An ingathering of at least one of the most wanted terrorists in the world took place in Damascus Wednesday, May 22, at the funeral of one of their number: Jihad Jibril, operations officer of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, the hard-line terror group founded by his father, Ahmad Jibril. Among the merchants of violence present was the arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, who is believed to be the mastermind of the next wave of nuclear, biological and chemical terror, that US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld described as inevitable when he briefed a Senate committee this week. He warned that the next assault would be deadlier than the first on September 11.
Thus did the United States miss a rare opportunity of eliminating or capturing the man behind the approaching peril, together with a collection of men whose mug shots adorn the FBI’s most wanted list of terrorists. They all turned out in force to pay respects to Ahmed Jibril’s elder son, who was blown up by a 2 kg explosive charge planted in his car, setting it off himself when he switched on the ignition.
As DEBKA-Net-Weekly has reported before, Mughniyeh, a member of Arafat’s Force 17 before he became a notorious Beirut hostage-taker, was detailed by his master, Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to join Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda command in April 2001 – five months before the suicide hijackings hit New York and Washington. It was his job to make sure that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards intelligence service and the Lebanese Hizballah movement tendered bin Laden all the intelligence and logistical aid he might need.
The United States has been after Mughniyeh for the past 20 years, never forgetting his murky record of setting up and executing the kidnappings of American and other Western hostages in Lebanon of the 1980s. He is also held responsible for the 1983 suicide bombings of the US embassy and US Marine compounds in Beirut, which killed more than 300 Americans. Many US intelligence and counter-terror experts have come to believe that the Lebanese-Iranian terrorist was far more important in planning the 9/11 suicide attacks in America than originally thought.
Since that operation, Mughniyeh has been busy.
Operating out of Iran and the Persian Gulf, he helped organize the air- and sea-lifts for retrieving al-Qaeda fighters on the run from Afghanistan last December and January, bringing several thousand safely to countries in the Gulf and the Middle East.
His latest jobs are al-Qaeda’s chief operations officer in the Middle East and the network’s main liaison man between Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian security services and Tehran.
Mughniyeh does not make a habit of public appearances. However, after a lengthy disappearance, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources report he turned up without bodyguards at Jihad Jibril’s Damascus funeral on Wednesday. After undergoing extensive plastic surgery that has completely altered his appearance, he mingled with the crowds to test his new face. His plastic surgeons should be proud; no one recognized him, excepting a top Hizballah operative and the US and Israeli high-flying drones which flashed real-time pictures of the event to their monitors. The American pilotless aircraft took off early Wednesday from US warships cruising for the last four months in Mediterranean waters opposite the coasts of Lebanon and Syria.
Instead of the 39-year old black-haired terrorist ace of athletic build, the photos showed a Gulf businessman type in his late 50s. His face was round and his once full head of hair was now bald. Instead of his old semi-military safari outfits, he was attired in a conventional navy blue business suit.
The films showed the Hizballah secretary general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, as the only mourner who knew Mughniyeh’s real identity. After embracing the grieving father, Nasrallah scanned the faces of his fellow mourners until he spotted the bald businessmen standing at the edge of the crowd. He made a beeline for the arch terrorist and the two kissed and hugged in a lengthy embrace.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism and intelligence sources say the Jibril slaying and Mughniyeh’s appearance at the Damascus funeral signal an ominous development: the rumblings of a fresh eruption of Lebanon’s endemic factional warfare.
Several hours before the Jibril murder, the decomposing bullet-riddled body of a Christian military operative was found in the trunk of his car in another section of Beirut. He was laid to rest in a Christian neighborhood of the Lebanese capital Wednesday, May 22, at the same time as Jibril was buried in Damascus.
Such tit-for-tat assassinations were daily occurrences in the Lebanese civil war that raged in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, when the Muslim community was joined by the Palestinians to constitute a majority of 60 percent of the population of four million, and fought the dominant Christians for control of the country. The Hizballah, as representatives of the Shiite community, have been added to the equation since then. The Shi’ites now make up almost half of the Muslim population and a quarter of all of Lebanon’s inhabitants.
