Meet the Pyromaniac Playboy Leading Hezbollah’s Fight in Syria
UPDATE, 5/12/2016, 9:05 P.M.: Mustafa Bedreddine has reportedly been killed by an Israeli warplane near Damascus.
To close friends, he is “Dhu al-Faqar”—the name, meaning, “the cleaver of vertebrae,” of the legendary double-tipped sword given by the Prophet Muhammad to his son-in-law, Ali bin Abi Talib, the patron imam of Shia Islam. To the Kuwaiti government, who sentenced him to death in 1984 for a spate of audacious bombings on targets including the American and French embassies and the airport, he is Elias Fouad Saab. To prosecutors at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in The Hague, who are currently trying him in absentia on suspicion of assassinating Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, he is Mustafa Amine Badreddine. To genteel dining companions—and multiple mistresses—entertained at his seaside home north of Beirut, he is the boat-owning, Mercedes-driving Christian jeweler, Sami Issa.
Or, rather, he was. The Frank Abagnale Jr. of jihad has found yet another preoccupation in the last few years. According to sources as discrepant as the U.S. Treasury Department and a militantly pro-Hezbollah newspaper in Beirut, the man who also goes by the name Safi Badr is currently leading the Party of God’s military intervention against the Syrian uprising, personally sitting in on meetings between President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. It’s a distinction that earned the “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” a fresh dose of American sanctions just last week.
Not that he’s spending all his days on the road. He was spotted back in Lebanon in January at the funeral of his nephew Jihad Mughniyeh—son of his cousin, brother-in-law, and lifelong partner-in-war-crime, the late Imad Mughniyeh—who had been killed in the Syrian Golan Heights by an Israeli drone strike that, according to a New York Times report, had in fact been intended for Badreddine (his real name) himself. He had “dropped out of the gathering,” at which an Iranian Revolutionary Guards general was also present, “at the last minute.”
Such improbable escapes are seemingly second-nature to the former death row inmate who owes his life to the insane decision by Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait in 1990, opening the prisons and sending Badreddine on his merry way to the Iranian embassy, to be welcomed and swiftly redeployed to Beirut, where the civil war had conveniently just ended. Under the patronage of the Syrian occupation newly legitimized by the international community in the 1989 Taif Agreement, Dhu al-Faqar and his fellow “Islamic Resistance” mujahideen were about to spend some of their happiest years bringing misery and death to the 1,500 Israeli troops who would remain in south Lebanon till the year 2000.
Among the reasons Badreddine isn’t far better known is that, officially, he barely exists. In the words of STL prosecutor Graeme Cameron, “There are few official records in Lebanon relating to Mustafa Badreddine […] He has never been issued a passport. He has never been issued a driver’s license. He is not the registered owner of any property in Lebanon. The authorities have no records of him entering or leaving Lebanon. No records are held by the Ministry of Finance which would reflect that he pays any taxes. There are no bank accounts in any of the banks or any of the financial institutions in the country in his name.” In summary, “Badreddine passes as an unrecognizable and virtually untraceable ghost throughout Lebanon, leaving no footprint.”
“Hezbollah has many heads, some of them quite visible, like their social welfare networks and parliamentary presence,” Nicholas Blanford, veteran Lebanon reporter and author of Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel, told The Daily Beast. “Other parts are not so visible. The world that Mustafa Badreddine inhabits is one of those dark, invisible ones.”
So much for Mustafa. “Sami Issa,” on the other hand, did leave prosecutors something of a footprint—an Italian-made, leather-soled one at that. According to Cameron, as “Issa,” Badreddine was “the de facto, but not the registered owner of a jewelry business with several branches in Beirut. He [had] an apartment in Jounieh, registered in the name of another, and a boat registered and insured in the name of another. He drove an expensive Mercedes automobile which was not registered in his name. He had several concurrent girlfriends and was seen regularly in restaurants and cafes socializing with his friends.” (The prosecution had not responded at the time of publication to an inquiry by The Daily Beast as to how exactly it came into this knowledge.)
