U.S. and Israeli officials have accused Mughniyeh of association with many bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations, beginning with the Beirut barracks bombing and US embassy bombings, both of which took place in 1983 and killed over 350, as well as the kidnapping of dozens of foreigners in Lebanon in the 1980s. He was indicted in Argentina for his alleged role in the 1992 Israeli embassy attack in Buenos Aires. The highest-profile attacks for which it is claimed he is responsible took place in the early 1980s, shortly after the founding of Hezbollah, when Mughniyah was in his early twenties. U.S. officials have accused him of killing more United States citizens than any other militant prior to the September 11 attacks, and the bombings and kidnappings he is alleged to have organized are credited with all but eliminating the US military presence in Lebanon in the 1980s.
Mughniyeh was killed on the night of 12 February 2008 by a car bomb that detonated as he passed by on foot, in the Kafr Sousa neighborhood of Damascus, Syria.
Mughniyeh was born in the village of Tayr Dibba, near Tyre, on 7 December 1962 to a family of poor farmers who harvested olives and lemons in the orchards of Lebanon's southern Shi'a heartland. His father's name was Fayez. For some time it was mistakenly thought that he was the son of Jawad (or Javad) Mughniyeh, a religious figure and author. His birth date had also been given as July 1962. Mughniyeh had two younger brothers, Jihad and Fouad. About a decade after Mughniyeh's birth, his father moved the family to southern Beirut. CIA South Group records state that Mughniyeh lived in Ayn Al-Dilbah, an impoverished neighborhood in South Beirut. Mughniyeh is described as having been a popular boy and a "natural entertainer" who cracked jokes at family weddings and "worked the crowd with a confidence unusual for a youth his age."
Mughniyeh and his cousin Mustafa Badr Al Din became active in the Palestinian Fatah movement at an early age. Mughniyeh was discovered by fellow Lebanese Ali Abu Hassan Deeb (who would later become a leader in Hezbollah) and quickly rose through the ranks of the movement. In the mid-1970s, Mugniyah organized the "Student Brigade," a unit of 100 young men which became part of Yasser Arafat's elite Force 17. Mughniyeh temporarily left Fatah in 1981 due to differences of opinion on the regime of Saddam Hussein. Mughniyeh was a Shiite and deeply religious and was upset by the murder of the Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr in 1980 as well as a previous attempt by the Iraqi intelligence on the life of Lebanese Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah.
Fatah was formally in alliance the Lebanese National Movement, which included the Lebanese pro-Iraqi branch of the Ba’th party. Mughniyeh and some of his Lebanese Shiite comrades were forced to leave Fatah after engaging in armed confrontations with Ba’th party activists. They had previously organized a body guard unit for Ayatollah Fadlallah and other Shiite clerics in Lebanon. Mughniyeh accompanied Ayatollah Fadlallah on a Hajj pilgrimage in 1980 and thus earned his Hajj title.
Mughniyeh was a student in the engineering department at the American University of Beirut in 1981 when the United States gave the "green light" for Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon in pursuit of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Mughniyeh was in Iran but hurried back to Beirut where he rejoined Fatah. He participated in the defence of West Beirut, where he was wounded in the fighting. After the withdrawal of PLO forces from Beirut in September 1982 Mughniyeh acquired an important position in the nascent resistance to the Israeli occupation due to his knowledge of arms caches left behind by the Palestinians. He remained a Fatah member during this period but also worked with other factions, such as the leftist Lebanese National Movement and Islamic resistance groups. Mughniyeh remained a member of Fatah until 1984 when he joined the newly created Islamic Resistance of Hezbollah. However, he remained close to Fatah leader Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) until the latter’s death in 1988. He also remained deeply committed to the Palestine cause throughout his life and apparently founded the secret "Committee for Elimination of Israel" inside Hezbollah in 2000. In later years, and especially after the Oslo accords, Mughniyeh and Hezbollah sided with the more militant Palestinian factions such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
Mughniyeh worked as the bodyguard for Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, a spiritual mentor to many in Lebanon's Shi'a community whose political consciousness was on the rise. Fadlallah held no formal political role, "opposed violence and sectarian division, and defied growing Iranian influence in Lebanon."
