The Master Terrorist Behind America’s Blood Feud With Iran
For decades, the U.S. struggled to catch this Iran-backed Hezbollah operative, who tortured and murdered a CIA chief and bombed the Marine barracks.
PARIS — On May 15, 1985, kidnappers in Lebanon released six Polaroid photos of men they held captive, including two American priests, two French diplomats, the American bureau chief for the Associated Press, and the head of the CIA station in Beirut: William Buckley.
But there was another photograph as well, an 8x10 color glossy of a man whose face was badly bent and his jaw twisted “as if it had been shattered with a sledgehammer.” The nose was broken. He was pale and emaciated, and forensic specialists had to work for days before they were certain that this, too, was William Buckley.
A fewk weeks later, on June 3, 1985, we now know, Buckley died. As Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz write in their new book, Beirut Rules: The Murder of a CIA Station Chief and Hezbollah’s War Against America, this “American war hero, the Green Beret, the CIA paramilitary officer, and the one man in Langley courageous enough to accept the assignment in Beirut” had succumbed “in a south Beirut dungeon alone, tortured, savaged, and neglected.”
He had been taken in March 1984 by Iranian-backed operatives of Hezbollah, beaten by thugs, and interrogated by Iranian professionals who knew he could be a fount of intelligence about the CIA’s global operations as well as activities in Lebanon.
The Reagan administration’s CIA director, William Casey, had vowed to move heaven and earth to free Buckley after he was snatched, but had failed, and the agency’s intelligence was so poor it did not know precisely who had taken him, or even for certain that he had forfeited his life.
A few months later, the Reagan administration began a secret program trading arms to Iran in hopes that Buckley was still alive and that he and the remaining hostages might be ransomed with missiles and other materiel Iran needed in its war against Iraq. One by one some of the others were freed, and the stories told by those who had been imprisoned near Buckley horrified the listeners.
Fred Burton, a young officer with the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service at the time and the co-author of Beirut Rules, was one of those debriefing Father Lawrence Jenco after his release. Jenco said that Buckley was hallucinating as the end approached. The guards ignored pleas for medical treatment. “One night they dragged him past me,” Jenco said. “The guards told me he was going to the hospital, but I knew he was dead.”
When another hostage, American University of Beirut hospital administrator David Jacobsen, was released, he added more details. “They took Buckley’s body out of the room and outside the apartment,” he told Burton and other members of the debriefing team. “When they dragged him down the stairs you could hear the slow thud of this head banging on each and every step.”
The Master Terrorist
The American people may have notoriously short memories when it comes to such atrocities, but the American military and the Central Intelligence Agency do not, and the savage covert war waged against the United States in Lebanon in the 1980s, in the broader Middle East in the 1990s, and in Iraq after the American occupation, is at the heart of a blood feud that endures to this day.
When Donald Trump talks about Iran as if it were the source of all the evil in the Middle East and “a very, very vicious world” (thus trying to rationalize the murderous activities of the anti-Iranian Saudi crown prince) he probably has in mind the horror stories of the 1980s.
Buckley’s abduction and death after 444 days in captivity was pivotal: it was an enormous security problem—he had been a senior figure at CIA headquarters—and it was a profound humiliation for the Reagan administration and its intelligence services. It was also an affront to the honor of the women and men who serve in them.
But Burton and Katz (authors of the exemplary Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi) have written a book that is really much more about the master terrorist who, with Iranian and Syrian backing, inflicted so much pain on the United States.
His name was Imad Mughniyeh, but the CIA did not learn that until after Buckley was dead, and despite his infamy, only rarely have historians linked him so convincingly to so many acts of terror as Burton and Katz have done here.
In well-documented detail, they chronicle his rise from the poor rural village in south Lebanon where he was born in 1962 to his service as a young teenage recruit in the ranks of elite Palestinian terror organizations, where he impressed the men who had plotted the Munich Olympics massacre.
After Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and rolled up to Beirut, disrupting and crushing the Palestinian operations—but humiliating and infuriating Lebanon’s Shiite population as well—Mughniyeh took his skills to the Iranians who were busy organizing Hezbollah.
