The Magazine

Death by Car Bomb in Damascus

A founding father of Islamic terrorism gets his just deserts.

Feb 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 23 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Late Tuesday night in Damascus, Imad Mugniyah, senior terrorist of Hezbollah, was killed in a car bomb explosion. It was a fitting death for a founding father of Islamic terrorism, a man who himself had built many bombs. If you had not heard of Mugniyah before, there is a good reason. Terror chieftains like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri seek the limelight with their frequent and widely disseminated diatribes. Not Mugniyah. Until recently, only a handful of photos of him were publicly available, and he never gave interviews. Instead, he was something of a ghost, confined to the terrorist underworld since the early 1980s, quietly doing the bidding of his masters, the Assad family in Syria and the mullahs in Iran.

Mugniyah, however, was well known in counter-terrorism circles. His role in the kidnapping and torture death of William Buckley, CIA station chief in Beirut in 1984, had earned him special enmity. Indeed, law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the globe hunted Mugniyah for nearly 30 years. But until last week he always escaped, leaving behind him a bloody trail. Finally, someone--we cannot be sure who, as of this writing--got him.

The assassination of Mugniyah has been widely reported in the press. Most accounts have gotten the details of his early career right. They have noted Mugniyah's role in some of the first Islamist terrorist attacks against the United States, including the bombings of the U.S. embassy and U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and a series of hijackings and kidnappings throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. But what virtually all of the coverage in the major media in recent days omits is this: Imad Mugniyah was a vital ally of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Most accounts have ignored Mugniyah's ties to al Qaeda. Others have denied that collusion between the Shiite Mugniyah and the Sunni bin Laden was possible. One Associated Press account described Mugniyah as "a Shiite Muslim not known to be connected to the Sunni al Qaeda." James Risen of the New York Times mentioned in passing that "there is evidence of contacts between [Mugniyah and bin Laden]," including "at least one meeting in the 1990s, possibly to discuss a terrorist relationship." If it were left to the mainstream media, then, Mugniyah's role in the history of al Qaeda's terror would be only a vague matter for speculation.

A close reading of the 9/11 Commission Report, however, along with legal documents produced by the Clinton administration, the trial testimony of two known al Qaeda terrorists, and a variety of other sources, tells a different story. There is a lengthy history of collaboration between Mugniyah and al Qaeda. And there remain disturbing questions about his possible involvement in the attacks of September 11.

Imad Mugniyah's relationship with Osama bin Laden began in the early 1990s, when al Qaeda's CEO was living in Sudan. Bin Laden's benefactor at the time was a charismatic Sunni Islamist ideologue named Hassan al- Turabi. In 1989, Turabi, along with General Omar al-Bashir, now president of Sudan, orchestrated a coup in which Sudan's regime was overthrown. In its place, Bashir and Turabi installed their own National Islamic Front (NIF) party.

From the first, the NIF had radical designs for the world. The differences between Sunnis and Shiites were not insurmountable in Turabi's eyes; on multiple occasions he dismissed the importance of any theological disagreements. Instead, Turabi envisioned a grand, Manichean clash of civilizations in which the Muslim world stood united against its common Western foes, especially America. In a few short years, Turabi's Sudan became a hub for international terrorists of all stripes. A who's who of terrorists set up shop. And Turabi welcomed the leading state sponsors of terrorism as well. Scores of Iraqi and Iranian intelligence officers relocated to Sudan, and Turabi made sure they mingled with his other imported terrorists. As George Tenet would note in his autobiography, At the Center of the Storm, Turabi "reportedly served as a conduit for Bin Laden between Iraq and Iran."

With Turabi's help, bin Laden began meeting with senior Iranian and Hezbollah officials. Years later, during the trial in New York of those responsible for al Qaeda's August 7, 1998, embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, former al Qaeda operative Jamal al Fadl described one such meeting.

In an exchange with prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald on February 6, 2001, al Fadl explained that the Iranians talked about how "we have to come together and we have to forget the problem between each other and each one he should respect the other because our enemy is one and because there is no reason to fight each other." Fitzgerald followed up, "Who did they describe the enemy as being?" Fadl replied, "They say westerns [sic]."

