As is known, the Islamic State (ISIS) originated with Osama bin Laden and his Islamic jihad, but many overlook the importance of another player in the equation, Iran. Over the past 20 years, Iranian intelligence has provided financial, material, technological and other support to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Imad Mughniyeh, who led an extensive network of Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Hamas and several small terrorist groups in five continents, was responsible for this.
After the announcement of the organization of the Islamic State, the group claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. Western intelligence services expanded efforts to detect jihad cells in Europe and at the same time increased air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. No one expected the group to be able to carry out the biggest terrorist attack in Europe since the train bombings in Madrid in 2004.
There was a sign that Europe was facing a terrorist expansion in their countries. The indication came from those who carried off the Paris attacks. Abdelhamid Abu Oud boasted about the attack in an interview with the French edition of ISIS’ magazine Dabiq. He easily escaped the Belgian authorities and moved freely between Syria and Europe.
The question raised by Abu Oud’s boast is how he succeeded in moving from a small group of Islamic mujahideen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan to the most powerful terrorist organization in the world.
In his book The Secret War with Iran, Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman notes that the Syrian regime pledged during the 1982 summer meeting in Damascus to give full support to Iran’s efforts to establish Hezbollah. In exchange for oil, the Syrian regime agreed to the entry of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards into Lebanon and oversaw the establishment of an Iranian-backed armed group. The first to be recruited into the force was Imad Mughniyeh, whose terrorist origins are tied to Force 17 of the PLO.
It was not long before Mughniyah began planning several operations, including the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in April 1983. According to former CIA officer Robert Baer, this was the deadliest attack on a US diplomatic mission since the United States was founded.
The period until the end of the 1980s saw numerous operations and attacks that were planned. When the Iran-Iraq war ended, the Iranian regime saw its end as an opportunity to expand in the Arab region. Mughniyeh worked with the newly established Quds Force, whose mission was to export the Islamic revolution worldwide. Because of Mughniyeh’s success in raising Hezbollah to the ranks of other major players in Lebanon, he was an important element in fulfilling the Quds Force’s task of forming armed groups around the world.
Mughniyeh soon established a vast network of elements associated with the Quds Force in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe.
In the meantime, Sudan became the next regime to declare itself Islamic after the coup of Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 1989. Among the jihadi organizations hosted by the al-Bashir regime was the Egyptian “Jihad” organization led by Ayman Al Zawahiri one of the pillars of al-Qaeda. Zawahiri traveled to Tehran in 1991 to seek help in overthrowing the Egyptian regime. Mughniyah went to Sudan to help al-Zawahiri in the framework of an agreement he reached with the Iranians. Tehran offered to fund the Egyptian jihad and provide training camps for its operatives in Iran and Lebanon. After Osama bin Laden moved to Sudan, he met Mughniyah. The leader of al Qaeda knew of Mughniyah’s role in Lebanon and his planned attacks there. Bin Laden hoped his organization would achieve similar results around the world.
Bin Laden could not have carried out attacks in the West without Mughniyah’s help. Because of their confluence, Mughniyah offered bin Laden training of his cadres in Hezbollah camps in the Bekaa in Lebanon between 1993 and 1996. Some of bin Laden’s men were sent to Iran, where they were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and supplied with explosives and weapons for bin Laden’s subsequent operations. The common denominator between bin Laden and the Iranian regime was their hostility to Saudi Arabia.
Mughniyah gave his help to Zawahiri and bin Laden in the bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad in late 1995 that killed 17 people. When the Sudanese regime ousted bin Laden under pressure from the West, he moved with his cadres to Afghanistan, again with Mughniyah’s help. Over the next two years, al-Qaeda cadres received extensive training in preparation for what bin Laden called “global jihad.” In the last months of 1997, bin Laden told the Iranians that they should reconsider their foreign policy and join his campaign against the United States and its allies.
Mughniyah continued to train al-Qaeda cells during the early years of the 21st century as the official policy adopted by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on the relationship with al-Qaeda was crystallized in a highly classified document prepared by Iranian intelligence in May 2001. The document stressed the importance of joint strategic objectives between al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime in the “battle against global arrogance led by the United States and Israel.” The Middle East magazine The Tower quoted the secret document as saying it was crucial to understanding Mughniyeh’s relationship with 2001 9/11 attacks in United States.
An investigation committee found that Mughniyeh and his top aides accompanied eight of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks when they left Saudi Arabia for Tehran through Beirut in late 2000. Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the link between the al-Qaeda leadership and the hijackers, received a visa from the Iranian embassy in Berlin in late 2000. He spent the greater part of 2001 in Tehran.
After the attacks, Mughniyeh took over the travel of al-Qaeda leaders from Afghanistan to Iran to protect them from the US invasion on October 7, 2001. In addition to housing Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda’s military wing Saif al-Adl in Iran, Mughniyah took measures to host many members of the bin Laden family. Mughniyah also used his global network to turn most al-Qaeda assets across Africa into gold and diamonds in the months following the September 11 attacks.
By 2002, Mughniyeh was supporting Shiite and Sunni armed groups throughout the Middle East, under the guidance of the Iranian regime. He was a mediator between the Iranian regime on the one hand and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories on the other.
In the summer of 2006, Mughniyah attended a series of meetings with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Tehran. By July of that year, three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped by Hamas and Hezbollah on the border with the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. Mugniyah’s relations with Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the timing of the incidents indicate a degree of cooperation. From the tactical point of view, the two incidents dragged the Israeli army into military action on two fronts.
In February 2008, Mughniyeh was killed in a mysterious explosion following a series of meetings with intelligence officials of the Syrian regime in the region of Kafr Sousse in Damascus. The body responsible for his assassination has been unknown for years. In January, the Washington Post published an investigation into his death that was the result of a joint operation between the CIA and Mossad.
In the wake of the killing of Mughniyah, many of those trained by him became senior leaders of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements in the Palestinian territories. In Lebanon, his disciples became the architects of Hezbollah’s strategy in Syria. In Iraq, the Shiite militias under his supervision have become the tombstone of democracy.
In the meantime, the Sunni militias that Mughniyah helped and embraced have turned into a global terrorist threat called the Islamic State organization. Mughniyah’s cells in Europe were sending al-Qaeda jihadists from Europe to Iraq and Afghanistan during the first decade of the 21st century. The same networks continued to enable foreign fighters to travel to Iraq through Syria. These jihadists returned to Europe to carry out terrorist attacks, such as the Paris attacks and the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine.
Analysts say finding solutions to this threat should not be confined to the southern suburb of Paris or the poor suburb of Molenbeek in Brussels, but should extend to Hezbollah’s relationship to West African diamond trade, drug trafficking networks in Latin America and many black markets in Southeast Asia.
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