Former U.S. officials say Imad Mugniyah, who was killed today in a car-bomb assassination in Damascus, Syria, was so powerful in Hezbollah that many countries refused to help the U.S. capture him, including one time in 1996 when he was spotted on a commerical flight on its way to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
"We appealed to the Saudis to grab him when the plan landed, and they refused," Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism official in the Clinton White House and now ABC News consultant, said. "We raised the level of appeals all the way through Bill Clinton, who was on the phone at three in the morning, appealing to the highest level in Saudi Arabia to grab him. Instead the Saudis refused to let the plane land, and it continued on to Damascus."
Despite plastic surgery, a weight gain of 40 pounds and elaborate security precautions, one of the world's most wanted terrorists, Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyah, was tracked down and killed in Damascus.
Hezbollah television confirmed that Mugniyah, known as the "Fox" because of his ability to elude U.S. and Israeli agents, died in the blast which Hezbollah blamed on Israel.
Mugniyah was linked to a long series of terror attacks against U.S. and Jewish targets, and the U.S. had post a $5 million reward for information on his whereabouts, according to the Rewards for Justice Program Web site.
One of the few photos of Mugniyah showed him brandishing a pistol in the cockpit of the hijacked TWA flight 847 in Beirut, Lebanon in 1985.
He was also linked to the 1983 truck bomb attack that killed 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut and to a 1994 attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina that killed 84 people.
"Imad Mugniyah probably killed more Americans than any other single terrorist except for bin Laden," Clarke told ABC News.
Israel denied any involvement in Mugniyah's death, but Israeli intelligence analysts said Mugniyah had long been the country's top target.
"It's not a secret that Mugniyah was the No. 1 wanted for the Israel Mossad for many years," said Roni Shaked, a former Israeli intelligence officer who now writes on security and intelligence issues for a leading Israeli newspaper.
"It's going to be a message to the American people to act more and to find bin Laden," Shaked told ABCNews.com.
Mugniyah had twice eluded U.S. military operations launched to capture him, according to former U.S. officials.
In recent years, Mugniyah had undergone plastic surgery to alter his appearance and sought a low profile as he worked in the shadows to organize the military wing of the Hezbollah organization.
U.S. security analysts said he was operating out of Damascus and reportedly attended top planning sessions between Hezbollah and Syrian President Assad.
Israeli security analyst Shaked predicted that Hezbollah would launch a retaliation strike.
"I think that today or tomorrow Hezbollah has to do something because we are living in a revenge after revenge circle," he said.
In a statement, FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko said, "The FBI is aware of the reports of Imad Mugniyah's death in Syria. We are awaiting official confirmation and details. As an indicted terrorist, Mugniyah has been on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list and the FBI has been on the hunt for him for some time. If this information proves true, it would be good news in the ongoing fight against terrorism as one major terrorist will no longer be around to commit additional acts of terror against Americans and others in the world."