Bin Laden agreed with the Iranian assessment that the enemies of the West should come together. Years after the meeting described by al Fadl, the Clinton administration recognized that an alliance between Iran, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda had blossomed in Sudan. In its 1998 indictment of al Qaeda, Clinton administration prosecutors charged that al Qaeda had

forged alliances with the National Islamic Front in the Sudan and with representatives of the government of Iran, and its associated terrorist group Hezbollah, for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States.

At the heart of this "alliance" was the personal relationship between Mugniyah and bin Laden. As we shall see in a moment, we have the testimony of a top al Qaeda operative that the two men conferred in Sudan in the early 1990s. And there is evidence of their collaboration throughout the decade.

On November 19, 1995, an al Qaeda truck bomb hit the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. According to Bob Baer, a long-time CIA agent who tracked Mugniyah for years, there is evidence that Mugniyah facilitated the travel of one of the al Qaeda operatives responsible for the attack. In See No Evil, Baer explains that shortly the attack American intelligence learned: "Mugniyah's deputy had provided a stolen Lebanese passport to one of the planners of the bombing." According to Baer, al Qaeda and Mugniyah stayed in contact afterwards as well. "Six months later," Baer says, "we found out that one of bin Laden's most dangerous associates was calling one of Mugniyah's offices in Beirut."

Then on June 25, 1996, the terrorists struck again. A truck bomb hit the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Saudi Arabia killing 19 American servicemen. There is no real dispute over Iran's and Hezbollah's role in the attack; both have been well documented. But contemporaneous analyses also pointed the finger at al Qaeda. Within weeks of the bombing, for example, the CIA produced a report titled "Khobar Bombing: Saudi Shia, Iran, and Usama Bin Ladin All Suspects." And the State Department's analysts produced a similar report of their own, noting that bin Laden's rhetoric raised the possibility that "he may have played a role."

Uncertainty over al Qaeda's involvement in the Khobar Towers bombing lingered for years. An investigation into the matter was left to the 9/11 Commission, which reported some new evidence but refrained from drawing any firm conclusions. "While the evidence of Iranian involvement is strong," the 9/11 Commission's final report reads, "there are also signs that al Qaeda played some role, as yet unknown." The Commission's Staff Statement No. 15 provided more details, calling the evidence of al Qaeda's involvement "strong but indirect." The Commission found that bin Laden appeared to have been planning a similar attack in the months prior to the Khobar bombing, and shortly after the strike he was congratulated by his fellow al Qaeda members. According to Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker, one of the al Qaeda members who called to congratulate bin Laden was Ayman al Zawahiri.

All of this was highly suggestive, but we may never know for sure whether or not the Khobar Towers bombing was a joint operation between al Qaeda and Hezbollah. It is clear, however, that Mugniyah's and bin Laden's tête-à-tête in Sudan had lasting effects.

Mugniyah's fingerprints on al Qaeda's terror can best be seen in the aforementioned August 7, 1998, embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Those al Qaeda strikes were directly modeled on Mugniyah's earliest attacks.

Hezbollah's bombing of the American embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983, and its follow-on attack on the U.S. Marine barracks on October 23 were seminal events in the history of terrorism. They marked the first time Islamic suicide bombers had attacked significant American targets. Also, the strike on the Marine barracks coincided with a simultaneous attack on a headquarters for French paratroopers in Beirut. Al Qaeda has come to be known for coordinated suicide missions (e.g., the simultaneous bombings of U.S. embassies in two African nations in 1998 and the four simultaneous airplane hijackings on September 11, 2001). As terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna explains in Inside Al Qaeda, al Qaeda took its inspiration for this modus operandi directly from Hezbollah. Before meeting Mugniyah, bin Laden and his agents did not have the expertise to carry out such attacks.

In response to the 1983 attacks in Beirut, America recoiled from the fight. Just months after Mugniyah's operatives had killed hundreds of American servicemen, America's forces were ordered out of wartorn Lebanon. This retreat left an indelible impression on the minds of many in the Middle East, including Osama bin Laden, then in his mid-twenties. Bin Laden has described America as a "weak horse," one that will flee any fight, and he is fond of citing the experience in Lebanon as proof of America's supposed weakness. Thus, bin Laden had powerful motives for seeking out Mugniyah, the mastermind behind the Beirut operations.

