The Driver

An exclusive look inside the mysterious death and life of the world's most dangerous terrorist not named Osama bin Laden.

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

IMAD MUGHNIYEH WAS BORN the eldest son of a poor farming family in Tayr Dibba, a Shiite village in southern Lebanon, in 1962. The Mughniyeh family was devout and traditional, but there wasn't anything unusual about them -- and certainly not anything that hinted at the path that the son would follow. Roughly a decade after Imad's birth, his father, Fayez, a fruit seller, moved his family to Beirut's southern suburbs. According to a number of people who knew him at that time, Imad attended a Shiite school and was an excellent student.

But when the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Mughniyeh turned up at a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Beirut and asked for military training. Anis Naccache, a Shiite militant Lebanese nationalist and later a successful businessman, remembers him as a politically aware boy. The Palestinians provided Mughniyeh with rudimentary small-arms training. He was 13.

By 1979, he was enrolled in the American University of Beirut's engineering school and was increasingly politicized amid the tumult of Islamic revolution in nearby Iran and a deepening sectarian divide at home in Lebanon. Mughniyeh and his cousin Mustafa Badr al-Din joined the Palestinian resistance movement Fatah, which had been expelled from Jordan. The appearance of Fatah roiled the fragile Lebanese political environment, and the group had become a participant in the then four-year-old Lebanese civil war. A Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) veteran remembers that Mughniyeh and his cousin brought with them "about 100 fighters from the southern suburbs -- a kind of roving Shiite fight club."

Mughniyeh stood out. "He was a superb soldier," this veteran says. "He was courageous and a natural leader." Soon after, this same veteran notes, Shiite political operative Ali Hassan Deeb recommended him to the senior commander of Fatah's elite Force 17 commando unit. In late 1981, according to a senior Hezbollah official, Naccache introduced Mughniyeh to Iranian diplomat Ahmad Motevaselian in Beirut. The 1979 Iranian revolution had brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power, and the new Islamist government was eager to fund a militant vanguard that could export its revolution to Lebanon -- and strike a blow against Israel.

At Motevaselian's behest, Mughniyeh paid his first visit to Tehran and built ties that would prove crucial, particularly after the Israelis invaded Lebanon in June 1982 to destroy the PLO stronghold in Beirut, according to a Hezbollah official who was a lifelong friend. One month after the invasion, Tehran pressed Syria, which had sent troops into Lebanon, to approve the deployment of 1,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers to an abandoned Lebanese military base in the Bekaa Valley. Once they had secured their foothold in Lebanon, the Iranian vanguard provided military training to the most important of Lebanon's Shiite movements, including Mughniyeh's Shiite militia, now called Islamic Jihad.

The turning point in Mughniyeh's career came that same month, when Motevaselian, two Iranian diplomats, and an Iranian photographer were kidnapped by the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces. The four would never be heard from again. In response, the Iranians loosed Islamic Jihad on the Americans, who had deployed Marines to Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping force. Iran saw them as supporting Israel's Christian allies, and Mughniyeh's fighters traded sniper fire with U.S. forces, who occupied a base near southern Beirut's Shiite suburbs, throughout the end of 1982 -- stepping up their attacks in September after a Christian militia slaughtered at least 1,700 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps while Israeli soldiers looked on.

In April 1983, a van carrying 400 pounds of explosives destroyed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including Robert Ames, the head of the CIA's Near East division. The attack was followed that October by the simultaneous truck bombings of the U.S. Marine and French paratroop barracks in southern Beirut, killing 241 American and 58 French soldiers.

The CIA investigation that followed showed that Islamic Jihad operatives planned the attack in a series of meetings inside the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, according to a CIA officer who served in the region at the time. Mughniyeh provided intelligence on the American deployment, this officer says, and recruited the bombers. "This was Mughniyeh's operation. He was the mastermind."

Bill Pierce/Time & Life Pictures

IT WAS NOW CLEAR that the constellation of organizations that flocked to Iran's Bekaa camp in 1982 had been transformed from a "fight club" into a kind of family-run Murder Inc., subcontracted by Iran to exact a price for Israel's invasion of Lebanon, America's intervention there, and U.S. support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War.

