At approximately 11 p.m. on the night of Feb. 12, the most wanted terrorist in the world, after Osama bin Laden, was blown up by a car bomb in Damascus.
Imad Mugniyah, head of Hezbollah’s Special Operations Command, thought he was safe in the Syrian capital, and with good reason. The regime of Bashar al-Assad, working closely with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, considered Mugniyah a valuable asset. He allegedly reported directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini in Tehran, putting him on the same level as Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah. Protecting him was a high priority.
But his enemies were legion.
The most wanted terrorist after bin Laden – the FBI put him on its most wanted list and slapped a $25 million bounty on his head – Mughniyah was fingered for master-minding the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Maine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 servicemen, as well as numerous kidnappings of Westerners in the 1980s in the Lebanese civil war, including Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson. He may have been in contact with al Qaeda operatives in the 1990s, and was accused of being behind the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
Now the question arises: Who killed Imad Mughniyah?
The easy answer – and the one that most people have settled on – is that the Israelis did. Hezbollah’s television station, al Manar, outright accused the Jewish state. “The martyr was killed at the hands of the Israeli Zionists,” the group said via a statement read on air.
It would make sense. Car bombs are not attacks of opportunity; they require advanced knowledge of the subject’s locations and travel patterns, and it needs operatives on the ground to trigger the bomb. This attack has all the hallmarks of a sophisticated intelligence hit.
The explosion left a charred crater approximately 700 yards east of the Cham City Center in the Kafer Soseh area of Damascus. That’s right next to an Iranian school and a Syrian intelligence office, and Mughniyah was apparently meeting Hamas and Syrian intelligence. Whoever killed him knew where he was and who he was meeting. That means Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, or possibly the CIA, has penetrated Hamas, Syrian intelligence agencies, Hezbollah or possibly all of them.
If it was the CIA, this assassination would represent a delicious bit of revenge for the agency. The CIA has been gunning for Mughniyah since the 1980s. In addition to the Marine barracks bombing, Mughniyah is blamed for the attack on the U.S. embassy that same year that left 63 people dead – including eight senior CIA agents. He was also suspected of kidnapping and torturing to death Beirut’s CIA station chief William Buckley in 1984.
The method of his passing is significant, too. A car bomb makes a statement. It’s a terror tactic, frankly, and the goal is to show the Syrian regime as weak and incapable of providing security for its “guests.” If the CIA planted a car bomb, that’s a giant “screw you” to the Syrians, who are widely suspected of being involved a similar style assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri who was killed three years ago on Feb. 14. The timing of the Mughniyah’s car bomb death — just two days before the Hariri anniversary — is unlikely to be coincidental.
Another possibility is that Syria ratted Mughniyah out to CIA or Mossad, perhaps as part of a deal Syria offered up Mughniyah in exchange for flexibility in Lebanon or the Golan. While this idea is circulating in Lebanon’s political circles, along with the suggestion that the Syrians did the deed themselves, it strikes me as unlikely. Syria usually doesn’t blow up its gifts to the West. They commit suicide by putting several bullets in their heads, as in the case of Abu Nidal in Baghdad in 2002. – a “suicide” widely seen as an attempt by Saddam Hussein to turn over a wanted terrorist as a show of good faith to the West.
A third possibility is that Mughniyah isn’t really dead at all, and Hezbollah – which announced his death to the world – is making an already invisible man disappear even more. But why? What could they have planned? In recent weeks, there have been rumors of a new campaign of kidnappings against Westerners in Beirut to force concessions from the U.S.-backed government of Fuad Siniora, with whom Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon have been locked in a stalemate for more than year.
There’s no doubt Mughniyah’s death raises a lot of questions, quite apart from who did it. Another one is why did Hezbollah proclaim his death as a martyr and hold a massive demonstration for him in southern Beirut today — the same day that Hariri’s supporters packed the city’s downtown to commemorate his death? After the Israeli pullout in 2000, Hezbollah claimed to be changing its ways, that it was no longer the terror group of the 1980s, that it was a legitimate political group. To tie itself again so tightly to a wanted terrorist with American blood on his hands is at once a cry of defiance and a worrying sign that more extreme Iranian influences are again on the upswing within the organization.
No matter who killed him or what happens next, one of Iran’s and Syria’s main chess pieces was just taken off the table. There are high-fives in Langley and Jerusalem these days.