"Ghosts of Beirut," a Reflective Counterterrorism Masterpiece
The four-part Showtime thriller traces the CIA's decades-long pursuit and assassination of terrorist Imad Mughniyah, "the father of smoke."
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 U.S. 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.
CIA headquarters officials were slow to grasp the connection between Mughniyah and Iran, in Ghosts’s telling. But the show lays out how Mughniyah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps early on entered a marriage of convenience. The IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani (who years later would be assassinated in a CIA drone strike in Iraq) appears in the drama as Mughniyah’s suave and cunning case officer, alternately grooming his charge and apprehensive about his ambitions, which came to include a chemical weapons attack on Israel. That’s reason enough for Mossad to make Mughniyah a target, without reservations, but to get a presidential “finding” from George W. Bush to authorize killing him—a tricky subject ever since congressional investigations into CIA assassinations in 1975—the agency’s team leader needs to make a case that Mughniyah presents a “clear and present danger” to Americans. When a Mughniyah acolyte leads a raid on a U.S. post in a police station in Karbala, Iraq on Jan. 20, 2007, which left five U.S. soldiers dead and three wounded, she has it.
Barker presents a Lebanese-born female CIA ops officer, Lena Asayran, as the point person of the CIA team chasing Mughniyah. He concedes she’s a made-up character, but not entirely out of whole cloth. In the years after 9/11, many women took up leadership roles in CIA counterterrorism.
“Her portrait is drawn from conversations I had with a wide variety of sources, including anecdotal stories I’ve heard of Lebanese-Americans and Iranian-Americans who began working this account in the early 2000s, many of them female,” he told me.“I also wanted to draw a contrast with the CIA of the 1980s, which we see in the first two episodes, which of course was almost exclusively the domain of white men.” Well, that’s Hollywood.
Intense and driven, Lena comes across as Barker’s version of CIA counterterrorism analyst Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA-assisted drama (which came under intense fire for stretching the truth about torture leading directly to Osama Bin Laden).
“I hate this job," Lena says to her Israeli counterpart after they’ve tested a bomb designed to kill Mughniyah.
"Because you're good at it," he says. But “no matter how clinical or surgical or whatever, this will haunt you,” he warns her—as it has him. “You'll think about his wife, you'll think about his kids…”
Chastain’s “Maya” was based on a real CIA officer. Lena is not, but Barker makes another distinction between ZDT and Ghosts of Beirut.
“I think one of the issues around ZDT was their claim that it was the true account of that story, when of course it was all far more complicated. That's why we say up front that [Ghosts] is a fictional story, but based on deep research.”
And “the agency did not help at all,” he adds.
Nor would it. When I asked the CIA for help on my Mughniyah story in late 2013, it panicked and demanded a meeting with Newsweek Editor-in-chief Jim Impoco. They wanted to quash the story, arguing that publishing it would cost CIA lives. I’m not at liberty to discuss exactly what followed, but suffice it to say the magazine sat on what we had for the next 28 months, until an agency official, in a courtesy call, let me know that The Washington Post had obtained its own version of the story. My version went online a couple hours after theirs.
Who Pushed the Button?
A significant difference between our versions was that The Post’s excellent intelligence reporters Ellen Nakashima and Adam Goldman (now with the New York Times), posited that Israeli intelligence activated the car-bomb that killed Mughniyah in Damascus remotely from Tel Aviv, with the approval of a CIA officer in the room. “The way it was set up, the U.S. could object and call it off, but it could not execute,” a former U.S. intelligence official told the Post. The Bush administration worried about violating U.S. laws prohibiting the assassination of foreign officials.
In my version, the Mossad had located Mughniyah in Damascus in early 2008 and “gifted” the intelligence to the CIA. A well placed source told me that Mossad boss Meir Dagan came to CIA Director Michael Hayden and “said basically, 'We have acquired the location of him and we know that he has a lot of American blood on his hands and so we would like to offer this up to you in terms of what would you like to do with him.’"
My version also had a team of CIA and Mossad agents closely watching Mughniyah in Damascus, with an Israeli agent confirming the target and a CIA operative pushing the button. Other versions beyond the Post’s also attributed the button-push to a Mossad’s operations center in Tel Aviv. My sources stand by their version.
Whatever, "It was an Israeli-American operation,” a former senior CIA officer responsible for Middle East operations told me in 2013. “Everybody knows CIA did it—everybody in the Middle East anyway." The CIA's authorship of Mughniyah's death, the official added, should have been broadcast long ago. "It sends the message that we will track you down, no matter how much time it takes," he said. "The other side needs to know this."
Even to this day, the event remains murky, wrapped in official CIA refusals to discuss it. Off the record, though, both sides like to take credit for eliminating Mughniyah from the scene before he could do more and greater damage. “Both former CIA and Mossad officers told me that their agency was in charge,” Barker says.
The obliteration of Mughniyah was business as usual for the Mossad, where the assassination of enemies by pistol, poison and explosives has a 75-year long history and continues to this day, especially in Iran. For the Americans, though, it was a watershed moment. After the 9/11 attacks, CIA and special operations kill teams began running wild in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assassinations-by-drone became a commonplace under the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations.
“I do think it’s possible to trace the origins of the CIA we’ve known since 9/11 back to the horrors of Beirut in the mid-80s, and the Agency’s humiliation at the hands of a 21-year kid named Imad Mughniyah,” Barker said. “A lot of the players involved at the time were young, and shaped by the traumas they experienced early in their careers. By 2001, many were in key upper management positions, and I’ve repeatedly been told that the searing experiences of their youth influenced how they acted in the 2000s.”
“Searing” could well apply to Barker’s drama. Ghosts of Beirut manages to be at once gripping, authoritative and instructive, a top shelf addition to the “based on” spy thriller genre.
We get to watch it at a minimal cost, on TV. The Middle East is still paying the price.
Ghosts of Beirut, from Fauda creators Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz, features an international cast led by Dina Shihabi (Jack Ryan), Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding), Garret Dillahunt (12 Years a Slave), Iddo Goldberg (Snowpiercer), Hisham Suleiman (Fauda), Amir Khoury (Image of Victory) and Rafi Gavron (A Star is Born). Script by Joëlle Touma (The Bureau, The Insult), who was also co-executive producer, alongside co-executive producers Padriac McKinley and Diane Becker.
Emmy winner Greg Barker (Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden), directs all four episodes. Daniel Dreifuss (All Quiet on the Western Front) executive produces alongside Issacharoff and Raz. The series will debut on streaming and on demand May 19 for Showtime subscribers, before making its on-air debut on the network May 21. (Showtime handout.)
SpyTalk is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber
I was in Vietnam for a while and knew many who worked in Saigon with Buckley. His capture and death still is a sticking point for me. They could have sent him back in an exchange. But they sent a tape of his last days. I can not get past that. Had I stayed after Vietnam I might have been in the same "boat." I have no idea what a Madison Ave. sales person dresses like, but I expect he wore much what we wore in Vietnam. No reason to drive him insane with torture, as Tucker Gougelmann was treated in Hanoi. Intelligence work had been less vicious.