Death of a killer: Hizbollah fighters carry the coffin of Imad Mughniyeh
during his funeral procession in Beirut, Lebanon, on 14 February 2008.
In just 60 years, Israel’s secret service has become a byword for ruthlessness and audacity. As the storm surrounding its Dubai operation intensifies, Gordon Thomas, author of the definitive history of Mossad,
reveals the inside story of its most daring hit.
BY GORDON THOMAS
The London Independent
On Saturday morning, 2 February 2008, a man emerged from the U-Bahn, the city’s railway system, and stood outside the subway exit on the Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s elegant shopping quarter. He had started his journey in one of the eastern suburbs of the city and its purpose was contained in the briefcase he carried. A car pulled up, the driver opened the passenger door and together they drove off.
Who the man was and what he had been asked to do was known, apart from the driver, to only Meir Dagan and a handful of senior Mossad officers in Tel Aviv. They had patiently waited for the car’s passenger to obtain what they wanted.
Six months before, the driver introduced himself to the man as Reuben. It was not his real name: like all other details about his identity, it remained in a secure room where the names of all current katsas [field agents] were kept in Mossad headquarters. A few days ago, the man had left a message at one of the agreed dead letter-boxes, which Reuben regularly checked, to the effect that he was ready to deliver what he had been asked to provide in return for a substantial sum of euros, half as a down payment, the balance on delivery of what was now in his briefcase.
They were photos of Imad Mughniyeh. After Osama bin Laden, he was the world’s most-wanted terrorist.
Long before the al-Qa’ida leader had launched his pilots against New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington, Mughniyeh had introduced suicide bombers into the Middle East. The Hizbollah terrorist mastermind had read an account of the Second World War Japanese kamikaze pilots in Hizbollah’s own newspapers, Al Sabia and Al Abd, which had praised the pilots for their sacrifices. In the alleys and souks of Beirut, Mughniyeh had persuaded families it was a matter of honour to provide a son, or sometimes even a daughter, for similar sacrifices. They had remained the human weapons of choice against Israel and later in Iraq and Afghanistan. Down the years those who had chosen to die were remembered in Friday prayers in the shadowy coolness of the mosques, after the rhetoric of the muezzin calling for the destruction of all those who opposed Hizbollah.
The deaths of the young bombers were lauded and their memories kept alive. Mughniyeh told their families the souls of their children needed no more, that their suicide bombings would be remembered forever and assured them a place in Hizbollah’s version of Heaven.
Like Bin Laden, Mughniyeh had been hunted across the Middle East and beyond by Mossad, the CIA and every other Western intelligence service. But each time he came close to capture, he escaped, the trail gone cold. Until now. On that cold winter day in February 2008, with a bitterly harsh wind from the Polish steppes whistling through the streets of Berlin, Reuben drove along past the smoke-blackened ruins of the Gedächtnis-Kirche, the church that was a memorial to the Allied bombing raids of the Second World War, a grim contrast to all the other buildings that made the city look like any other European capital.
At some point the man produced a file from his briefcase and, in return, replaced it with an envelope Reuben handed over containing the balance of the fee for the images in the file.
The cover of the grey-coloured document bore the stamp of what was once one of the most powerful agencies in the German Democratic Republic, the GDR, itself at one time the most important satellite nation in the former Soviet Union. The stamp identified the file as once belonging to the Stasi, the security service of the GDR’s Ministry of State Security.
In the 40 years of its existence, the Stasi had employed 600,000 full-time spies and informers, roughly one secret policeman for every 320 East Germans. The Stasi had its own imposing headquarters in East Berlin, interrogation centres around the city, its own hotels and restaurants in the countryside and clinics where only Stasi staff and their families could be treated. One clinic, close to the River Spree, had facilities to perform plastic surgery including facial reconstruction for Stasi agents and sometimes carefully selected members of terror groups with which the Stasi had close connections.
The citizens of East Germany awoke in November 1988 to find the collapse of the Berlin Wall then, with bewildering speed, the resignation of the GDR’s Politburo and the official end of the Stasi’s reign of terror. But not everything had ended. The clinic near the Spree had remained in business, offering its skills to those with the funding to pay for plastic surgery.