But the United States wasn't taking these punches sitting down. In March 1985, using Saudi assets, CIA-hired operatives detonated a car bomb outside the residence of Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, a prominent Shiite cleric. The explosion killed 80 people, including Mughniyeh's brother Jihad, while only slightly injuring Fadlallah. It was a blunder: Fadlallah was an important Shiite figure, if hardly the "spiritual head" of Hezbollah, which had emerged by this time as the leader of Lebanon's Shiite political groups. But the attempted assassination escalated America's conflict with Hezbollah and Iran.

As the blood feud grew, Mughniyeh played a central role in the emerging shadow war between America and Iran. In June 1985, he and three others hijacked TWA Flight 847 and demanded the release of 700 Shiite prisoners held by Israel -- as well as his cousin Badr al-Din, who had been jailed in Kuwait since masterminding the 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing there, which killed six. The flight's odyssey was finally resolved when Israel agreed to release some 700 Shiite militants it had imprisoned, but only after the beaten body of murdered U.S. Navy serviceman Robert Stethem was thrown from the plane.

A season of hostage takings, then just beginning, accelerated: Presbyterian missionary Benjamin Weir, reporters Terry Anderson and Charles Glass, educator Thomas Sutherland, and dozens more were abducted from Beirut's streets and held in clandestine locations. Veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk, seeking Anderson's release, remembers meeting Mughniyeh in Tehran during this period. "Mughniyeh's handshake was like a vise grip, and he wouldn't let go," Fisk told a Western journalist. "His defining trait was that he was a very, very angry man. He also had this absolute confidence in his own view of the world."

From the U.S. standpoint, the most important hostages were William Buckley, the CIA's Beirut station chief, and Marine Col. Rich Higgins, taken at gunpoint while serving as part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission. The CIA quickly concluded that the two kidnappings had all the hallmarks of a Mughniyeh operation: meticulously planned, elegantly conducted -- and virtually unpredictable. Buckley's kidnapping sparked recriminations among CIA professionals, who proved powerless to find him.

Chip Beck, a U.S. State Department official, Navy officer, professional artist -- and Buckley's close friend -- was tasked with providing a sketch of Mughniyeh. "There wasn't much to work with," he told me recently, "since so few people had ever seen him."

The Higgins kidnapping, for which CIA professionals continue to hold Mughniyeh responsible, proved an even greater insult, particularly after U.S. officials received a videotape of his torture. The video, delivered to the Americans, reflected a graphic exercise in animalistic vengeance. "Unforgettable," as one former intelligence officer who saw it says. But the message was also ruthlessly clinical: Top this.

Higgins's tortured remains were found in a garbage bag near a southern Beirut mosque in December 1991. A few days later, Buckley's body was found dumped on Beirut's airport road.

IN JANUARY 1995, according to a senior Hezbollah official, Mughniyeh fled to Iran. He was being hounded by the United States and Israelis; his brother Jihad had been assassinated; and his best friend, cousin Badr al-Din, had spent seven years in a Kuwaiti prison, gaining release only after Saddam Hussein's military occupied Kuwait in August 1990.

Despite all this and a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, Mughniyeh remained unscathed. This was primarily due to the care he took to protect his identity. He never talked of his operations, never agreed to an interview, never allowed his picture to be taken. He never spoke of his past, his family, or his life. According to a senior Islamist official who first met him in 1990 and got to know him as "Hajj Radwan," Mughniyeh rarely returned to his village to see his father and mother. On a number of occasions, according to published reports, because he was fluent in Arabic and Farsi, he served as an interpreter at meetings between Iranians and foreign leaders, but without telling Iran's visitors who he was.

From 1995 to 2006, Mughniyeh shuttled between Tehran, Damascus, and Beirut, eluding capture. There were some close scrapes. He boarded a flight to Saudi Arabia in late 1995, but the Saudis refused an American request to apprehend him, instead denying the airliner landing rights. U.S. intelligence officers concluded that the Saudis feared that cooperating in Mughniyeh's capture would lead to violent retribution. In 1996, he was spotted aboard a ship in Doha, Qatar, but the CIA moved too slowly to catch him. His legend grew with each escape: Stories spread that he met bin Laden, commanded Iran's operations in Basra, Iraq, in 2006 during the U.S. war in that country, had two plastic surgeries, and somehow owned a bakery in Beirut, where he could be seen, every morning, at a nearby coffee shop.

