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Hezbollah Mourns Slain Leader, Threatens to Attack Israel

February 14, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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The leader of Hezbollah threatened Thursday an attack on Israel, blaming it for Tuesday's car bombing that left one of the group's top commanders, Imad Mughniyeh, dead. Two Middle East experts assess the repercussions of the feared terrorist's death.
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JIM LEHRER: Next, a most-wanted terrorist, now dead. Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: The body of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh was returned to his native Lebanon today, two days after he was killed in a car bombing in Damascus.

Surrounded by tens of thousands of mourners and draped in the Hezbollah flag, Mugniyeh’s coffin was carried through the streets of south Beirut.

At the funeral, Hezbollah’s chief, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, delivered a fiery speech prerecorded from a secret location. Nasrallah has accused Israel of assassinating Mughniyeh, and today he vowed retaliation.

SHEIK HASSAN NASRALLAH, Hezbollah leader (through translator): Given this killing, the time, place and style, Zionists, if you want this kind of open warfare, then let the whole world listen: Let it be this open warfare.

MARGARET WARNER: Israel has strongly denied any involvement in the death of Mughniyeh, who was one of the most elusive, hunted terrorists in the world.

A Lebanese farmer’s son radicalized during the Mideast turmoil of the 1970s, Mughniyeh was on the FBI’s most-wanted list for more than two decades. He stood accused of many acts of terror.

In 1985, Mughniyeh led a Hezbollah group that held a hijacked TWA plane at the Beirut airport and tortured and murdered a passenger, U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem. He was implicated in the kidnapping and killings of a CIA station chief and a Marine colonel in Lebanon in the early 1980s.

Some Western analysts also have suggested he was linked to the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut and subsequent attack on the Marine barracks there. Israel also accused him of being behind the 1992 and 1994 bombings of its embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Argentina.

Imad Mughniyeh will be buried tomorrow in the Hezbollah stronghold of the south Beirut suburbs.

Emerging as a Hezbollah leader

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the terrorist figure known also as "The Fox," we're joined by two people who have long studied him. Robert Baer spent 21 years as a case officer for the CIA and was involved in tracking Mughniyeh. He's now the intelligence columnist for Time.com.

And Mohamad Bazzi was based in Beirut as Middle East bureau chief for Newsday between 2003 and 2007. He's now a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and is working on a book about Hezbollah. Born in Lebanon, he's an American citizen.

And welcome, gentlemen. Thank you both for being with us.

Mr. Bazzi, let me start with you. How significant a figure was Imad Mughniyeh in the universe of terrorists that we've known for the past quarter-century?

MOHAMAD BAZZI, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, Imad Mughniyeh was a significant figure mostly in the 1980s and maybe into the early 1990s. He's been dormant for the past 15 years or so. There haven't been any spectacular attacks or spectacular acts of terrorism that have been attributed to him since then.

He was one of the very early founders of a Shia militia that became Hezbollah. In the early '80s, it hadn't quite coalesced as Hezbollah, but by the mid-'80s, it had become Hezbollah and announced itself to the world, and Imad Mughniyeh was at the forefront of that.

He was a friend of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who later on became the leader of Hezbollah. And he had relationships with many of the very early figures in Hezbollah.

MARGARET WARNER: And Bob Baer, if you think back to that TWA hijacking, for example, did he have a hand in really creating some of the methods that were used by terrorists against the United States or against Israel that developed?

ROBERT BAER, former CIA officer: Oh, he was -- we considered him truly a master at terrorism and even military operations. The hijacking at TWA-847, subsequent hijackings were all done extremely professional. We were lucky to catch him at TWA-847. It's still classified how we did it.

But he was truly one of the best. It's what we call tradecraft in the business. He would never go out the same exit he came in. He changed his name often, his call signs on radios. He had a very cohesive group.

Compartmentation is the word we use. He was truly the best beyond anything we see in Qaida.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Bazzi, what drove him? I mean, what was his objective?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Well, he joined -- as a teenager, he joined the PLO in the late 1970s as it was fighting Israel. He was angered by Israeli attacks on south Lebanon. He's from south Lebanon, son of a farmer.

And he was further radicalized in his PLO experience and his experience with Palestinian militants. Like a lot of Lebanese Shiites, he gave up on Palestinian militants and he gave up on the PLO. He was angered by their methods and their treatment of the Shia villagers in south Lebanon, and he drifted towards what later became Hezbollah.

So he drifted towards the Shia militancy, and he drifted towards groups that were being supported by Iran at the time. And that radicalization from the left towards Hezbollah, towards Shia religious militancy is a common theme of a lot of people of his era.

