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Profile: Imad Mugniyah

Author: Elisabeth Smick
February 13, 2008
This publication is now archived.

Editor's Note

Imad Mugniyah was killed in a car bombing (al-Jazeera) in Damascus on February 13, 2008. Hezbollah officials accused Israel of launching the attacks that killed Mugniyah, though the Israeli government denied involvement (Haaretz). This profile of Mugniyah was written in August 2006.

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Introduction

Relatively little is known about Imad Fayez Mugniyah, considered one of the most influential members of Hezbollah's inner circle. He is thought to be the organization's chief international operator, a shadowy figure behind its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, and he has been linked to nearly every major terrorist operation executed by Hezbollah over the last twenty-five years. Mugniyah was the most wanted terrorist in the world before Osama bin Laden came onto intelligence radar screens, and he remains a prime target of U.S. counterterrorism forces.

Who is Imad Fayez Mugniyah?

Experts say Mugniyah was born in southern Lebanon in 1962. He is believed to be the son of a prominent Shiite cleric, but few traces of his early life remain. "He erased himself," Robert Baer, an ex-CIA officer told the New Yorker in 2002. "There are no civil records in Lebanon with his name in them." Mugniyah is thought to have begun his career as a teenager during the Lebanese civil war. He was trained by Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement, and became a member of Arafat's personal security detail, Force 17. When the Palestinian Liberation Organization left Lebanon in 1982, Mugniyah joined Hezbollah, serving as a bodyguard for its spiritual adviser, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, and rising quickly through the ranks.

Mugniyah keeps an extremely low profile. He does not make appearances on Arabic-language television, and the only known photographs of him are ten to twenty years old. Some believe Mugniyah, whose nickname is "the Fox," has undergone plastic surgery to alter his appearance. Thought to live in Iran with his family, Mugniyah has evaded the U.S. military's efforts to capture him on at least two occasions.

What is his role in Hezbollah?

Mugniyah is variously reported to be Hezbollah's chief of operations, security chief, director of intelligence, chief of international operations, and even the overall commander of Islamic Resistance, Hezbollah's armed wing, in southern Lebanon. Terrorism experts credit Mugniyah with making Hezbollah an international terrorist force. "He's the one who built a very successful terrorist organization," says Christopher Hamilton, senior fellow for counterterrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He runs their terrorist side—not the guerilla arm, the terrorist arm." Because of his ability to plan sophisticated, professional operations, some experts describe Mugniyah as Hezbollah's secret weapon. "He gets involved on special missions, planning and putting things in motion," says Magnus Ranstorp, a Hezbollah specialist at the Swedish National Defense College who has followed Mugniyah for over a decade. "He is an architect who unleashes violence on special occasions." Mugniyah is also known for coordinating operations that extend beyond the Middle East, such as a pair of bombings in Buenos Aires, Argentina in the 1990s. He is said to work closely on international fundraising and recruitment efforts, organizing terrorist cells around the world, and managing surveillance missions.

Is Mugniyah behind the operation that sparked fighting in Lebanon?

Israel claims that Mugniyah is behind the recent kidnappings of Israeli soldiers that led to its invasion of Lebanon. A similar operation carried out in 2005 was attributed to him as well, and there is speculation that he is currently in Lebanon. "Mughniyah, who is believed to have been behind the abduction of the two IDF soldiers on July 12, is also reported to be in charge of Hezbullah's rocket unit in south Lebanon," said a recent article in the Jerusalem Post. However, no sources for this information were named.

Some experts say Mugniyah, with his strong roots in Fatah, is particularly committed to the Palestinian cause. "Mugniyah's focus is Israel and to achieve that he joined forces with Hezbollah," says Abdul Hameed Bakier, an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation. "Any affiliation Mugniyah has would be to serve the Palestinian cause." Recently, Mugniyah has reportedly focused on providing direct assistance to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, particularly through efforts to recruit foreign nationals capable of infiltrating Israel. However, there is no specific evidence that Mugniyah himself engineered the recent kidnappings. Magnus Ranstorp says it is more likely that Mugniyah was aware of the planned kidnappings but did not mastermind them. "He is only involved in what the Americans would call 'black' or top secret operations," says Ranstorp. "Hezbollah does not need Mugniyah to carry out this type of operation."

