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U.S. renews bid to catch Beirut bombing suspect

Mugniyah is under indictment in the United States in the 1985 TWA hijacking in Beirut.  

From Mike Boettcher

(CNN) -- To Western intelligence services, Imad Mugniyah is a man with no face -- a terrorist they have been chasing for more than 20 years and still have no idea what he looks like.

Before September 11, U.S. officials considered Mugniyah -- a founder of the Lebanese Islamic militia Hezbollah -- responsible for the deaths of more Americans around the world than anyone else. Among other actions, the United States blames him for the 1983 suicide bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon.

The most visible focus of the U.S. anti-terror effort is Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network, which American officials blame for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. But Washington is planning a renewed effort to get Mugniyah as part of the campaign, Western intelligence sources told CNN.

"Imad Mugniyah is the very opposite of bin Laden. He has skills, is more professional, operates as a faceless terrorist. We don't know what he looks like, nor where he is," said Magnus Ranstorp, a professor at the University of St. Andrews Center for the study of Terrorism and one of the world's leading experts on terrorism.

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All investigators can say is that he is one of three hijackers pictured during the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847. Since then, his face has remained hidden, and he is believed to have had two plastic surgeries. Intelligence sources say they do not know what he looks like or where he is -- perhaps Iran, perhaps in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

U.S. authorities have planned at least two earlier attempts to seize him -- in 1986, in France; and in 1995, in Saudi Arabia. They were unable to execute either plan, Western intelligence sources said.

Intelligence operatives point to the expertise in hijacking Mugniyah displayed in the TWA hijacking, when U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem was beaten and shot dead as a ploy to gain fuel for the aircraft.

U.S. prosecutors have obtained a still-sealed indictment against Mugniyah in the TWA hijacking.

Western intelligence sources also suspect him in the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina that left 119 dead in the early 1990s; the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which killed 63; and the kidnapping of numerous Western hostages in Beirut in the mid-1980s. Two U.S. hostages -- William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, and Lt. Col. William Higgins, a Marine officer serving with U.N. forces in Lebanon -- were killed.

"Mugniyah is the one who has been pinpointed as the No. 1 hunted man ever since the 1983 Marine barracks bombing, as someone who was instrumental in conducting Hezbollah's foreign operations," Ranstorp said.

The only things known for sure about Mugniyah are his fingerprints, literally and figuratively --fingerprints that some intelligence sources see on the September 11 attacks themselves.

The FBI released this photo of Mugniyah -- believed to date from the mid-1980s -- on Wednesday.  

Those who believe there may be a link between Mugniyah and the attacks on New York and Washington point to the evidence of Ali Mohamed, a former U.S. Special Forces sergeant who admitted to involvement in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya.

In court documents, Mohamed swore, "I arranged a meeting in Sudan between Mugniyah, Hezbollah's chief, and bin Laden. Hezbollah provided explosives training for al Qaeda and al-Jihad" -- the Egyptian Islamic extremist group believed responsible for the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

"There was a massive intelligence effort to locate Mugniyah for over 20 years. And until bin Laden popped up on our radar screens, Imad Mugniyah was the master terrorist -- truly faceless, truly dangerous," Ranstorp said. "And if there was an alliance between Mugniyah and al Qaeda, it would be the worst possible scenario."

• Central Intelligence Agency

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