Imad Mughniyeh has never looked back since staging the bombing attacks that killed hundreds of Americans at the US embassy and Marines headquarters in Beirut of the early 1980s. It was then that he also developed his unique skills as a hostage-taker, mostly by kidnapping Americans. From his promising start as a young member of Yasser Arafat’s Force 17, Mughniyeh has steadily climbed to the top. As operational chief of the Iranian hardline spiritual leader Aly Khamenei’s intelligence-cum-terror organization, while also serving as operations executive in Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, he directed, planned and executed the most savage terrorist strikes of the 1990s against American targets in Africa, the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia. A co-planner of the US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, he made the FBI’s September 11 most wanted list, along with 21 other terrorists.
Now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive sources reveal, Syrian president Hafez Assad has added another feather to Mughniyeh’s super-terrorist cap by appointing him supreme commander of the Hizballah terrorist group in southern Lebanon.
This appointment elevates the former Lebanese terrorist to the strongest position in al-Qaeda’s military and terrorist hierarchy. He controls a patch of territory stretching across all of southern Lebanon and parts of the center of the country, an area of more than 150 square kilometers (58 square miles). Under his command are 12,000 trained men and an arsenal of heavy weapons, including thousands of missiles of various types. Also his to command is a well-oiled intelligence apparatus covering the Middle East, the Gulf, Africa, parts of Europe and several countries in South America, mainly Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. He can also call upon a combat reserve comprising some 10,000 Palestinians in south Lebanon’s refugee camps and the cities Sidon and Tyre. In addition, Mughniyeh is backed to the hilt by the logistical, intelligence and monetary resources of Iran and Syria.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and counter-terrorism sources add to all these assets 100 to 130 al-Qaeda Afghan veterans who reached Lebanon via Pakistan and Iran. Some were based in the Tora Bora cave complex until the US-led large-scale operation to flush them out. Others were personal bodyguards to Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, and now guard Mughniyeh.
The new Hizballah commander’s final strategic resource is his close personal relationship with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who gave him his start in the mid-1970s together with a thorough grounding in special terrorist and intelligence tactics that served him for the next quarter of a century. Their abiding friendship surfaced at the outset of the Palestinian armed confrontation against Israel in September 2000. Mughniyeh’s role as the Palestinians’ arms supplier and source of instruction in the manufacture and use of heavy weaponry, such as missiles and extra-powerful explosive devices, was crucial.
Those ties came into even sharper focus when the Lebanese master terrorist supervised the arms smuggling project for the Palestinians and the Hizballah aboard the Karine-A, which Israeli commandos aborted by stopping the ship on the Red Sea.
(More about Arafat-Mughniyeh operational links in the next item on Arafat’s twilight)
Mughniyeh’s appointment as Hizballah commander confronts Washington with hard quandaries:
How to define relations with the Lebanese government whose leading figures maintain close and friendly ties with the United States, yet permit a top al Qaeda operative to officiate as military-intelligence chief of an important sector of their country? No one questions Mughniyeh’s extreme hostility to the United States or his dedication to sabotaging US policies on the Palestinians and Iran by means of terror and violent action.
As for Syrian president Bashar Assad who approved the appointment, he consistently gets away with saying one thing and doing another, toying with US demands, while maintaining active political and military exchanges with the United States. Given the Syrian example, why would Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and Yasser Arafat in Ramallah worry about coming to harm from US military or political action?
In their latest contacts with Washington, Syrian officials, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources, denied the presence of Mughniyeh or al-Qaeda forces in Lebanon. They even made the gesture of inviting a large CIA delegation to visit Damascus for the first time in many years, promising its members could interrogate “radical Muslim terrorists possessing inside information on the contemporary global terrorist labyrinth”.
The Americans arrived in early June to a warm welcome, only to find they were questioning veteran Muslim Brotherhood members who had spent many years behind bars. The CIA officers never saw a single prisoner or detainee with information on al Qaeda.
The Syrian denial of Mughniyeh’s presence was deceptive. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources disclose that the present Mughniyeh, since undergoing radical plastic surgery, bears little physical resemblance to the terrorist scourge of the 1980s. The athletic figure with a head of bushy hair has been transformed into a bald, flaccid-faced character, more like a Gulf businessman than a terrorist.
Some weeks ago, however, American officers with the help of Israeli military intelligence located and photographed the Hizballah’s new commander. The sources say he has set up headquarters in an underground bunker complex under a hill in an eastern neighborhood of Sidon overlooking the Mediterranean.
Iranian and Syrian leaders are not waiting idly for the Americans to decide what action to take against them. They are building up their respective armies and at the same time strengthening their bilateral ties. Recently, the Syrian president gave Lebanese Hizballah preachers permission to travel round Syrian mosques across the country; he also approved the construction of new mosques funded entirely from Tehran or the Hizballah.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report talks between Assad and Iranian emissaries on the introduction of Farsi language teaching in Syrian elementary schools. When the next school year opens in the fall, several big schools in Damascus and regions with large communities of Assad’s own Alawite sect can expect to start Farsi lessons. The language will gradually go into use for instruction in various subjects.
US and Israeli intelligence have concluded that the Syrian president is taking deliberate steps in line with a broad strategy aimed at gaining Tehran’s safety net for his minority Alawite sect and regime. The process could lead to the eventual integration – or even unification – of Syria and Iran, a goal that would fit in with Bashar Assad’s general rationale.
Like his late father, Hafez Assad, Bashar lives in fear of the Sunni Muslim majority and its extreme fringes. The Alawite sect is closer to Shi’ite than Sunni Islam. Assad feels safer leaning on Iran than on other Muslim power, including al Qaeda. But he knows he must co-exist with Osama bin Laden’s network because it has become the dominant force today in the radical Muslim world, which Shiite Iran prefers to befriend rather than oppose. Assad ventures to do business with al Qaeda only from the safety of Tehran’s umbrella. By approving Mughniyeh’s command in south Lebanon, he preserves his inside track with both the ayatollahs and al Qaeda. For Washington, the Iranian-Syrian alliance – arguably one of the most interesting developments in the Middle East and Muslim world – is too dangerous to be allowed to solidify.