The file now in Reuben’s possession contained photos of Imad Mughniyeh which had been taken at the clinic after his surgery. His face looked very different from the one that had last filled the pages of newspapers and magazines after a Hizbollah rally in September 1983 before once more disappearing in 1984, by which time he had established an even-more murderous reputation than any other terrorist of the 1980s.
This was the era when the Venezuelan-born Marxist Carlos the Jackal’s claim to notoriety had begun with the taking of 42 Opec oil ministers hostage in Vienna in 1975. Carlos had then embarked on a reign of terror before Mossad had tipped off French intelligence as to where they could grab him in Sudan and bring him to trial in Paris for his crimes on French soil, where he continues to serve a life sentence.
Like Carlos, Abu Nidal had become another headline-grabbing terrorist after he ordered the gunning down of innocent men and women as they waited to board their Christmas flights in Rome and Vienna airports in 1985. Nidal had finally been killed by a team from kidon, Mossad’s unique unit that conducted legally approved assassinations. But for a quarter of a century Imad Mughniyeh had avoided assassination.
Now, on that February morning, the file in Reuben’s possession could bring closer his death for some of the worst crimes committed on Israel’s doorstep – Lebanon. In 1983, he had plotted the attack against the American embassy in Beirut. Among the 63 dead were eight members of the CIA, including its station chief in the Middle East. A year later, Mughniyeh arranged for the kidnapping of William Buckley, the CIA replacement station chief in battered Beirut.
Next, he arranged the bombing of the US Marines’ barracks near the city’s airport, killing 241 people. In between, he had carried out hijackings and organised the kidnapping of Western hostages, including Terry Waite, who had gone to Beirut to try to negotiate with Hizbollah’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, to free the hostages Hizbollah already held. Along with Buckley, Waite – the emissary of the Archbishop of Canterbury – had been incarcerated in what became known as the Beirut Hilton, the underground prison beneath the city.
Imad Mughniyeh had been responsible for the murder of over 400 people and the torture of even more. America had placed a bounty of $25m on his head. One by one Mossad’s menume, the Hebrew title by which each director general is known, plotted Mughniyeh’s downfall. Men like the cool Nahum Admoni (1982-1990), the quiet-voiced Shabtai Shavit (1990-1996), the relentless Danny Yatom (1996-1998) and Efraim Halevy (1998-2002), the menume his staff called the “grandfather of spies”, had all chaired endless secret meetings to plan the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh.
Their agents had tracked him to Paris only for him to once more slip away, as he had done in Rome and Madrid. For a while the trail led to Minsk in the Ukraine and then to the Islamic republics of the former Soviet Union. There were reports he was in Tehran, living under the protection of the fundamentalist regime. But each time the hunt had petered out. In 2002, Meir Dagan took over Mossad. He did what all his predecessors had done: he studied the growing number of files that listed how close Mossad agents had come to capturing Mughniyeh. At times they had been close, very close. But somehow he had still wriggled free. The suicide bombings had continued. For Dagan it became an article of faith that, as the 10th menume, he would finally terminate Mughniyeh’s reign of terror.
Dagan had asked Mossad’s psychiatrists, psychologists, behavioural scientists, psychoanalysts and profilers – collectively known as “the specialists” – to focus on where Imad Mughniyeh could be and the best way to kill him. There was a consensus that the ideal means of doing so was with a car bomb. “It would be poetic justice,” one specialist said. Using the only photograph of him published in a newspaper and a handful of biographical details, they set to work.
Born in a south Lebanese village, the son of a fruit seller, Imad Mughniyeh had joined Force 17, Yasser Arafat’s personal bodyguards. He was 16 years old when he had killed his first Israeli, a settler in the Golan Heights. After Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation was forced to leave Lebanon in 1982, Mughniyeh stayed behind in Beirut and joined Hizbollah, the organisation that had already established itself as the prime militant force resisting Israel. He came to the notice of Sheikh Fadlallah, who arranged for Mughniyeh to rise quickly in the Hizbollah ranks. By the age of 20, after a spell of training in Tehran under the auspices of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Mughniyeh was a fully fledged terrorist.
