Politics & Policy

Terrorism’s Godfather

Arafat leaves a deadly legacy.

Yasser Arafat is frequently, and accurately, described as the “godfather” of terrorism. His tentacles extend into virtually every terrorist organization in the world–including that of current arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden.

The ideological link between Arafat–who set the standard for using terrorism to legitimate a cause–and bin Laden is evident. Arafat’s Fatah movement used violence not simply as a means of attacking Israel, but as the central element in forging a new Palestinian identity. In this Arafat was inspired by the Algerian revolution and its ideologue, Franz Fanon (the Algerian government was Arafat’s first sponsor). Fanon taught that for the oppressed of the Third World, violence was cathartic. Effectively, Fanon justified violence not simply as a necessary means, but celebrated it as an end in itself. These ideas underpin the nihilistic violence that has engulfed the Palestinians. This ethos of mass violence for its own sake became all too familiar to Americans on 9/11.

But there is another, more concrete, link between bin Laden and Arafat that sheds light on the origins and operations of the international terrorist network.

From 1970 (when Arafat set up shop in Lebanon after being kicked out of Jordan) until Israel kicked him out in 1982, Arafat was based in Beirut, where he held a decade-long terrorpalooza. (His presence destabilized Lebanon, and played a major role in plunging the Arab world’s most free and prosperous state into a cycle of civil war and Syrian occupation.) The web of terror the Israelis unearthed was extensive: The entire alphabet soup of extremist organizations had trained with PLO–from the ETA to the LTTE to the IRA to the PKK.

One of Arafat’s most distinguished alums, however, was a Lebanese Shiite named Imad Mughniyah. As a teenager he belonged to Arafat’s personal bodyguard, Force 17. When Arafat & Co. left Beirut, Mughniyah stayed behind and became a bodyguard for Sheikh Husayn Fadlallah, who was leading an Iranian-inspired and -financed religious revival among Lebanon’s Shiites. Mughniyah demonstrated operational genius and rose to become Hezbollah’s director of special operations–that is, international terror.

Hezbollah, with strong backing from Iran and Syria, quickly became one of the world’s most effective terrorist organizations. In Beirut in 1982-83, Hezbollah introduced the world to the suicide truck bomb, hitting the American embassy twice and the barracks of U.S. Marines and French soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. These attacks led to the withdrawal of the peacekeeping force and condemned Lebanon to a future of civil war and Syrian occupation. This successful terrorist campaign was followed by a campaign of kidnapping Westerners in Lebanon in an effort to blackmail the U.S., French, and British governments to reduce their support for Iraq in its conflict with Iran. Mughniyah played a central role in masterminding this terrorism, which effectively manipulated a superpower.

Coordinated by Mughniyah and backed by Iran, Hezbollah extended its range far beyond Lebanon: launching attacks in Spain against U.S. servicemen, in Paris to intimidate the French government, and in places as far away as Buenos Aires. Hezbollah shared its expertise throughout the Muslim world, particularly with the Palestinian terrorists, but also with al Qaeda.

In the mid-1990s, Mughniyah met with bin Laden in Khartoum. Reportedly bin Laden expressed his admiration for Mughniyah’s accomplishments–particularly forcing the United States out of Lebanon in the early 1980s. This meeting cemented the alliance between Hezbollah and al Qaeda. Hezbollah, backed by Iran, trained al Qaeda in the all-important skills of agent handling, building effective explosives, and carrying out the multiple simultaneous attacks that had been Mughniyah’s trademark.

Compared to future attacks, al Qaeda’s first major operation–the 1993 World Trade Center bombing–was a failure. The bombs weren’t built properly. The next major al Qaeda operation was the embassy bombings in 1998. There, taking a page from Hezbollah, simultaneous truck bombs slammed into the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, killing hundreds. Mughniyah and Hezbollah made the critical difference in building al Qaeda into the deadly force it became.

Mughniyah was only one of many who learned the terrorist trade from Yasser Arafat; and it would not be accurate to say that Arafat was directly behind 9/11 and the growth of al Qaeda. But Arafat’s life’s work was to justify the use of random violence and equip a generation with the means to do so. He helped set in motion the web of alliances that has manifested itself in today’s super-terrorists. This is Yasser Arafat’s terrible legacy.

Aaron Mannes is the author of the TerrorBlog and of the book Profiles in Terror.


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