MICHELE NORRIS, host:
One of the most dangerous and mysterious figures in the Middle East — and one of America's most wanted men — has been killed. Imad Mughniyeh is believed to have masterminded some of the deadliest attacks on Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s. He died Tuesday night in a car bombing in Damascus, Syria.
As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, Mughniyeh's operations included suicide bombings, hijacking, and hostage-taking.
MIKE SHUSTER: Before Osama bin Laden, there was Imad Mughniyeh. No single figure was believed to be responsible for more American deaths in attacks overseas than Imad Mughniyeh. A key security commander of Hezbollah in Lebanon. From Lebanon to Saudi Arabia to Argentina, Mughniyeh's fingerprints In Beirut, Hezbollah's TV station, Al-Manar, was the first to announce his death Wednesday morning.
(Soundbite of Al-Manar newscast)
Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)
SHUSTER: A great jihadist leader of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon has joined the caravan of faithful martyrs, the announcer said. Hajj Imad Mughniyeh has died at the hands of the Zionist Israelis.
Israel denied it had killed Mughniyeh, but current and former Israeli officials made no effort Wednesday to hide their approval of the killing. The Israelis believe Mughniyeh planned the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and another bombing of a Jewish cultural center there two years later. Those attacks left 115 dead.
Danny Yatom, a former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, said Mughniyeh had blood on his hands from numerous Hezbollah attacks in and outside of Lebanon.
Mr. DANNY YATOM (Former Chief of Mossad): In the fight against terror today by the free and democratic world, I think the free and democratic world today achieved a very, very important goal.
SHUSTER: But Israel wasn't the only nation that wanted Mughniyeh dead, according to Dan Byman, director of peace and security studies at Georgetown University and a member of the staff of the 9/11 Commission.
Professor DAN BYMAN (Director, Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University): The list of people who'd want to kill Mughniyeh is quite long. Certainly the Israelis are at or near the top of the list. And there are many reports that the United States in the past had tried to kill him in retaliation for his killing of so many Americans.
SHUSTER: Mughniyeh is believed to have masterminded a suicide truck bombing attack in 1983 targeting the barracks in Lebanon housing U.S. Marines. The Marines who were in Lebanon as peacekeepers, 241 were killed, as well as another 58 French troops in a second suicide truck bombing the same day.
Mughniyeh is also believed to have been responsible for the bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, first in 1983 and then again in 1984, in which 72 people were killed, including the CIA's top Middle East expert. Mughniyeh is suspected of orchestrating the kidnapping and murder of the CIA's station chief in Lebanon, William Buckley, as well as dozens of other hostages.
In 1985, Mughniyeh is believed to have organized the hijacking of a TWA airliner, in which a U.S. Navy serviceman was killed. Mughniyeh was indicted in the United States for that operation. A State Department spokesman said the world is a better place without this man in it.
After the 1980s, Mughniyeh mostly dropped out of sight, but that didn't stop his activities for Hezbollah and also on behalf of Iran, says Dan Byman.
Prof. BYMAN: Mughniyeh had an exceptionally close relationship with Iran. He is believed to hold an Iranian passport, to be fluent in Farsi, and many people believe that he spent much of the last almost two decades in Iran either training people or simply hiding out because it was so unsafe for him in Lebanon because so many people wanted to kill him.
SHUSTER: The bomb that killed Mughniyeh was placed under his parked car in an upscale neighborhood of Damascus. An Iranian school and offices of the Syrian intelligence service are nearby. This was friendly territory for Mughniyeh, which suggests that whoever planned his killing was capable of mounting sophisticated covert operations.
Mike Shuster, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.