DAMASCUS, Syria – One of the world's most wanted and elusive terrorists, Imad Mughniyeh, was killed by a car bomb in Syria nearly 15 years after dropping almost entirely from sight. The one-time Hezbollah security chief was implicated in attacks that killed hundreds of Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s, a string of brutal kidnappings and bombings of Jewish sites in Argentina.
The Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its top ally Iran accused Israel in the assassination, a charge denied by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office.
The United States welcomed the death of Mughniyeh, who was indicted in the U.S. over the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed. The FBI had put a $5 million bounty on Mughniyeh.
"The world is a better place without this man in it," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "One way or the other he was brought to justice."
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said the agency was waiting for confirmation of Mughniyeh's death and its circumstances. "If this information proves true, it would be considered good news in the ongoing fight against terrorism," he said.
Mughniyeh's death was the latest in a series of blows to major terror figures in recent weeks. Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al-Qaida leader, was killed in late January by a missile fired by a U.S. drone in western Pakistan. This week, Pakistani security forces critically wounded and captured Mansour Dadullah, a top Taliban figure, in a firefight also near the Afghan border.
But Mughniyeh, a Shiite Muslim not known to be connected to the Sunni al-Qaida or Taliban, harkened back to an earlier era of terror — a secretive, underground operator who was one of the first to turn Islamic militancy's weapons against the United States in the 1980s but whose name was not even known until years later.
He emerged during the turmoil of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, rising to become Hezbollah's security chief, and the the dramatic suicide bombings he is accused of engineering in Beirut were some of the deadliest against Americans until al-Qaida's Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
After he vanished in the early 1990s — reportedly moving between Lebanon, Syria and Iran on fake passports, even said to have undergone plastic surgery — Western intelligence agencies believe he took his terror attacks abroad, hitting Jewish and Israeli interests in Argentina. One Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said Wednesday that Mughniyeh continued to head external operations for Hezbollah and was linked to the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 Americans.
Mughniyeh was still "very active and very dangerous," the official said.
His slaying could hike tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, as well as its allies Syria and Iran. Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody war in the summer of 2006, and some Lebanese figures close to the Shiite militant group called on Wednesday for attacks on Israel in retaliation.
It could also worsen the current turmoil in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is locked in a power struggle with the U.S.-backed government. Hezbollah called for a massive turnout at Mughniyeh's funeral in south Beirut on Thursday. The same day, government supporters are planning a rally of hundreds of thousands in downtown Beirut to mark the third anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, raising fears of street violence between the two camps.
Hezbollah announced on its Al-Manar television that Mughniyeh "became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis." The station played Quranic verses in memorial and aired a rare, apparently recent picture of Mughniyeh — showing a burly, bespectacled man with a black and gray beard wearing military camouflage and a military cap.
Syria's Interior Minister Brig. Gen. Bassam Abdul-Majid said Mughniyeh was killed in Tuesday night car bombing in the Damascus neighborhood of Kfar Sousse, the state news agency SANA reported.
Witnesses in the Syrian capital said the explosion tore apart the vehicle, killing a passerby, and security forces sealed off the area and removed the body. Lebanese television station LBC said Mughniyeh was leaving a ceremony at a nearby Iranian school and was approaching his car when it detonated.
The killing is deeply embarassing to Damascus, showing that the wanted fugitive was hiding on its soil. Syria, home to a number of radical Palestinian leaders, is accused by the United States of supporting terrorism.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini called Mughniyeh's assassination "yet another brazen example of organized state terrorism by the Zionist regime."
Israel, which has been blamed for numerous past assassinations of militant leaders in Arab countries but does not claim responsibility, distanced itself from his killing. "Israel rejects the attempt by terror groups to attribute to it any involvement in this incident. We have nothing further to add," Olmert's office said in a statement.
Mughniyeh, born on Dec. 7, 1962, in the south Lebanon village of Tair Debba, joined the nascent Hezbollah in the early 1980s and formed a militant cell known as Islamic Jihad, or Islamic Holy War, said to be Hezbollah's strike arm though the group denies any link to it.
He is accused of masterminding the first major suicide bombing to target Americans: the April 1983 car bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans. He is also blamed for a more devastating attack that came six months later, when suicide attackers detonated truck bombs at the barracks of French and U.S. peacekeeping forces in Beirut, killing 59 French paratroopers and 241 American Marines.
He was indicted in the United States for the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847, during which Shiite militants shot Navy diver Robert Stethem, who was a passenger on the plane, and dumped his body on the tarmac of Beirut airport. The hijacking produced one of the most iconic images of pre-9/11 terrorism, a photo of the jet's pilot leaning out the cockpit window with a gunman waving a pistol in front of his face.
In the 1980s Mughniyeh was also believed to have directed a string of kidnappings of Americans and other foreigners in Lebanon, including the Associated Press's chief Mideast correspondent Terry Anderson — who was held for six years until his release in 1991 — and CIA station chief William Buckley, who was tortured by his captors and killed in 1985.
"I can't say I'm either surprised or sad (by his death). He was not a good man. Certainly, the primary actor in my kidnapping and many others," Anderson told AP on Wednesday. "To hear that his career has finally ended is a good thing and it's appropriate that he goes up in a car bomb."
Anderson was the last American hostage freed in a complicated deal that involved Israel's release of Lebanese prisoners, Iran's sway with the kidnappers, Syria's influence and — according to an Iranian radio broadcast — promises by the United States and Germany not to retaliate against the kidnappers. Edward Djerejian, who was U.S. ambassador to Syria at the time and was involved in negotiation through the Syrian government on hostage releases, said he had "no knowledge of such a deal" promising not to retaliate. "When I was in government we made no deals," he said.
Giandomenico Picco, an Italian diplomat working at the time as a special assistant to U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, said he was certain but never able to absolutely confirm that the hooded man he met in the slums of Beirut to finalize the deal was Mughniyeh.
Israel accused Mughniyeh of involvement in the 1992 bombing of its embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina in which 29 people were killed.
Argentine special prosecutor Alberto Nisman also accused Mughniyeh in the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center that killed 85 people. Prosecutors said Iranian officials orchestrated the attack and entrusted Hezbollah to carry it out.
Western intelligence also links him to Khobar Towers bombing, the Western official said.
Faris bin Hizam, a Saudi journalist who closely follows Islamic groups, said Mughniyeh flew to Saudi days before the Khobar bombing and met the group that carried out the attack. Mughniyeh spent his last years moving between Lebanon, Iran, Syria and Turkey, using up to 47 different forged passports, bin Hizam said.
Mughniyeh's last public appearance was believed to be at the funeral of his brother Fuad, who was killed in 1994 by a booby-trapped car in Beirut. In 2006, Mughniyeh was reported to have met with hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Syria.
Mughinyeh's killing was the first major attack against a Hezbollah leader since a 1992 helicopter strike that killed the group's secretary-general Sheik Abbas Mussawi in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has consistently refused to talk about him. The announcement of his death was the first mention of him in years.
Mughniyeh's body was brought to south Beirut in the afternoon and was laid in a refrigerated coffin, wrapped in Hezbollah's yellow flag, Al-Manar showed.
Mughniyeh's father — Fayez, a south Lebanese farmer — as well as Hezbollah's deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassem and other Hezbollah officials received condolences at the hall from allied Lebanese politicians and representatives of militant Palestinian factions. Though bitter rivals of Hezbollah, some pro-U.S. politicians including Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri offered written condolences in a gesture of solidarity.