U.S. and Israeli officials have accused Mughniyeh of many terrorist attacks, primarily against American and Israeli targets. These include 18 April 1983 bombing of the United States embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, which killed 63 people including 17 Americans. Agreement is not universal on Mughniyeh's involvement, and Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense at the time of the attack, told PBS in 2001, "We still do not have the actual knowledge of who did the bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport, and we certainly didn't then."
Mughniyeh was also alleged to have directed 23 October 1983 truck bombings against French paratroopers and the U.S. Marine barracks, attacks which killed 58 French soldiers and 241 Marines. While a student at the American University of Beirut (AUB) on 18 January 1984, Mughniyeh allegedly assassinated Malcolm Kerr, the school's president. On 20 September 1984, he is alleged to have attacked the US embassy annex building.
The United States indicted Mughniyeh (and his alleged collaborator, Hassan Izz al-Din) for 14 June 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, which resulted in the death of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem. Mughniyeh and his men allegedly beat Stethem for hours, before killing him and dumping his body onto the tarmac.
U.S. and Israeli officials have also alleged that Mughniyeh was involved in numerous kidnappings of Westerners in Beirut during the 1980s, most notably the kidnapping of Terry Anderson, Terry Waite, and William Francis Buckley, who was the CIA station chief in Beirut. Some of these individuals were later killed, such as Buckley, who was tortured and eventually murdered. The remainder were released at various times with the last one, Terry Anderson, released in 1991. On 30 September 1985, Mughniyeh allegedly organized the kidnapping of four diplomats from the Soviet Embassy in Beirut, one of whom he allegedly personally killed. The result of the kidnapping was Soviet pressure on Syria to stop its operations in Northern Lebanon in exchange for release of the remaining three hostages.
Mughniyeh was formally charged by Argentina for his alleged involvement in 17 March 1992 bombings of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 and the AMIA cultural building in July 1994, killing 85 people. In March 2007, the Interpol issued "red notices" for his and others' alleged roles in the attack.
In addition, Mughniyeh allegedly planned the killing of the IDF commander in Lebanon, Micha Tamir, and two Israeli soldiers on 6 April 1992.
U.S. and Israeli officials have also alleged that Mugniyah was involved in the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, which killed 19 Americans.
Israeli officials accuse Mughniyeh of orchestrating the 2000 capture of three Israeli soldiers in the northern part of Israel, and of the kidnapping of Israeli businessman Elchanan Tenenbaum. They also allege that Mughniyeh killed eight soldiers and abducted two during Israel's 2006 incursion into Lebanon.
All of the allegations have been denied by Hezbollah, its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah questioning whether Mughniyeh's U.S. accusers had evidence to back up their allegations.
Nasrallah also stated that, "Hajj Imad is among the best freedom fighters in the Lebanese arena. He had a very important role during the occupation [of southern Lebanon by Israel]. But as for his relationship with Hezbollah, we maintain the tradition of not discussing names."
According to former CIA agent Robert Baer, "Mughniyah is probably the most intelligent, most capable operative we’ve ever run across, including the KGB or anybody else. He enters by one door, exits by another, changes his cars daily, never makes appointments on a telephone, never is predictable. He only uses people that are related to him that he can trust. He doesn’t just recruit people." He was described as "tall, slender, well-dressed and handsome ... penetrating eyes," speaking some English but better French.
Mugniyah has been allegedly linked to Palestinian operations such as the Karine A incident in 2002, where the Palestinian Authority was accused of importing fifty tons of weapons. He was a member of Force 17, an armed branch of the Fatah movement charged with providing security for Yasser Arafat and other prominent PLO officials.
In the mid-February 1997, the pro-Israeli South Lebanese Army radio station reported that Iran's intelligence service had dispatched Mughniyeh to Lebanon to directly supervise the reorganisation of Hezbollah's security apparatus concerned with Palestinian affairs in Lebanon and to work as a security liaison between Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence. Mughniyeh also reportedly controlled Hezbollah's security apparatus, the Special Operations Command, which handles intelligence and conducts overseas terrorist acts. Allegedly, although he used Hezbollah as a cover, he reported to the Iranians. According to Jeffery Goldberg, writing in the New Yorker, "It is believed that Mugniyeh takes orders from the office of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, but that he reports to a man named Qasem Soleimani, the chief of a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps called Al Quds, or the Jerusalem Force—the arm of the Iranian government responsible for sponsoring terror attacks on Israeli targets." In January 2002, the US cable also stated that Mughnieah left Hezbollah and got closer to Iran. However, Mughniyeh was a member of Hezbollah's jihadist council until his death in February 2008. After the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, he was assigned by Hezbollah the improvement of the military capabilities of the resistance in Lebanon and Damascus was his centre for this activity.