Implicated in Beirut bombings

MARGARET WARNER: And, Bob Baer, a lot of attacks -- we named some of them -- have been attributed to him. How good is the evidence that he was, in fact, responsible, say, behind the embassy and barracks bombings in Beirut in '83?

ROBERT BAER: There's virtually no good evidence that he was behind the embassy bombing and the barracks bombing. We believe he is. It's circumstantial. He was connected to some of the people who did the bombing.

But it's certainly not enough to bring any sort of indictment or say definitively he was behind the Marines bombing or either embassy bombing in Beirut.

He was caught clearly taking Western hostages in the '80s. He started in 1982 with the president of American University of Beirut, and he continued on taking hostages, no question about that.

Even though he was very good and never showed his face to the hostages, over the years we accumulated information gradually that points to these. He also killed Colonel Higgins, hanged him in the south.

But he did, in fact, stop becoming involved in terrorism in the early '90s. It was the Iranians. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was getting away from terrorism. He was eventually pensioned off. And when he was in Damascus, he was, indeed, inactive.

Eluding U.S. capture

MARGARET WARNER: Now, staying with you, Bob Baer, the United States had a $25 million bounty on his head. How did he elude capture all these years?

ROBERT BAER: He primarily used relatives, people that he could trust. He had an incredible network for vetting people, people that wouldn't talk, people that haven't talked until this day.

I'm not completely current on what the CIA knows about him or the FBI, but none of these people defected to the United States. They stayed loyal until this day, and his network is vast. It's, you know, in Canada, the United States, Europe, South America. But there has been no defectors that I know of.

MARGARET WARNER: And, of course, there are also reports that he had his physical appearance changed by plastic surgery.

Mohamad Bazzi, so his connections to the Lebanon of today, what role, if any, was he continuing to play in Hezbollah's more recent operations in south Lebanon?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: I agree with Bob. I think, for the past 10, 15 years, he's been very dormant. And his own living circumstances and his own situation to try to keep living on the run and living in hiding made it very difficult for him to be active in the military operations of Hezbollah.

Also, Hezbollah evolved beyond him in the time that he was gone. Hezbollah evolved from this group that had military capabilities and that had this terrorism skill in the early '80s, but evolved into a political and social movement that's become a very dominant force in Lebanon. It's become the most dominant Shiite political party in Lebanon, and certainly the party that will really, in many ways, determine Lebanon's future.

So Hezbollah had evolved beyond him. And for many years, really for the past decade, Hezbollah would refuse to answer questions about him. They never mentioned his name. They caught everyone by surprise when, on Wednesday morning, they announced on Al-Manar TV, the Hezbollah TV station, that Imad Mughniyeh had been martyred.

His name hadn't been spoken in Hezbollah circles, really, publicly for many, many years. And the reason for that is they tried to keep this distance from him, and he didn't seem to have any more operational role.

Ties to Iran

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Baer, the Iranian foreign minister was at the funeral today sitting next to his father. How strong were those ties with Iran? And were they continuing ties?

ROBERT BAER: Imad Mughniyeh was appointed an officer in 1982-1983 in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is the military wing of the Iranian revolution, Khomeini's revolution. He was an Iranian agent.

When the Iranians were involved in terrorism, they used surrogates, as Mohamad said, and it was Imad Mughniyeh and a couple other officers. They were very close. He's looked at as a hero in Iran, as he was in Damascus.

He essentially drove the United States out. If he, indeed, was involved in the bombings of the Marines, he drove the United States, France, Britain and Italy out of Lebanon. He played a part in the Islamic resistance.

And as Mohamad said, he followed this arc of Hezbollah going from what we'd call a terrorist organization into a military organization, which is a very important arc that so many people in this country miss, that it's almost becoming a legitimate power.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both very quickly -- Mr. Bazzi, first you, and then Mr. Baer -- as we know, Israel has denied any involvement, but Nasrallah has vowed retaliation. Does Israel have a reason to be concerned?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Yes, it does, because Hassan Nasrallah is very serious, and he often makes a big point that he comes through on his word.

And I should point out that Hassan Nasrallah today seemed a lot angrier than he was in 1997 announcing the death of his own son, his own son who died fighting the Israelis in south Lebanon. And that's something that can't be underestimated.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Bob Baer, briefly from you, do you think Israel has reason to be concerned?

ROBERT BAER: Hassan Nasrallah will take revenge. You can count on it.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Baer, Mohamad Bazzi, thank you both.