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Report: Reputed terrorist long sought by CIA killed in explosion

  • Story Highlights
  • State Department, FBI welcome news of militant's death, await confirmation
  • Terror experts call Imad Mughniyeh a role model for Osama bin Laden
  • Mughniyeh dies in Syrian blast, according to Hezbollah TV
  • Mughniyeh suspected in 1983 Lebanon bombings, 1985 plane hijacking
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BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- A Hezbollah commander suspected in some of the deadliest terrorist attacks of the last 25 years and a reputed role model for Osama bin Laden has been killed in Syria, Hezbollah TV said Wednesday.


Hezbollah released this undated photograph of Imad Mughniyeh.

Imad Mughniyeh died in an explosion in a residential section of the Syrian capital, Damascus, said Hezbollah's television station, Al-Manar.

Hezbollah blamed Israel for the killing, but Israeli officials denied involvement.

"Israel rejects the attempt by terrorist elements to ascribe to it any involvement whatsoever in this incident," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a statement.

The FBI said it was awaiting official confirmation of Mughniyeh's death and the details.

"If this information proves true, it would be good news in the ongoing fight against terrorism as one major terrorist will no longer be around to commit additional acts of terror against Americans and others in the world," FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called Mughniyeh "a cold-blooded killer, a mass murderer and a terrorist who was responsible for [ending] countless lives." Video Watch the possible repercussions of Mughniyeh's death »

"The world is a better place" without the Hezbollah commander, McCormack said.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a statement: "We welcome the news that Imad Mughniyeh's life of terror has finally come to an end. From Beirut to Dhahran, he orchestrated bombings, kidnappings and hijackings in which hundreds of American service members were killed. Hopefully, his demise will bring some measure of comfort to the families of all those military men he murdered."

Intelligence sources described Mughniyeh as one of the craftiest and deadliest terrorists in the world who managed to elude capture for decades by changing his appearance and covering his footsteps.

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Western intelligence agencies long suspected Mughniyeh in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 63 people. He also is suspected in the truck bombing that year of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, an attack that killed 241 people and preceded the U.S. military withdrawal from Lebanon.

Before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, U.S. officials blamed Mughniyeh for the deaths of more Americans around the world than any other terror suspect, CNN reported in 2001. A month after the attacks in the United States, the FBI debuted its Most Wanted Terrorists list with Mughniyeh on it.

Mughniyeh was not suspected of involvement in 9/11, but he was a role model for bin Laden, who used the 1983 Marine barracks bombing as a standard, CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen said.

"Because if you think about the attack, pretty much immediately afterwards President Reagan ordered the United States out of Lebanon, and so that's the model bin Laden wanted to implement everywhere, attack the United States in places like Yemen or in Kenya, or in Tanzania, or even the United States itself and it will pull out of the Middle East."

Mughniyeh had been involved in training both terrorists in Iraq and some of the Shiite militia there, including elements of Moqtada al Sadr's army, two U.S. intelligence officials told CNN. The officials were not authorized to speak for attribution.

Mughniyeh also had a role in the 2006 kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers just prior to the outbreak of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon, one of the officials said, and was involved in planning Hezbollah's military operations during that conflict.

Mughniyeh was involved in providing 50 tons of weapons to Palestinian terrorists in 2002, that official said.

Authorities blame Mughniyeh for the June 14, 1985, hijacking of TWA Flight 847, which gripped the attention of TV viewers around the world for more than two weeks.

Hijackers seized the plane as it traveled from Athens, Greece, to Rome, Italy, forcing it to land at the Beirut airport. U.S. Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem was shot and killed during the 17-day ordeal.

Kurt Carlson, a TWA 847 passenger who was badly beaten, recalled that Mughniyeh "looked like really a fanatic."

"As he talked about Israel, the tone of his voice kept rising, until finally he was just screaming and his eyes were glassy, and we didn't know what he was going to do," Carlson said. "I mean, I thought he was just going to pull out a gun and start shooting."

Flight 847 may have been the one careless move that the man in the shadows made. Mughniyeh reportedly left a fingerprint on the plane, gaining him a place on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list with a $5 million bounty on his head.

Western intelligence agencies also suspect Mughniyeh in the early '90s bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Argentina that killed 119 people; and the kidnapping of Western hostages -- two of whom were killed -- in Lebanon in the 1980s.

Israel had come close to finding Mughniyeh before and killing him, said Yossi Melman, an intelligence reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. In 1992, intelligence agents tracked him and his brother to a Beirut garage.

"They shadowed his brother and planted the bomb in the garage, knowing that Imad Mughniyeh would arrive there, but he was late and the bomb exploded and the brother was killed. Probably they missed him by a few minutes," Melman said.

A former head of Israel's intelligence agency said Mughniyeh's unseen hand apparently struck the first blow in the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, a militant group based in Lebanon that seeks to establish a fundamentalist Muslim state.

Former Mossad chief Danny Yaton said Mughniyeh appeared to be responsible for the attack that killed eight Israeli soldiers and the abduction of two others, triggering Israel Defense Forces operations in Lebanon.

U.S. authorities tried to seize Mughniyeh on at least two occasions -- in France in 1986 and in Saudi Arabia in 1995, CNN reported.

Former CIA officer Robert Baer said Mughniyeh was "head and shoulders above any other terrorist in the world."


Mughniyeh reportedly destroyed all records and documents describing his past. He was believed to have been born in 1962, growing up in the Shiite neighborhoods of Beirut.

Palestinian militants recruited him as a teenager, and he eventually was in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's elite guard. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon apparently further inflamed Mughniyeh's hatred for the Jewish state. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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