The most believable Mughniyeh story comes from the senior Islamist official who filled me in on Mughniyeh's past. Over a quiet dinner in Beirut in late 2011, the official told me that Mughniyeh had been married with two boys and a girl and been living in Lebanon, with a second wife in Damascus. "I first met Hajj Radwan in 1990," he told me, "and I met him quite by accident several times thereafter. I had no idea he was Imad Mughniyeh."

He said he spotted Mughniyeh in 1992 at a southern Beirut store that sold decorative bathroom tiles and plumbing fixtures. What my source didn't know at the time was that the shop was owned by Mughniyeh's brother Fuad, who served as a midlevel Hezbollah security official. The shop was across the street from a prominent mosque frequented by Hezbollah's senior leadership. One day, he was picking up supplies and found Mughniyeh standing behind the counter. Mughniyeh greeted my source with a grin and said he was "filling in" for Fuad -- "a close friend of mine," my source recalled, shaking his head in disbelief. "He waited on me."

But while my source didn't know then that the shop's owner was Mughniyeh's brother, the Israelis did. On Dec. 21, 1994, Ahmad Hallaq, a former Palestinian militiaman recruited by the Israelis, planted 120 pounds of explosives in a gray Volkswagen van outside Fuad's store, walked inside to confirm that his target, Fuad, was there, and then, after walking a safe distance away, triggered the bomb. The blast, Nicholas Blanford wrote, "ripped apart the front of the shop, instantly killing [Fuad] Mughniyah and three passersby."

Israel had good reason to target anyone close to Imad Mughniyeh: He had become indispensable to Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's chief, who was then shaping a strategy to pry Israel out of southern Lebanon, where Israel had set up a security zone. Later, after Israel's June 2000 withdrawal from the south, Nasrallah called on Mughniyeh to design a plan to deploy Hezbollah's Iranian-supplied, Russian-made Kornet and RPG-29 anti-tank rockets against Israeli armor. A senior Hezbollah official confirmed to me that Mughniyeh actually came up with Hezbollah's anti-tank training regimen, which paid off six years later. During the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Israel Defense Forces were badly bloodied, losing more than 40 armored vehicles to Hezbollah's anti-tank squads.

But while Mughniyeh was a hero for Hezbollah, his welcome was wearing thin in Syria. The Syrians always had a loveless marriage with Iran -- and Hezbollah. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad had only reluctantly agreed to the deployment of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps training units to the Bekaa Valley in 1982, and then insisted that the deployment be scaled back. His son and successor, Bashar, followed suit: He maintained strong ties to Tehran, while registering discomfort with Iran's anti-Baath strategy in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of neighboring Iraq.

Relations soured further after the 2006 Lebanon war. Facing domestic economic pressures as a result of U.S.-imposed sanctions, the Syrian president pursued deeper ties with the West -- over Iranian objections. "I want to make this clear: Syria views itself as a Mediterranean country," Imad Moustapha, then Syria's ambassador to the United States, pointedly told me in 2007. "We look west -- not east. We look to America for leadership." The statement, shocking at the time, reflected Syria's desire to normalize relations with Washington -- a fact that discomfited Tehran.

Hezbollah had its own problems with Damascus. Movement leaders were bitter about Syria's February 2007 decision to open a communications channel with Israel through Turkey, and with Assad's decision to send the Sunni Islamist militants of Fatah al-Islam into the Lebanese city of Tripoli, where they sparked a bitter conflict in a Palestinian refugee camp in May 2007 that claimed hundreds of lives. Syria's move in Tripoli roiled Hezbollah leaders, who accused Assad of purposely attempting to destabilize the Lebanese government -- at their expense. "We know who's responsible for Tripoli, even if you and your journalist friends don't," a Hezbollah official told me at the time.

Ties between Damascus and Hezbollah reached a low point that September when Israeli jets bombed Syria's clandestine nuclear reactor under construction in the country's north and Assad's regime refused to respond militarily. In private, a senior Hezbollah leader with whom I spoke accused Syria of "flirting with the Zionists."

Peter Jordan/Time & Life Pictures

MUGHNIYEH'S ASSASSINATION in Damascus marked the final indignity for Hezbollah. In public, the "resistance axis" presented a united front, putting out nearly identical statements bemoaning the killing. In private, however, Hezbollah leaders blamed Syria for Mughniyeh's death, citing lax security and the incompetence of Gen. Assef Shawkat, Assad's brother-in-law, who was personally responsible for Mughniyeh's safety. In the bombing's immediate aftermath, according to a senior Lebanese Islamist, Hezbollah officials in Damascus adamantly refused all Syrian requests for access to the body, physically barring security officers from the room at the hospital where he had been deposited. Iran dispatched its foreign minister within hours of the killing to calm tensions, but without success. According to my senior Islamist source, no high-level Syrian official attended Mughniyeh's memorial service, and Hezbollah was enraged when Assad appointed Shawkat as the incident's chief investigator.