Hizballah aggressiveness is mounting as Washington’s June deadline for its renunciation of terror approaches, with no sign the extremists intend climbing down. The Christian communities, sensing the turmoil ahead, are stirring into action in the hope of recovering their lost standing in Beirut. For the first time since the Saudi-mediated Taif agreement ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989, the outlawed Christian Phalangist and other Christian flags flew at a Beirut funeral. The warring camps appeared to be rallying once again – the Christians at Irani’s funeral in Beirut and the Muslims at Jibril’s in Damascus.
Mughniyeh played a very active role in the first Lebanese civil war. His return to the scene augurs fresh trouble. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Beirut discern further signs of approaching strife in the Lebanese resort city and port of Jouniyeh, a playground of bars, nightclubs, hotels and casino until Syrian troops stationed in the town pulled out earlier this year. Since then, Christian militias have made Jouniyeh their center of operations and port of entry for large quantities of arms imported from eastern and western Europe.
This new threat has been exacerbated by the failure of two sets of secret talks CIA and National Security Agency representatives held in the past two weeks – both with Iranian military intelligence officials in Cyprus, and with Syrian officials and academics in Damascus and the United States.
In the conversations with the Iranian officers, Washington hoped to establish, in advance of the Bush-Putin weekend summit in the Russian town of St. Petersburg, whether Tehran had changed its mind about seeking nuclear armament, developing intercontinental ballistic missiles and running the Hizballah as a terrorist organization.
Iran was high on the agenda of the US and Russian leaders. (See separate article in this issue on the St. Petersburg summit.)
The United States was also anxious to gauge Iranian willingness to scale back its involvement with various Middle East terrorist groups, such as the Egyptian and Palestinian Islamic Jihad organizations, and to revise its approach to the US military presence in Afghanistan and the Hamid Karzai interim government in Kabul. Another issue on which the Americans sought to test the water was Tehran’s attitude on the US presence in the Central Asia republics and the Caspian region, as a prelude to possible cooperation between Iran’s oil industries and the oil projects planned in those regions.
Mughniyeh figured high on the agenda of the secret discussion. The American side wanted to know if Iran would be willing to suspend his activities and withdraw its support from the terrorist and intelligence networks he established in the Gulf, Middle East and Balkans – specifically in Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that the Iranian response was positive on oil industrial collaboration and Afghanistan, but flatly opposed to cooperating with Washington on any other issue. They were most prickly about their weapons arsenal and sponsorship of terror.
On the first, they declared they would not let the United States relegate the Islamic republic of Iran to the status of second- or third-rate power, while India, Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were free to stock up on the most advanced weapons and missile systems, and three even boasted a nuclear option. As for sponsoring terror, the Iranian side warned the Americans and Israelis that they would not be allowed to attack the Lebanese Hizballah with impunity. Iran, as the biggest Shi’ite country in the world, regarded itself as the defender of Shi’ite minorities everywhere, just as Israel was the protector of Jews in the Diaspora.
The American-Syrian conversations were even more fruitless, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources. Washington had hoped o strike a deal on Lebanon and disarming the Hizballah with President Bashar Assad and Syrian political and military leaders. The US team felt that if things did not work out with Tehran, they might come away from the Syrians with something on the Lebanese issue; they derived encouragement from Syria’s brief shutdown of the Iranian arms and equipment air route from Iran to the Hizballah, via Syrian military airfields and Damascus international airport.
If this was a goodwill gesture by Assad, it was not aimed at the US, but at Saudi Arabia. As the talks progressed, Damascus-Tehran coordination was seen to be very tight indeed. Right after the collapse of the talks last week, Iranian flights to the Hizballah via Syria resumed.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources note that Mughniyeh’s unabashed appearance at the Damascus funeral of a terrorist and his affectionate meeting with the Hizballah leader must have been approved at the highest levels between Damascus and Tehran. Middle East intelligence sources read it as a blatant demonstration to Washington by the Iranian and Syrian leaders that they stand foursquare behind the Hizballah.