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Jan 20, 2005 | 05:00 GMT

6 mins read

Hezbollah: Iran's Ace in the Hole

The United States and Iran have exchanged a great deal of heated rhetoric in recent days over the Iranian nuclear program and Iran's efforts to influence events in Iraq. The war of words will not break down into a U.S. military strike any time soon. However, should the United States choose at some point to strike Iran's nuclear facilities, there is a strong possibility that Iran would respond using unconventional forces.

Should the Iranians decide to play the terrorism card, STRATFOR believes they would call upon their perennial ace in the hole, Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group, which has a long and close relationship with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). Many analysts believe that Hezbollah, in fact, was established as an effort to export the Iranian Revolution to Lebanon.

The Hezbollah leader who perhaps has had the closest links with the Iranian MOIS — and who has been involved in more successful high-profile attacks than any other Hezbollah member — is Imad Fayez Mugniyah. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Mugniyah had been responsible for the deaths of more U.S. citizens than any other militant leader. Since Sept. 11, he has been eclipsed in the international spotlight by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda — not that he necessarily would mind, as he prefers to ply his trade in the shadows.

A profile of Mugniyah, one element of the Iranian-Hezbollah relationship, helps to illustrate Iran's track record as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Mugniyah has been alternately described as the head Hezbollah's security apparatus, as the group's chief of intelligence or as its chief of special operations. Born in 1962 — some sources cite Dec. 7, 1962 — Mugniyah literally exploded onto the world stage on April 18, 1983, when an attack he planned against the U.S. Embassy in Beirut killed 63 people, including 17 Americans. The attack killed or injured most of the CIA's Beirut station members, and the CIA has been after Mugniyah ever since — perhaps one reason he has not surfaced in quite some time. A U.S. State Department wanted poster offers up to $5 million for his capture. On Oct. 23, 1983, Hezbollah conducted simultaneous suicide truck bombings against the two buildings housing U.S. Marines and French paratroopers in Beirut, killing 241 Marines and 58 French soldiers who were in Lebanon as part of a multinational peacekeeping mission. On March 16, 1984, Hezbollah kidnapped CIA Station Chief William Buckley as he left his home for work. Buckley, who had been called to Beirut to pick up the pieces after the embassy bombing, was held in captivity for longer than a year and was severely tortured before his June 1985 death. Hezbollah would go on to kidnap and hold a number of Western hostages, including Terry Anderson, The Associated Press bureau chief in Beirut, who was held for seven years (1985-1991) and was the last of the Western hostages released. On Sept. 20, 1984, Hezbollah staged a suicide bombing against the U.S. Embassy's annex building in Beirut, killing 11 people. Hezbollah also carried out a number of hijackings. In fact, the United States has indicted Mugniyah in connection with the June 13, 1985, hijacking of TWA Flight 847, during which U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem was brutally beaten then executed, and his body was dumped on the tarmac at Beirut International Airport. Stethem's killer, Hasan Izz-al-Din, was acting on Mugniyah's orders. In addition to his close relationship with the Iranian MOIS, Mugniyah also has interacted with al Qaeda. At the very least, Mugniyah served as an inspiration for bin Laden, who has sought to emulate Hezbollah's success in driving U.S. troops out Lebanon by using violence to drive troops out of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, convicted al Qaeda member Ali Muhammed testified in court that he helped arrange a 1993 meeting between Mugniyah and bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan. Many investigators believe the meeting laid the groundwork for the June 25, 1996, bombing attack against U.S. Air Force personnel at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 U.S. airmen and wounded 372 others. Argentine authorities also have indicted Mugniyah for his alleged role in the March 17, 1992, bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, and the July 18, 1994, bombing of the Argentina Israel Mutual Association (AIMA) building in Buenos Aires. The Israeli Embassy bombing is thought to be retaliation for the Israeli assassination of Sheikh Abbas Masawi a month earlier. The speed of the retaliation led investigators to believe it was an "off the shelf" attack that had been planned earlier and held in reserve for the proper time. Many of the victims in the AIMA attack were children, and it is believed that Mugniyah chose that site specifically to target the children. Because of Mugniyah's many attacks against U.S. citizens, the U.S. government has made several attempts to apprehend him. He was located in France in 1986, but the French government refused to hand him over to the United States. In 1995, U.S. intelligence learned that Mugniyah was on a flight bound for Beirut from Khartoum. Washington arranged for the flight to make an unscheduled stop in Jeddah, but Saudi officials refused to let Mugniyah leave the plane, which continued on to Beirut. The next year, U.S. intelligence received a tip that Mugniyah was on a ship in the Persian Gulf called the Ibn Tufail. U.S. military forces quickly put together a plan to take the ship, but the operation was called off at the last minute when intelligence officials could not verify that Mugniyah was indeed on the ship. In recent years, Mugniyah and Hezbollah have focused much of their effort on attacks against Israel, including the October 2000 abduction of three Israeli soldiers. As a result, the Israeli government has tried to kill him on several occasions. In a 1994 attempt, his brother Faud was killed instead. Mugniyah lost another brother, Jihad, to a 1985 car bomb attack that Hezbollah blames on the United States. How, then, has Mugniyah survived so long with so many governments seeking to kill or capture him? Intelligence reports indicate that Mugniyah is the archetype of good operational security. He reportedly keeps no set routine, varies his routes and times, and never leaves a location by the same route he enters. Mugniyah reportedly has also undergone plastic surgery to alter his appearance. Furthermore, reports also indicate that he spends most of his time in Iran — where he is kept safe from the United States and Israel. Mugniyah probably owes his life to the protection provided by the Iranian government. Should the United States attack Iranian nuclear facilities, and Tehran respond with the terrorism card, Mugniyah could play an important role in Hezbollah's planning and operations.

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