The European Union listed him as "Senior Intelligence Officer of Hezbollah".
Various law enforcement agencies attempted to capture Mughniyeh. The United States tried to secure his capture in France in 1986, but were thwarted by French refusal to detain him.
The United States tried to capture him several times afterward, beginning with a 1995 operation that was put in place after it was realized Mughniyeh was flying a Middle East Airlines charter flight A-310 Airbus from Khartoum to Beirut after a meeting with several militant leaders, and was scheduled to make a stop-over in Saudi Arabia. But Saudi airport officials refused to allow the plane to make its stop-over, thwarting American bids to arrest Mughniyeh.
The next year, U.S. military personnel planned to seize him off a ship in Doha, Qatar, but the operation was called off. This plan, dubbed Operation RETURN OX, was carried out by ships and sailors of Amphibious Squadron Three (USS Tarawa, USS Duluth, USS Rushmore), Marines of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and Navy SEALs assigned to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. The operation was underway, but was canceled at the last minute when it could not be verified that Mughniyeh was actually on board the Pakistani ship.
On 10 October 2001, Mughniyeh appeared on the initial list of the FBI's top 22 Most Wanted Terrorists, which was released to the public by President Bush, with a reward of up to $5 million offered for information leading to his arrest. Later the reward was increased to $25 million. This reward remained outstanding as of 2006. In addition, he was in 42 countries' wanted list.
The Israeli government allegedly made several attempts to assassinate Mughniyeh. His brother Fuad, a car shop owner, was killed in a 1994 Beirut car bombing and another brother, Jihad, was killed in a car-bombing assassination attempt on the life of Hezbollah founder Sheikh Fadlallah in 1985, this one rumored to be the work of the CIA via the South Lebanese Army. Israel planned to assassinate Imad Mughniyeh when he attended the funeral of his brother Fuad, but he did not show.
Jeffrey Goldberg in The New Yorker magazine suggested that Mugniyeh attended a meeting between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He was there representing Hezbollah in Lebanon. Mugniyeh had been informed that he was at the top of a US military and CIA assassination list. For this reason, he was said to avoid certain areas of Beirut for fear of being killed by CIA operators.
In 1983, Mughniyeh married his cousin, Saada Badr Al Din, who is the sister of Mustafa Badr Al Din. Mughniyeh had three children according to his mother: Fatima (born August 1984), Mustafa (born January 1987), and Jihad (estimated to have been age 25 at death). In September 1991, Mugniyeh’s wife and children were sent to Tehran for security reasons. Later his family began to live in south Lebanon. Mughniyah also married an Iranian woman, Wafaa Mughniyeh, with whom he lived in Damascus.
Imad's younger son, Jihad Mughniyah, was killed in January 2015 Mazraat Amal incident in the Syrian Golan sector on 18 January 2015. Five other Hezbollah members and an Iranian Quds Force general were also killed in the attack.
Imad Mughniyeh was killed on 12 February 2008 by a car bomb blast around 23:00 in the Kafr Sousa neighborhood of Damascus, Syria. According to The Sunday Times, Mughniyeh was at a reception marking the 29th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution hosted by the Iranian ambassador to Syria, Hojatoleslam Ahmad Musavi. Mughniyeh left the party shortly after 22:30 and walked to his Mitsubishi Pajero. The spare tire had been replaced by one with a high-explosive, which detonated as Mughniyah walked past. The blast completely destroyed the car, left minimum damage on nearby buildings, and killed only Mughniyeh. A Syrian government investigation found that he was killed by a car bomb parked nearby and detonated by remote.
Mughniyeh's body was taken to Beirut and a funeral was organized by Hezbollah on 14 February. Senior Iranian officials attended the service; Ali Akbar Velayati representing the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki representing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A symbolic tomb was erected for Mughniyeh in the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery of Tehran.