That the two men met was made clear by Ali Mohamed, a top al Qaeda operative in the early 1990s, who testified at the embassy bombings trial that he had arranged a sit-down in Sudan between the aspiring jihadist bin Laden and Mugniyah. Mohamed explained:

I was aware of certain contacts between al Qaeda and [Ayman al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad] organization, on one side, and Iran and Hezbollah on the other side. I arranged security for a meeting in the Sudan between Mugniyah, Hezbollah's chief, and bin Laden.

According to Mohamed, bin Laden was interested in forcing American troops out of Saudi Arabia the same way Mugniyah had forced them out of Lebanon. Mohamed said that Mugniyah agreed to help:

Hezbollah provided explosives training for al Qaeda and [Egyptian Islamic Jihad]. Iran supplied Egyptian [Islamic] Jihad with weapons. Iran also used Hezbollah to supply explosives that were disguised to look like rocks.

The type of training described by Mohamed took place not only in Sudan, where hundreds of Iran's Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah operatives had built terrorist training camps, but also in Lebanon and Iran. The 9/11 Commission reported that "senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives." Then, "in the fall of 1993, another such delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for further training in explosives as well as in intelligence and security." Among the al Qaeda trainees sent to the Bekaa Valley in 1993 were some of the perpetrators of the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. According to the 9/11 Commission, the al Qaeda delegation included "top military committee members and several operatives who were involved with the Kenya cell."

Jamal al Fadl also told U.S. prosecutors that he had talked to one of his fellow al Qaeda terrorists about his training in Lebanon. Al Fadl said he was told the "training is very good" and his colleague brought "some tapes with him." Al Fadl elaborated: "I saw one of the tapes, and he tell me they train about how to explosives big buildings [sic]." Al Fadl went on to list the names of some of those who received Hezbollah's training. Saif al-Adel, who was promoted to the third-highest position inside al Qaeda shortly after the September 11 attacks, was among them. Al-Adel is still wanted by the FBI for his role in the embassy bombings. Today, he lives in Iran, under the protective custody of the mullahs.

Thus, with respect to al Qaeda's August 7, 1998, embassy bombings we know the following: The bombings were modeled on Mugniyah's earliest attacks. Mugniyah's Hezbollah trained some of the terrorists who executed the plot. And to this day Iran harbors one of the senior al Qaeda terrorists responsible for the attacks.

All this we know from the 9/11 Commission's report and the testimony of the terrorists themselves. Yet, some still insist that Mugniyah's Hezbollah and bin Laden's al Qaeda could not possibly work together.

Was Imad Mugniyah involved in the September 11 attacks? The truth is we do not know. We do know, however, that--as the 9/11 Commission concluded--the issue requires further investigation.

Just days before the publication of its final report, the 9/11 Commission made a startling discovery. The U.S. intelligence community had collected evidence, of which the Commission was previously unaware, demonstrating Iran's and Hezbollah's possible complicity in al Qaeda's terrorism. As described by 9/11 Commissioners Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton in their book Without Precedent, the evidence included "connections between al Qaeda, Iran and the 9/11 hijackers."

Because this discovery came at the last minute, the Commission could not fully investigate the leads or give them appropriate prominence in the report. Nonetheless, the Commission reported some of the findings in a section provocatively titled "Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to al Qaeda." The evidence demonstrated that "8 to 10 of the 14 Saudi 'muscle' operatives traveled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001." Not only did these hijackers use Iran as a transit hub, but Hezbollah officials may have assisted their movements.

The Commission reports that a "senior operative of Hezbollah" traveled to Saudi Arabia in October 2000 "to coordinate activities there." That same official "planned to assist individuals in Saudi Arabia in traveling to Iran during November." Indeed, Ahmed al Ghamdi, one of the al Qaeda hijackers of United Airlines Flight 175, and "a senior Hezbollah operative" shared a flight into Beirut in November.

Like al Ghamdi, some of the other hijackers traveled to Iran through Hezbollah's home turf--Lebanon. In November 2000, Salem al Hazmi, one of the American Airlines Flight 77 hijackers, traveled to Beirut. The same month, three other hijackers--Wail al Shehri, Waleed al Shehri, and Ahmed al Nami--"traveled in a group from Saudi Arabia to Beirut and then onward to Iran." An unnamed associate of Mugniyah's accompanied them on the Beirut-to-Iran leg of their trip. The 9/11 Commission noted: "Hezbollah officials in Beirut and Iran were expecting the arrival of a group during [mid-November 2000]. The travel of this group was important enough to merit the attention of senior figures in Hezbollah."

