Imad Mughniyeh could have had no idea he was about to die on Tuesday evening as he approached the silver SUV parked in an anonymous street in Kafr Soussa, a quiet residential suburb of Damascus.
Still, Mughniyeh must have been used to danger – he had been one of the world’s most wanted men for more than 20 years. Israel’s Mossad, the CIA and other intelligence agencies were anxious to give him a taste of his own medicine, with bombings, assassinations and kidnappings making up his extraordinary CV.
Initial reports from Damascus did not name the victim of the mysterious blast that brought alarmed residents out in their pajamas. But yesterday’s news quickly raised tensions as it echoed round the Middle East. Israel insisted it was not involved; it is rare for any government to admit to carrying out such attacks.
The 45-year-old Lebanese man, claimed as a "martyr" by Hizbullah (the "Party of God"), was blamed for taking western hostages such as Britons Terry Waite and John McCarthy, masterminding the bombing of the US embassy in Lebanon in 1983 and the killing of 242 people at an American barracks in Beirut the same year – and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers that triggered the 2006 war.
Until now Hizbullah had been reticent about claiming Mughniyeh as its own, but there was no mistaking the gravity of the loss. "With pride we declare a great jihadist leader of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon, brother commander hajj Imad Mughniyeh, joining the martyrs at the hands of the Zionist Israelis," said a statement on the party’s al-Manar TV station.
In longevity and range if not notoriety, until the 9/11 atrocities he far outstripped the jihadists of al-Qaida who came to dominate international terrorism in the late 1990s. He was even said to have inspired Osama bin Laden with his ruthless efficiency.
Mughniyeh, born near the city of Tyre in the south of Lebanon in 1962, began his career with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah group before becoming involved with Islamic Jihad, linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, as they built alliances in Lebanon after Israel’s 1982 invasion. His ties with Tehran, which sees Hizbullah as a strategic asset, remained close. A statement yesterday on Iranian state television condemned his killing as "state terrorism by the Zionist regime".
Known to followers as Haj Radwan, Mughniyeh kept such a low profile that he was almost invisible. He was said to have routinely changed identities and undergone cosmetic surgery to disguise his appearance. The only known photographs of him dated back years – until one released yesterday showed a bearded, podgy and bespectacled middle-aged man wearing a mottled camouflage uniform and military-style forage cap.
He never gave interviews and was said to move discreetly between Tehran, Damascus and Beirut’s Shia southern suburbs, where mourning ceremonies were under way last night and where he will be buried today.
Mughniyeh’s clandestine life means that, in death, myth and reality are inseparable. Variously described as a genius and a psychopath, he was said to have been badly affected by the killing of his two brothers, allegedly in attacks by Israeli and US operatives.
Yesterday Arabs rejected Israel’s denial of responsibility. Syria did not apportion blame, but the interior minister, Bassam Abdel Majeed, described the killing as a "cowardly terrorist act". It is an embarrassment for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, whose security services keep close watch on sensitive foreign VIPs, giving them unmarked armored vehicles, official protection and other privileges.
If Israel was behind the assassination it will be seen as a signal that it could also target the Palestinian Islamist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have offices in the Syrian capital.
Syrian security forces blocked access to the scene on Tuesday night and removed the wrecked car, which had its driver’s seat and rear seat blown away. One witness in a seventh-floor flat rushed to the windows after the blast and saw a body on the ground covered with a sheet.
Mughniyeh’s assassination was a highly professional job. "Operationally it must have been extraordinarily complex," said a former western intelligence officer. "You needed to have live-time confirmation that you were dealing with the right person. You needed positive ID, access to the vehicle and routes used. It must have been a major exercise."
The likelihood of revenge attacks is clearly high. Still, Hizbullah may feel constrained. UN forces are now deployed along the border with Israel, while Mughniyeh’s notoriety conflicts with the organization’s image of a resistance movement seeking to play a role in Lebanon’s tangled domestic politics.
News of the killing electrified Beirut, already tense on the eve of today’s mass rally commemorating Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister whose assassination three years ago was widely blamed on Syria. With big crowds also expected for Mughniyeh’s funeral, it may be hard to avoid trouble. "It’s going to take quite a lot to keep the fringes of these groups apart, especially the young guys," said one western diplomat. "There’s the potential for quite significant clashes."
"Mughniyeh was one of the most dangerous terrorists ever," said Danny Yatom, who was head of the Mossad when Hizbullah was blamed for killing 120 people in attacks on the Israel embassy and a Jewish community centre in Argentina in the early 90s. Those, in turn, were seen as retaliation for Israel’s helicopter assassination of Hizbullah leader Abbas al-Musawi.
"He operated in complete secrecy and made sure that there was a high degree of compartmentalization around him," Yatom added. "This was the reason that it was hard to locate him. Mughniyeh operated with full cooperation with Iranian intelligence. He was a very clever man."
"The world is a better place without this man," said a US state department spokesman, Sean McCormack. "He was a cold-blooded killer, a mass murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost. One way or another he was brought to justice."