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The world’s deadliest terrorist you probably never knew about

During the evolution of Bin Laden from freedom fighter to terrorist, there was another, more shadowy figure with an unbelievable kill count.
Imad Mugniyah

Terrorist Imad Fayez Mugniyah pictured on FBI Most Wanted poster, an initiative of the War on Terrorism. (Photo by Mai/Getty Images)

Even before September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden was by far the world’s most well-known terrorist. He had spent the 1980s helping the Afghan mujahideen fight the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. By 1996, Bin Laden had declared war on the United States with the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, and of course, the September 11th attacks.

During the entire evolution of Bin Laden from freedom fighter to terrorist, there was another, more shadowy figure racking up an unbelievable kill count of Americans and other Westerners, and the CIA had no idea what he looked like. Imad Mugniyah was from the street of Beirut and began perfecting the suicide bomber attack at just 19 years old. 

While Bin Laden was aiding Afghanistan in fighting the Soviet Union, Mugniyah was a teen living in Lebanon during its decade-long civil war. Growing up in Beirut at the time, he watched as various factions fought the Israelis, the United States and each other. He was approached by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to create a new group, one that would soon make worldwide headlines. 

Mugniyah was no stranger to Islamic militancy. He had joined the Palestinian Fatah movement while very young. He was wounded while fighting against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in West Beirut. He would later join the newly-created Hezbollah. His first act of violence came very quickly. He recruited a young Lebanese man to drive a car packed with explosives into the Israeli in Beirut.

Since suicide bombing was a new tactic at the time, no one was quite sure if the attack was actually an attack. Confirmation came later in 1983, when another suicide bomber hit the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, seven of which belonged to the CIA, including the agency’s Near East Director, Robert Ames. 

Mugniyah’s next targets were the U.S. Marine Barracks and the French Paratrooper in Beirut. Two suicide bombers in trucks filled with explosives hit the buildings in October 1983, killing 58 French troops and 241 U.S. Marines. The next year, his group bombed the U.S. embassy annex in East Beirut, killing 23 and wounding 90 others. He was far from finished. 

An image grab taken from the Hezbollah-run Manar TV February 13, 2008 shows an undated photo of top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughnieh at an unidentified time and place. Mughnieh, a shadowy Hezbollah military leader who was wanted by Interpol and the United States in connection with bloody attacks around the globe, was killed in Syria in a car bombing. An official with the Shiite militant group in Lebanon said that Mughnieh, in his late 40s, was killed on February 12, 2008 in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and blamed Israel for his murder. AFP PHOTO/MANAR TV (Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images)
An image grab taken from the Hezbollah-run Manar TV February 13, 2008 shows an undated photo of top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughnieh at an unidentified time and place. Mughnieh, a shadowy Hezbollah military leader who was wanted by Interpol and the United States in connection with bloody attacks around the globe, was killed in Syria in a car bombing. An official with the Shiite militant group in Lebanon said that Mughnieh, in his late 40s, was killed on February 12, 2008 in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and blamed Israel for his murder. AFP PHOTO/MANAR TV (Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images)

For the next decade, he captured, tortured, and killed Western officials, including journalist Terry Anderson, who was held for six years, and the CIA station chief in Beirut, William Francis Buckley, who died in captivity. He also led targeted assassinations of IDF generals and Israeli officials throughout this period. 

In 1992, he was charged with the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, along with an Israeli cultural building, which killed more than 100 people between the two attacks. In 1996, he masterminded the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American airmen, as his kidnappings and assassinations continued. 

At this point, one might wonder why the CIA and American officials hadn’t made as big a deal of Mugniyah as they did Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden, after all, topped the FBI’s “Most Wanted List” until his death at the hands of Navy SEALs in 2011. Mugniyah’s identity was a closely-guarded secret among terror groups, and the only photo that Western intelligence or Mossad had was the terrorist’s 25-year-old passport photo, and no one knew how to get to him.

In the end, the CIA was able to positively identify Mugniyah because he met his estranged wife and son on the streets of Damascus when they came to confront him about an affair he was having. From there, the agencies were able to track and assassinate him in 2008. Neither the CIA nor Mossad will confirm they had a part in his killing. 

Before 9/11, Mugniyah was the world’s deadliest terrorist. He was killed by a shaped charge hidden in the spare tire of an SUV in a Damascus suburb after a nearly 30-year reign of terror. Hezbollah vowed revenge against Israel.