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Clancy: Terror mastermind's deception cause for skepticism

  • Story Highlights
  • CNN's Jim Clancy skeptical of news of suspected terrorist's demise
  • Clancy covered hostage situation in 1985, likely masterminded by Imad Mughniyeh
  • Things were not what they seemed in that hostage situation, says Clancy
  • Clancy recalls "how much deception Mughniyeh employed in his life's work"
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By Jim Clancy
CNN
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CNN's Jim Clancy is a news anchor and correspondent for CNN International.

(CNN) -- Imad Mughniyeh was a master of deception. He was also Hezbollah's chief of security and its strategist. His alleged role in bombings and kidnappings earned him a place on the "Most Wanted Terrorists" list of the United States.

He reportedly underwent plastic surgery in Iran to change his appearance. Mughniyeh was often reported to be in Iran or Syria or on a plane between those two countries. Tehran and Damascus always denied any knowledge.

So forgive me if I greet the news of his demise with considerable skepticism. His life's work was deception and it would pain me not to take that into account when reporting his death.

Let me take you back to Beirut, Lebanon, in June of 1985, where I was covering a hostage situation for CNN.

It became the very image of terror. On the runway at Beirut International Airport, a TWA pilot looks down from the cockpit window as a "hijacker" holds a gun to his head. What a remarkable coincidence that the media was there to capture the moment.

But it wasn't what it appeared to be.

The gunman was actually a teenager. He hadn't been one of the four men who hijacked TWA flight 847. He was nothing more than a security guard for a few crewmembers left aboard the jetliner while 40 other hostages had been hauled off to Beirut's southern suburbs.

He just wanted to be on television.

I was permitted to sit down and talk with pilot John Testrake while he was still held hostage. Testrake told me the teenager saw a television news crew approaching and insisted on staging the photo. He became agitated when Testrake refused.

So determined to get his "Kodak moment" as a terrorist, the young man had unloaded the gun and handed it to Testrake to prove it was empty. Testrake told me he only agreed when he feared the young gunman might become unhinged if he didn't get his way.

The so-called "face of terror" photo was really a picture of media manipulation.

A fitting twist because the man who really was behind the spectacular hijacking would become modern terror's master of deception. He was the main actor who never took center stage. There was never even a reliable photo of him.

Later that week, a source brought me the names of three of the hijackers of the TWA flight to the Commodore Hotel in West Beirut. One of those names was Imad Mughniyeh.

Mughniyeh was the suspected mastermind of the simultaneous attacks on U.S. Marines and French paratroopers in October 1983 in which 241 Marines and 58 French troops were killed. The bombings eventually led the U.S. and other peacekeepers to pull out of Lebanon.

In December 1985, there was another simultaneous bomb barrage on the streets of the Kuwaiti capital.

Even watching the Kuwait story develop from Beirut that winter, I can remember hoping the mysteries of the barracks bombing might be about to unravel. One of the attackers left a severed thumb at the scene in Kuwait. Police quickly uncovered his identity and 17 suspects were rolled up and jailed before they could escape.

One of those sentenced to death in the Kuwait case was none other than Imad Mughniyeh's brother-in-law.

According to Lebanese intelligence sources, bombings and kidnappings were a family business. Mughniyeh's strategy was to kidnap Westerners in the war-torn streets of Lebanon in order to force the release of his relatives and allies.

In all, more than 90 hostages from more than 20 nations were taken. Some would be released only to see more kidnapped.

Terry Anderson, the chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press spent nearly seven years in captivity before he became the final American hostage released. Others never made it out. The remains of CIA station chief William Buckley were recovered and it appeared every bone in his body had been broken. Britain's Terry Waite went to Beirut to negotiate the release of the hostages only to be taken hostage himself.

Even after Saddam Hussein's invading troops opened the doors of Kuwait's jails and Mughniyeh's brother-in-law scurried home, the Western hostages continued to be held. Hezbollah, Iran and Syria all denied any involvement. It was only when Iranian clerics called for the release of the Westerners that they finally were freed.

Hezbollah and Syria are now paying tribute to Mughniyeh and hurling blame at Israel for his death in a car bombing. I'm not declaring the story to be false and I'm not about to tell anyone it's the truth. I just keep remembering how much deception Mughniyeh employed in his life's work.

He was a founding member of Lebanon's Hezbollah and thousands of its supporters are expected to turn out in the streets of Beirut to remember him Thursday.

Thursday is February 14. It is the anniversary of the day in 2005 when Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated with a massive car bomb. Hariri's son and political heir, Saad Hariri, blames Syria and its Lebanese backers for the killing.

In what has become an annual ritual, tens of thousands of anti-Syrian protesters are expected to take to the streets in remembrance of Hariri.

Now, with planned demonstrations for Imad Mughniyeh, Syria and Hezbollah have a counterweight that could also become an annual commemoration and even a rivalry with Hariri protesters.

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And can you imagine the coincidence that both should fall on the same day?

Like the photo of the hijacked pilot and the gunman, not everything is as it appears. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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