BEIRUT, Lebanon – Imad Mughniyeh, a shadowy senior Hezbollah commander accused by the United States and Israel of masterminding suicide bombings, hijackings and hostage-takings that spanned 25 years, was killed by a car bomb in the Syrian capital of Damascus, the Shiite Muslim group and other officials said Wednesday.
Hezbollah accused Israel of carrying out the attack on Mughniyeh, a charge that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office denied. In the past, Israeli officials have rarely confirmed or denied involvement in assassinations abroad.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack welcomed the news of Mughniyeh’s death but said he did not know who was responsible for it.
“The world is a better place without this man in it. He was a cold-blooded killer, a mass murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost,” McCormack said. “One way or another, he was brought to justice.”
The elusiveness of Mughniyeh, long a target of U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies, rivaled only that of Osama bin Laden and stretched over many more years. Until Sept. 11, 2001, the attacks for which the United States blamed him represented some of the deadliest strikes against Americans, at home or abroad. Along with bin Laden, he was included on the list of 22 most-wanted terrorists released by President Bush a month after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Although Hezbollah has always denied a role, the United States accused Mughniyeh of orchestrating two bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut – in 1983 and 1984 – killing 72 people. Among the victims was Robert Ames, then the CIA’s top Middle East expert. Even more devastating were the suicide truck bombings organized against U.S. Marines and French paratroopers in Beirut in October 1983. Together, those attacks killed 300 people.
Israel accused Mughniyeh, 45, of masterminding the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 87 people and of a role in a 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in the Argentine capital that killed 28.
Syria had no comment. Its authoritarian government prides itself on the internal security it maintains, in Damascus, the tightly controlled seat of government.
In Iran, a key source of Hezbollah’s support, a Foreign Ministry spokesman also accused Israel of involvement.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA Middle East analyst and now at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, said the fact that Mughniyeh was killed by a car bomb in downtown Damascus limits the possibilities.
The Israelis “have done it before in downtown Damascus,” said Riedel. “He was also very much on their radar screen.”
Riedel said Hezbollah will almost certainly seek to retaliate for Mughniyeh’s death.
“Some kind of retaliation is almost certain and for killing Mughniyeh, one of Hezbollah’s founding architects, will be very serious,” he said.