Which, undoubtedly, is one way to go about unsuspected of being arguably Hezbollah’s best-ever bomb maker. And there is much in his choice of Jounieh, of all places, as adopted home that must have brought him mirth. This scenic bay at the feet of verdant, pine-smothered slopes some 20 minutes north of Beirut is Lebanon’s Cote d’Azur, where blue-blooded Francophones take their surgically-inflated girlfriends out to sail or waterski. At its northern end sits the once-glorious Casino du Liban—hangout of Sinatra and Brigitte Bardot—just a stone’s throw from the red light district. Nor are these the only ways in which it’s an atypical locale for an Islamic fundamentalist.
During Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990), Jounieh was de facto capital of the ethnically-cleansed Christian canton, ruled by vehemently anti-Muslim warlords openly backed by the army of Menachim Begin and Ariel Sharon. Indeed, from his apartment, “Issa” could possibly see the Aquamarina resort—still popular to this day—where Israeli boats would arrive periodically to replenish supplies. Who said Khomeinists can’t do irony?
How did Badreddine go from international terrorist to cross-wearing adulterer and to Hezbollah’s Syria commander? His biography starts with geography. He was born in 1961 in Ghobeiri, an inauspicious, overcrowded neighborhood in the concrete “belt of misery” on Beirut’s southern fringe, populated mostly by newly arrived Shia from the rural south seeking a piece of the capital’s climbing prosperity. When the civil war broke out, exactly one week after Badreddine’s 14th birthday, Ghobeiri and its environs formed a stronghold of the Palestinian and allied Muslim militias, encompassing the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps that would later witness an infamous massacre at the hands of their Christian foes. With his cousin, the indefatigable Imad Mughniyeh—eventually assassinated in a joint CIA-Mossad operation in Damascus in 2008—Badreddine joined and was trained by the Palestinian Fatah faction, adding to what a PLO veteran described as “a kind of roving Shiite fight club” embedded within the otherwise Sunni force. This sectarian distinction, though of little consequence in the early years, began to sour the air in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, not least when Saddam Hussein, a key sponsor of the PLO much admired by the fedayeen rank and file, began murdering major Shia figures like Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. By the time of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Badreddine and his cousin had defected to a pro-Tehran ultraist offshoot of the Shia Amal Movement, later to call itself Hezbollah, the Party of God.
He was evidently, even then at just 21, an established explosives virtuoso, for it was only one year later that he would carry out the world-headline-grabbing attacks in Kuwait, which included a truck-mounted suicide bomber smashing into the U.S. embassy, killing six. It’s believed he also contributed, as Mughniyeh’s bomb maker, to the similar—if much more spectacular—attack two months earlier on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 servicemen, watching the largest non-nuclear explosion in history unfold shoulder-to-shoulder with his cousin from a nearby rooftop. “During the planning stages [of the Beirut attack], Badreddine apparently developed what would become his trademark explosive technique: adding gas to increase the power of sophisticated explosives,” writes Matthew Levitt, author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.
Having hit on a winning formula, Badreddine has seemingly found no reason to change it. The STL prosecution argues the m.o. used in Kuwait—where Badreddine personally surveilled the bomb sites in advance, hand-picked the vehicles to be used, and delegated specific roles to a small team of subordinates—bears much in common with the approach uncovered in the Hariri case. According to the telecommunications analysis that forms the basis of the prosecution’s case, Badreddine was in possession of no fewer than 13 cellphones, in near-continuous contact with his four co-conspirators (among them another brother-in-law, Salim Jamil Ayyash). The call records show that for three months leading up to the Valentine’s Day suicide bombing, Badreddine micromanaged his team as they executed such tasks as following Hariri around town, buying the Mitsubishi van to be used on the day, and arranging for a phony claim of responsibility for the attack by a nonexistent Sunni jihadist group.
On at least one occasion, Badreddine himself tailed Hariri. At other times, he ran the show from places as various as Beirut’s southern suburbs, home to Hezbollah’s headquarters; Jounieh; and Faqra, a remote ski resort 1,500 meters above sea level where Hariri owned a vacation home. Former CIA operative in Lebanon Robert Baer, who was hired as a consultant by STL prosecutors, writes in his book, The Perfect Kill, that Badreddine even conducted business from inside the Casino du Liban, where he was fond of “spending his nights.”
