The Corner

Imad Mugniyah, Iran and al Qaeda

In December 2006, I wrote a piece for NRO called “Negotiate With Iran? How many Americans do they need to kill before we get the point?“  It’s worth repeating this history to underscore how significant Imad Mugniyah has been to a quarter-century of jihadist terror — Shia and Sunni:

Fresh from its 1979 siege of the U.S. embassy and the humiliating hostage-taking that ensued, the Islamic Republic of Iran — through the intercession of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — created Hezbollah in 1982. Primarily based in Lebanon, where American forces were massed to calm the bloody aftermath of Israel’s expulsion of Arafat’s PLO, the “Party of God” (Hizb Allah) claimed in its manifesto to be

the vanguard … made victorious by God in Iran. There the vanguard succeeded to lay down the bases of a Muslim state which plays a central role in the world. We obey the orders of one leader, wise and just, that of our tutor and faqih (jurist) who fulfills all the necessary conditions: [Ayatollah] Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini. God save him! Over the quarter century that followed, Hezbollah received billions in aid from Iran, as well as aid, logistical support, and safe haven from Syria, with which it works hand-in-glove to strangle Lebanon and wage war against Israel.

Hezbollah’s founding quickly resulted in a spate of kidnappings, torture, and bombing. (See this useful timeline from CAMERA.) In April 1983, for example, a Hezbollah car bomb killed 63 people, including eight CIA officials, at the U.S. embassy in Beirut. More infamously, the organization six months later truck-bombed a military barracks in Beirut, murdering 241 United States Marines (and killing 58 French soldiers in a separate attack). These operations, like many other Hezbollah atrocities, were orchestrated by Imad Mugniyah, long the organization’s most ruthless operative.

On December 12, 1983, the U.S. embassy in Kuwait was bombed, killing six and wounding scores of others. The bombers were tied to al-Dawa, a terror organization backed by Iran and leading the Shiite resistance against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime (with which Iran was at war). The leader of Dawa’s “jihad office” in Syria at the time was none other than Nouri al-Maliki — now the prime Minister of Iraq (and who, having opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, currently squabbles with American authorities, draws his country ever closer to Iran and Syria, and professes his support for Hezbollah). Among the “Dawa 17” convicted and sentenced to death for the bombing was Imad Mugniyah’s cousin and brother in law, Youssef Badreddin. (Badreddin escaped in the chaos of Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.)

Meanwhile, in 1984, Hezbollah bombed both the U.S. embassy annex in Beirut, killing two, and a restaurant near the U.S. Air Force base in Torrejon, Spain, killing 18 American servicemen. On March 16 of that year, Hezbollah operatives kidnapped William Francis Buckley, the CIA’s station chief in Beirut. He was whisked to Damascus and onto Tehran, where he became one of the hostages whose detention led to the Iran/Contra affair. Under Mugniyah’s direction, Buckley was tortured for 15 months, dying of a heart attack under that duress.

Hezbollah hijackers seized a Kuwait Airlines plane in December 1984, murdering four of the passengers, including two Americans. Six months later, Hezbollah operatives hijacked TWA Flight 847 after it left Greece. The jihadists discovered that one of their hostages was a U.S. Navy diver named Robert Stethem. They beat him severely and then shot him to death before dumping his body onto the tarmac of Beirut airport. In early 1988, Hezbollah kidnapped and ultimately murdered Colonel William Higgins, a U.S. Marine serving in Lebanon.

By the late 1980s, the Sunni Islamic terror network that would become known as al Qaeda was emerging in Afghanistan out of the mujahideen’s jihad against the Soviet Union. It was directed, of course, by bin Laden, with key assistance from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the emir of the Egyptian al-Jihad organization, which would ultimately be folded into the al Qaeda network.

One of al-Jihad’s most capable operatives was Ali Abdul Saoud Mohamed. A shadowy former Egyptian army officer (who ultimately emigrated to the U.S. and served in the American army for three years), Ali Mohamed became a top al Qaeda trainer and bin Laden’s personal bodyguard.

At bin Laden’s direction, Mohamed conducted surveillance in 1993 at various potential bombing targets, including the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Five years later, al Qaeda used his handiwork to bomb that embassy — the same day it struck the U.S. embassy in Tanzania. The bombings claimed over 240 lives.