Israel officially denied being behind the killing, but Mughniyeh reportedly had been a target of Mossad assassination attempts since the 1990s. Accounts cited by the Jerusalem Post state that Mughniyeh was assassinated in revenge for the 2006 Lebanon War, which he was accused of having a role in instigating. Mossad tasked the Kidon Division, a unit of assassins which operates under the Caesarea Branch, with the mission. An account stated that a team of operatives entered Damascus, where they waited for Mughniyeh. When Mughniyeh walked past the explosives-laden car, it was detonated. The Times writes that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met privately with Mossad Director-General Meir Dagan on the day of Mughniyeh's burial, reportedly to congratulate him.
On 27 February 2008, The Jerusalem Post reported that Al-Quds Al-Arabi had written that anonymous "Syrian sources" had claimed that "several Arab nations conspired with Mossad" in the assassination of Mughniya.
The U.S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has suggested that it was also possible that internal Hezbollah factions or Syria was responsible for the killing. Without naming a source, the German newspaper Die Welt wrote that a story had been circulated amongst German diplomatic staff that it was possible that associates of late Assef Shawkat had assassinated Mughniyeh. This would have been in revenge for Mughniyeh tipping off Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regarding a coup plotted against him, which the Syrian government had foiled a couple of days before his assassination. Releasing the story in advance of going to print, Die Welt said the Syrian embassy in Berlin had rejected the coup story as utterly untrue. Lebanese politicians Walid Jumblatt, Saad Hariri as well as Mughniyeh's Iranian widow also accused Syrian officials. His widow, after returning to Iran from Damascus, stated "This is why the Syrian regime has refused the help of Iran and Hizbollah in the investigation of the murder... The Syrian traitors assisted in my husband’s murder." However, later she denied her statements.
The Kuwaiti newspaper Al Rai reported that Hezbollah sources said they would retaliate for Mughniyeh's death by assassinating Israeli leaders.
On 31 January 2015, The Washington Post and Newsweek reported that the CIA and Mossad had collaborated to kill Mughniyeh. The Post reported that CIA spotters in Damascus watched Mughniyeh's movements, but the bomb was triggered remotely from Israel by Mossad operatives who were in communication with personnel on the ground. Newsweek reported that a CIA officer and a Mossad officer watched Mughniyeh from a lookout post. The Mossad operative's role was to confirm Mughniyeh's identity, and the CIA operative detonated the bomb. According to the Post, US President George W. Bush authorized the assassination due to Mughniyeh's role in training and arming Iraqi Shiite militias who were attacking American forces. The bomb was tested at the CIA's Harvey Point base in North Carolina, and designed to minimize collateral damage. During the operation, the CIA and Mossad had an opportunity to kill both Mughniyeh as well as Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani as the two were talking together, but no action was taken as President Bush had not authorized the assassination of Soleimani. According to Newsweek, the operatives watched Mughniyeh for two months, but waited to act until they saw him walking alone in order to minimize the potential for other casualties.
At Mugniyah's funeral, Hassan Nasrallah appeared via video link and in the eulogy delivered for his fallen comrade, declared: "You crossed the borders. Zionists, if you want an open war, let it be an open war anywhere." Lebanese senior cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah said that "the resistance has lost one of its pillars." Iran condemned the killing as: "yet another brazen example of organised state terrorism by the Zionist regime".
The assassination of Mughniyeh was condemned in some parts of the world. Then Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema termed the assassination "terror" in an interview, while Gideon Levy of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz claimed the assassination actually undermined Israel's security. In Kuwait, there was a rally mourning his death. A member of Kuwait's parliament asserted "Mugniyah is a martyr hero who shook the grounds beneath the Zionist enemy (Israel) and America," Jordan's largest political party condemned the assassination as a cowardly crime. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said "The bloodthirsty Zionists must know that the pure blood of martyrs like Imad Mugniyah will grow hundreds like him and will increase resistance against corruption and atrocities twofold." When polled shortly afterwards, over 61 percent of Lebanese believed Hezbollah's retaliation for Imad Mugniyah's killing by Israel would be justified.
The Bush administration welcomed news of Mugniyah's death. A spokesman of the U.S. State Department said: "The world is a better place without this man in it. He was a coldblooded killer, a mass murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost. One way or another he was brought to justice." Danny Yatom, former head of the Israeli Mossad said: "He was one of the most dangerous terrorists ever on Earth."