What major terror attacks has Mugniyah been linked to?

Experts believe he is the main architect of nearly all of the major operations conducted by Hezbollah. They include:

  • The 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon that killed sixty-three people. Some say Mugniyah was also involved in the attack a few months later on U.S. Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut that left 141 people dead.
  • A spate of kidnappings of Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980s, including that of William Buckley, a CIA station chief, in 1984. Buckley was interrogated and tortured, and ultimately died of pneumonia, probably as a result of his harsh treatment. His death sparked particular ire in the U.S. intelligence community.
  • The 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, in which a U.S. Navy diver was brutally beaten, then shot. Mugniyah was indicted in the United States for his alleged role as mastermind of the hijacking.
  • The 1992 Israeli embassy bombing and a 1994 suicide bomb attack on a Jewish community center, both in Buenos Aires.
Has Mugniyah ever tried to attack the United States?

In the late 1990s, a Hezbollah cell was found in Charlotte, North Carolina. The group was indicted for illegally selling cigarettes. Some of the proceeds of the operation were allegedly sent to Hezbollah. The indictment also suggested Hezbollah had asked the group to purchase hi-tech items such as aircraft-analysis software and night-vision equipment. There was speculation the group had ties to Mugniyah. In 2003, the leader of the cell, Mohammed Hammoud, was convicted of racketeering and providing "material support" to Hezbollah. He received a 155-year prison term. Five other defendants were sentenced to prison terms ranging from twelve to fifty-one months.

The case spurred a number of investigations of suspected Hezbollah cells in the United States. According to ABC News, last year the FBI had more than 200 active cases involving suspected Hezbollah members. "There are many, many investigations ongoing," says Christopher Hamilton. "It runs the gamut from guys who have contacts with people overseas, and guys who are preaching in the mosques and recruiting." According to Hamilton, these cells are capable of conducting operations within the United States. However, he points out that so far none of these operations have been carried out. "I think it would take an overt act by the United States against Hezbollah or Iran to trigger this," he says.

Is there a link between Mugniyah and al-Qaeda?

Mugniyah met with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the mid-1990s, according to the court testimony of Ali Abdelsoud Mohammed, a naturalized U.S. citizen and former U.S. army sergeant who later became a senior aide to bin Laden. After his arrest in 1998 in connection with the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Mohammed testified that he arranged several meetings between bin Laden and Mugniyah in Sudan. Bin Laden reportedly admired Mugniyah's tactics, particularly his use of truck bombs, which precipitated the United States' withdrawal from Lebanon. According to Mohammed, bin Laden and Mugniyah agreed Hezbollah would provide training, military expertise, and explosives in exchange for money and man power. It is not known, however, whether this agreement was carried out. The relationship between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda is not entirely friendly, as explained in this Backgrounder.

What is Mugniyah’s connection to Iran?

Mugniyah appears to operate as a bridge between Iran and Hezbollah, working for both and calibrating their agendas, experts say. "Imad Mugniyah embodies the complexity of where to tackle this terrorism because he stands with one foot in Hezbollah, reporting directly to Nasrallah, but he also has one foot in Iran, with the Iranian MOIS [the Iranian intelligence service] and the al-Qods, or the Jerusalem Force, of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard," says Ranstorp. Mugniyah is thought to live under the protection of Iranian security forces, and terror experts say he travels between Tehran and Damascus, often using Iranian diplomatic papers.

In January 2006, Mugniyah reportedly accompanied Iranian President Ahmadinejad to a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He allegedly works within the highest levels of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian intelligence and is said to take orders directly from Ayatollah Khamenei. "Hezbollah is the main weapon outside of Iran for Iran," says Hamilton. "They are very capable and very good militarily, and Imad Mugniyah is responsible for that. The Iranians like him because he's good, and he's loyal, and he's a known quantity." However, his exact role in Iran remains unclear. This may be, in part, because both the Iranian government and Hezbollah prefer to conceal the nature of their involvement in terrorist activities. "It's a question of preserving plausible deniability," says Ranstorp. "Iran wishes to conceal how deeply it is embedded with Hezbollah, and Hezbollah wants to break from its darker past to show that they are a mature and responsible party. However, there is a dark duality in that they [Iran and Hezbollah] keep Mugniyah reserved for special occasions."