Imad Fayez Mughniyeh, the Lebanese-Iranian ace terrorist killed by a bomb in Damascus, Tuesday, Feb. 13, was the keystone of Tehran’s drive for a military presence on the Mediterranean and an intelligence presence across the world.
His death surgically severed that outreach.
Before then, Iran relished the steady upward curve towards its goals. Tehran saw its goals drawing ever nearer with the inconclusive 2006 Hizballah-Israel War, Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 and its push into northern Sinai in February 2008.
Now, Iran has lost the architect of many of its successes as well as a loyal servant – albeit one who by refusing to share his secrets has left his masters and successors with an almost empty cupboard.
Deeply stricken, the Islamic government quickly posted a high-profile military delegation to Damascus to get to the bottom of the disaster which deprived them of a prime asset.
The delegation, which arrived Wednesday night on the same plane which continued to Beirut to carry foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki to the Mughniyeh funeral, is headed by Gen. Ghassem Soleimani, commander of the al Qods Brigades, the Revolutionary Guards foreign terror arm. Its other members are Adm. Mohammad Fadavi, Dep. Commander of the IRGC Navy, who set up the near-clash between Iranian speedboats and US warships in the Strait of Hormuz in January; and Gen. Morteza Rezai, former chief of the IRGC intelligence branch.
Alive, Mughinyeh was more than a trusted military chief; his instincts as a terrorist were useful registers of soft American and Israel targets in the region; his strategic strengths were applied for precisely aimed attacks.
His value to his Iranian masters was such, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources say, that had there been no Imad Mughniyeh, Revolutionary Iran might never have gone so far as to build the Lebanese Hizballah militia into a military force for challenging the Americans and Israelis.
A rare accident of history brought the future master terrorist in early 1982 to the first training camp Iranian agents set up for Hizballah in the Lebanese Beqaa. Aged 20, he was armed with the combat experience gained in the Palestinian Force 17 which acted as Yasser Arafat’s personal guard.
Arafat himself was expelled from Lebanon that year leaving the ambitious young Shiite unemployed.
He crafted the arcane, never-penetrated Hizballah intelligence network
Within months, he launched the first suicide bombing attacks, wreaking unbelievable carnage to US, Israeli, French and other Western targets in Beirut.
Over the next 26 years, Mughniyeh came to dictate the tempo of Iranian and Hizballah terrorist and military operations in the eastern Mediterranean countries of the Middle East.
Tehran soon discovered his exceptional talents – not only as a terror tactician but as a secret agent and designer of clandestine organizations.
In this capacity, Mughniyeh created a world-wide undercover network, grafting it on the affluent Lebanese Shiite expatriate communities scattered across Africa, Asia, and North and South America. He also enlisted willing hands among anti-American and pro-Nazi groups doing business with the expatriates in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.
These rings were and still are employed mainly as spies for Tehran, in weapons and drug trafficking and most of all in raising money to fund Hizballah’s operations.
Cells of this universal ring were responsible for the 1992 bombing attacks on the Israeli embassy and Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, in which more than a hundred people died. They stand ready now to execute further orders to avenge their master’s death by hitting more Israeli and Jewish targets.
The clandestine Shiite network crafted by the Lebanese secret agent for Tehran parallels al Qaeda’s jihadist worldwide spread.
No American, Israel or other Western agency has ever succeeded in penetrating Mughniyeh’s clandestine operation. The only Western cloak-and-dagger service with indirect ties – and then too through Iran – was the German BND intelligence agency. Those ties were not operational, only a conduit for relaying communications between the Iranian network and Western intelligence organizations.
An obsession with secrecy
So obsessed was the dead terrorist with secrecy, that he designed and made his own disguises; even his closest helpers never knew in what character he would turn up at any given moment. He personally arranged for the facial surgery procedures that change his appearance. Middle East intelligence circles insist that he masked his reinvented images by murdering the surgeons who performed the operations and torching their clinics to destroy his medical records.
In 1996, US intelligence received a tip that its most wanted terrorist had been spotted during a stopover at Jeddah international airfield and identified, although he was bald, beardless and stout.
By the time the news was flashed between Washington, the US embassy in Riyadh and the Saudi royal court, Mughniyeh had shown a clean pair of heels. His plane took off hurriedly without first checking with the control tower.
The only clue he left behind was the sense that he had contracted an ailment which caused him to swell up.
So well did he succeed in hiding his true appearance that only two batches of photos ever reached Western intelligence hands; one dates from 1985 when he was 25; the second was shot from a distance by Israeli military intelligence AMAN with telescopic lens in 1998, when he was sighted on a rare tour of the Lebanese-Israeli border.
Later photos turned out to be fakes.
Mughniyeh handled the security and Intelligence aspects of his networks with the same care as his personal safety. He kept all the data on the composition of his networks, how to contact them, his personal exchanges, his knowledge of their resources, scale and capabilities as close to his chest as his private secrets.
He did not even share the information with his deputies, the most senior of whom are Talal Hamayeh, a kinsman from Taraya village in the Lebanese Beqaa Valley, and Ibrahim Aqal, who served as Hizballah commander in south Lebanon in 2000.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, one of these two will most likely be appointed to succeed their dead boss as military and intelligence chief of Hizballah.
However, he will have to start working almost from scratch. The super-secretive Mughniyeh took most of the mysteries of his networks to the grave, leaving very few records for them to recover.
Tehran has discovered that his death has not only deprived the Islamic Republic of an exceptional asset, but also severed vital access to the Iranian foreign intelligence and terrorist networks which he established.