Osama bin Laden may have been more famous, but arguably the most influential and successful terrorist of modern times was Imad Mughniyah. A poor Shiite boy from Lebanon, he exploded onto the scene in the early 1980s as a terrorist prodigy. Working for the organization that would become Hezbollah, and cooperating closely with Iran’s Quds Force, he was held responsible for the most significant terrorist attacks of the 1980s and 1990s including the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983 (63 dead), the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 (241 dead), the torture and murder of William Buckley, the CIA’s station chief in Beirut (1984), the hijacking of TWA flight 847 and the murder of a U.S. navy diver who was on board (1985), the suicide bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 (29 dead), the bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 (85 dead), and the bombing of the U.S. Air Force Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996 (19 dead).
Mughniyah pioneered suicide bombing, a malignant new trend in terrorism, which has since reached industrial size proportions in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not only was Mughniyah an innovator, he was a proselytizer–he reportedly taught Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as well as Shiite militias in Iraq which targeted American troops.
Mughniyah was as evil as any man can be, and therefore it was cause for celebration when his reign of terror was cut short in 2008: He was killed by a car bomb in Damascus. His end was fitting since the car bomb was his own weapon of choice, although the attack which killed him had a precision utterly lacking in his own blunderbuss assaults (no civilians were killed around Mughniyah).
It has long been speculated that Mossad was behind Mughniyah’s execution but now the Washington Post reports that the CIA was closely involved as well. It was the CIA which actually developed, tested, and installed the bomb, hidden in the spare wheel of a car, which killed Mughniyah. And a CIA team on the ground surveilled his movements.
The only shortcoming of the operation, according to the Post, was that the CIA-Mossad team could have killed not only Mughniyah but also Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, who is another terrorist mastermind, while the two were walking together. But in an excess of legalism, the CIA declined to pull the trigger because there had been no presidential finding to kill Soleimani as there was for Mughniyah. So Soleimani has been free to plan and carry out numerous atrocities in Syria, among other countries.
Nevertheless the operation was a huge success. It delivered justice for Mughniyah’s victims and it dealt a setback to the Iranian terrorist network. That is an example of effective action that should be kept in mind today when, as Michael Doran argues in Mosaic, President Obama is carrying out a secret strategy to court Iran. Instead of trying to woo Iran, the U.S. should be trying to stop its power grab across the Middle East. It should be waging covert war on Iranian operatives just as they wage covert war on the U.S. and our allies. The Mughniyah operation is only one example of what such a counteroffensive should look like–the U.S. also had a great deal of success in Iraq in 2007-2008 in exposing and uprooting an Iranian network. It’s a shame that this containment policy has been abandoned in favor of what Doran describes as Obama’s misguided determination “to encourage and augment Iran’s potential as a successful regional power and as a friend and partner to the United States.”