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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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.