The resiliency of Hezbollah in its conflict with Israel shattered the strong confidence in Israeli arms and is becoming a source for inspiration and tactical doctrine among Islamists. The unexpected ability of Hezbollah to withstand a rather concerted Israeli effort to rout the organization and pacify southern Lebanon was built in part by Imad Mugniyah.
History of “The Fox”
During the last quarter century, it was Haji Imad Fayez Mugniyah that helped to guide Hezbollah’s covert operations and who served as an operative for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Born in Tayr Dibbuth near Tyre in southern Lebanon on July 12, 1962, he was the oldest of four siblings from the extended family of Sheikh Muhammed Jawad Mugniyah, a prominent Lebanese cleric of the Musawi clan . During Imad’s childhood, his family moved to the Bir al-Abed section of Beirut and he was barely a teenager of 13 years when Lebanon’s civil war broke out in 1975 (The Jerusalem Report, August 22, 1991). The crucible of the war transformed Imad Mugniyah into an effective terrorist. He apparently joined Fatah in 1975 (where he served until 1982) and shortly thereafter was recruited by Fatah’s Force 17 (Asharq al-Awsat, August 11). Due to his young age, the opportunities in Force 17 were necessarily limited but it was probably around this time that Mugniyah had his initial exposure to bomb construction through his later brother-in-law, Mustafa Badr al-Din.
Mugniyah and his brothers Faud Mugniyah and Jihad Mugniyah all stayed behind after the PLO evacuation of Beirut following the Israeli invasion of 1982. Thereafter, Shiite militants from Islamic Amal, Lebanon’s Daw’ah and the Association of Muslim Ulema in Lebanon formed the Hezbollah organization under the auspices of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards . Shiite clans such as the Hamiya, Musawi, Aqeel, Shahadehs and Ezzedeen facilitated the Guards’ incorporation into Lebanon’s Islamist movement . Imad Mugniyah’s familial relationship with Shiekh Muhammad Jawad Mugniyah cemented his religious ties within the Musawi clan and to the larger Shiite community. This, combined with his experience in Fatah, facilitated his entry into the new Hezbollah organization where he was responsible for the personal security of Hezbollah spiritual leader Sheikh Fadlallah in Beirut (The Jerusalem Report, December 3, 2002). Mugniyah may have first become acquainted with Fadlallah through hearing his sermons at Beirut’s Bir al-Abed Mosque located in the district of Beirut where Mugniyah grew up.
In 1983, Imad Mugniyah married his cousin, Sa’ada Badr al-Din, and had two children during that decade. The children were Fatima Mugniyah, born in August 1984, and Mustafa Mugniyah, born in January 1987 . In September 1991, Mugniyah’s wife and children were moved to Tehran for security reasons. Mustafa Mugniyah, Imad’s son, is now coming to an age where various intelligence services will have an interest in him, but currently there is little concerning him in open literature.
Imad Mugniyah’s most important patrons were found in the al-Quds Force, a special operations unit part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and various elements of Iran’s intelligence organs. The direct operational link between Mugniyah and the Revolutionary Guards is likely through the Protection and Intelligence Department supporting the al-Quds headquarters facilitating external operations . Mugniyah was involved in operational supervision of multiple Hezbollah terrorist activities throughout the 1980s (The Jerusalem Report, August 6, 1989). In the aftermath of the 1985 TWA 847 hijacking, he left the security of Fadlallah to his brother Jihad Mugniyah and moved into the Hezbollah Security Apparatus . It was this entity that initiated the hostage taking and other operations under Hezbollah auspices using the name Islamic Jihad (al-Jihad al-Islami) throughout the mid-1980s.
Mugniyah was personally absent from Lebanon during the later part of 1987 when he was in northern Iran. He went to Qum in January 1988 and returned to Lebanon in 1990 . Mugniyah became progressively more distant from day-to-day Hezbollah operations and more closely associated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The relationship between Imad Mugniyah and the Revolutionary Guards was one of mutual exploitation. Mugniyah acted as a Guards asset by filling an important niche in many operational environments furthering Iranian foreign policy goals. Conversely, Mugniyah had a great patron in the Guards with the infrastructure and resources of a state to facilitate Mugniyah as a notable in his own right both in Hezbollah and within the Musawi clan. This enabled Mugniyah to create his own client and patronage networks as a terrorist facilitating his operational capabilities.
By the early 1990s, Iran’s foreign operations extended to Sudan where Mugniyah was said to have been introduced to Osama bin Laden in 1993 (Asharq al-Awsat, August 11). Throughout the 1990s, Mugniyah apparently worked to establish Hezbollah support cells everywhere from North Carolina to Latin America to Africa. Mugniyah’s current age and value as an operational asset for the Revolutionary Guards preclude his direct involvement in risky operations. The kidnap operation against Israeli Defense Force soldiers that ignited this summer’s Israeli-Lebanon war, for example, was unlikely to have merited his participation. If he was involved, his actual role would have likely been mentoring the commanders who did carry out the operation.
With the dawn of the new century, Mugniyah acquired some maturity as a terrorist archetype. His elevation to such maturity is witnessed by his accompanying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Damascus to meet with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad earlier this year to discuss security issues for both states (London Times, April 23). Yet details and particulars about his personal life are scant, and reports lacking public documentation concerning him are plentiful (London Times, April 23). Although the passage of time may degrade Mugniyah’s ability to directly engage in operations, his longevity may create in him a sense of strategic vision.
Demonstrating Mugniyah’s operational maturity, Hamid Zakiri, a defector from the Guards’ al-Quds Force, argued that Mugniyah himself facilitated the escape of senior al-Qaeda personnel to Iran after September 11. This included some of Osama bin Laden’s close family members. Zakiri also alleged that Mugniyah was taking an active role in organizing Shiite resistance in southern Iraq (Asharq al-Awsat, August 11). The Shiites in Iraq may well come to bear arms against the West as their brethren in Lebanon have done under the influence of Iran and with the assistance of operatives like Mugniyah. Lebanon’s battle of Bint Jubail, where Hezbollah held off the full fury of the IDF for 28 days, is testament to the quality of Hezbollah arms and operational skills (al-Jazeera, September 5). The hard won status of Hezbollah in the face of Israeli military might in the August confrontation is for politicians like Hassan Nasrallah to exploit. Yet in the twilight war between Hezbollah and the West, it is men like Imad Mugniyah that keep men like Hassan Nasrallah alive.
1. Chibli Mallat, “Shi’a Thought From The South of Lebanon,” Oxford: Center for Lebanese Studies, 1988; “Report Says Beirut Kidnappers Are Inmates Relatives,” Associated Press October 13, 1986.
2. Simon Shapria, “The origins of Hezbollah,” Jerusalem Quarterly, 46 Spring 1988, pg. 124.
3. Hala Jaber, “Hezbollah: Born With a Vengeance,” Columbia University Press, 1997, pg. 117.
4. Shaul Shay, “The Axis of Evil,” Transaction Publishers, 2005, pg. 68.
5. “Iran Brief,” Middle East Data Project, January 6, 1997.
6. Terrorism and Political Violence, 6 (3) pg. 307.