The name Imad Fayez Mugniyeh is probably not familiar to most Americans, but it is never been far from the minds of most international security experts. As the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel continues, analysts and observers would do well to remember Mughniyeh, who may have been the architect of the Hezbollah raid that killed eight Israeli soldiers, captured two others, and sparked the current crisis.
Details of Mughniyeh's origins are fragmentary. He is believed to have served as a member of Force 17, Yasser Arafat's personal bodyguard unit, before joining Hezbollah. There he acted first as a bodyguard for the group's spiritual leader, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, and eventually rose to his current role as the group's operations chief. His official role in Hezbollah is unclear, with various sources describing him as the current head of Hezbollah's security section, a member of the group's Jihad Council, the director of its intelligence apparatus, or its external operations chief.
He likely serves as all of the above, but whatever the case, one thing is clear: He has been at the heart of every major Hezbollah terrorist attack for the better part of the last 25 years.
Mughniyeh's long and bloody résumé includes: the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon; the October 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut; the 1984 bombing of the U.S. Embassy annex in Lebanon; the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847; numerous kidnappings of Westerners in Beirut throughout the 1980s; the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires; the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing; and the 2000 kidnappings of 3 Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon and of Israeli Colonel Elchanan Tenenbaum, who was lured to Kuwait under false pretenses and then taken to the Hezbollah enclave in southern Lebanon.
Given the extent his role not only in Hezbollah's terrorist operations and kidnappings in particular, there is good reason to suspect that Mughniyeh was involved in the Hezbollah attack that sparked the latest round of violence.
Mughniyeh's ties to the worst elements of the Iranian regime should also serve to expose any lingering doubt concerning Iranian complicity in the recent violence. For instance, despite his status as a leading member of Hezbollah, the majority of the reporting on Mughniyeh's location in recent years have placed him not only in Lebanon but also at various locations inside Iran, where he is said to be under the protection of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Ministry of Intelligence and Security. According to the Associated Press, Mughniyeh met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his January visit to Damascus. In his explanation of Hezbollah decision-making, Dr. Magnus Ranstorp writes:
Hizballah's decision to kidnap the two IDF soldiers was taken by Sheikh Hassan Nasserallah and the other six members of the Shura Karar, its supreme decision-making body. Additionally there are two Iranian representatives (from the Iranian embassy in Beirut/Damascus) that provide a direct link on matters that require strategic guidance or Iranian assistance or arbitration. The file for handling special operations of this kind is usually left to Imad Mughniyeh, the elusive terrorist mastermind for Hizballah, who stands with one foot within Hizballah (reporting to Nasserallah directly) and with one foot in Iran inside the architectures of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the al-Qods unit within the Iranian Pasdaran. Mughniyeh is strictly reserved for special occasions (like the Buenos Aires bombing in 1992 to avenge the Israeli assassination of the previous leader Sheikh Abbas al-Musawi) and his primary mission over the last decade has been to forge qualitative 'military' guidance to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives inside Gaza and the West Bank.
Denials of this partnership from Iranian officials, and particularly members of the country's Foreign Ministry, should be understood as being part of a deliberate strategy. As ICT researcher Yael Shahar explained in a January 2003 paper:
The election of President Mohammed Khatami in May of 1997 was seen at the time as the harbinger of greater liberalization and democratization in Iran's public life, as well as the beginning of a more acceptable foreign affairs policy.
. . . Khatami's influence on Iran's foreign policy has been expressed chiefly in trips abroad. These travels helped to strengthen the country's diplomatic standing, but failed to lead to palpable change of Iranian policy regarding its involvement in international terrorism.
The only change that did occur in the Iranian terrorism scene in recent years has been essentially a tactical one. Iran has been careful to adjust its terror policy to international circumstances, in the realization that such activity does not play well to a Western audience. Iran does everything possible to ensure that its own actions are not perceived to be part of international terrorism. Iranian agents rarely take an active part in terror attacks; instead, missions are "out-sourced" to proxy organizations, such as the Hizballah, a regular contractor and central player in Iran's terror strategy. Often terrorist groups active in the target country are trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and commissioned to carry out terrorist acts against common enemies.
While Khatami is no longer in office and the organized reformist movement inside of Iran has been suppressed and marginalized in favor of hardline extremist movements like Ahmadinejad's E'telaf-e-Abadgaran-e-Iran-e-Eslami, the strategy pursued by the Iranian security services remains much the same.
Unfortunately, Western governments have often played into this strategy by refusing to recognize Mughniyeh's ties to Iran. For instance, take the explanation offered in a recent New York Times article on the Bush administration's unwillingness to discuss the role played by members of Iran's Qods Force in Hezbollah's recent use of missiles against Israel:
The Bush administration has long sought to focus attention on Iranian missile proliferation, and regularly discusses with journalists intelligence evidence of those activities. But American officials in Washington made clear this week that they were reluctant to detail Iran's arming of Hezbollah in the current conflict.
The reason, according to officials across the government, was a desire by the Bush administration to contain the conflict to Israeli and Hezbollah forces, and not to enlarge the diplomatic tasks by making Iranian missile supplies, or even those of Syria, a central question for now.
Such an approach may make diplomatic sense if the goal is to end the current fighting in Lebanon, but it could also serve to embolden Iran by demonstrating that it can continue to employ its proxy warfare strategy against Israel using Hezbollah. Given long-standing U.S. and Iraqi concerns of Iranian support for both the Iraqi insurgency and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, the United States might want to think twice about sending this message.
Dan Darling is a counterterrorism consultant.
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