The newspaper snapshot showing an exultant Mughniyeh addressing a Hizbollah rally in Beirut was studied under computer analysis. Various shapes of beard were superimposed to suggest how he might look now as the specialists tried to create a current image and to seek clues to his mindset. Using a technique which they properly called “remote in-depth analysis”, but referred to among themselves as Rida and which did no justice to what was involved, they continued the task of mapping out his personality. They evoked a great deal in their analysis: Allah and the devil and the role each might play in his life. Much of what they posited was only intended to remain between them, verbal signposts along the road of trying to discover Imad Mughniyeh’s thinking as well as his physical appearance.
Other specialists worked to discover the psychological forces that motivated Mughniyeh. He was a mass murderer, certainly, yet he did not fit the typology of fanatics, or of those who are driven by anger. It would be satisfying – at least for the behaviourists – to conclude that at the root of his evil was all-consuming rage. It was there, of course, but was it an all-animating and life-energising force? The psychologists wondered if he was “inhabited by a strong streak of masked violence”. This would have allowed him to go about his work in a businesslike manner, whether he was recruiting little more than children to be suicide bombers or ordering the bomb-makers to create even more powerful explosives. But again there was no clear answer – any more than there was to the question of how he maintained order within his own psychological universe so he could equate his unspeakable actions to his belief that he was right to kill and destroy.
In the photo at that 1980s Hizbollah rally, a full beard covered his chin and a peaked cap covered his hair. Rimless spectacles also hid his eyes. One by one the facial analysts used their computer skills to remove his beard, spectacles and hat and to age him to his present 45 years. The specialists concluded there was evidence that at some point Mughniyeh’s face had undergone some surgical work. But the traces of scar tissue indicated it had been done at least five years earlier when he had disappeared after the spate of suicide bomb attacks on Israel.
The Chinese were the acknowledged leaders in the field of facial surgery. But the Beijing regime had turned its back on Hizbollah. The Russians were a possibility, but again the Mossad medical experts ruled out plastic surgeons that had once worked for the KGB. Others who operated “close to the wind” were checked in Romania, Serbia and North African countries. But Mossad agents did not discover any evidence Mughniyeh had undergone plastic surgery in any of these places.
Then, in June 2007, came the break. Since the end of the war with Hizbollah in south Lebanon, Mossad had been steadily recruiting Israeli Arabs in the West Bank who were opposed to Hizbollah. One of the informers had a relative in a village near Mughniyeh’s birthplace. The cousin had told him that a friend of her family had heard that Mughniyeh had travelled to Europe from the safe house the Syrian regime had provided. He had sent postcards from Paris, Frankfurt, Munich and finally Berlin. It was little to go on, but it was a start.
First a Mossad agent, a fluent Arab speaker, had travelled to south Lebanon and had met the informer’s cousin. The agent had posed as an old friend of Mughniyeh. Little more had emerged except that the cousin was certain Mughniyeh was back in Damascus, but according to her friend’s family, he now looked different.
In hours, Reuben had been ordered to investigate the possibility that Mughniyeh had visited Berlin to undergo further plastic surgery. Now, six months later, the katsa had the proof in the file his informer had handed over.
On Sunday 3 February 2008, Meir Dagan chaired a meeting in the conference room adjoining his office. On the table were jugs of water and pots of coffee for those seated around it: they were the head of Shin Bet, the country’s internal security force; the government’s national security adviser; the political adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; and the military advocate-general to the Israeli Defense Force, IDF. Among them sat a brigadier-general, the head of Mossad’s kidon unit. Beside Dagan sat his director of operations. In a corner of the room was the table and chair usually occupied by the notetaker to record decisions and other discussions. Now it was empty. There would be no record of this meeting.
