Justice Served: Killing Mughniyah

  • Share
  • Read Later

There are two ways to look at today's assassination of Hizballah's most notorious terrorist, Imad Fa'iz Mughniyah. In this country it will be one of rendering justice, one less terrorist, a turn on the war in terror.

There was an outstanding American arrest warrant for Mughniyah, for the murder of a Navy diver in 1985. The diver was a passenger on TWA 847, which was diverted to Beirut. Mughniyah personally ordered the diver's murder. And, unlike other cases where Mughniyah's role was shadowy, there is solid evidence for his presence in the hijacking; his fingerprints were found on the airplane.

Mughniyah also was the mastermind of several other savage hijackings and the taking of Western hostages, including a former colleague, CIA station chief Bill Buckley. All of these attacks were carried out at the behest of Iran.

The mainstream press has reported that Mughniyah truck bombed the Marines and two American embassies in Beirut in the 1980s, as well as being behind two bombings against Israeli and Jewish targets in Argentina. Whether he was responsible or not for all of this mayhem — there is no conclusive evidence he was — no one is going to shed a tear in this country, in Israel, or the West for his passing.

I myself spent fifteen years tracking Mughniyah. At one point I was offered the opportunity to car bomb a house he was spending the night in. It was illegal for the CIA to conduct assassinations and I, of course, declined. But the United States and Israel have spared no effort to arrest Mughniyah. He avoided capture because, as it is widely recognized in Western intelligence circles, he was the world's most elusive and capable terrorist — and arguably more dangerous than Osama bin Ladin. The Israelis were currently after Mughniyah because he had been training and arming Hamas.

There had been reports that Mughniyah slipped into Iraq after the 2003 invasion, presumably to organize Iraqi Hizballah cells. Today, U.S. officials told TIME he had been training Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Iraq. Hizballah certainly has made no secret about its intention to help the Iraqi Shi'a.

His death will provide us with a sense of closure, particularly the family of the Navy bomber. But it also augurs more violence to come. It is unlikely we'll ever find out who killed Mughniyah, but the fact that the list of suspects is so long in itself is a bad sign. The group with the most to gain are the anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon — the Sunnis, Druze, and anti-Syrian Christians. By assassinating Mughniyah in Damascus, they grievously embarrassed Bashar al-Asad, underscoring what many Lebanese do not want us to forget: Syria harbors terrorists. The fact that Mughniyah was killed on the eve of the anniversary of the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri is probably not a coincidence.

It is unclear exactly what could set off violence in Syria. But it should be kept in mind that Hizballah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah was extremely close to Mughniyah. As Lebanon boils, Nasrallah will be sorely tempted to take revenge, whether it's against anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders, Israel, or even the United States.

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down