Imad Mugniyah, the senior Hezbollah military commander who was killed in Syria earlier this month, helped form the Mahdi Army, the military wing of the radical Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr, according to an Iraqi intelligence official. He was described as a “co-founder” of the Mahdi Army, Naharnet reported, based on a translation from the Iraqi daily Al Zaman.
Mugniyah helped form the Mahdi Army after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003. He recruited from the Shia communities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and then sent the recruits to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley for training. “The 300 fighters were trained on the use of assault rifles, booby-trapping and kidnapping operations,” the unnamed intelligence official told Al Zaman.
Once in Lebanon, the Mahdi Army recruits were sent to bases run by Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Qods Force, the foreign special operations branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Hezbollah operates numerous bases in the Bekaa Valley, under the supervision of Syrian intelligence.
The links between Hezbollah and the Mahdi Army are not new. Mahdi Army fighters have admitted to training in inside Lebanon with Hezbollah, while Muqtada al Sadr also admitted his forces trained with Hezbollah and mirrored their tactics.
“We have formal links with Hezbollah, we do exchange ideas and discuss the situation facing Shiites in both countries,” Sadr told The Independent in August 2007. “It is natural that we would want to improve ourselves by learning from each other. We copy Hezbollah in the way they fight and their tactics, we teach each other and we are getting better through this.” Sadr also said his fighters trained in Lebanon while the Mahdi Army leadership conferred with Hezbollah over Israel’s plans in the Middle East.
Hezbollah is essentially the Lebanese branch of Iran’s Qods Force. Mugniyah was Hezbollah’s mastermind terrorist and also a senior leader in Qods Force. Dr. Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on Hezbollah describesd Mugniyah as standing “with one foot within Hezbollah (reporting to Nasrallah directly) and with one foot in Iran inside the architectures of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the al-Qods unit within the Iranian Pasdaran [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps].” Dr. Ranstorp also said, “there are two Iranian representatives (from the Iranian embassy in Beirut/Damascus) that provide a direct link on matters that require strategic guidance or Iranian assistance or arbitration” to Hezbollah’s executive Shura, or council.
The US military had proof of Hezbollah’s direct involvement with the Mahdi Army and the Iranian-backed Special Groups terror cells since early 2007. On July 2, 2007, Multinational Forces Iraq announced the capture of Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Hezbollah operative, inside Iraq. Daqduq was a 24-year veteran of Hezbollah, who has commanded both a Hezbollah special operations unit and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s security detail.
Daqduq had been operating inside Iraq for several years, and admitted to Hezbollah and Iran’s operations inside Iraq. His account is corroborated by interrogations of other Special Groups operatives and by information seized during multiple raids, including computers, diaries, and other documents. “In 2005, [Daqduq] was directed by senior Lebanese Hezbollah leadership to go to Iran and work with the Qods Force to train Iraqi extremists,” said Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, Multinational Forces Iraq spokesman, during a briefing in July 2007. “In May 2006, he traveled to Tehran with Yussef Hashim, a fellow Lebanese Hezbollah and head of their operations in Iraq. They met with the Commander and Deputy Commander of the Iranian Qods Force Special External Operations.” Daqduq made four trips into Iraq in 2006, where he observed the Special Groups operations.
Upon his return to Iran, Daqduq “was tasked to organize the Special Groups in ways that mirrored how Hezbollah was organized in Lebanon.” Daqduq subsequently began to train Iraqis inside Iran. Groups of 20 to 60 recruits were trained in the use of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), mortars, rockets, and sniper rifles, and instructed on how to conduct intelligence and kidnapping operations.
Mugniyah’s involvement with the establishment of the Mahdi Army is a natural fit. He was at the forefront of the establishment of Hezbollah as a major force in Lebanon, then orchestrated numerous terror attacks across the globe. He began his career in terrorism in the 1970s with Force 17, the personal bodyguard detachment for Yassar Arafat, and later joined Hezbollah and quickly rose through the ranks.
His more infamous terror attacks include the April 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, killing 63; the October 1983 simultaneous truck bombings on the US Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines and 58 French soldiers; the hijacking of TWA 847; the kidnappings and murders of US military, intelligence and diplomatic personnel in Beirut; the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1992, killing 29 people; the bombing of a Jewish cultural center in 1994, killing 86 people. He is suspected of direct involvement in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 US servicemen. He was also behind the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in northern Israel, the event that triggered the Israel-Hezbollah War in July 2006.
Mugniyah was directly linked to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and former al Qaeda in Iraq commander Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Mugniyah was on the FBI’s list of 22 most wanted terrorists, with a $5 million dollar reward for information leading to his capture. US Special Forces aborted a raid to capture Mugniyah in the Persian Gulf in 1996. He was believed to have visited Syria in January 2006 to attend a meeting with Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Assad.
Mugniyah very likely played a support role in al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks on the US. The 9/11 Commission Report was explicit about Iran’s connections with al Qaeda. “The relationship between al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations.” Contacts between Iran, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda were established in Sudan in the early 1990s. “Al Qaeda members received advice and training from Hezbollah,” according the 9/11 Commission Report. Many of al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 hijackers transited through Iran. “After 9/11, Iran and Hezbollah wished to conceal any past evidence of cooperation with Sunni terrorists associated with al Qaeda.”
For more information on Mugniyah’s role with the Mahdi Army and the Special Groups, see Mahdi Army trains with Hezbollah. For more information on the Special Groups and Iran’s role in the Iraqi insurgency, see Iran’s Ramazan Corps and the ratlines into Iraq and Targeting the Iranian “Secret Cells.”