Similar meetings had been held by Dagan since he came to office in August 2002. The first had been four months later, in December that year, to discuss the case of Ramzi Nahara, a Mossad informer Dagan had known personally who had defected to Hizbollah. Was it for money? A skewed belief in the group’s cause? Had he fallen for one of the Arab women Hizbollah used to try to entrap a foreigner? There were no answers. But the meeting was short and unanimous. Nahara had to be located. He was tracked to an Arab village and killed with a car bomb planted by a former colleague in the service he betrayed.
In March 2003, another meeting discussed Abu Mohammed Al-Masri, who had been sent by al-Qa’ida from Pakistan to create a cell to target Israeli villages on the border with Lebanon using rockets. He too died in a car bomb as he drove around south Lebanon seeking recruits and suitable sites to launch the weapons. The next target the meeting had discussed, in August 2003, was Al Hussein Salah, Hizbollah’s explosives expert who had begun rebuilding the organisation’s arsenal in the Beirut suburbs. He was on his way to meet his bomb-makers when he died in yet another car bomb planted by Mossad.
A full year passed before Dagan once more had summoned the men in his conference room. The decision had been taken in the stifling heat of July 2004 that Ghaleb Awali, the Hizbollah link-man between Damascus and the activists in the Gaza strip, should be killed by a car bomb as he headed south to meet the activists. The bomb was planted under his seat.
In Awali’s place came Izz El Deen Al-Sheikh Khalil, a Hamas leader who worked closely with Hizbollah in Damascus, and who had been given responsibility by Syria to liaise between Damascus and Hamas and Hizbollah units in Gaza and the West Bank. Even as he drove to his first appointment, Khalil was killed by a Mossad car bomb in a Damascus suburb. In May 2006, Mahmoud Majzoub, a senior member of the Islamic jihad committee through which Hizbollah liaised with Tehran, was killed by a car bomb as he drove for lunch in a south Lebanon restaurant. Each of the targets had been carefully selected, placed under surveillance and the moment of their deaths was the result of the planning that would once more occupy the men in the conference room on that Sunday afternoon. It was there that the fate of Imad Mughniyeh would be settled.
His death warrant was in the folder beside Dagan on the table. It had originally been signed by the then-prime minister, Ariel Sharon (in 2008 still in a coma) and ratified by Ehud Olmert. The question the meeting was asked to decide was how could the warrant be executed? Also on the table before each man was a copy of the file that Reuben had transmitted on a high-security line from his Berlin office. Inside the file were a series of still prints from a video, in all 34 images. They showed the various stages of the plastic surgery Imad Mughniyeh had undergone. First his beard had been shaved and the previous scar tissue carefully removed. A note attached to the print contained the original observation in German, now translated into Hebrew, that the scar tissue on the cheeks, jaw and the temples dated from 1993 following surgery at a clinic in Tripoli, Libya. Close-up images revealed further details of the surgeon’s work at the East German clinic. The eyes had been reshaped by tightening the skin on Mughniyeh’s temples. His lower jaw had been expertly cut, a piece of bone removed and then resewn to provide a narrower jaw line, which gave the face a leaner look. A number of front teeth had been removed and replaced with others of a different shape. His hair had been coloured a distinguished-looking grey and, instead of his spectacles, he now wore contact lenses. Imad Mughniyeh looked radically different from the original newspaper photograph.
Those around the table decided a car bomb would once more be the most effective way to carry out the assassination. But there were problems. Mossad’s previous car bombing of Mughniyeh’s associates would undoubtedly have made him cautious about travelling anywhere in his own car. There was a possibility he would use the vehicle of one of his bodyguards. But there was no firm intelligence as as to who they were or what type of cars they used. The information the Mossad agent had acquired that Mughniyeh was back in Damascus looking “very different” would need to be checked so a plan could be properly developed.
It was Meir Dagan who brought the discussion to a halt. He reminded others that in nine days’ time, 12 February, a historic event would be taking place in Tehran and other Arab countries. It would mark the 29th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran Revolution. In Syria a day of celebration would be marked by a reception at the city’s Iranian Cultural Centre, given by the newly appointed Iranian ambassador to Syria, Hojatoleslam Ahmad Mousavi. It would be a fitting moment for him to be introduced to Imad Mughniyeh.