But if Hezbollah had seen dark omens coming from Damascus, Mughniyeh's death apparently caught Israel, as well as the United States, entirely by surprise. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's denial of responsibility was categorical: "Israel rejects the attempt by terrorist elements to ascribe to it any involvement whatsoever in this incident," he said in a statement. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack simply commented that Mughniyeh was "a coldblooded killer, a mass murderer, and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost," adding that "the world is a better place" without him.

Certainly, Hezbollah officials have their suspicions about who was responsible for Mughniyeh's assassination, which includes the usual suspects -- and the Syrians. One such official spoke candidly about it while seated beneath a portrait of Mughniyeh in his office in Beirut in the summer of 2010. "The Zionists killed Hajj Radwan," he said, and then shrugged. "Or your CIA." I disagreed: "We can't organize a two-car funeral." His eyes flashed, and he turned on me, raising his voice. "I can't tell you who killed Imad Mughniyeh, because I don't know," he snapped. "But I can tell you this: If we were in charge of his security, instead of the Syrians, he'd be alive today."

In the end, persistent rumors about Syria's involvement in Mughniyeh's death drove me to visit an acquaintance in Israel in early 2009 -- a man who'd spent three decades at or near the top of the Israeli political establishment. I began the discussion off topic, asking about Olmert's views on the Palestinians. Slowly, however, the discussion turned to Israel-Syria relations and the Turkish-hosted indirect talks. I was forced to be explicit: Did the Israelis condition warming relations with Syria on an end to its nuclear program -- and the death of Mughniyeh?

My friend eyed me from behind his desk as a slow smile crept across his face: "Not only can't I talk about it, but I certainly can't talk about it with you," he said. Then, after a long pause, he added: "You know, we had two pieces of baggage with Syria, and now we don't."

Almost exactly three years after Mughniyeh's assassination, in March 2011, the Syrian uprising began in Daraa. A few months later, Nasrallah dispatched the first Hezbollah fighters to help Assad stay in power. The decision sparked dissent among Hezbollah's senior leadership, who remained bitter about Mughniyeh's death. But Nasrallah imposed his will. "No one in Hezbollah mentions Syria; no one even talks about Syria," Timur Goksel, a veteran of the United Nations mission in Lebanon and Hezbollah expert, told me recently. "Only Hassan Nasrallah."

A year later, the rebels struck at the very heart of Assad's regime. On July 18, 2012, a massive explosion at the headquarters of Syria's national security council in Damascus killed the defense minister and three other top security and intelligence officials, including General Shawkat, once tasked with Imad Mughniyeh's safety. The Syrian government blamed "terrorists" for the attack. When Shawkat's funeral was held two days later, no Hezbollah official bothered to attend.


Illustration by Piotr Lesniak for FP


Xi's War Drums

China's new leader is using the military to consolidate his power. But has he unleashed forces beyond his control?

Every morning at 6 a.m., more than two dozen of the world's leading submarine watchers, aviation experts, government specialists, imagery analysts, cryptanalysts, and linguists gather at the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii. Their job is to probe the overnight intelligence reports to guide the activities and strategies of the five aircraft carrier groups, 180 ships, and nearly 2,000 aircraft that constantly patrol the Pacific and Indian oceans. The morning meetings are convened by the fleet's top intelligence officer, Capt. James Fanell, and cover activities emanating anywhere "from Hollywood to Bollywood," as the head of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Samuel Locklear, likes to put it. But the group never takes long before zeroing in on the country driving the United States' military and diplomatic "pivot" to Asia. "Every day it's about China; it's about a China who's at the center of virtually every activity and dispute in the maritime domain in the East Asian region," said Fanell, reading from prepared remarks at a U.S. Naval Institute conference in San Diego on Jan. 31.