Other flights taken by the hijackers during this period originated or ended in Iran. Two of the hijackers flew from Iran to Kuwait in October, and two others flew to Iran from Bahrain in November. Al Qaeda hijacker Kahlid al-Mihdhar--whom the CIA had observed at an al Qaeda planning session in January 2000--"may have taken a flight from Syria to Iran, and then traveled further within Iran to a point near the Afghan border" in February 2001.

Since the 9/11 Commission could not interview the hijackers themselves about their travels, the commissioners wanted to question such ringleaders as were in American custody. But the CIA refused to allow commissioners or staff to interview any of the al Qaeda agents in CIA custody. Instead, as Kean and Hamilton relate, the commissioners referred this "deeply troubling" matter to the terrorists' interrogators, who returned an answer "just in time" for its inclusion in the 9/11 Commission's final report.

The CIA tried to assuage any concerns over Iranian involvement by relying on al Qaeda's supposed denials. Both Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the plot's mastermind, and Ramzi Binalshibh, al Qaeda's point man for the 9/11 plot, "confirmed that several of the 9/11 hijackers     transited Iran on their way to or from Afghanistan, taking advantage of the Iranian practice of not stamping Saudi passports." But they "deny any other reason for the hijackers' travel to Iran." In addition, "they also deny any relationship between the hijackers and Hezbollah." The commissioners were, for the most part, satisfied, concluding that they "found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack." Yet they left the matter open: "We believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government."

Indeed, there is already evidence to suggest that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's and Ramzi Binalshibh's denials are not credible. Binalshibh, in particular, had ties to Iran that the Commission did not explore.

In December 2000, as first reported in July 2004 by Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball and the Chicago Tribune's John Crewdson, Binalshibh applied for a four-week visa at the Iranian Embassy in Berlin. On his handwritten application, Binalshibh checked a box indicating that the purpose of his visit was tourism or pilgrimage to one of Iran's holy sites. One question on the application was, "If you are passing through Iran in transit have you obtained entry visa for your next country of stay?" Binalshibh replied that he had not. The Iranians granted Binalshibh's visa request. On January 31, 2001, he landed at Tehran International Airport. The German investigators who uncovered Binalshibh's trip know little about his time in Iran--why he went, who he met with, and whether or not he went on to Afghanistan to meet al Qaeda's senior leadership. According to Crewdson, Binalshibh returned to Germany on February 28, 2001.

Six days before 9/11, Crewdson reported, Binalshibh once again traveled from Germany to Iran, thereby evading capture in the wake of al Qaeda's most spectacular attack. He would eventually turn up in Pakistan, where he was captured one year later. Why did Binalshibh repeatedly travel to Iran? Did U.S. interrogators ask him about these travels?

There is another twist. The 9/11 Commission did not name the senior Hezbollah officials who may have coordinated the hijackers' travels. But Kenneth Timmerman, the author of Countdown to Crisis, has written and stated repeatedly that knowledgeable intelligence officials have told him one of them was Imad Mugniyah himself.

More than three years after the 9/11 Commission published its final report and more than six years after the 9/11 attacks, we are still not certain of Mugniyah's, Hezbollah's, and Iran's possible role. The Commission recommended "further investigation," but no such investigation has been started. None of the press accounts this past week called for further inquiry by the U.S. government.

Some will dismiss out of hand any attempt to connect Mugniyah and bin Laden, convinced that the Sunnis of al Qaeda are incapable of collaborating with the Shiites of Hezbollah and Iran. As a factual matter, that is not true. There is ample evidence of contacts and collaboration throughout the historical record.

Mugniyah is now dead, but his influence on modern Islamic terrorism is alive and well. The martyrdom cult that plagues the world today was already manifest in his earliest attacks in Beirut in 1983. Mugniyah's terror showed the world that fanatics willing to kill themselves and others for their cause can change the course of history. Al Qaeda learned that lesson all too well.

Thomas Joscelyn is a terrorism researcher, writer, and economist living in New York. He is the author, most recently, of Iran's Proxy War Against America (Claremont Institute)