Mugniyah was born into a poor Lebanese Shiite family in 1962 in Tayr Dibba, a small town in South Lebanon, some 15 miles from the Israeli border. At the beginning of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), Mugniyah accompanied his family to a home in Beirut, along that city’s so-called Green Line, which divided the Muslim, western part of the city from its Christian east. Teen militiamen were a staple of civil war scenery. Mugniyah’s militia days began well before he turned 20.
Trained by the PLO
Before it was driven out of Lebanon by the 1982 Israeli invasion, Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization controlled South Lebanon and West Beirut. Arafat’s most feared group of militants were known as Squad 17, whose members were Arafat’s personal body guards and enforcers. Mugniyah got apprenticed as a member of Squad 17. In the early 1980s in Lebanon, Arafat’s PLO was also training an obscure new militant group of Shiites in South Lebanon—the group that by 1983 came to be known as Hezbollah, the “Party of God.”
Coming Out: The 1983 Bombings of U.S. Targets
By 1983, Mugniyah, then just 21, was a terror organizer. He was part of Hezbollah’s special operations center known as “Ali’s Center” in Beirut—a computer-based operation of about 400 people that compiled lists of Westerners working and living in Lebanon, tracked them and gathered information about their daily habits. Mugniyah is believed to have played a role in the bombing of the American embassy in Beirut in April 1983, which killed 63 people, including 17 Americans. He planned the October, 1983 twin attacks on the American and French barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 U.S. Marines and 57 French paratroopers.
Hostage-Taker, Torturer, Murderer
After the bombings, Mugniyah’s focus changed to hostage-taking. Between 1982 and 1992, almost 100 Western hostages, including 25 Americans, 12 Frenchmen and 12 Britons, were taken hostage by Hezbollah. The longest-held, former Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson, was abducted in March 1985. He wasn’t released until December 1991.
American officials, according to the New York Times, say Mugniyah was also responsible for the murder in January 1983 of Malcolm Kerr, president of the American University in Beirut—where Imad Mugniyah had studied engineering. According to Terry Anderson, Hezbollah’s Ali’s Center had labeled Kerr a “dangerous spy.” Mugniyah was also involved in the torture and killing of William Buckley, CIA station chief in Beirut, in 1984.
Hezbollah’s “Resistance” in Context
None of those events were taking place in a vacuum. In Den of Lions: Memoirs of Seven Years, the account of his captivity in Lebanon, Anderson notes that in South Lebanon, the Israeli occupation had by 1983 become “increasingly harsh. Units of Israeli intelligence operatives and Israeli-led militiamen raided Shia village after village. Stories of brutal interrogations, inhuman conditions at Ansar prison in the south, and even executions abounded.”
Hezbollah’s militants, then and now, considered themselves involved in a resistance movement or a war of liberation.
TWA Flight 847
On June 14, 1985, TWA Flight 847 was hijacked and 40 passengers taken hostage by a group that called itself the “Organization for the Oppressed of the Earth” — one of many fronts for Hezbollah’s operations. Mugniyah was almost certainly the mastermind of the hijacking. The group wanted the release of hundreds of Lebanese Shiite militants held in Israeli prisons since Israel’s invasion of South Lebanon in 1982.
Among the passengers was Robert Dean Stethem, a U.S. Navy diver. He was brutalized, executed and dumped on the Beirut Airport runway where the TWA plane sat for two weeks. On June 30, the hostages were released. So were, over several weeks, 735 Lebanese Shiite militants from Israeli prisons. The hijackers went free.
More Dangerous than al-Qaeda?
Until the late 1990s, the CIA ranked Mugniyah’s branch of Hezbollah more dangerous than al-Qaeda, as Hezbollah’s campaign branched out. In 1994, Israel blamed Mugniyah for masterminding the bombing of a Jewish charity’s office in Argentina that killed 85 people and injured 300. Since the late 1990s, however, Hezbollah in Lebanon stopped being associated with acts of terrorism (except with regard to attacks against Israeli forces, which Hezbollah considers legitimate acts of war).
The 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War aside, the organization has focused on political goals within Lebanon. Mugniyah himself was in hiding and had possibly submitted to plastic surgery to better dissimulate himself.
Mugniyah’s Silent Killers
The Syrian government, itself implicated in numerous murders and assassinations of Lebanese, Palestinian and other Arab leaders in Syria and Lebanon, condemned the car bombing that killed Mugniyah. But as the Times reported, “Syria normally maintains tight security, especially in the capital. For that reason, there was also widespread speculation on Wednesday that Syria might have cooperated in the bombing, possibly as part of a deal with Israel or the United States.”