When a car bomb tore through an upscale Damascus neighborhood last night, Syrian police mysteriously whisked away the body of a man killed in the blast. It turns out that the victim was Imad Mughniyeh, who was America's most wanted terrorist before Osama bin Laden came onto the scene and has remained one of the world's most wanted fugitives.
Mughniyeh, who had served as the operational commander for Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, was blamed for a two-decade series of suicide bombings, kidnappings, and hijackings. In particular, he was responsible for some of the deadliest attacks on Americans in the 1980s. He hadn't been seen in public for more than a decade, since the funeral of a brother killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 1994, and little is known about his recent activities.
His most infamous attacks include a pair of bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983 and 1984 that killed 72 people, as well as the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 300 men.
He was also indicted in connection with the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight from Athens to Rome, during which hijackers killed a U.S. Navy diver who was a passenger. Mughniyeh was also reputed to be the leader of a group in Beirut that held dozens of westerners hostage during the Lebanese civil war, including Terry Anderson, a former Associated Press bureau chief there.
In the 1990s, Mughniyeh was accused by Israel of planning the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, as well as the 1994 blast at a Buenos Aires Jewish center.
Mughniyeh's death, which Hezbollah announced on its television station, came as a surprise because the elusive terrorist had not been seen in public for so long. It also marked an unusual breach of security in tightly controlled Syria, which has long been suspected of harboring the shadowy Mughniyeh.
"With all pride, we declare a great jihadist leader of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon joining the martyrs," said a statement carried on Hezbollah television. "The brother commander hajj Imad Mughniyeh became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis."
Israeli officials denied involvement in the attack. Mughniyeh had a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head.
Some kind of retaliation from Hezbollah is likely. Hezbollah, which is to hold a funeral on Thursday, has called on followers to march to the group's stronghold in Beirut's southern suburbs to pay their respects.
The full details behind Mughniyeh's death may never be known, since it is also possible that he ran afoul of the Syrian regime, which has been accused of using car bombs to kill prominent opponents in neighboring Lebanon.