In Dagan’s view there was more than “a good chance” Mughniyeh, if he were back in Damascus, would attend the function. To refuse such an invitation would not only offend his Syrian hosts, but also the Tehran mullahs and their ambassador who would bask in the reflected glory of such an exalted figure, one who had done so much damage to the West.
Meir Dagan had spoken the words he had used before at other meetings to order an assassination. “We do it.”
By Monday 4 February 2008, the kidon brigadier-general had chosen the three operatives he would use for the assassination. Each had been assigned a codename which matched the one-off passport he would have. The documents would be specially prepared by the Mossad travel department from the stock of passports in storage. Other documents provided details of their home addresses and occupations.
Pierre, the French passport holder, had an address in Montpelier, France, and was identified as a car mechanic. Manuel, the holder of the Spanish passport, had a home in Malaga and was described as a tour guide; Ludwig’s German passport described him as living in Munich where he worked as an electrician.
The names, addresses and job backgrounds were genuine, those of sayanim, the Jewish volunteers upon whom Mossad often depended for its more dangerous operations. Among the tasks the volunteers fulfilled was that of providing cover for agents by allowing them to assume their identity.
While the documents were being prepared by the forgers working in the basement of Mossad’s headquarters in the Negev Desert, the three kidon memorised their “legends” – the stories they would tell if challenged by immigration, police or the security officers of Syria. Each story was kept as simple as possible: Pierre could talk knowledgeably about car engines; Manuel about his work escorting tourists around the south of Spain; Ludwig memorised the intricacies of his profession.
Meanwhile the travel department checked the flights into Damascus. In his briefing, the brigadier-general had told the head of the department that the kidon should travel separately and arrive at different times in the Syrian capital, and the flights should be on AirFrance, Jordanian and Alitalia airlines. Each ticket should have a selection of return flights booked. All the seats should be in economy. Pierre should arrive first and have a prepaid hire car waiting for him at Damascus. Like the other two, the purpose of his visit should be given as “holiday”.
In the next week a Mossad sayanim in Beirut, a man who had made the journey several times, drove north to Damascus. His familiar figure and the reason for his journey – to explore with the Syrian Ministry of Tourism the possibility of creating twin holidays to Lebanon and the historic ruins of Syria – aroused no suspicion. The sayanim visited the ministry, made his pitch and drove around Damascus. Among the many photographs he took were several of the Iranian Cultural Centre and the surrounding streets.
By nightfall he was back in Beirut. That evening the photos had been transferred to a disc and transmitted to a travel agency, a front for Mossad in downtown Tel Aviv. From there it was couriered to their headquarters in the city.
Day after day the planning for the assassination continued. Instructors at their desert base checked every detail with the kidon: the language they would speak, the clothes they would wear, the reason why they had come to Syria out of season. The purpose of their visit, given in different ways, was that each wanted a quiet holiday and one they could afford. Like the rest of their cover stories, it was made credible by the way the men dressed and spoke.
In between, the three men still had much to study and memorise: the roads to the Iranian Cultural Centre; the routes from across the city; the area where they could find a lock-up garage, the location of the dead letter-box where the explosives had been left for them to kill Imad Mughniyeh. The material would be placed there by the Beirut sayanim. How and when he did so would remain one of the secrets of the operation as it moved to its climax.
Meir Dagan had tasked Israel’s own spy satellite, Trescas, to mount surveillance in the area of Damascus where the Iranian Cultural Centre was situated. Mossad had priority over all the country’s military agencies for such an operation. Images were downloaded and studied by photo interpreters in the Kirya, the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, looking for any sign of Mughniyeh. There were several “possibles”, but none that matched the photo in the file Reuben had sent. The silent search from outer space continued. Dagan had “a gut feeling” that the terrorist would be going to the Iranian celebration at the cocktail party, he told his director of operations.
On Saturday 9 February 2008, the three kidon made their way to Tel Aviv airport to catch their flights to Vienna, Paris and Frankfurt. A week before, Reuben had received the file from his informer and transmitted it to Tel Aviv. By nightfall, the three kidon were in their airport hotels waiting for their flights to Damascus the following day. On their cell phones was a close-up of Mughniyeh’s face which had been altered in that former Stasi clinic near the River Spree.
