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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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)