Escape Artist: How a Legendary Hezbollah Terrorist Eluded the CIA

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The American Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, lies in ruins following a car bomb, April 19, 1983. AP

Beirut, 2003: The trap was set. U.S. counterterror operatives were ready to move. The plan called for a Lebaneser CIA asset to lure Imad Mugniyah, the terrorist kingpin of Hezbollah, to a place where he would be captured and flown to a U.S. Navy ship in the Mediterranean. From there he would be flown to a U.S. courtroom, where he would eventually stand trial for the murder of hundreds of Americans in Lebanon two decades earlier.

But something went wrong. According to a former top U.S. counterterrorism official, the Lebanese go-between was murdered. The wily Mugniyah, variously known as "the fox" and "the father of smoke" (for his ability to disappear like a wisp after one of his spectacular terrorist attacks), had foiled yet another plot to capture him. The U.S. plan, the former counterterrorism official suspected, had leaked.

"We had him!" the official said, still exasperated years later about the failure to capture Mugniyah. Upon investigating, the official concluded that idle chit-chat by a careless U.S. intelligence official at a small party attended by Americans and Lebanese in Beirut on the eve of the operation had foiled the plot.

"Some guy was shooting the shit at an embassy social event," he told Newsweek on condition of anonymity "We had the whole network set up. Everything was done, everything was in place. And then this guy runs his mouth."

In February 2008, however, the CIA, working hand in glove with Israeli intelligence, finally caught up to Mugniyah. The details of how they assassinated Mugniyah with a car bomb, as reported by Newsweek and The Washington Post in independently sourced stories last weekend, remain a deeply held secret at the CIA.

So do the near-misses. No one contacted by Newsweek would discuss them on the record, even years later, for fear of jeopardizing still-secret intelligence assets. What has become clear, however, is that President George W. Bush did not hesitate to authorize the CIA to murder Mugniyah when he was first located in Damascus in 2007, effectively lifting a ban on political assassinations that had been in place for over three decades. Until then, former counterterrorism officials say, the plan had always been to capture Mugniyah and bring him to trial in the U.S., if possible, not kill him.

The problem was finding him. According to Matthew Levitt, author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God, Mugniyah evaded capture on a number of occasions as far back as the 1980s, after he had engineered or participated in several deadly assaults on American targets in Lebanon, from the bombing of the Marine and French paratrooper barracks at the Beirut airport to the obliteration of the U.S. Embassy, both in 1983. After his 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847 — which resulted in the death of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem — he was indicted in New York on murder charges.

"The first such evasion came in Paris in November 1985, when officials intercepted a voice frequency sample of Mugniyah, who was tracked to a luxury hotel on Paris's Champs Elysees — just around the corner from the U.S. embassy..." Levitt wrote this week in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newsweekly. He added, "Mugniyah was traveling on a false identity, but the CIA provided French officials with a copy of the passport he was using. Instead of detaining him, French intelligence officials reportedly met Mugniyah several times over a six-day period and allowed him to leave the country in return for the release of a French hostage."

Arab governments in the Persian Gulf region also let Mugniyah come and go between Iran and Beirut, said a former U.S. military counterterrorism official. "The Gulf countries never acquiesced to U.S. requests that he be detained," the former official told Newsweek on condition of anonymity. The reasons? "A fear of retaliation" from Iran, he said, "and politics." Hezbollah was formed to combat Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The Gulf Arabs, although mortal enemies of Iran's Shiites, were loath to help U.S. intelligence capture someone who was killing Israelis and their American sponsors.

"There was somewhere less than a handful of times in the mid-'90s when a combined task force takedown team was in place on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf to grab him, in a seaborne operation, on his way back from Iran," the former military counterterrorism official said. "But due to various reasons mostly related to [poor] intel, it didn't go down."

The operations involved "very sensitive intelligence sources," he added.

Levitt, who heads the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's counterterrorism program, wrote that one of those missed opportunities came in 1995, when U.S. intelligence learned that "Mugniyah was traveling under an assumed name on a flight from Khartoum, Sudan to Tehran that was scheduled to make a stop in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia." U.S. officials asked the Saudis to hold him and ordered FBI agents to jump on a plane to Jeddah, Levitt wrote. "But Saudi officials denied the FBI plane landing rights, allowing the Fox to slip away once more."

Another opportunity came in 1996, Levitt wrote in The Hill, after the terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers military barracks in Saudi Arabia, in which Iran is suspected of having a hand. The U.S. had obtained intelligence indicating that "Mugniyah was aboard the Ibn Tufail, a boat sailing in the Arabian Gulf. Navy ships trailed the Ibn Tufail while a team of Navy SEALs prepared a snatch-and-grab operation to be executed the following day off the coast of Qatar. The operation was called off, however, when senior American decision makers deemed the intelligence insufficient to warrant such a risky operation."

The goal was always to capture Mugniyah, not kill him, former U.S. intelligence officials say. But in 2008, shortly after Mugniyah's demise, former CIA officer Robert Baer wrote in Time magazine that he had spent 15 years tracking the terrorist and that "at one point I was offered the opportunity to car bomb a house he was spending the night in." He added, "It was illegal for the CIA to conduct assassinations and I, of course, declined."

In a new book, The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, however, Baer claims that he considered killing Mugniyah but just never got the chance. There was more to the story, he told The Washington Post last week, but the CIA's pre-publication "censors" excised passages dealing with Mugniyah's assassination: "I've unfortunately been unable to write about the true set-piece plot against" Mugniyah, he told the Post.

Two former CIA officials deeply involved in Lebanon in the 1980s called Baer's claims fiction. "We had no authority to go out and shoot anybody," a former CIA station chief in Beirut told Newsweek on terms of anonymity. The CIA's focus in Lebanon in the 1980s, he said, was trying to find and rescue American and other Western hostages taken by Mugniyah and his Hezbollah cohorts, not assassinating them. He said the spy agency's then-deputy director for operations, Clair George, called him in on the eve of his departure for Beirut and emphasized, "Do nothing that you can get killed for" — meaning lethal actions that would invite retaliation from Mugniyah, who had shown he could pick off Americans at will.

Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, who headed the CIA's Counterterrorism Center at the same time Baer was assigned to Beirut, echoed those views. "I was the last CIA officer prior to 9/11 who was able to take out a contract on anybody," Clarridge told Newsweek in a telephone interview, referring to the agency's fatwah on the legendary Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known as Carlos the Jackal. (Ramirez was captured in a joint CIA-French operation in 1994 and rendered back to Paris, where he is serving a life sentence.)

"That was the last," Claridge declared. Mugniyah was "a complicated matter," he said, suggesting that nobody at the CIA would have worried much about recriminations had the terrorist been killed in a shootout. But "there wasn't any order out there from anybody to go get him."

Two decades later, however, the CIA did have a green light from President Bush to kill Mugniyah. Ironically, by that time, Hezbollah had long ago stopped killing Americans. It was concentrating on Israel.

"I wish we had gotten him before," said the former counterterrorism official who blamed at least one missed chance on loose lips at an embassy party. "We might have saved a lot of lives."

Jeff Stein is Newsweek's national security correspondent in Washington, D.C. He can be reached more or less confidentially via encrypted email at spytalk[at]hushmail.com.

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