According to Burton and Katz, Mughniyeh was behind the truck bombing that shattered the U.S. embassy on the Beirut corniche in April 1983, wiping out all but two members of the CIA station as well as, Robert Ames, one of the agency’s most important senior figures.
Buckley was the man sent in to put everything back together. But on his watch Mughniyeh blew up the U.S. Marine barracks near Beirut airport, inflicting the heaviest single day of casualties the Marines had suffered since the battle for Iwo Jima in World War II.
Finally, its plans and programs for stabilizing Lebanon in tatters, the Reagan administration decided to pull out, but Buckley stayed, working with a bunch of fresh young operatives hoping they could get a handle on what was happening.
They did not.
Many of Hezbollah operations were linked to Iran’s priorities, most importantly its war with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. At the time, Kuwait was supporting Saddam, and Hezbollah operatives working with Iraqi Shiites from the banned and persecuted Dawa party staged multiple bombings on December 12, 1983, in Kuwait City, including one that targeted the U.S. embassy there. But Kuwait was not as easy to hide in as Beirut. Seventeen people were arrested and one of them was Mustafa Badreddine, Mughniyeh’s master bomb maker, who was also Mughniyeh’s cousin and the brother of his wife.
Freedom for “the Kuwait 17” would become the recurrent, unalterable demand of all of Mughniyeh’s kidnapping operations, which soon expanded to airline hijackings.
'No Ordinary Explosion'
In June 1985, only days after Buckley’s death, in fact, Mughniyeh’s operatives took over a TWA airliner in a prolonged drama, flying it back and forth to Algeria before finally coming to rest on the tarmac on Beirut International Airport, where a U.S. Navy diver on board, Robert Stethem, was tortured and murdered and thrown out the door.
The hijackers’ accomplices had been able to get on and off the plane with impunity, and as it turned out, one of them was Mughniyeh himself. Still unknown to the Americans, he had left bloody fingerprints behind in the plane’s first-class bathroom. Meanwhile, amid all the publicity, Beirut’s “intelligence peddlers,” as Burton and Katz called the freelance informers so common in Lebanon, began to pick up on the name Mughniyeh. An unnamed Arab intelligence service extracted a copy of a passport application with an old photograph. And the Americans knew at last who they were after.
They did not catch him.
In 1988, Mughniyeh’s team kidnapped and subsequently murdered Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, who was on assignment with U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon. He had worked closely with the U.S. secretary of defense and probably knew too much to have taken such an exposed assignment. The U.S. was still underestimating both Hezbollah and the Iranians. Higgins was tortured and eventually murdered.
Mughniyeh’s cousin, the master bomb maker Badreddine, was freed from his Kuwaiti prison, ironically, when Saddam invaded and just opened the doors in August 1990. In 1996, Burton and Katz suggest, Badreddine may have had a hand building the bomb that blew up the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American airmen and wounding some 500 more.
Year after year, plots by the Americans and Israelis and Arab intelligence services to eliminate Mughniyeh continued to fail, until in Iran and some parts of the Arab world he was not only seen as a survivor, but as a celebrity.
Then, in February 2008, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah insisted that Mughniyeh attend a reception for the new Iranian ambassador in Damascus. After about an hour, he walked back out to his SUV, got in the driver’s seat and prepared to drive out into traffic when a bomb went off that threw molten metal through his head and out through the windshield.
“This was no ordinary explosion,” write Burton and Katz. this was “a pure tradecraft masterpiece … artistic and imaginative,” designed to kill its target while minimizing any possible collateral damage.
Curiously, in a book with so much original reporting and detail, Burton and Katz fall back on Adam Goldman’s excellent 2015 investigation of the killing for The Washington Post.
The bomb supposedly was built at a “facility” somewhere in North Carolina, and the detonation was triggered from Israel, after President George W. Bush signed off on it, according to that report.
But who placed that bomb in Mughniyeh’s car and how? It seems nobody knows.
It is, after all, a very, very vicious world out there.