing, it took U.S. intelligence agents two years just to trace his name. And pictures thought to be of Mughniyah, whom former hostages describe as bearded and handsome, are still frequently misidentified.
In one near-comic incident, U.S. and French officials thought that they had traced him to France, where he reportedly once had a mistress. When authorities burst through the hotel door, however, they found an elderly Lebanese couple in bed.
Information about him remains wildly erratic. Intelligence sources from five different countries place his age anywhere from 25 to 40. Some say that he has five children, others say he has none. According to one erroneous tip, he had once attended USC.
But all sources agree on his motive: the release of the 17 prisoners held in Kuwait for a series of 1983 bombings, including the U.S. and French embassies there. Among the 17 is his brother-in-law and cousin, Mustafa Badreddin.
U.S. and European analysts originally speculated that Mughniyah’s wife, Khadigah, and her family had pressured him to act on Badreddin’s behalf. In fact, however, it was just the other way around. The cousins were also longtime friends, having lived near each other in Beirut’s southern slums and having fought in the same militias, according to Lebanese Shia sources. Mughniyah’s marriage to Badreddin’s sister was, in some ways, a byproduct of their friendship.
They proved to be a lethal combination. Mughniyah was the planner, Badreddin the explosives specialist. Reagan Administration sources tie them both to the Marine barracks bombing in which 241 U.S. servicemen died.
There is also strong speculation about their role in the 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut, in which 17 Americans were killed. Badreddin developed what U.S. sources called a “trademark,” a technique using gas to enhance the power of already sophisticated explosives.
Their teamwork was terminated with Badreddin’s capture in Kuwait.
“Mughniyah’s not crazed,” says former hostage David P. Jacobsen of Huntington Beach, Calif., one of the few Americans to have seen him. “But he is obsessed.
“The captors believe that America is so powerful that we could call the Emir of Kuwait and get the 17 released. They believe that the United States has blocked efforts to win their release.”
The first American hostages were abducted in Beirut shortly before the 1984 trial of the terrorist suspects in Kuwait. After Badreddin was sentenced to death, the pace of abductions quickened. The execution has not been carried out.
Jacobsen, who was one of the three persons released in the Administration’s arms-for-hostages swap with Iran, believes that he had two encounters with Mughniyah. The first was when he was asked to make a videotape, the only time the hostages were allowed to take off their blindfolds in the presence of their captors.
“He is a tall, slender, well-dressed and handsome man in his mid-30s, with not plaintive eyes, but penetrating eyes,” Jacobsen recalls.
The second meeting was on Nov. 1, 1986, just before Jacobsen’s release. “He came and sat on the pad (that the hostages used as beds) and gave me instructions. Though I was blindfolded, I knew it was him.
“He started in English and then asked if I spoke French as he was more fluent in French. He wanted his brother-in-law out of jail. The issue had remained constant. That’s what he told me.”
Mughniyah succumbed to Iranian pressure in the release of the three Americans in the arms-for-hostage deal. But some U.S. officials now fear that even Iran may not be able to squeeze Mughniyah into releasing the other Americans.
“Mughniyah’s never, ever changed his position,” says a Justice Department official. “As long as he’s in charge of the hostages, as long as that’s his single issue, and as long as Kuwait and the U.S. refuse to make any deals, then resolution is going to be difficult.
“Someone is going to have to usurp his power for there to be any improvement in the situation.”
Mughniyah and his partners may also want to use some of the hostages as insurance against retribution, some officials believe. “He already knows we’re looking for him, and he’s become more circumspect in his actions,” says a U.S. counterterrorism specialist.
A sealed indictment was issued last year listing Mughniyah as the fourth person in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985, during which 39 Americans were held hostage for 17 days.
Hamadi on Trial
He was not publicly named at the time, however, because the United States feared the impact on the hostages. One of the other three, Mohammed Ali Hamadi, is now on trial in West Germany for his involvement in the hijacking and the killing of U.S. Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem.
The Hamadi family is another of Lebanon’s clans. Four brothers are tied to the abduction of at least two American and two German hostages as well as to the TWA skyjacking, according to European officials.
The tightly knit clan structure makes the cells difficult to penetrate. Jacobsen and other former American and French hostages believe that only a handful of men, about a dozen, are members, with about another 40 in their pay as guards.
Mughniyah and the Hamadis are said by Reagan Administration sources to work together closely, although often with different goals.
“It’s like an association of street gangs. Sometimes their interests converge, sometimes they compete,” says a source who has closely followed Mughniyah’s career.
U.S. officials refuse to say whether Mughniyah has been secretly indicted for other crimes, specifically the Marine bombing or the 1984 hijacking of a Kuwaiti plane during which two U.S. Agency for International Development workers were slain. He has been linked to this episode as well as to the prolonged hijacking last April of another Kuwaiti aircraft to Cyprus and Algeria.
Like most of the Middle East’s most notorious extremists, Mughniyah rose from relative obscurity. He grew up in the southern Lebanese village of Tir Dibba. As with many of the early Shia activists, he received his first training in Palestine Liberation Organization camps.
Lebanese sources say, however, that he was always as religious as he was political. A relative, Sheik Mohammed Mughniyah, was a leading local Shia cleric. After the younger Mughniyah moved to Beirut, he became a bodyguard to Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual mentor of Hezbollah.
After the 1982 Israeli invasion and PLO evacuation, Mughniyah also became close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards deployed in the eastern Bekaa Valley, according to other Lebanese Shias. Some say that he received further military training.
“The watershed in his life was the killing of his brother Jihad as the result of shelling of the Muslim suburbs by the Lebanese army,” said a Lebanese Shia academic who has interviewed former Mughniyah contacts and friends.
The Lebanese army was at that stage being trained by the United States, which was at the height of its involvement in Lebanon. Mughniyah reportedly then became part of an Iranian-backed network that undertook attacks on U.S. facilities and personnel.
Although U.S. sources say Mughniyah has twice spent long periods in Iran this year, they note that he has increasingly acted independently.
“The Revolutionary Guards seem genuinely surprised by some of what he has done,” says a State Department official. At one stage, U.S. officials believe he was under virtual house arrest in Iran. His trips to Iran may be attributable in part to a rift with Syria, which is reportedly now trying to track him down.
And an Arab government that has tried to deal directly with Mughniyah over the hostage issue has suggested that he masterminded the April Kuwaiti hijacking in defiance of Iranian orders to stay put.
Iran’s recent cutback in financial aid to Hezbollah factions also may have diminished its influence over Mughniyah and other hostage holders.
U.S. officials now are hoping that Iranian support will further evaporate as part of that nation’s efforts after its cease-fire with Iraq to better its diplomatic standing and that Shia Muslim factionalism will further isolate him in Lebanon.
“Bringing him to justice is not just a hope, it’s an intention,” says Revell. “We’re going to be sure he has no place to hide. And if he’s going to operate, he’ll have to come out in the open, which makes him vulnerable.”
But others are less optimistic. “Mughniyah has become part of Lebanese folklore,” says a British counterterrorism official. “He is now so legendary he can do pretty much what he wants.”