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]."