DAMASCUS, Syria — Imad Mughniyeh, the suspected mastermind of dramatic attacks on the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks that killed hundreds of Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s, was killed by a car bomb in Syria.
The Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its top ally Iran accused Israel in the assassination, a charge denied by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office.
The United States welcomed the death of Mughniyeh, who was indicted in the U.S. over the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed. The FBI had put a $5 million bounty on Mughniyeh.
"The world is a better place without this man in it," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "One way or the other he was brought to justice."
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said the agency was waiting for confirmation of Mughniyeh's death and its circumstances. "If this information proves true, it would be considered good news in the ongoing fight against terrorism," he said.
One of the few Americans to have met Mughiyeh told NBC News that the terrorist burned with "hatred" for the United States.
Kurt Carlson was one of the hostages taken in 1985 off TWA 847 during a Hezbollah hijacking in which a U.S. Navy officer was killed. A Reserve officer in the U.S. military at the time, Carlson was held with six other Americans in a jail cell in Beirut.
"I can still picture him," Carlson recalled in a phone interview Wednesday. "It was like he had fire in his eyes. Just totally intense, you know: just the hatred he had for us."
Emergence during Lebanon's civil war
Mughniyeh was a secretive, underground figure who emerged during the turmoil of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. As Hezbollah's security chief, he became one of the first to turn Islamic militancy's weapons against the United States. The dramatic suicide bombings he is accused of engineering in Lebanon were some of the deadliest against Americans until al-Qaida's Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
After he vanished in the early 1990s — reportedly moving secretly between Lebanon, Syria and Iran — Western intelligence agencies believe he took his terror attacks abroad, hitting Jewish and Israeli interests in Argentina, and he has been linked to the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 Americans. One Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said Wednesday that Mughniyeh continued to head external operations for Hezbollah and was still "very active and very dangerous."
His slaying could heighten tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, as well as its allies Syria and Iran. Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody war in the summer of 2006, and some Lebanese figures close to the Shiite militant group called on Wednesday for attacks on Israel in retaliation.
Hezbollah announced on its Al-Manar television that Mughniyeh "became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis." The station played Quranic verses in memorial and aired a rare, apparently recent picture of Mughniyeh — showing a burly, bespectacled man with a black and gray beard wearing military camouflage and a military cap.
Embarassment to Syria
Syria's Interior Minister Brig. Gen. Bassam Abdul-Majid said Mughniyeh was killed in Tuesday night car bombing in the Damascus neighborhood of Kfar Sousse, the state news agency SANA reported.
Witnesses in the Syrian capital said the explosion tore apart the vehicle, killing a passerby, and security forces sealed off the area and removed the body.
Press TV reported that Mughniyeh was leaving his house and about to get into his car when it exploded. Lebanese television station LBC said Mughniyeh was leaving a ceremony at a nearby Iranian school and was approaching his car when it detonated.
Iran celebrated the anniversary of its Islamic revolution this week.
The killing is deeply embarassing to Damascus, showing that the wanted fugitive was hiding on its soil. Syria, home to a number of radical Palestinian leaders, is accused by the United States of supporting terrorism.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini called Mughniyeh's assassination "yet another brazen example of organized state terrorism by the Zionist regime."
Israel, which has been blamed for numerous past assassinations of militant leaders in Arab countries but does not claim responsibility, distanced itself from his killing. "Israel rejects the attempt by terror groups to attribute to it any involvement in this incident. We have nothing further to add," Olmert's office said in a statement.
Formation of Islamic Jihad
Mughniyeh, born on Dec. 7, 1962, in the south Lebanon village of Tair Debba, joined the nascent Hezbollah in the early 1980s and formed a militant cell known as Islamic Jihad, or Islamic Holy War, said to be Hezbollah's strike arm though the group denies any link to it.
He is accused of masterminding the first major suicide bombing to target Americans: the April 1983 car bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans. He is also blamed for a more devastating attack that came six months later, when suicide attackers detonated truck bombs at the barracks of French and U.S. peacekeeping forces in Beirut, killing 59 French paratroopers and 241 American Marines.
He was indicted in the United States for the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847, in which Shiite militants seized the 747 and flew it back and forth between Beirut and Algiers demanding the release of Lebanese Shiites captured by Israel. During the hijacking, the body of Navy diver Robert Stethem, a passenger on the plane, was dumped on the tarmac of Beirut airport. The hijacking produced one of the most iconic images of pre-9/11 terrorism, a photo of the jet's pilot leaning out the cockpit window with a gunman waving a pistol in front of his face.
The hijacking was carried out by members of Hezbollah, but members of Amal, a less radical Shiite party, took custody of the hostages and eventually negotiated their release. Carlson said that Amal allowed Mughniyeh to come to the cell where he was held and that an Amal soldier explained who he was.
Mughniyeh spoke English to the American prisoners, as he voiced political complaints.
"You could just feel the emotion," Carlson said. "His voice as he talked to us, just kept rising! ... We thought he was going to leap out at us almost."
In the 1980s Mughniyeh was also believed to have directed a string of kidnappings of Americans and other foreigners in Lebanon, including the Associated Press's chief Mideast correspondent Terry Anderson — who was held for six years until his release in 1991 — and CIA station chief William Buckley, who was tortured by his captors and killed in 1985.
Anderson was the last American hostage freed in a complicated deal that involved Israel's release of Lebanese prisoners, Iran's sway with the kidnappers, Syria's influence and — according to an Iranian radio broadcast — promises by the United States and Germany not to retaliate against the kidnappers.
Mughniyeh is also believed by Israel to have been involved in planning the 1992 bombing of Israel’s embassy in Argentina in which 29 people were killed and the blast at a Buenos Aires Jewish center two years later that killed 95.
Link to Khobar Towers attack
Western intelligence also links him to the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, the Western official said.
Faris bin Hizam, a Saudi journalist who closely follows Islamic groups, said Mughniyeh flew to Saudi days before the Khobar bombing and met the group that carried out the attack. Mughniyeh spent his last years moving between Lebanon, Iran, Syria and Turkey, using up to 47 different forged passports, bin Hizam said.
Mughniyeh's last public appearance was believed to be at the funeral of his brother Fuad, who was killed in 1994 by a booby-trapped car in Beirut. In 2006, Mughniyeh was reported to have met with hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Syria.
Mughinyeh's killing was the first major attack against a Hezbollah leader since a 1992 helicopter strike that killed the group's secretary-general Sheik Abbas Mussawi in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has consistently refused to talk about him. The announcement of his death was the first mention of him in years.
Hezbollah called for a massive gathering of its supporters for Mughniyeh's funeral in southern Beirut on Thursday.
Mughniyeh's body was brought to Beirut in the afternoon and was laid in a refrigerated coffin, wrapped in Hezbollah's yellow flag, Al-Manar showed. Four black-clad uniformed guerrillas stood in attention on both sides of the coffin in a Hezbollah hall in south Beirut suburb of Roueiss, a stronghold of the militant group.
NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.