'Fox' hunt: The search for Hezbollah's Imad Mughniyeh

The truth is now out: Almost exactly seven years ago, on Feb. 12, 2008, American spies on the ground in Damascus, Syria conducted reconnaissance of a Hezbollah master terrorist and informed their Israeli counterparts, who pushed the button on a remote-controlled, custom-made American explosive device that instantly killed Imad Mughniyeh. The spies had to wait several days for a chance to detonate the bomb without anyone else around in order to avoid any collateral damage. In fact, they resisted the temptation to kill two dangerous birds with one stone when Mughniyeh was spotted walking the street with his Iranian counterpart, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. The story, revealed by The Washington Post and Newsweek, reads like a paperback thriller — except this story is true.

In fact, this is only the final chapter of a much longer story about the hunt by Western intelligence services for Mughniyeh, nicknamed "the Fox" and "the One Who Never Sleeps" for his uncanny ability to slip through the fingers of Israeli, American and many other intelligence agencies — sometimes with the help of otherwise friendly foreign services.

Over the years, the Fox would evade capture on several occasions. The first such evasion came in Paris in November 1985, when officials intercepted a voice frequency sample of Mughniyeh, who was tracked to a luxury hotel on Paris's Champs Elysees — just around the corner from the U.S. embassy. That same month, a U.S. grand jury issued a sealed indictment against Mughniyeh and three other Hezbollah operatives for their roles in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 five months earlier. Why Mughniyeh was in Paris remains unknown, though speculation abounds that his presence involved negotiations over the release of four French hostages. Mughniyeh was traveling on a false identity, but the CIA provided French officials with a copy of the passport he was using. Instead of detaining him, French intelligence officials reportedly met Mughniyeh several times over a six-day period and allowed him to leave the country in return for the release of a French hostage.

A decade would pass before U.S. intelligence would get another opportunity to capture Mughniyeh. In 1995, intelligence indicated that Mughniyeh was traveling under an assumed name on a flight from Khartoum, Sudan to Tehran that was scheduled to make a stop in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. American officials asked their Saudi counterparts to detain Mughniyeh, which they did not, while FBI agents jumped on a plane to arrest him. But Saudi officials denied the FBI plane landing rights, allowing the Fox to slip away once more. The following year, a month after Hezbollah helped its Saudi affiliate bomb the Khobar Towers military barracks near Dharan, Saudi Arabia, information arose suggesting Mughniyeh was aboard the Ibn Tufail, a boat sailing in the Arabian Gulf. Navy ships trailed the Ibn Tufail while a team of Navy SEALs prepared a snatch-and-grab operation to be executed the following day off the coast of Qatar. The operation was called off, however, when senior American decision makers deemed the intelligence insufficient to warrant such a risky operation.

A decade earlier, in June 1985, the now infamous photo of Mughniyeh holding a gun to the head of the pilot of hijacked TWA Flight 847 made Hezbollah a household name. Although it was only in the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks that Mughniyeh was added to the FBI's new list of "Most Wanted Terrorists," in large part based on the TWA hijacking indictment, U.S. intelligence agencies were already keenly focused on him for his role in the Beirut bombings and the kidnappings that followed — especially the kidnapping and brutal murder of CIA Beirut station chief Bill Buckley. U.S. intelligence reports from the 1980s through at least 1991 refer to him as "hostage holder Imad Mughniyeh" and as "leader of the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO)." By the time he was killed in a Damascus car bombing in February 2008, Mughniyeh not only was considered the second-most important figure in Hezbollah after Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah; he was believed to simultaneously hold a formal commission in the IRGC.

According to U.S. intelligence sources, Mughniyeh frequently consulted with Iranian intelligence and IRGC officials. An Iranian official sat on the Hezbollah Shura Council in 1992, and around the same time two Iranians — including the deputy commander of the IRGC — were members of Hezbollah's military committee. The IRGC ran Hezbollah's intelligence-planning section until 1989, when a Lebanese candidate was finally deemed capable of doing the job. Over the years, senior IRGC Qods Force and Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) officials would periodically visit Lebanon to work with Hezbollah and assess the group's security. That most certainly would have occurred in the wake of Mughniyeh's assassination — the single-greatest intelligence failure Hezbollah has ever suffered.

Before he was killed, it is believed that Mughniyeh would seek Iranian consent before targeting U.S. interests. For example, in December 1991, the CIA worried over intelligence suggesting that Hezbollah planned to attack U.S. interests in Beirut in the ensuing weeks. Iran would likely oppose more Hezbollah kidnappings, the CIA assessed, since Tehran wanted to preserve its political capital from the recent release of some hostages. However, the agency warned, "It is possible that Tehran has approved low-level terrorist operations against US interests — such as sniper attacks — to allow Hezbollah elements to vent their animosity toward the United States. These Hezbollah elements may include former hostage holder Imad Mughniyeh." Other sources, the CIA added, suggested Hezbollah was planning a car bomb attack targeting the U.S. ambassador, attacks targeting CIA officers in Beirut and a plot to attach an explosive device to an embassy employee's car or nearby vehicle.

Today, the exposure of the CIA's role in Mughniyeh's death is likely to lead Hezbollah to consider targeting American interests directly, as it had in the 1980s and 1990s. Writing in 1994, the FBI assessed that Hezbollah would be unlikely to carry out an attack in the United States — and put at risk its lucrative fundraising, procurement and other activities here — but the group could still decide to carry out reasonably deniable attacks targeting American or other Western interests around the world in reaction to direct threats to the group or its interests. An American hand in the killing of Imad Mughniyeh would certainly seem to check that box.

To be sure, the group never completely stopped targeting American interests. As the director of the National Counterterrorism Center testified last September, Hezbollah plots are not only Israel's concern: "Lebanese Hezbollah remains committed to conducting terrorist activities worldwide. ... We remain concerned the group's activities could either endanger or target U.S. and other Western interests." And now, with the CIA's role in the hunt for Mughniyeh revealed, it may not be long before Hezbollah once more puts Americans in the crosshairs of sniper attacks, or plans car bombs targeting U.S. diplomats.

Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler Fellow and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.