On Sunday morning 10 February 2008, Pierre boarded Air France flight AF 1519 at Charles de Gaulle airport for the journey to Damascus. The sun was setting over the city when he arrived. From Madrid, Manuel had flown on Jordanian Airways flight RJ 110 to Amman and then on to the Syrian capital. An hour later, Ludwig’s Alitalia flight AZ 7353 had left Milan’s Malpensa airport in mid-afternoon and arrived in Damascus at 6.30pm local time. Shortly after, the three men – untroubled by Syrian immigration and customs officers – stowed their carry-on bags in the trunk of the hired car and, with Pierre at the wheel, drove into the city.
By late evening they had driven past the dead letter-box and located the lock-up garage which the Beirut sayanim had said would suit their purpose. Satisfied that neither the dead letter-box nor the garage were under surveillance, they had picked up the explosives, the small portable radio and the key to the lock-up garage left in the dead letter-box. Behind the door of the garage, they worked to prepare the bomb which would be concealed inside the radio and placed in the car’sheadrest on the passenger side.
By dawn they had finished.
Taking it in turns to stand watch, the three kidon slept in the car for most of the day. Late that afternoon, they drove around the city, finally passing the Iranian Cultural Centre. It was bigger than the sayanim’s photographs had suggested. It stood on a road with exit routes close by. The plan they had devised would work. Satisfied, the team returned to the lock-up garage. There was no sign that anyone had disturbed its door: the piece of cigarette paper placed at the bottom had not been dislodged.
What they did for the next 20 hours would remain a mystery.
At 7pm on Tuesday 12 February, the team were back outside the Iranian Cultural Centre. Ludwig took up position at one street corner, Manuel another. Pierre drove the hired car further down the street from where the oncoming traffic was approaching. He activated the bomb placed in the headrest. Inside the radio, the timer began to tick. It had a four-hour clock. It was now 7.30pm.
Guests for the Iranian celebration of the Khomeini Revolution were steadily making their way into the centre. At 8pm, the Iranian ambassador arrived and hurried inside. None of the guests resembled the face on the cell phones of the three kidon.
At 9pm a silver Mitsubishi Pajero turned into the street and parked close to where Ludwig and Manuel were standing on opposite sides. For a moment the driver and his passenger sat checking the street.
Then the passenger door opened and Imad Mughniyeh emerged. He wore a dark suit and his beard had been neatly trimmed. He started to walk up the street toward the parked hired car. He was level with the vehicle when there was a huge explosion which blew the car into pieces and beheaded Mughniyeh. Later, some of his body parts were found 20 metres away.
Which of the kidon was the first to trigger the bomb would remain unknown. But before the first screaming guests ran from the Iranian Cultural Centre reception, and the police and ambulances arrived, the three assassins had vanished.
It would later be suggested in some reports that a car had been left for them in a nearby side street and Pierre had driven the team to a predetermined pick-up point in the south of Syria for an Israeli air force helicopter to collect them. Eyewitnesses would claim they saw a helicopter flying out to sea. Another report said they had left Damascus airport on night flights to Europe. But nobody would ever know.
On Friday 15 February, Mughniyeh was buried at a huge Hizbollah funeral in Beirut, from where he had first launched his terrorist activities. His mother, Um-Imad, sat amid a sea of black chadors, a sombre old woman who wailed that her son had planned to visit her on what had turned out to be the day after he had died.
A few days later, she received an envelope. Inside was a copy of one of the pictures taken of Mughniyeh’s face when he had undergone his successful plastic surgery. He had been her third son to die in a Mossad car bombing.
Gordon Thomas is the author of Gideon’s Spies: The Inside Story of Israel’s Legendary Secret Service, The Mossad (Robson Books)
See Related: MEIR DAGAN SAID MASTERMIND BEHIND MOSSAD SECRET WAR
ABOUT THE SAN FRANCISCO SENTINEL
SENTINEL FOUNDER PAT MURPHY