The twist: This was 12 years ago, and the President was George Bush Sr. The man he was talking about was not Osama bin Laden, but a young Lebanese terrorist by the name of Imad Mugniyeh.
You may never have heard of him, but the CIA and other western intelligence services hold him responsible for a litany of terrorist acts unprecedented until a month ago. Bob Simon reports.
In fact, U.S. officials have evidence that he was the pioneer of terrorism against Americans. One of the men he conspired with was Osama bin Laden. The two men have something else in common: they're both at large. The Americans have been chasing Mugniyeh now for 20 years, and he has remained out of reach.
"Up until Sept. 11, 2001, the man who killed more Americans than any other terrorist in the world was Imad Mugniyeh, and we've ignored him," says Larry Johnson, a former counter-intelligence officer for the State Department. "In the history of terrorism, there have been very few terrorist attacks that have succeeded in changing policies of governments. Mugniyeh is one of the very few that has achieved that objective."
His objective was to get the Americans out of Lebanon. He believed that America didnt have the stomach for casualties.
So in April 1983, Mugniyeh, senior security chief for Hizbollah, and his operatives bombed the American embassy in Beirut. Sixty-three people died.
Six months later, a suicide bomber under Mugniyehs command drove a truck packed with explosives to the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. A total of 241 Americans were killed. It was the bloodiest terrorist attack against Americans ever.
A year later, almost as an afterthought, it seemed, Mugniyeh went back to the American embassy and bombed the annex, killing another 14 Americans.
Says Johnson: "If this guy could blow up Marines, if he could blow up U.S. embassies, he could force the United States to change its policy. Which we did."
To be more precise, President Reagan did. He ordered the withdrawal of all American troops from Lebanon. In Beirut, 18 years ago, Mugniyeh set the example for what bin Laden is trying to do now: Get Americans and the culture they bring with them out of the Islamic world.
"Bin Laden has taken Mugniyehs vision to a new level. He has taken it to a level that now we cannot say there are things he will not do," says Johnson.
Johnson says that, according to the testimony of a former U.S. Army Sergeant named Ali Mohammed, Mugniyeh and bin Laden have met at least once, in 1993. Mohammed, an Egyptian, was a one-time member of the Special Forces who went over to the other side. He pleaded guilty to participating in the 1998 bombing of American embassies in Africa. Last year, Mohammed confessed that he personally arranged meetings between bin Laden and Mugniyeh.
Mugniyeh was the mentor bin Laden was the disciple. The student has gone so much further than his teacher. Bin Laden has become modern historys most famous terrorist. His teacher remains a little-known and shadowy figure, a man whose photograph, captured only in black-and-white, appeared once in a French magazine.
David Jacobsen, one of the men kidnapped in Beirut in the 1980s, was held hostage for more than 17 months. During that time, he had the odd privilege of coming face-to-face with Mugniyeh. American authorities believe that Mugniyeh engineered most of the kidnappings, including the kidnapping of CIA Beirut Station Chief William Buckley, with whom Jacobsen shared a cell.
"I was chained to the floor, I was blindfolded. The person at my feet, I later learned, was Terry Anderson, and the person at the head was Bill Buckley. And down the hallway by the bathroom, was Father Jenko," says Jacobsen.
The four were told not to talk. "One of the chilling moments for me and for Terry Anderson was to hear Bill Buckley cough. He was very, very sick. He was delirious. I heard him say, 'I dont know what happened to my body, it was so strong 30 days ago.'"
The next thing Jacobsen heard was a thud, a thud that sounded like a silencer. Bill Buckley was dead. Like the others, Jacobsen was beaten and held in what he called "horrible conditions." He blamed Mugniyeh for that. Jacobsen is convinced that when his captors made a video of him, the man behind the camera was Imad Mugniyeh.
Mugniyeh set the standard when it comes to hijacking airplanes, lessons not lost on bin Laden and his network. The operation that made Mugniyeh notorious was the hijacking of 1985 TWA 847 in Beirut. Thirty-nine Americans were held hostage for 17 days. One of them, Navy SEAL Robert Stethem, was tortured and killed, his body tossed onto the tarmac.
"The TWA 847 -- in some ways for me, and I think for the government and Reagan at that time -- was a seminal event. It was just the last...straw," says Dewey Claridge, founder of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center, and the man in charge of finding Mugniyeh.
In 1985, Claridge got a tip: Mugniyeh was spotted in Paris. He asked the French to put Mugniyeh under surveillance, and then got on a plane and flew to France. But the French stopped the operation, apparently, Claridge says, because capturing Mugniyeh might affect negotiations with Iran to free French hostages in Beirut
The French weren't the only country to rebuff American efforts to capture Mugniyeh. Years later, acting on a tip from the FBI, the Saudis could have snatched him off an airliner, but declined and routed the plane straight to its destination, Beirut.
In West Beirut, Mugniyeh plotted guerrilla warfare against the West. There, he proved untouchable even though Claridge kept trying to catch him.
Claridge concedes that he doesnt know what his nemesis looks like. There are stories that he has had some plastic surgery done on himself in recen years, Claridge says.
"If it was me, I would say we put him at the top of the list with bin Laden, we shut down Lebanon right now. Right now, the United States has normal flow of relations with Lebanon. That has to come to a screeching halt," says Johnson.
"He's either (in Lebanon) or in Teheran. He's (in) one of the two places. This much we know. He controls terrorist training camps and works with terrorist training camps in Lebanon: Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad. Those groups, exemplified, if you will, by Mugniyeh, operate from Lebanon. When you have someone that's harboring murderers, you cannot tolerate it. And weve tolerated it for too many years. And now maybe with four thousand, five thousand, how many thousand people that are dead, we may wake up and say, this has got to stop.'"
In the late 1980s, after the hostages were released, Mugniyeh disappeared from view. He was reported to be living in Iran under the protection of the Revolutionary Guards.
But then, a few years later, he re-surfaced with a vengeance in Argentina. In the early 1990s, authorities accused him of masterminding the bombing of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. A total of 115 people died.
And then, last year, it's believed that Mugniyeh returned to killing Americans. U.S. officials suspect he was involved in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. A total of 17 American sailors died.
Jacobsen still harbors anger at his captor. What would he do if he faced a captured Mugniyeh?
"I would disembowel him with my hands, because I have such hatred for what he did to me and to my friends and to other people. I would love to see Mugniyeh caught, and I would be there to listen to the sentence of his death."
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