On the night of Feb. 12, 2008, an overweight middle-aged man with a light beard walked from his apartment in the Kfar Sousa district of Damascus to his silver Mitsubishi Pajero, parked in front of his building. It was already 10:15, and he was late for a meeting with Iran's new ambassador to Syria, who had arrived in the country the night before.
There was good reason for the man's tardiness: He had just come from a meeting with Ramadan Shallah, the leader of the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and before that had spent several hours talking with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The man was Imad Mughniyeh, the world's most wanted terrorist not named Osama bin Laden. His true identity as the violent mastermind of Hezbollah would have come as a shock to his Damascus neighbors, who thought he was a chauffeur in the employ of the Iranian embassy. A number of them had even called on him, on several occasions, to help tote their bags to waiting taxis. He had happily complied.
On this night, he was in a hurry. He exited his apartment building and walked quickly to his SUV, crossing behind the tailgate to the driver's side door. He never made it. Instead, a remotely detonated explosive, containing hundreds of deadly, cube-shaped metal shards, ripped his body to shreds, lifting it into the air and depositing his burning torso 15 feet away on the apartment building's lawn.
Just like that, the most dangerous man you never heard of was dead, his whole career proof that one person really can reshape politics in the Middle East -- and far beyond it. "Both bin Laden and Mughniyeh were pathological killers," 30-year veteran CIA officer Milton Bearden told me. "But there was always a nagging amateurishness about bin Laden -- his wildly hyped background, his bogus claims.… Bin Laden cowered and hid. Mughniyeh spent his life giving us the finger."
UNTIL HIS DEATH, Hezbollah stubbornly refused to admit any knowledge of a commander named Imad Mughniyeh. Hezbollah's penchant for secrecy meant that, unlike bin Laden, who never tired of seeing himself on television, a nearly impenetrable fog settled on Mughniyeh while he was still alive. Only upon his assassination did Hezbollah hail "Hajj Radwan," as he was known, as one of its indispensable military commanders, the head of its Jihad Council, and the architect of its war strategy during the 2006 conflict with Israel.
Chanting pro-Hezbollah slogans and holding posters extolling his martyrdom, tens of thousands of Hezbollah partisans attended Mughniyeh's funeral in Beirut two days after his death. His 22-year-old son spoke to the crowd, pledging that his father's murder would be avenged. Mughniyeh's youngest son, 17, stood nearby alongside his sister, according to senior Hezbollah officials in attendance. They had only been informed that day that their father was something other than a midlevel Hezbollah official -- the "driver" -- who shuttled Iranian diplomats and Hezbollah leaders to and from Beirut and Damascus. After long denying his existence, Syrian officials quickly described the assassination as a "cowardly terrorist act." Iran called it "organized state terrorism by the Zionist regime," while Hezbollah leaders said Mughniyeh "died a martyr at the hands of the Israeli Zionists."
It was a violent end for a man who had devoted his life to violence on behalf of the Lebanese militant group and its patron, Iran. Although few had heard of him, he was responsible for virtually all the most notorious terrorist attacks of the pre-9/11 era: the October 1983 bombings of the U.S. Marine and French barracks in Beirut, the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner, and the kidnapping and murder of Western hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s. Mughniyeh also plotted the March 1992 attack on Israel's embassy in Argentina and the 1994 synagogue bombing in Buenos Aires. Until his death, however, no intelligence agency had ever successfully tracked him -- and only one American, former hostage Terry Anderson, admits to ever having met him.
For many CIA officers -- those who had long tried and failed to find him -- Mughniyeh's death represented an incredible victory over an elusive foe; in the shadowy world of intelligence, it was almost as big a score as the bin Laden raid a few years later. There's just one trick: The United States didn't kill Mughniyeh. And even now, five years later, it's not entirely clear who did.
I first heard of Mughniyeh in 1989, while reporting on the kidnapping of the CIA's Beirut station chief. Only the barest of facts about Mughniyeh were known at the time, and he remained, for me and other reporters, an obsessive journalistic pastime, a story we were sure would help us understand the region's murderously dysfunctional politics, if only we could decode it. "For years, people claimed Mughniyeh was behind anything that went 'boom,'" reporter Nicholas Blanford, a Hezbollah expert, says. "Just sit in a Beirut cafe and listen to what people say. Most of it is pure fantasy, but no one really knows for sure."
Blanford has stories of his own. "I hear that he rarely traveled with bodyguards," he told me, "and on some days he'd hop on his Vespa and run down the coast highway to train Hezbollah fighters in the south. Just imagine: One of the world's most wanted men on a scooter. In plain sight."
Only now, five years after his death, is a clearer narrative of his life coming into focus, one that finally separates the myth from the man. Indeed, though this account relies on dozens of conversations with Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Israeli, and American observers and officials over a period of more than two decades, it's just in the last two years that those who knew Mughniyeh have begun to provide the details of his life, and only early this year, during a trip to the Middle East, was I told of his final hours.
What I have found is an untold tale about the murderous three-decade shadow war between Iran and the United States, one filled with not only a gruesome body count but also the complicated politics of a region where even Hezbollah's closest friends could be suspect -- and where a shadowy terrorist could wield enough power to shape global events.
Mohammed Zaatari/Associated Press