The Worst Terrorist You Never Heard Of

Until his death in a car-bomb explosion in Damascus on Tuesday night, Imad Mughniyeh was a highly dangerous figure in the Mideast terror business who secretly served as a top Hizbullah military commander protected by the highest levels of the Iranian government, U.S. and allied intelligence officials said today. The officials spoke candidly about sensitive matters on condition of anonymity. Though barely known to the general public, Mughniyeh's re-emergence as a major terror plotter in recent years had caused increasing anxiety inside CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and in the offices of other Western intelligence services.

That anxiety turned into alarm in January 2006 when intelligence services received what they now say were credible reports that Mughniyeh, who had long been wanted by the FBI in connection with a string of vicious terror attacks in the 1980s and '90s, had traveled with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Damascus for a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad. While there, Ahmadinejad and Mughniyeh allegedly attended a veritable "terror summit" that also included Hizbullah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah; Ramadan Abdullah Shallah of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad; Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, and Ahmed Jibril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The summit received virtually no Western media attention. In the Iranian media, however, it was reported as a meeting to coordinate "unity and resistance in protecting Lebanon from the U.S. and Israel." One possible outgrowth of that meeting was Hizbullah's cross-border raid in July 2006, in which two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped—an event that triggered the Israel-Lebanon war that summer. (At the time, U.S. officials said they could not substantiate a possible Mughniyeh role in provoking the conflict.) Despite some speculation that he had retired and was no longer involved in terrorism, Mughniyeh is now believed to have played a key role in organizing the raid and kidnapping, officials said. "He was one of the most dangerous terrorists on the planet," one Western intelligence official said today. "There was evidence that he had strong links to Iran and strong links to the Quds Force (the military arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps). "The notion that he had retired was a canard."

Mughniyeh first came to the attention of U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence officials nearly a quarter century ago when he was identified as one of the key organizers of the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon. He is also believed to have been responsible for the kidnapping and torture of William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut—an event that served as the backdrop for the Iran-contra affair. In 1994, Hizbullah operatives—allegedly assisted by Iranian officials—blew up a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people. Mughniyeh was later identified, and formally charged, as one of the architects of the bombing. (The case has yet to go to trial).

Despite being the subject of an intense FBI manhunt, Mughniyeh seemed to vanish by the late 1990s. He was said to have had extensive plastic surgery to disguise his identity. After 9/11, his status as the world's most wanted terrorist was eclipsed by Osama bin Laden. But his supposed disappearance turned out to be a ruse. Besides resurfacing as a covert Hizbullah operative, Mughniyeh—who is said to have traveled frequently between Tehran, Damascus and Lebanon—was also identified as a weapons procurer for the Quds Forces that were arming Iranian-backed militias inside Iraq. Those groups, as one U.S. official put it, were "directly responsible" for attacks on American soldiers. Mughniyeh "remained active literally to the day he died," said Francis Fragos Townsend, who until recently served as President Bush's chief homeland-security and terrorism adviser. As a result of Mughniyeh's death, she said, "The world is a safer place."

Even while U.S. officials were amassing a dossier on Mughniyeh's recent activities, there was no official confirmation of them. Iranian officials insisted they knew nothing of his whereabouts, and Hizbullah never officially admitted its connection to him. But that charade ended with Mughniyeh's demise. Mitch Prothero, an American journalist based in Lebanon, reported Wednesday that at about 11 a.m., Hizbullah's television station interrupted its normal programming to announce the news of its fallen leader.

"With all pride, we declare a great jihadist leader of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon joining the martyrs," said a statement carried on Hizbullah's television network. "The brother commander hajj Imad Mughniyeh became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis." The announcement, Prothero noted, used precisely the same language as when the group announced the death of Sayyed Abbas Moussawi, then Hizbullah's supreme commander, in an Israeli airstrike in 1992.

The key question, of course, is what role, if any, U.S. or Israeli intelligence may have played in the explosion that killed Mughniyeh. U.S. officials today refused to comment and the Israelis denied they were responsible. But the speculation is likely to go on for some time and could point to many suspects with possible motives. Prothero told NEWSWEEK that Mughniyeh's car, which was blown up in the explosion that killed him, had been parked in a lot in a Damascus suburb—next door to a building known to have been used by Syrian military intelligence.