Fanell, in comments that went largely unnoticed outside the small circle of China military specialists, spelled out in rare detail the reasons the United States is shifting 60 percent of its naval assets -- including its most advanced capabilities -- to the Pacific. He was blunt: The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is focused on war, and it is expanding into the "blue waters" explicitly to counter the U.S. Pacific Fleet. "I can tell you, as the fleet intelligence officer, the PLA Navy is going to sea to learn how to do naval warfare," he said. "My assessment is the PLA Navy has become a very capable fighting force."

Some were shocked to hear the extent and intensity of China's carefully orchestrated maritime provocations, especially coming from an officer whose job may make him more of an expert on Beijing's naval maneuverings than anyone outside China. Others wondered whether the Pacific Fleet was simply playing the Washington game, perhaps lobbying for a greater share of the U.S. military budget or wider authority to act by magnifying the threat.

But it may well be that the most contestable of Fanell's assertions were about the Chinese military's capabilities, not its provocations. For the question on many minds, both in Washington and Beijing, is this: Can China actually fight? And the person most anxious to find an answer happens to be the man who just became China's fifth leader since Mao: Xi Jinping.

FOR XI, this is no idle question. The 59-year-old new president is himself a veteran who launched his career in 1979 as personal assistant to Geng Biao, then secretary-general in charge of daily affairs at the Central Military Commission, the 11-member panel that runs the Chinese armed forces. And Xi has stated clearly that the military is central to his vision for China. "We must ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and strong military," he said in a pep talk to sailors on board a guided-missile destroyer in December. But his ambition to have a strong, professional fighting force is greatly complicated by an even bigger question that has occupied every Communist Party leader since Mao uttered his famous dictum that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Can Xi be sure that the PLA will always be loyal to the party, and specifically to him?

"The people's army is not merely an organ for fighting; it is also an organ for the political advancement of the party," Mao once said, in another statement whose truth has been confirmed by all his successors. Xi may be able to build a military that is either modern and capable or loyal and political. But many in China now believe he can't have both.

It won't be for lack of trying. In the West, Xi's assumption of power has largely been covered as an economic and political drama: Can he keep China's booming markets on track? Will he tame the country's toxic levels of official corruption before demands for political reform derail him? Is he a reformer at all? What these accounts often miss are Xi's very deliberate moves to build a military power base for his presidency.

Even before formally taking office, Xi launched a wide-ranging program of inspecting troops, cementing key military relationships, and muscling up against Japan, his associates say. On Nov. 15, his preparatory work was rewarded by his appointment as not only general secretary of the Communist Party but also chairman of the Central Military Commission. The latter was a title that had eluded his predecessor, the lackluster Hu Jintao, for two years after Hu became party secretary, a symbolism lost on no one. Almost immediately after Xi's elevation, he announced a high-profile austerity campaign, attacking the military's culture of banquets, ceremony, and pomp. He demanded that his soldiers focus on their mission. "We must ensure that our troops are ready when called upon, that they are fully capable of fighting, and that they must win every war," Xi said during a tour of military forces in southern Guangdong province in December.

The People's Liberation Army was founded as an arm of the Chinese Communist Party on Aug. 1, 1927, when it began a quarter-century of nonstop warfare. Today it occupies a central place in party history and mythology for helping to defeat the occupying Japanese, drive the Kuomintang nationalists to Taiwan, and push U.S.-led forces back to the 38th parallel in the Korean War. It added an air force and navy shortly after the 1949 founding of the People's Republic.

Politics have always played a key role, and the PLA retains a Soviet-style dual command structure. A powerful political department sits at the center of the organization, while political minders shadow commanders at every level of the enormous hierarchy. With its crucial role at home as well as internationally, the PLA today boasts 2.3 million active-duty personnel, and its capabilities have been greatly strengthened by two decades of double-digit budget increases, enabling it to invest in everything from its first aircraft carrier and stealth fighter jets to the world's only anti-ship ballistic missile.

Despite the hype, however, high-ranking insiders have come forward to say the Chinese military is rotten to the core. Formal hierarchies are trumped by personal patronage, coordination between branches is minimal, and corruption is so pervasive that senior positions are sold to the highest bidders while weapons funding is siphoned into private pockets. "Corruption has become extremely institutionalized and significant," says Tai Ming Cheung, director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California/San Diego. "It makes it much more difficult to develop, produce, and field the weapons systems required to achieve world-class power projection."

It's not just corruption. More than three decades of peace, a booming economy, and an opaque administrative system have taken their toll as well, not to mention that the PLA is one of the world's largest bureaucracies -- and behaves accordingly. "Each unit has a committee with a commander, political commissar, and deputies, to the point they have a meeting now for everything," says Nan Li, associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute. Li told me that PLA military universities have even been reduced to printing textbooks that instruct commanders how to transcend the tyranny of committee-style decision-making. "That shows how much the PLA has been defeated by -- corroded by -- peace," he says.

Nor is the military necessarily 100 percent loyal to its political masters in the Communist Party -- a terrifying prospect for a new leader trying to consolidate his power. In theory, the PLA has always been subordinate to the civilian side of the party, but the actual command linkages are largely limited to its top leader and sometimes his deputy. In 2012 -- in the wake of the political destruction of Xi's potential rival, Bo Xilai, who boasted extensive informal ties within the military -- the drumbeat of official demands that the PLA demonstrate the proper obeisance to the party and the party's outgoing general secretary, Hu, suggested the chain of military command might be more fragile than commonly understood.

Xi's associates believe he harbors similar concerns. They note that Liu Yuan, the senior general who sent shock waves through the party and military establishment after warning in an internal speech that mafia-like knots of patronage and corruption were crippling the PLA, did so only after getting a nod from Xi. "Only our own corruption can destroy us and cause our armed forces to be defeated without fighting," Liu warned in his December 2011 speech. The two ambitious princelings, as the privileged sons of China's revolutionary leaders are known, have been close friends since the late 1970s. Another close friend of the Xi family, whose father fought alongside Xi's father when the Chinese Red Army was a hungry, disciplined machine, told me that Xi has focused his political capital on whipping the PLA into better shape and probing to see which generals he can personally rely on. The family friend says Xi's relentless inspection program and calls for combat readiness have a clear purpose: "To sort the horses from the mules you need to walk them around the yard."

Xi's associates point out that his first real job, as personal assistant to the secretary-general of the Central Military Commission, gave him a ringside seat for studying the art of accumulating power as demonstrated by one of the world's great strongmen, Deng Xiaoping. Although most recall Deng today as the architect of China's economic reforms, the initial foundation of Deng's political platform was the military, where he enjoyed prestige unparalleled by any other post-Mao leader. He tightened his "grip on the gun," as Communist Party insiders put it, by mobilizing the military for an invasion of Vietnam in February 1979. Deng, still technically vice chairman of the commission but already its most powerful leader, initiated, planned, and managed an invasion that was militarily disastrous, costing tens of thousands of Chinese lives and blowing out the budget deficit, but nevertheless left him with a more professional fighting force and firmly in command.

He ensured this grip on power by closely managing the military's upper echelons. By 1980, after a reshuffle when incumbent Central Military Commission Chairman Hua Guofeng was out of the country, 15 of the 22 top military region posts were held by generals who had fought directly under Deng, says historian Warren Sun.

None of this was lost on the young, ambitious princeling Xi Jinping. After all, Hua was Xi's nominal boss at the time, yet Deng swept him aside. The lesson learned? "Without the gun in your hand, who will obey you?" as Xi's close family friend puts it. "So the first thing Xi did after his rise was seize military control."

Guang Niu/EPA

XI HAS TAKEN CHARGE at a moment when China has been building up its military power as never before, surprising the United States and shocking its neighbors with the speedy development of new hardware and the aggressive manner in which it has deployed those tools to support its expanding ambitions. Top U.S. intelligence analysts and generals have admitted to being caught out by the 2011 flight-testing of China's new J-20 stealth fighter. They were dumbfounded by China's subsequent deployment of the East Wind 21D, the world's first anti-ship ballistic missile, dubbed the "assassin's mace" in China and "the carrier killer" in the West. And now China is on track to nearly triple its fleet of maritime strike aircraft by 2020, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service. Its naval weapons -- and capabilities -- are proceeding even faster.

China is simultaneously developing and producing seven types of submarine and surface warships. That's after a decade in which it quadrupled its number of modern submarines, including nuclear submarines designed to carry nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. It has massively expanded production of corvettes, frigates, amphibious ships, and destroyers. In September, China launched its first aircraft carrier, which it has flagged as a training platform for others to come.

Then there's the less visible but perhaps more troubling escalating cyberwar now being waged with hyperactive assertiveness by PLA cyberunits that have reportedly penetrated deeply and repeatedly into key U.S. government departments and top U.S. defense, media, and technology companies. Along with probing infrastructure vulnerabilities and spying on commercial transactions, they have reportedly pilfered military designs and technology. Mandiant, an IT security firm, reported in February that it had traced 141 specific cyberattacks to a single PLA unit based in Shanghai. The PLA has been tasked with "systematic cyber espionage and data theft against organizations around the world," the report stated.

"No other great power today enjoys China's ability to dedicate such vast amounts of capital and personnel so dynamically to such a wide range of new programs," says Andrew Erickson, an expert on PLA technology at the U.S. Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute. "China enjoys unparalleled flexibility and adaptability and could increase production rapidly if desired."

The backstop for all these new platforms and capabilities is the PLA's strategic missile force, which possesses conventional ballistic missiles that can destroy satellites in space, plus as many as 400 nuclear weapons. The dizzying display of hard power is sending fear and awe throughout the Asia-Pacific region. But Xi, it seems, is unconvinced that all this shiny hardware can be effectively deployed by an organization that was designed for civil war and adapted in recent decades as a political force to ensure the party's grip on power.

That's where China's rapidly escalating territorial showdown with Japan, its largest trading partner and still the world's third-largest economy, comes in. In September, the Japanese government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands as they are known in China, from private owners to prevent them from falling into the hands of Tokyo's governor at the time, a hawkish nationalist provocateur. But China responded with fury. It launched a propaganda blitz against Japan, facilitated protests and riots across China, and escalated its maritime and air patrols of the disputed area. For Xi, according to his close family friend, the otherwise baffling diplomatic crisis that resulted has offered a priceless opportunity to "sort the horses from the mules" and mobilize willing generals around him. Claims that Xi has exploited or even orchestrated the brinkmanship with Japan might seem preposterous to outside observers, given that a miscalculation could lead to war. But the logic is compelling for those who have grown up near the center of China's endless and unforgiving internal struggles.

"Promoting people into positions is always a very sensitive question," says a retired officer, the son of one of the PLA's most decorated commanders and who was himself working at the PLA's General Staff Department, the operational command center, when Xi was at the Central Military Commission in 1979. "This is why Xi is coming to power using a very strong voice on the Diaoyu Islands," he says. "He was asking them to prepare for war … like Deng."

Indeed, the crisis with Japan seemed to come exactly in tandem with Xi's ascension last fall. In September, Xi disappeared for a fortnight, missing top-level meetings (including with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) for reasons that remain unexplained. He re-emerged looking healthy and happy on Sept. 15. A day earlier, according to a report in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun that cited a "source close to the Communist Party," Xi had assumed control of a special cross-agency and military task force to manage the Diaoyu dispute. China immediately increased air and maritime patrols in the area.

For the remaining three months of 2012, roughly once each day, a Chinese government plane flew southeast toward the Japanese-administered islands. With equal regularity, when the plane crossed an "identification" line nearly 100 miles east of the Chinese mainland, Japan tried and failed to make radio contact and then scrambled F-15 Eagle fighters from its Air Self-Defense Force. The Chinese planes would each veer east at about the 28th parallel and then north, out of harm's way, without crossing into Japanese-controlled airspace or encountering approaching Japanese fighters, according to Western defense officials. That's the way it happened on 91 occasions between October and December, according to Japan's Defense Ministry.

But on Dec. 13, the 75th anniversary of the Nanjing massacre and a day after Chinese media reported that Xi had called for "real combat" awareness during a three-day tour of a PLA warship and live-fire tank drills, a low-flying China Marine Surveillance Y-12 twin-propeller plane crossed the 28th parallel. It kept flying southeast and penetrated Japanese airspace -- the first such episode since Japan began monitoring half a century ago -- and took a snapshot of the largest of the disputed islands out of its left window, a photo that was published widely in the Chinese state media the following day. On Dec. 16, a new Japanese government led by Shinzo Abe, who had promised to stand up to China, was elected in a landslide. Abe immediately increased surveillance over the disputed area and reportedly loosened the rules of engagement so that Japanese vessels could approach much closer to Chinese vessels.

