Bombing kills suspected terror mastermind

February 13, 2008 8:49:01 AM PST
An alleged terrorist accused of murdering Americans is dead.

Imad Mughniyeh, the suspected mastermind of dramatic attacks on the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks that killed hundreds of Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s, has died in a car bombing in Syria.

The Islamic militant group Hezbollah and its Iranian backers on Wednesday blamed Israel for the killing of Mughniyeh, Hezbollah's security chief in the 1980s who was one of the world's most wanted and elusive terrorists. Israel denied involvement.

Hezbollah did not say how or where Mughniyeh was killed. But Iranian state television and the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria said he died in a car bombing in the Syrian capital Damascus on Tuesday night.

Hezbollah's announcement of the death came a few hours after a late night explosion in Damascus destroyed a vehicle. Witnesses in the Syrian capital said at the time that a passerby was killed as security forces sealed off the area and removed the body. But authorities there would not give details.

"This action is yet another brazen example of organized state terrorism by the Zionist regime," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said, according to the state news agency IRNA. He called on the world to "prevent the Zionist regime from taking these actions that are a clear violation of international law."

Mughniyeh, 45, was believed to have directed a group that held Westerners hostage in Lebanon. Among them was journalist Terry Anderson, a former Associated Press chief Middle East correspondent who was held captive for six years.

Mughniyeh, who had been in hiding for years, was one of the fugitives indicted in the United States for planning and participating in the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed. He is on an FBI most wanted list with a $5 million bounty on his head for that indictment.

Israel accused him of involvement in the 1992 bombing of Israel's embassy in Argentina in which 29 people were killed and the blast at a Buenos Aires Jewish center two years later that killed 95.

Hezbollah, whose top leader Hassan Nasrallah has been largely in hiding since the 2006 war fearing Israeli assassination, did not immediately threaten revenge.

"With all pride, we declare a great jihadist leader of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon joining the martyrs," said a statement carried on Hezbollah television. "The brother commander hajj Imad Mughinyeh became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis."

Iranian media reported that an Iranian school and a Syrian intelligence office were in the same area of Kafar Soussa where the explosion in Damascus occurred.

One report said Mughniyeh was leaving his house and about to get into his car when it exploded. Another said he was attending a ceremony at the Iranian school in Damascus and was killed as he left the function.

Israel denied involvement and said it was looking into the death.

"Israel rejects the attempt by terror groups to attribute to it any involvement in this incident. We have nothing further to add," read the statement from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office.

Syria has not commented on the death. If confirmed that Syria was hosting Mughniyeh, it would be an embarrassment for the government of President Bashar Assad. Syria is accused of hosting a number of Palestinian extremist groups and has been accused by the U.S. of sponsoring terrorism.

The death could also could further stir up turmoil in deeply divided Lebanon, where a Hezbollah-led opposition is locked in a bitter power struggle with the Western-backed government. Hezbollah called for a massive gathering of its supporters for Mughniyeh's funeral in southern Beirut on Thursday.

Mughniyeh was Hezbollah security chief during a turbulent period in Lebanon's civil war. He has been accused of masterminding the April 1983 car bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans, and the simultaneous truck bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and French military base in Beirut, killing 58 French soldiers and 241 Marines.

He was indicted in the United States for the 1985 TWA hijacking in which Shiite militants seized the 747 and flew it back and forth between Beirut and Algiers demanding the release of Lebanese Shiites captured by Israel. During the hijacking, the body of Navy diver Robert Stethem, a passenger on the plane, was dumped on the tarmac of Beirut airport.

During Lebanon's civil war, Mughniyeh was also believed to have directed a string of kidnappings of Americans and other foreigners, including Anderson - who was held for six years until his release in 1991 - and CIA station chief William Buckley, who was killed in 1985.

Anderson was the last American hostage freed in a complicated deal that involved Israel's release of Lebanese prisoners, Iran's sway with the kidnappers, Syria's influence and - according to an Iranian radio broadcast - promises by the United States and Germany not to retaliate against the kidnappers.

Giandomenico Picco, an Italian diplomat working at the time as a special assistant to U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, said he was certain but never able to absolutely confirm that the hooded man he met in the slums of Beirut to finalize the deal was Imad Mughniyeh.

Mughinyeh's killing was the first major attack against a leader of Hezbollah since the 1992 helicopter strike that killed the Hezbollah secretary-general Sheik Abbas Mussawi in southern Lebanon.

Little has been known about him since the end of the Lebanese civil war and Hezbollah has regularly refused to talk about him. Wednesday's announcement of his death was the first mention of him in years.

Al-Manar on Wednesday aired a rare picture of Mughniyeh - showing a burly, bespectacled man with a black beard wearing a military camouflage and a military cap. It did not say when the picture was taken. Mughniyeh has been reported by the media and intelligence agencies to have undergone plastic surgery to avoid detection as he moved around in the 1990s.

American intelligence officials have described Mughniyeh as Hezbollah's operations chief, who was believed to have moved between Lebanon, Syria and Iran in disguise.

Mughniyeh's last public appearance was believed to be at the funeral of his brother Fuad, who was killed on Dec. 12, 1994, when a booby-trapped car blew up in the southern suburb of Beirut.

In 2006, Mughniyeh was reported to have met with hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Syria. Tehran and the country's paramilitary Revolutionary Guards have never publicly disclosed the extent of their links with their protege Hezbollah.

Hezbollah did not threaten immediate revenge. Its al-Manar television, which broke into Quranic verses after the announcement, broadcast another statement from the Shiite Muslim militant group, saying a funeral will be held on Thursday.