“Bin Laden cowered and hid. Mughniyeh spent his life giving us the finger.”
I first heard of Mughniyeh in 1989, while reporting on the kidnapping of the CIA’s Beirut station chief. Only the barest of facts about Mughniyeh were known at the time, and he remained, for me and other reporters, an obsessive journalistic pastime, a story we were sure would help us understand the region’s murderously dysfunctional politics, if only we could decode it. “For years, people claimed Mughniyeh was behind anything that went ‘boom,'” reporter Nicholas Blanford, a Hezbollah expert, says. “Just sit in a Beirut cafe and listen to what people say. Most of it is pure fantasy, but no one really knows for sure.”
Blanford has stories of his own. “I hear that he rarely traveled with bodyguards,” he told me, “and on some days he’d hop on his Vespa and run down the coast highway to train Hezbollah fighters in the south. Just imagine: One of the world’s most wanted men on a scooter. In plain sight.”
Only now, five years after his death, is a clearer narrative of his life coming into focus, one that finally separates the myth from the man. Indeed, though this account relies on dozens of conversations with Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Israeli, and American observers and officials over a period of more than two decades, it’s just in the last two years that those who knew Mughniyeh have begun to provide the details of his life, and only early this year, during a trip to the Middle East, was I told of his final hours.
What I have found is an untold tale about the murderous three-decade shadow war between Iran and the United States, one filled with not only a gruesome body count but also the complicated politics of a region where even Hezbollah’s closest friends could be suspect — and where a shadowy terrorist could wield enough power to shape global events.