August 26, 2023 | Asia Times

‘Ghosts of Beirut’ gets Hezbollah’s most wanted all wrong

Showtime miniseries is thrilling but its portrayal of Hezbollah’s American-killing Imad Mughniyeh is wide off the historical mark
August 26, 2023 | Asia Times

‘Ghosts of Beirut’ gets Hezbollah’s most wanted all wrong

Showtime miniseries is thrilling but its portrayal of Hezbollah’s American-killing Imad Mughniyeh is wide off the historical mark

The creators of the Netflix hit series “Fauda” are back. In May, Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz released “Ghosts of Beirut,” a Showtime miniseries that narrates the life and assassination of Hezbollah’s former military leader Imad Mughniyeh, who – until the 9/11 attacks – had killed more Americans than any other non-state actor. 

While Showtime’s quasi-documentary is entertaining, perhaps even thrilling for those who don’t know Mughniyeh’s story, the show misrepresents Mughniyeh’s ties to both the late Lebanese ayatollah, Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The show opens with IRGC officers approaching Mughniyeh, then working as a car mechanic, and plucking him out of obscurity. This is incorrect. If anything, it was Mughniyeh who helped found the IRGC.

After Israel defeated Egypt in the 1967 war, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser encouraged asymmetric warfare against the Jewish state. Palestinian militias flourished in Jordan and Lebanon, launching cross-border attacks into Israel, inviting retribution, and threatening the sovereignty of both nations. 

In 1970, Jordan expelled Palestinian militias, then under the command of Yasser Arafat. They relocated to Lebanon, where Nasser had pushed Beirut to accept the 1969 Cairo Agreement, which allowed Palestinian armed factions to roam the country freely. Arafat thus became Lebanon’s strong militiaman and de facto ruler, just like Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah today.  

In his tug and pull with the Lebanese state, Arafat instructed his second-in-command, Khalil Al Wazir, better known by his nom du guerre Abu Jihad, to form an elite unit, Force 17, designed to counter Lebanon’s Police Force 16. 

Ali Dheeb, a Shia from south Lebanon, joined Force 17 and climbed the ranks. He became so reliable that in 1979, when Israel killed Arafat’s top commander, Ali Hassan Salameh (Abu Hassan), Ali Dheeb replaced him and took the same nom de guerre. To avoid his successor’s fate, the new Abu Hassan recruited Shia bodyguards he could trust. One of them was 17-year-old Mughniyeh.

“Ghosts of Beirut” doesn’t mention Abu Jihad or Force 17 and only says that Mughniyeh was known as Arafat’s bodyguard. 

In 1979, Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David Peace Accord. The same year, a revolution in Iran toppled Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and an Islamist regime emerged on top.

Because the Shah had been Israel’s ally, Arafat had sponsored and trained the Iranian opposition that would seize power in the revolution. Among them was Iranian physicist Mostafa Chamran, who became Islamic Iran’s first defense minister. 

While in Lebanon, Chamran befriended Dheeb, Mughniyeh, and Anis Naqqash, the second-in-command during the 1975 operation that saw Carlos the Jackal take OPEC oil ministers hostage at a meeting in Vienna.

Naqqash, a Sunni, was slated to become IRGC’s man in Lebanon. But first he had to help the Iranians settle scores with the Shah’s last prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, who had taken refuge in Paris. Naqqash’s plan to assassinate Bakhtiar went awry. French police arrested him, and he served 10 years in French prison.

With Naqqash gone, Dheeb and Mughniyeh rose in his stead. Meanwhile, Mughniyeh had been gravitating toward a group of Shia clerics whom Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had chased out of Najaf’s religious seminary. 

These included Fadlallah, whose maternal cousins were part of the prominent Iraqi Hakim religious dynasty. Fadlallah was affiliated with the Iraqi Islamic Dawa Party, whose founder, Muhammad Baqir Al Sadr, was executed in 1980 – the year war broke out between Iraq and Iran. 

Younger clerics who left Iraq included Abbas Al Musawi and Hassan Nasrallah, the first and third secretary generals of Hezbollah. Using his connections with Fatah and the IRGC, Mughniyeh extended protection to this group of clerics, hunted down Saddam’s Baath militia in Lebanon, and, in 1981, bombed the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut – a gruesome act that is also missing from “Ghosts of Beirut.”

While the bombing was attributed to the Dawa party, it was in fact Mughniyeh’s first of five signature bombings in which a bomb-laden truck was detonated by a suicide militant who drove into the building. 

Over his lifetime, Mughniyeh launched suicide truck attacks in Lebanon, targeting the US Embassy in Beirut (killing 17 Americans), the US Peacekeeping Marine Force (killing 241 American servicemen), and the headquarters of the French Peacekeepers. All these bombings happened in 1983. 

The last of Mughniyeh’s truck bombings killed Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Mughniyeh’s name wasn’t among the six Hezbollah militants that a UN tribunal found guilty of the assassination, but included was Mughniyeh’s longtime associate, maternal cousin, and his wife’s brother, Mustafa Badreddine. 

Outside Lebanon, Mughniyeh’s explosive attacks hit the US Embassy in Kuwait in 1983, and the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, killing 19 US Air Force personnel.

After America went to war in Iraq in 2003, Mughniyeh planned attacks that killed American troops. While “Ghosts of Beirut” covered these attacks well, it incorrectly implied that some of them were ordered by Mughniyeh without IRGC knowledge.

Perhaps it was the CIA’s 1985 attempt to kill Fadlallah that knocked “Ghosts of Beirut” off balance. Because Washington incorrectly blamed Fadlallah for Mughniyeh’s attacks, the Showtime miniseries depicted Mughniyeh as the mentee of Fadlallah, and therefore independent of Tehran. This was never the case.

In 2005, Naqqash told Al Jazeera that, together with a senior Iranian official, he met with a top Hariri aide shortly before the Lebanese leader was killed. Naqqash said that they tried to convey to Hariri Tehran’s view of regional events. When that failed, the Baghdad bureau of the Saudi channel Al Arabiya was bombed. It was part of a larger split fueled by America’s war in Iraq.

The Saudis originally opposed the Iraq war, but fearing Iran would swallow post-Saddam Iraq, they took America’s side and helped recruit Iraq’s Sunni tribes that, together with American troops, managed to eject Al Qaeda from the country. But Riyadh’s cooperation with Washington wasn’t welcome in Tehran. 

That’s what prompted Iran to orchestrate the bombing of Al Arabiya in Baghdad. Iran also took out Riyadh’s ally in Beirut – Hariri. Mughniyeh essentially pulled the trigger on these and other attacks, helping Iran kill 603 of the 4,431 Americans who died in Iraq.

To depict Mughniyeh as anything other than a Tehran pawn goes against everything that is known about this IRGC ace. A well-done miniseries shouldn’t have committed such a faux pas.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. X@hahussain


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