Of course, not all of Badreddine’s phone calls were strictly work-related. When he wasn’t catching up with his wife, Fatima, or making appointments with his fellow gastronomes, his “several concurrent girlfriends” understandably consumed a portion of his time. Some may even have sensed he was up to something—at 2:31 a.m. on the very night before the attack, he sent one an SMS reading, “If you knew where I have been you would be very upset.”
Precious little else is known about these extramarital companions. Baer, the ex-CIA spy, assures readers in his book they were “beautiful,” lured by the pseudo-entrepreneur’s “large pleasure yacht” and “nouveau riche” extravagance. Conceivably, some were met on campus at the Lebanese American University (LAU), where “Issa” studied political science between the years 2002 and 2004. (None of the six LAU poli-sci professors contacted by The Daily Beast would admit to knowing “Issa” during his time. “[The] administration is very edgy about faculty talking about it,” said one, on condition of anonymity.) At any rate, according to The New York Times, Badreddine felt sufficiently attached to the women to disobey a 2009 order from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to lay off the public appearances for a while. He “refused to give up his luxurious lifestyle and went on using his Sami Issa identity.”
In this, his character departs from that of Mughniyeh, who had no public life of any kind (and who preferred to marry a second wife, an Iranian named Wafaa, rather than betray his first one, Badreddine’s sister Saada). Perhaps, having inherited the office of his oldest comrade upon his 2008 assassination, Badreddine felt able at last to step out of the shadow of his predecessor. It’s worth noting that, while theirs is often portrayed as a mentor-protégé relationship, Badreddine is actually the elder of the two, and has been described by one Hezbollah member as the “more dangerous” one. Their bond, in reality, seems to have been most like a fraternal one, with Mughniyeh, for example, naming his eldest son Mustafa. When Badreddine was jailed in Kuwait, Mughniyeh went on a personal rampage to get him out, hijacking at least three commercial planes (Kuwait Airways Flight 221 in December 1984, TWA Flight 847 in June 1985, and Kuwait Airways Flight 422 in April 1988) and kidnapping every Westerner in Beirut he could get his hands on with the explicitly declared intent of swapping the hostages for his brother-in-law. At least five passengers and seven abductees lost their lives when his demands went unmet.
Once Badreddine—or “Elias Saab”—did at last make it out of his Kuwait cell, he reportedly began working with Mughniyeh not just on the south Lebanese front but also a number of exciting new side ventures into which Hezbollah began investing resources. These included the so-called “Unit 1800,” founded in the 1990s to assist Hamas and other Palestinian militants south of the Lebanese border in their own operations against Israel. Badreddine would eventually come to lead Unit 1800, according to The Times. There were also yet more ambitious projects outside the Middle East altogether. If it’s true, as a now-dead Argentine prosecutor believed, that Mughniyeh was involved in the van-driven suicide bombing that killed 85 civilians at a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, then it would be no surprise if his sidekick Badreddine had a role as well.
More recently, the toppling of the rabidly anti-Shia dictatorship in Baghdad in 2003 offered God’s Partisans the strategic opportunity of a lifetime, which they wasted no time in seizing, quickly forming a new “Unit 3800” to help the Iranian Revolutionary Guards create Hezbollah duplicates among Iraq’s Shia so as to maximize Tehran’s stake in the new Iraq at the expense of all other takers. The experience, in which Badreddine apparently played a “coordinating” role, would prove invaluable when yet more Khomeinist proxy militias had to be assembled to combat the armed insurrection in Syria from 2012, though it was not without unintended consequences: Hezbollah fighters in the town of Qusair were reportedly displeased to discover the tunnel-building methods and equipment they’d dutifully passed on to Hamas had ended up in their opponents’ hands. Not for the first time, Badreddine may have reflected, had his trust in erstwhile Sunni brothers been poorly repaid.
The Party has long since cleared rebels out of Qusair, and much of the surrounding territory besides. But how much longer can Badreddine’s luck last? Three years into a war that Assad himself admits is straining his troops, Hezbollah is today sending boys too young to grow facial hair to the front lines—and watching them return in body bags at a faster rate than ever. Badreddine’s motto, according to the pro-Hezbollah paper, is “Either I return carried as a martyr, or carrying the banner of victory.” With yet another Israeli strike Wednesday in the same Quneitra province in which Dhu al-Faqar so nearly perished in January, one wonders how many bookies would bank on seeing that banner in the near future.