Death of a Hizbullah Leader

One afternoon during Israel's summer war with Lebanon 18 months ago, I met with a couple of senior Israeli intelligence officers at an office outside Tel Aviv. As Hizbullah's rockets rained down on the north of the country, most of the world was focused on trying to deconstruct the motives of the Islamist group's most prominent leader, Hassan Nasrallah. The Israeli officers, on the other hand, had zeroed in on a figure less well known to the public but infamous in intelligence circles: Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbullah's deputy secretary-general. Mughniyeh had been linked to some of the deadliest acts of terrorism on record, including a string of suicide attacks targeting Americans in Lebanon and the kidnapping of the CIA's Beirut station chief, William Buckley, in the 1980s. By the summer of 2006 conventional wisdom held that the aging terrorist was no longer a key player in Hizbullah's day-to-day operations. Still, the Israeli intel officers told me they were increasingly concerned about an elite and quickly growing new cadre of Hizbullah operatives, known as Unit 1800; according to a flow chart that one of the men slid across the table, the unit reported up the chain of command to Mughniyeh.

Not anymore. Late Tuesday night a bomb ripped through the driver's side of an SUV in a wealthy residential neighborhood in Damascus, killing Mughniyeh and touching off an avalanche of recriminations from the Islamists. Hizbullah officials announced Mughniyeh's death Wednesday morning and quickly blamed Israel for the assassination. "The brother commander Hajj Imad Mughniyeh became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis," the Hizbullah-controlled Manar TV station reported. For their part, Israeli officials denied they were responsible. "Israel rejects the attempt by terror groups to attribute to it any involvement in this incident," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said in a statement. "We have nothing further to add." The truth is it may never be known who ultimately pressed the detonator; by the time of his death Mughniyeh had collected enemies far outside the Jewish state. The FBI had placed Mughniyeh on its 25 most wanted list after the hijacking of a TWA flight in 1985, offering a $5 million bounty for his capture. "There are many intel agencies who had a score to settle with this guy—including the U.S.," says Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad official. "This guy had it coming to him."

Very little was known about the 45-year-old Mughniyeh's background and daily routine. Before his death most published photographs of him were grainy and old, and he had lived in hiding for the better part of the past 30 years. He was born in Lebanon's Shiite heartland, in the southern village of Tayr Dibba, and worked in his 20s as an operative for Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement in Lebanon. U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials believe he later nurtured close ties to the Islamic regime in Iran. Tuesday's bombing wasn't the first time that Mughniyeh had been targeted; an earlier assassination attempt in the 1990s, which Hizbullah blamed on the Mossad, went awry and killed Mughniyeh's brother instead. In recent years, according to a well-placed Israeli source who didn't want to be identified talking about the assassination, Mughniyeh has been traveling frequently between Beirut and Tehran. "He was the quarterback of everything," says the Israeli. For their part, Iranian officials have long denied that Mughniyeh was still a high-level player in Hizbullah, insisting that a younger generation of guerrillas now called the shots.

Yet in recent months American intelligence officers had also grown concerned about what they viewed as Mughniyeh's increasingly prominent role in the organization. Last January four U.S. intel and counterterrorism officials told NEWSWEEK that Mughniyeh's name was showing up more and more frequently in confidential intelligence reporting about the Islamist organization. Whether American intel agencies were involved in the assassination is still unclear, though it's hard to imagine a figure more loathed in the halls of Langley for his role in the deaths of a number of key CIA operatives in Beirut. Some former CIA officials suggested that Mughniyeh's newly active role could be related to contingency planning for any potential conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

Regardless of who is responsible for Mughniyeh's assassination, Hizbullah is almost certain now to strike Israel or its interests abroad—a prospect that could complicate Israel's 18-month ceasefire with the guerrillas. "Retaliation is inevitable, and a big one," says the well-placed Israeli source. After Israeli helicopters attacked the motorcade of Hizbullah leader Sayed Abbas Musawi in southern Lebanon in 1992, a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with explosives into the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 and wounding more than 200. (Argentina charged Mughniyeh in the bombing case and issued a warrant for his arrest in a later bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Argentina.) Wednesday afternoon Hizbullah lawmakers in Beirut announced they would meet to consider their response. "Hizbullah behaves in a tit-for-tat manner," says Alpher, adding that it would be in character to expect a violent reprisal from the group. "Obviously, there could be consequences."