IRAN’S president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attended a meeting in Syria earlier this year with one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, according to intelligence experts and a former national security official in Washington.
US officials and Israel intelligence sources believe Imad Mugniyeh, the Lebanese commander of Hezbollah’s overseas operations, has taken charge of plotting Iran’s retaliation against western targets should President George W Bush order a strike on Iranian nuclear sites.
Mugniyeh is on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists”? list for his role in a series of high-profile attacks against the West, including the 1985 hijacking of a TWA jet and murder of one of its passengers, a US navy diver.
Now in his mid-forties, Mugniyeh is reported to have travelled with Ahmadinejad in January this year from Tehran to Damascus, where the Iranian president met leaders of Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
The meeting has been dubbed a “terror summit”? because of the presence of so many groups behind attacks on Israel, which Ahmadinejad has threatened to wipe from the map.
Jane’s Intelligence Review cited “reports in recent weeks”? of Mugniyeh’s presence alongside the president.
Michael Ledeen, a Middle East expert and former Pentagon and National Security Council official who wrote that Mugniyeh had “probably”? been there, said last week senior American officials had confirmed it.
“It’s hard to identify Mugniyeh because he is said to have changed his face and his fingerprints,”? Ledeen said. “But senior government officials have told me I was right. He was there.”?
Shortly after the Damascus summit Henry Crumpton, head of counter-terrorism at the state department, singled out the elusive Mugniyeh as a threat. The Iranians, Crumpton said, “have complete command and control of Hezbollah. Imad Mugniyeh works for Tehran. And you can’t talk about Hezbollah and not think about Iran. They really are part and parcel of the same problem.”?
Mugniyeh lives in Iran and has evaded capture for more than 20 years, despite a $5m American bounty on his head. Western intelligence reports claim he has many connections to terrorist cells in Europe, Africa, Latin America and the US and he is said to have met Osama Bin Laden.
“When and if the Iranians decide to hit the West in its soft belly, Imad will be the one to act,”? a western intelligence source said last week.
An Israeli defence source claimed Mugniyeh was in regular touch with the new Iranian intelligence minister, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ezhei. The minister is a long-time confidant of Ahmadinejad and was appointed by him.
“We know that Mohseni Ezhei holds routine meetings with Mugniyeh, who is today Iran’s head of overseas operations,”? said the Israeli defence source. “Since we know from previous Iranian terror attacks that it takes about a year to plan a substantial one, we should not be surprised if operations against western targets are already in high gear and Mugniyeh is certainly playing a major role.”?
The young Mugniyeh first attracted the attention of the West when he was involved in the kidnapping, torture and mutilation of William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, in 1984. He kept his victim at the Sheikh Abdullah camp in the Lebanese Bekaa valley and was allegedly the last person Buckley saw before he died.
“Imad had good reason to retaliate,”? said a well-informed source. “A car bomb killed his brother Jihad, who had taken Imad’s old job as bodyguard to Hezbollah’s spiritual leader.”? Mugniyeh blamed the CIA, and Buckley was chosen to pay the price.
The kidnapping led to the Iran-contra affair, one of the most embarrassing episodes of the Reagan presidency, in which arms were swapped for hostages. But by the time the Americans were negotiating with the Iranians, Buckley was already dead.
Mugniyeh has also been linked to the demolition of the American embassy and marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and is wanted in Argentina for his role in recruiting the bombers of the Israeli embassy and Jewish centre in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s.
Mugniyeh left Lebanon for Iran in 1994 with his wife and son after an assassination attempt. He is since believed to have played an active role in fomenting trouble in Iraq. Ledeen described him last week as the “spinal column of the terror war against America in Iraq from the beginning”?.
According to Robert Baer, a former CIA agent who pursued Mugniyeh in the 1980s, “he is the most dangerous terrorist we have ever faced. Mugniyeh is probably the most intelligent, most capable operative we have ever run across, including the KGB or anybody else.
“He enters by one door, exits by another, changes his cars daily, never makes appointments by telephone — he is never predictable. He is the master terrorist, the grail we have been after since 1983”?.
# Elite Iranian army officers who arrived in south Lebanon this month have taken command of thousands of rockets aimed at cities across Israel. They are believed to have been given control of the missiles by Hezbollah to deter possible Israeli attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities.