Imad Fayez Mugniyah, or Moughnieh, or Mughnieh, has a different biography for every possible spelling of his name. Arguably the most wanted terrorist in the world after Osama Bin Laden, little is known for sure about him except that yesterday, at 11:00 p.m. Syria time on February 12, 2008, he was killed in a car bomb in Kfar Suseh neighborhood in Damascus.
The late-night explosion blew out windows in nearby buildings, damaged several cars and reportedly killed a passerby. The bombing occurred near an Iranian school and a Syrian intelligence office, according to Iranian PressTV. Who the target was only became clear the next morning, however, as Hezbollah officials identified the body and immediately named Israel as his killer.
One immediate question for many Lebanese is, what will this mean for the February 14 demonstration in Martyr’s Square? Tensions are already high in the capital, and with Mugniyah’s funeral now planned in Dahiyeh for the same day, security forces will be stretched thin to maintain control.
Free Patriotic Movement spokesman Gibran Bassil, asked about the possibility of clashes, said, “We hope not. They are two separate events; each crowd should respect the other crowd's feelings. There should be security forces able to secure the situation.”
The two events are separated by some distance, but the recent spate of armed clashes in and around Beirut and the proximity of the opposition protesters still encamped around Beirut’s downtown district raise the specter of possible problems on Thursday.
Speaking to NOW Lebanon about the Martyrs’ Square demonstration, Senior Kataeb official Selim Sayegh said, “We want to have all Lebanon going into and commemorating the event - not the martyrdom as such, because we don't want to have a tradition to celebrate martyrdom - but to celebrate the meaning, the political meaning and consequences that were created by February 14.”
He added, “We know that most of the Christians that have voted in one direction, because of a special moment in the past, many of the Christians are still embedded with the very idea of March 14, and we want these to be awakened again.”
Bassil, however, confirmed that the FPM would not be in attendance at the Martyrs’ Square gathering, saying, “We are not boycotting, but we are not participating. Now we have different politics, we participate in commemorating the event.” However, Bassil confirmed that the party is not planning a separate gathering of its own.
In the mid-term, Mugniyah’s assassination will likely roil the regional waters even more. Hezbollah immediately accused Israel of the bombing, and some in Lebanon have speculated that Syria could have been behind it. Sayegh said, “It happened on Syrian territory. Perhaps it is the Syrians who have killed him; perhaps they wanted to finish the guy up.”
If it was not the Syrians themselves who killed Mugniyah, the most likely culprits would be the Western intelligence agencies and Israeli Mossad that he has eluded for almost 30 years. Damascus is not Lebanon; Syria is much more tightly controlled, and Syrian security and intelligence services are pervasive. Such an operation would require highly sophisticated planning and resources to carry out.
Israel has denied any involvement in the assassination, but if it were to come out that Jerusalem was behind the attack, it could lead to renewed fighting between Hezbollah and their southern neighbors. Hezbollah is at its strongest politically when it is firmly cast in the role of the Islamic bulwark against a rapacious Zionist foe, and they may see another conflict as beneficial to their bargaining position in the current Lebanese crisis. It could also boomerang against them, however, if they are seen to be starting an unnecessary war over a man they disclaim an official relationship with.
Speaking to NOW Lebanon, Dr. Judith Palmer Harik, author of Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism said, “If they've been careful to keep some distance between themselves as an organization and this man, then they wouldn't do more than mourn him as a kind of Arab or Islamic martyr. We'll see.”
Hezbollah political bureau member Ghaleb Abu Zeinab would not speculate on the nature or timing of Hezbollah’s response, though it was clear there would be one. He told NOW Lebanon, “We are now in a mourning period; tomorrow we will bury him. Later, we will say more.”
Hints and allegations
Mugniyah has been described as a freelance Iranian agent, and/or an important operational link between Iran and Hezbollah. He was accused in late October of 2007 of training Shia in the Bekka Valley for uprisings in the Gulf as part of an Iranian attack against the US and its allies. While his recent whereabouts were unknown, Mugniyah was said to primarily reside in Iran with his family, and he reportedly made trips to Damascus with Iranian leaders.
Harik, said, “For years, ever since the surfacing of his name, Hezbollah have denied that he was a member of the organization.” Hezbollah is now, however, claiming Mugniyah as a “leader of the Islamic Resistance” on Al-Manar television, and accusing Israel of his assassination. They have avoided stating that he is or was a formal member of Hezbollah itself, however. Israel, after initially refusing to comment on the bombing, has denied involvement.
Abu Zeinab said, “Of course he is related; we know him very well. We are currently accepting condolences.” Abu Zeinab would not comment on the nature of the recent relationship, however.
Whatever Mugniyah’s real role in the region or in Lebanon, his death will definitely have serious repercussions. The country is now braced for two major public and highly politicized rallies in Beirut tomorrow. Foreign embassies and UN offices have issued warnings to their citizens and employees to restrict movement and stay alert for any breakdown in order. The next few days will decide if Imad Mugniyah’s legacy is to be as violent as was his life.