Mohamed was ultimately charged with participation in al Qaeda’s war against the United States. When he pled guilty in 2000, among the startling revelations he made was the following:

I was aware of certain contacts between al Qaeda and al Jihad organization, on one side, and Iran and Hezbollah on the other side. I arranged security for a meeting in the Sudan between [Imad Mugniyah], Hezbollah’s chief, and Bin Laden. Hezbollah provided explosives training for al Qaeda and al Jihad. Iran supplied Egyptian Jihad with weapons. Iran also used Hezbollah to supply explosives that were disguised to look like rocks.In hindsight, disclosure of an Iran/Hezbollah/Qaeda partnership should have come as no surprise. In the aforementioned spring 1998 indictment, the Justice Department alleged that bin Laden had “stated privately … that Al Qaeda should put aside its differences with Shiite Muslim terrorist organizations, including the Government of Iran and its affiliated terrorist group Hezballah, to cooperate against the perceived common enemy, the United States and its allies.” Thus, the indictment explained: “Al Qaeda also forged alliances … with the government of Iran and its associated terrorist group Hezballah for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States.”

This concord, according to the 9/11 Commission’s review of U.S. intelligence files, traces back to the early 1990s. The invaluable terrorism researcher Thomas Joscelyn relates that the alliance was corroborated by testimony from a former al Qaeda member, Jamal al-Fadl (at the East African embassy-bombings trial in 2000). Bin Laden, according to al-Fadl, met at a guesthouse in Riyadh City with an emissary named Nomani, representing Iran’s mullahs. It would be mutually beneficial, they concurred, to put aside their Sunni/Shiite divide and work together against the common enemy: America and the West. Other Iranian contingents, the 9/11 Commission notes, visited al Qaeda’s headquarters in Sudan — bin Laden and his top aides having been transported there under Mohamed’s protection.

Subsequently, the Commission states (p. 61), “senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives. In the fall of 1993, another such delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for further training in explosives as well as intelligence and security.” That instruction, held at Hezbollah camps, included al Qaeda’s top military committee members and several operatives who were involved with its Kenya cells long before the 1998 embassy bombings.

The deadly fallout from this collaboration becomes increasingly clear. On June 25, 1996, a bomb was detonated near the American Air Force dormitory at the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The resulting massacre claimed the lives of 19 U.S. airmen (nearly 400 other people were wounded). In this land teeming with al Qaeda operatives and supporters, Hezbollah had been conducting surveillance on the target since 1993.

In responding — with an indictment — five years later, the Bush Justice Department announced that “the Iranian government inspired, supported, and supervised members of the Saudi Hizballah. In particular, … [Hezbollah] defendants reported their surveillance activities to Iranian officials and were supported and directed in those activities by Iranian officials.” Those officials, it is clear, acted with impunity: No Iranians were ever charged for Khobar, and no meaningful U.S. action against Iran was ever taken. In the interim, it has emerged that the operation was likely carried out with al Qaeda complicity. This was the conclusion of the CIA, reported fleetingly by the 9/11 Commission (at p. 60 & n.48).

Meanwhile, according to al-Fadl (the aforementioned informant), among the top al Qaeda leaders who received instruction from Iran and Hezbollah in the early 90s was Saif al-Adel. As al Qaeda’s chief of military operations, Adel was not only a driving force behind the 1998 embassy bombings. He is, in addition, a longtime bin Laden intimate, largely responsible for al Qaeda’s infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and Yemen (where the U.S.S. Cole was bombed in October 2000, killing 17 U.S. sailors), and believed to have trained some of the 9/11 hijackers.

Regarding 9/11 itself, suggestions at this point of an Iranian/Hezbollah role are sketchy but highly intriguing, while indications of Iran’s purposeful facilitation of al Qaeda are strong. As the 9/11 Commission summed up the state of play (at pp. 240-41):

[T]here is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers. There also is circumstantial evidence that senior Hezbollah operatives were closely tracking the travel of some of these future muscle hijackers into Iran in November 2000. Declining to draw the obvious inference, the Commission speculates that perhaps “Hezbollah was actually focusing on some other group of individuals traveling from Saudi Arabia … rather than the future hijackers.” It admits, however, that this would be “a remarkable coincidence.” Speaking of remarkable coincidences, the Commission also details at least two occasions when senior Hezbollah operatives were on the very same Iranian transit flights as the future hijackers.

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