Saudi Arabia thwarted American efforts two weeks ago to seize a man authorities believe is one of the world's most wanted terrorists, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The man they had hoped to arrest had been hunted for a decade for his reported roles in the 1983 car-bombing that killed 241 U.S. servicemen in Lebanon and for a 1985 TWA airline hijacking in which one American died.
FBI officials were secretly sent overseas to prepare to take custody of the suspect, a leader of the militant Muslim group Hezbollah, on a stopover in Saudi Arabia during an April 7 Middle East Airlines flight headed from Khartoum, Sudan, to Beirut.
But before they could carry out the operation, Saudi Arabia decided not to cooperate and refused to allow the plane to land.
The Clinton Administration this week delivered a formal diplomatic protest to Saudi Arabia for its unwillingness to help the FBI.
The incident underscored the limits of cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have worked closely with the United States in many situations, including welcoming American troops in 1990 to help defend the kingdom after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, but they have been reluctant to antagonize Muslim fundamentalists by being too friendly with the United States.
The suspect sought by the FBI, who was secretly indicted in the United States in 1985, is said to have been the Hezbollah security chief in Lebanon who was in charge of American hostages taken in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome. One American, Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem, was killed in that hijacking.
Although authorities refuse to give the suspect's name, he is believed to be Imad Mughniyah, whom a top FBI official once described as "the single most dangerous terrorist at large today."
Mughniyah is said to have been one of the masterminds not only of the TWA hijacking, but also of the 1983 suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241. And he was allegedly a leader in the abduction of a series of American hostages in Lebanon in the early 1980s.
Although there is no evidence that the aborted U.S. move against the Hezbollah leader had any connection to this week's bombing in Oklahoma City, the episode demonstrated the global scope of the war against terrorism. As deadly bombings come home to America, the FBI has been intensifying the scope of its anti-terrorism campaigns overseas.
The dispute reportedly touched off a flurry of contacts at high levels between the Clinton Administration and Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials did not respond to repeated phone calls seeking an explanation of the early April incident.
However, U.S. officials confirmed that in early April, the FBI had tried and failed to seize in Saudi Arabia a major Hezbollah leader wanted, among other things, for the hijacking of the TWA flight. And they acknowledged that the reason for the FBI's failure was the Saudis' refusal to cooperate.
The first and, apparently, only public account touching on the incident came earlier this month in a sketchy radio report from the Voice of Lebanon, which announced on April 7 that a Middle East Airlines Boeing 707 had just been denied permission to land at Jidda Airport in Saudi Arabia.
"Security reasons were cited, according to the telephone conversation between Jidda Airport's control tower and the plane," the Lebanese radio station reported. The story explained that Middle East Airlines was required to dispatch another plane from Beirut to pick up passengers who had intended to board the flight in Jidda.
The news story from Lebanon did not mention the FBI, terrorism or Mughniyah.
But U.S. sources told The Times that FBI agents had been sent from the United States to nab a leading terrorist on that flight, a man who was wanted in connection with the TWA hijacking. They said the suspect had been attending an Islamic conference in the Sudan.
After the Middle East Airlines flight left Khartoum, Saudi officials decided not to let it land on their territory, according to these U.S. officials. The Saudis were said to have raised some legal objections to the FBI operation.
The frustrated FBI officials, who had reached a transit point in Europe, were forced to turn around and come home. The FBI team included technical experts who would have aided in the identification of Mughniyah, who is said to be adept at disguising himself.
One knowledgeable U.S. official described the suspect as a Hezbollah terrorist leader who for years tried to win the freedom of his brother-in-law from a prison in Kuwait. Another official said the individual had been named in an indictment stemming from the hijacking of TWA Flight 847.
Mughniyah was one of four persons charged with crimes related to TWA Flight 847 in a sealed indictment in 1985. At the time, the three other suspects were publicly identified but Mughniyah's name was kept secret for fear that he might retaliate against American hostages in Lebanon.
Mughniyah's brother-in-law, Mustafa Badreddin, was among the 17 prisoners who were held for years in Kuwaiti prisons for a series of 1983 bombings. The first American hostages were abducted in Lebanon just before the 1984 trial of Badreddin, and other hostages were taken after Badreddin was condemned to death.
"He (Mughniyah) wanted his brother-in-law out of jail. The issue had remained constant. That's what he told me," David P. Jacobsen, one of the former hostages in Lebanon, told The Times in a 1988 interview. Badreddin got out of jail when Iraqis invaded Kuwait.
Another U.S. official confirmed that the FBI recently tried to carry out an operation specifically aimed at seizing Mughniyah.
By the mid-1980s, U.S. and European analysts had concluded that Mughniyah had been the planner of the car-bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon and Badreddin was the explosives specialist. They were described as members of a cell of Lebanese Shiite extremists who sometimes called themselves Islamic Jihad.
One of the other three men charged in the TWA hijacking, Mohammed Ali Hamadi, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in Germany.
Times staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this story.