WASHINGTON — Before there was Osama bin Laden, there was Imad Mughniyeh.
In April 1983, David Welch, the State Department's Lebanon desk officer, received a middle-of-the-night call that a suicide bomber had struck the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing more than 60 people.
Marine Sgt. John Selbe felt Mughniyeh's work on Oct. 23, 1983, as he sat in his cot in the U.S. Marine headquarters at the Beirut airport. A suicide bomber detonated the explosives-packed truck he was driving, killing 241 American servicemen.
On June 14, 1985, members of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, led by Mughniyeh, hijacked TWA Flight 847 between Athens and Rome. The next day, they singled out Patricia Stethem's son, Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem, beat him, shot him in the head and dumped his body onto the tarmac at the Beirut airport.
On Wednesday, Welch, Selbe and Patricia Stethem were among hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans who welcomed the news that 25 years after he declared war on the United States, Mughniyeh was killed Tuesday night with a car bomb in Damascus, Syria.
Patricia Stethem called word of Mughniyeh's death "the best bit of news I've had in 20-some-odd years. ... Our family has been waiting for this moment."
"We've never forgotten this guy," said Welch, now the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. "Bad man. Long history. Not surprising the way he exited."
Nowhere was the celebration more heartfelt than it was at CIA headquarters outside Washington. Among the Westerners whom Mughniyeh and his Hezbollah cohorts took hostage in Lebanon was William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut who was kidnapped in 1984 and died in captivity.
What hurt the most, though, at the CIA, at the Pentagon, at the State Department and all over Washington, was the fact that Mughniyeh, supported by Iran, was successful.
Hezbollah was responsible for killing more Americans than any other terrorist group until al Qaida, and the operations Mughniyeh conceived or commanded drove the United States out of Lebanon and fostered the perception, still widespread among Islamic radicals, that America has no stomach for casualties.
The kidnappings of Buckley and others also led to the arms-for-hostages scandal known as Iran-Contra, which nearly torpedoed Ronald Reagan's presidency.
Even in the post-9/11 world, with the hunt for bin Laden and other al Qaida leaders a top priority, the U.S. government never gave up the hunt for Mughniyeh, a shadowy figure who was sometimes reported to be living in Tehran.
Magnus Ranstorp, a counterterrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College and the author of an authoritative book on Hezbollah, said that U.S. intelligence agencies maintained a team dedicated to finding Mughniyeh.
There were several near misses, including a 1995 plan to nab him when his plane landed in Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials reportedly refused to let the plane land.
"He became the No. 1 foreign policy problem for the United States, in terms of what he did," Ranstorp said. "This was the most sought-after individual in the 1980s and `90s . . . . To some extent, it's an end of an era."
Who killed Mughniyeh and how they penetrated what Ranstorp described as Hezbollah's legendary security, remain unknown.
Hezbollah, which announced his death on its al Manar television station, said in a statement, "The brother Commander hajj Imad Mughniyeh became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis."
Israel accused Mughniyeh of masterminding the 1992 bombing of Israel's embassy in Argentina and a 1994 attack on a Buenos Aires Jewish cultural center, which killed 95 people.
The Israeli government distanced itself from the bombing without explicitly denying responsibility. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said it was "looking into the reports" but "rejects any attempt by terrorist elements to ascribe to it any involvement whatsoever in this incident."
The assassination raised tensions in the region, where Hezbollah battled Israel to a military and political draw during a 34-day war in the summer of 2006.
Noel Koch, who headed the Pentagon's counterterrorism program through much of the 1980s, said he expected Hezbollah to retaliate.
"I don't think this hurts Hezbollah at all," said Koch, the president of TranSecur Inc., a global security firm.
Koch said that while some terrorist attacks clearly bore Mughniyeh's signature, in other cases it was less clear. "He managed to get credit for an awful lot of things," he said.
Mughniyeh was indicted for his role in planning the 1985 hijacking that led to Robert Dean Stethem's death.
In recent years, Mughniyeh was less active. "We all get older in this business," Koch said.
Selbe, however, took solace in Mughniyeh's demise.
He recalled how, after the bombing at the Marine barracks, his cot fell through the floor and landed one story below, encased in rubble. He could see nothing, and for 10 minutes all he could do was listen as fellow Marines died around him.
"I called out everybody's name in the entire platoon. Never got an answer. I called out for help. Never got an answer," Selbe said. He was rescued three hours later.
"I've lived longer than the guy who tried to kill me," he said Wednesday.
(Dion Nissenbaum in Jerusalem, special correspondent Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem, special correspondent Dalia Haidar in Damascus and special correspondent Miret el Naggar in Cairo contributed.)