After Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the most sought-after terrorist is Imad Mugnyiah, a Lebanese Shi'ite who lives in Beirut. NBC News has learned that U.S. counterterrorism agencies -– the CIA, DoD, FBI -- are constantly pursuing Mugniyah, who until Sept. 11 was the terrorist responsible for more American deaths than any other. Mugniyah is no doubt one of the targets of the Israeli attacks, said one U.S. official.
A little-known but powerful Hezbollah leader, Mugniyah moves freely around Beirut. But on occasion, he travels outside Lebanon and the U.S. tries to keep close tabs on him, even though he uses phony passports and aliases when he travels.
Mugniyah is described as the head of the Hezbollah's "action group" and according to U.S. intelligence, was responsible for the kidnappings of most Americans in Lebanon; the torture and murder of Marine Lt. Corp. Rich Higgins and the CIA's Beirut station chief William Buckley, personally taking part in Buckley's torture; and the bombings of the Marine compound as well as the U.S. embassy, which cost more than 300 American lives. He also planned the 1985 TWA hijacking that left a Navy diver dead. He is Hezbollah's contact man with Iran and is often in Tehran to discuss terrorist targets. In recent years, he has adopted a nom de guerre, Jawad Nouredine, the last name meaning "hand of God."
Said one high-ranking CIA counterterror official: "We really want this guy."
On at least three occasions -- and possibly more -- the U.S. has thought it was close to grabbing Mugniyah in a third country. In November 1985, the U.S. informed French authorities he was on his way to Paris, but the French did nothing because they were negotiating with him for the release of their own hostages. The French did provide a photo of him exiting the airport, according to a book, "A Spy for All Seasons" by Duane "Dewey" Claridge, head of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center at the time. Four months later, the U.S. leaked the French refusal to two Paris newspapers, causing a scandal in Paris.
Twice in the past 11 years, Mugniyah has come close to being captured by U.S. authorities. In April 1995, he was on a commercial airliner due to stopover at a Saudi airport. The U.S. knew before the plane left Beirut that Mugniyah was on board and asked the Saudi government to permit the FBI to arrest him during the stopover and fly him back to the U.S. in a military aircraft. After much hand-wringing, the Saudis decided not to let the plane land and it flew on. The U.S. sent a stiff note of protest to the Saudis. Then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher publicly criticized the Saudis, saying, "We expressed our concern that we had not had the cooperation we hoped to have."
Then in the summer of 1996, U.S. intelligence had a lead that Mugniyah was about to travel to Qatar in the Persian Gulf and there was frantic activity at the Pentagon to ensure a U.S. transport plane -- "any plane," as one official said -- in Qatar so the U.S. could extradite him. The lead was either false or Mugniyah changed his travel plans, but in any case he did not show up.
The U.S. reportedly has only one photograph of him, the 15-year-old photo provided the U.S. by the French -- and senior counterterrorism officials admit that photograph is not the best quality.
He is listed on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorist List after being indicted for the death of Bobby Dean Stethem, the Navy diver killed onboard TWA Flight 847 in 1985.
Moreover, Bin Laden's former security chief testified in 2000 that he had arranged security for a 1994 meeting between Mugniyah and Bin Laden.
Ali Mohammed, Bin Laden's security chief and a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, stated during his guilty plea in October 2000 that, "I was aware of certain contacts between al-Qaida and [Egyptian Islamic] Jihad on one side and Iran and Hezbollah on the other side. I arranged security for a meeting in the Sudan between Mugniyeh, Hezbollah's chief, and Bin Laden. Hezbollah provided explosives training for al-Qaida and [Egyptian] Islamic Jihad. Iran supplied Egyptian Jihad with weapons. Iran also used Hezbollah to supply explosives that were disguised to look like rocks."
Mohammed said that the Hezbollah chief -- who is still active in directing attacks against Israel -- had discussed how Hezbollah had forced the U.S. out of Beirut by blowing up the Marine barracks, adding al-Qaida planned to "use the same method, to force the United States out from Saudi Arabia."