Death of a terrorist

The killing of Imad Mugniyah is a warning to militants everywhere

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At the battle of Brandywine in 1777, Capt. Patrick Ferguson, the deadliest marksman in the British army, had a bead on a tall, distinguished American officer, but the officer's back was turned to him and Ferguson thought it would be ungentlemanly to take the shot. He lowered his rifle.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).

History is biography. Would there be a United States of America if Capt. Ferguson had killed George Washington that day?

Our most dangerous enemy is dead. Imad Mugniyah was to terrorism what Babe Ruth was to baseball, what Beethoven was to music. He "was head and shoulders above any other terrorist in the word," said former CIA officer Robert Baer.

According to the private intelligence service STRATFOR, Mr. Mugniyah had just left a meeting with Hamas personnel in a Syrian intelligence office in Damascus Tuesday when a bomb blew up the car in which he was riding. Haj Hussein Khalil, Hezbollah's deputy for political affairs, was killed in the same explosion, according to the Iranian news agency.

A Lebanese Shiite, Mr. Mugniyah was for many years the most wanted man on the planet. He got his start in terrorism as a bodyguard for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. He masterminded the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut. He was behind the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, in which Navy diver Robert Stethem was murdered, and the bombings of Jewish targets in Argentina in the early 1990s. He is suspected of having planned the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia.

In early 2006, according to Asharq al-Awsat, a Sunni Arab newspaper published in London, Mr. Mugniyah was seen in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra, where he was responsible for sending members of the Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, to Iran for military training. That summer he was back in Lebanon, where he orchestrated the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers that triggered the 34-day Israeli-Hezbollah war.

At the time of his death, Imad Mugniyah was both the leader of Hezbollah's military wing and a senior officer in Iran's Quds (Jerusalem) Force. (Hezbollah, for all practical purposes, is the Lebanese branch of the Quds Force, which itself is the special operations branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps.) Mr. Mugniyah is thought to have been the only person to enjoy the confidence of both the Ayatollah Ali Khameni, the chairman of Iran's Guardian Council and Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Mugniyah first met Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, in Sudan in the early 1990s. "He then played a role in moving fighters loyal to bin Laden from Afghanistan to Iraq, through Iranian territory, by exploiting his relationships with the Revolutionary Guards, al-Zawahiri, Saad bin Laden (Osama's son) and Mohammed al-Islambouli, whose brother assassinated the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat," reported Asharq al-Awsat. Some Israeli intelligence officers think he played a support role in the 9/11 attacks on America.

Mr. Mugniyah's connections indicate relations between Sunni Islamists and Shiite Islamists are not as standoffish as some benighted CIA analysts and most Democrats believe. "The relationship between al-Qaida and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shiite divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations," noted the 9/11 commission in a portion of its report journalists rarely cite.

"Imad Mugniyah played an instrumental role in al-Qaida's rise," said Thomas Joscelyn, a defense analyst who's written a book about the connection.

His rising prominence is probably what did him in. Mr. Mugniyah lived as long as he did because he remained in the shadows. There are only a couple of known photographs of him, and he's had extensive plastic surgery. But as Mr. Mugniyah became a bigger shot, his movements became easier to track.

Still, the hit was awfully impressive. Syria is a police state; Mr. Mugniyah's movements were still closely held and his security detail large and capable. Yet somebody found out when he was going to be where he was, and blew him to smithereens.

Hezbollah, the Syrian government and Iran blame the Israelis, who say they had nothing to do with it. "Israel rejects the attempt by terrorist elements to ascribe to it any involvement whatsoever in this incident," said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

It'll be a while before we can tell how much the loss of Imad Mugniyah has hurt our enemies. But other terrorist leaders have to be nervous, because they know whoever could kill Imad Mugniyah in Syria could kill any of them.



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