On Jan. 10, with Xi firmly in control but now up against a more assertive Japanese administration, Chinese and Japanese surveillance and fighter planes tangled above disputed oil fields north of the Senkakus. On Jan. 14, the PLA Daily reported that the General Staff Department had ordered all units to prepare for battle, in what may have been the first such warning since Deng's debacle in Vietnam. On Jan. 18, Clinton met the Japanese foreign minister and warned China against taking "unilateral" steps to challenge Japanese administration of the Senkakus. It did little good. On Jan. 19 a PLA Navy frigate responded by locking its missile-control radar on a Japanese Self-Defense Forces helicopter around the same disputed oil fields, according to Japanese accounts. On Jan. 30 it was a similar story, this time with a Japanese ship in close proximity, according to more detailed Japanese accounts that were backed by the United States but denied by China. Western military officials and diplomats have told me that they have evidence, including from electronic intercepts, that shows that the movements of Chinese boats and ships were micromanaged by the new task force chaired by Xi.

The world still knew nothing of these dangerous confrontations when Captain Fanell gave his remarkable speech in San Diego the following day, Jan. 31. Asia's two heavyweights -- America's key ally and its global rival -- were one itchy trigger finger away from exchanging live fire on the water while Chinese J-10 and Japanese F-15 fighters were buzzing overhead, according to Western military sources. "If you are the Japanese captain, you would have an incredibly uncomfortable choice to make very quickly," says a Western diplomat who has been following the dispute closely. "You're seconds away if that thing decided to fire." What had been hypothetical musings about the PLA's combat capability took on a more urgent tone.

BUT THE SPECTER OF WAR is not the only possible explanation for Xi's saber rattling and demands for combat readiness. For even as Japanese leaders and U.S. officials were publicizing their concerns this winter about a region on the brink of naval conflict, it became clearer that Xi and his close military confidants are squarely focused on domestic politics. Indeed, Gen. Liu Yuan -- the same reputedly hawkish princeling general thought to be close to Xi, who had blasted corruption in the military -- counseled in an essay published Feb. 4 in state media that China's dream of modernization had twice been shattered by war with Japan. "Today, our economic construction has arrived at a critical moment. We must never let it be broken by an incident," he wrote, referring to the Diaoyus. "The U.S. and Japan are scared of us catching up, and they will do anything to contain China's development, so we must not be fooled."

At the same time, another top-level document emerged: a speech delivered in December by Xi himself, in which he gave thundering confirmation that the PLA's primary function is to defend the regime, not China. This was the lesson learned from the Soviet Union's collapse, he said. "In the Soviet Union, where the military was depoliticized, separated from the party, and nationalized, the party was disarmed," Xi warned, according to an extract of his speech that was published by journalist Gao Yu and broadly corroborated by other sources. "A few people tried to save the Soviet Union; they seized Gorbachev, but within days it was turned around again because they didn't have the instruments to exert power." Nobody in the vast Soviet Communist Party, Xi averred, "was man enough to stand up and resist."

Xi, then, has ultimately chosen to defend the Communist Party against internal political threats rather than prepare it to face external military threats. There is little doubt the Communist Party has been sharpening its identity in a post-communist world by defining itself against the West, fanning nationalist fervor, and promising a restoration of China's ancient grandeur. Xi thus has little choice but to keep pumping enormous resources into a war machine if he is to justify his party's continuing monopoly on power. "This dream can be said to be the dream of a strong nation," Xi told sailors on board the destroyer Haikou. "And for the military, it is a dream of a strong military."

To many observers, however, his speech seemed to confirm that China's provocations against Japan were in fact "evidence of profound domestic insecurity rather than rational policy," a Beijing diplomat who closely studies China's military machinations told me. "It is the fact of party control," he says, "that makes the PLA weak. Everything else -- the corruption, the risk aversion, the hierarchy -- is a symptom of that."

Then, too, there is the very real risk that if China or Japan miscalculates over the Senkaku Islands and actually does spark a war, China may lose. That, at least, is the assessment of several military analysts with whom I spoke, who believe Japan's disciplined, professional forces would prevail even without direct U.S. intervention. More broadly, I have heard growing doubts about China's actual fighting capabilities in some sections of the Chinese military, foreign diplomatic corps, and U.S. academia, many of whose members are revising their views on the PLA. "Our assessment is they are nowhere near as effective as they think they are," a Beijing-based defense attaché from a NATO country told me.

What if the recent drums of war are a sign of China's weakness and not its impressive new strength? "When Xi tells his troops to be ready for war, it's really an admission that they're in disarray," says the defense attaché. "He's saying, 'You guys are drunk, fat, and happy, siphoning off all the money into private accounts, and you need to get real.'"

Illustration by Piotr Lesniak for FP