In October 2013, I placed a call to the Central Intelligence Agency. I told the CIA’s public affairs office I wanted to talk to them about a story I’d unearthed, about the agency’s assassination of Imad Mughniyah, the world’s top terrorist for decade until he was taken out in 2008. I wasn’t looking for a simple comment, I told them, but some help fleshing out a few details of the hit, which I volunteered was a “righteous kill” since Mughniyah had been responsible for murdering hundreds of Americans in Beirut and elsewhere. They freaked out.
Ghosts of Beirut, an absorbing four-part docudrama debuting on Showtime May 19, has me reconsidering how “righteous” the assassination was. Director Greg Barker, backed by the Israeli team that created the much admired counterterrorism drama Fauda, has managed to raise unsettling questions about the tit-for-tat violence that has become the hallmark of U.S. strategy in the Middle East and elsewhere over the past 40 years.
“For me this is a story about obsession, and how our obsessions can both motivate us and destroy our souls,” Barker maintains. “All our characters, and the institutions they serve, are still haunted by the horrors unleashed in Beirut in the early 1980s. Thus the series title is plural, as the ‘ghosts’ of Beirut continue to reverberate across the decades.”
Beirut is where the young Mughniyah, a charismatic Shiite incensed by the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and the corruption and daily insults of its Christian-dominated army, got his start, prompting the CIA to abandon its shadowy peace-building efforts and go for the kill. The agency’s covert go-between with the Israelis and PLO in Lebanon, the idealistic Robert Ames, died in Mughniyah’s first big hit in 1983, the bombing of the American embassy, which tore the face off the building and killed 17 Americans and wounded scores more, including eight CIA operatives. Mughniyah also oversaw kidnappings of Americans and the abduction and torture to death of CIA station chief William Buckley, all vividly portrayed in the series. One of Buckley’s Arabic-speaking subordinates had warned the headstrong former Green Beret to keep a lower profile and stop walking around Beirut dressed “like a Madison Ave salesman.”
Barker calls the series “a fictional account of deeply researched events,” a formula that, along with so many dramas loosely “based on” a true story, has proved so annoying over the years. But in sharp contrast to so many of those cheesy productions, Ghosts’s script hews closely to the essential facts, letting the natural, cops-and-robbers plot arc carry the series—with notable substories. As with Fauda, which dramatized the lethal contest between Palestinian militants and an Israeli counterterrorism unit, Barker threads his drama with the personal tolls inflicted on all involved with Mughniyah and his war. In The Ghosts of Beirut, the good guys and bad guys are not the only casualties of the shadow wars. Their spouses, children, lovers and comrades are collateral damage, too.
When Suicide Was New
The CIA’s 25-year-long obsession with Mughniyah began with the obliteration of the American embassy on April 18, 1983, followed six months later by the massive truck-bomb attacks on the U.S. Marines and French troops bivouacked as a “peace keeping” force at Beirut International Airport. The attacks killed 241 U.S. and 58 French military personnel, six civilians, and two attackers.
Suicide attacks were unheard of. Killing yourself is haram—forbidden, in Islam, Mughniyah’s young brother protests (although it is historically venerated in Shiism).
“They have their tanks,” Imad responds, “we have our martyrs.”
“Nobody was aware of truck bombs in those days, really, when you get right down to it,” former senior CIA official Sam Wyman says at the beginning of Episode Two, following the replay of an ABC Evening News report of the devastating attack on the American embassy. “This is a new phenomenon. Nobody had really seen suicide before,” he says.
“Who’s doin’ this?” they all wondered, according to another CIA officer in the show. Nobody had a clue.
Much of the drama traces the agency’s effort to merely attach a name to the elusive figure leading the bombings. For a long time they had only “Radwan,” an alias. On the street, he was held in respect as “the father of smoke,” for his talent of disappearing after engineering his spectacular attacks, which soon spread to Iraq and Kuwait. Eventually, a high level Iranian defector, Ali Reza Asgari, the commander of Hezbollah in Lebanon, puts a name to the fugitive and the CIA on his trail.