When the news broke that Imad Mugniyah was killed by a car bomb in Damascus on Wednesday, speculation quickly turned to who brought down the wanted Hezbollah terrorist, a man accused of plotting the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut and the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847, along with a host of other terrorist attacks.
Naturally, the Israeli intelligence service Mossad seemed a likely candidate (and Hezbollah quickly accused the "Zionists of martyring" him). Israeli security officials made no secret that they considered Mugniyah's death a service to humanity. "I don't know who killed him, but whoever did should be congratulated," former Israeli military intelligence official Gideon Ezra told Israel Radio. Ultimately, the office of Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert denied Israeli involvement, saying in a statement that "Israel rejects the attempt by terrorist elements to ascribe to it any involvement whatsoever in this incident."
"There are a lot of motivations to kill him, but in particular anti-Syrian groups have the means and the motive," said former CIA officer Robert Baer, who served in Beirut and spent extensive time investigating Mugniyah, in a telephone interview. "That would be [the family of assassinated Lebanese prime minister Rafik] Hariri and his son. You've got Lebanese Christians, you've got the Druze. They would be pushing back for the deputies of Lebanon's parliament that were assassinated they think by Hezbollah or Syria."
"It's a huge embarrassment for Syria," Baer added. "Here's probably the most dangerous terrorist in the world. Imad Mugniyah is the equivalent of [Osama] bin Laden. He is more adept. He has killed hundreds of people and has the potential, with his group [Hezbollah], to kill thousands more. This is a bigger catch than bin Laden."
But don't be so sure Mugniyah wasn't offed by Hezbollah or Syria, another former CIA officer with Middle East field experience told me in an interview. "He's an embarrassment for them," he said. "Hezbollah's public line is that he is not associated with them and they have no American blood on their hands. They say that when they get together with anyone trying to talk to them. And it's full of shit. It's a lie. They are a terrorist organization."
About one thing, the former CIA officer was sure: "I know goddamn well we didn't do it. Because it's too good of an operation. If we did it, it would be fifteen years in the making, and there'd be video surveillance from Washington....I'm serious."
As for Israel's denial, the former CIA officer said, "I can't understand why Israel would issue such a strong declaration," unless it wasn't involved.
But Daniel Levy, a onetime adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, suggested Israel's denial was "pro forma." "There is a lot of clucking going on, interviews on Israeli TV with families of victims of operations that Mugniyah was behind," Levy said in an email.
"If this is perceived by the Israeli public to be an Israeli hit, then there would be certain advantages for the Israeli government," he continued. "(1) The Israeli leadership appears pretty helpless right now in the face of the rockets on Sderot from Gaza. The assassination would be a useful distraction and show of force and be seen to send a signal to the Hamas leadership. And (2) Israel has been looking to poke Hezbollah in the eye for some time...especially after Winograd," a government commission that recently issued a report on the the disappointing Israeli performance during its war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.
After watching the Israeli evening news, Levy further reported: "The nature of the coverage is suggesting an Israeli operation. Whether or not Israel did it, they are giving the Israeli public the impression that they did it."
Mugniyah was educated at the American University of Beirut, studying mechanical engineering, the former CIA officer said. "We educated him. And he was left behind [in Lebanon] deliberately by [former Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser] Arafat in '82. Arafat left behind a small group from his own security office. And Mugniyah was one of them, Yasser Arafat's poison pill. They formed Islamic Jihad, a group that included him....These guys were all members of a soccer team when they were young kids."
"'Imad Mugniyah was an enigma," Baer wrote in his 2002 memoir, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism. "According to his passport application, he had been born in 1962 in Tayr Dibba, a dirt-poor village in southern Lebanon, but even that was uncertain. Often poor Shi'a Lebanese recorded the family village as a birthplace to conceal an illegal residence, more often than not in Beirut's southern suburbs."
"Mugniyah, we knew, had grown up in a makeshift cinder block house with no running water, in 'Ayn Al-Dilbah, one of the poorest parts of the southern suburbs," Baer wrote. "That's what we knew, but it still didn't add up. How did a poor boy from 'Ayn al-Delbah rise out of the ashes of the 1982 Israeli invasion in less than a year [to] put together the most lethal and well-funded terrorist organization in the world?"
Long on the FBI's most wanted list, the U.S. had offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to his capture.