Beirut Rules

Imad Mughniyeh (Wikimedia Commons)

by Gareth Smyth

Out this month from Penguin Random House, Beirut Rules is a breathless tale of good against evil. On one side is William Buckley, the CIA Beirut chief who died in captivity after his kidnapping in 1984. On the other is Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah operative who many believe organized the seizure of Buckley and other Americans.

Authors Fred Burton, former State Department “counter-terrorism” agent now at Stratfor, and Samuel Katz, “counter-terrorism consultant” and author of The Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism, have no doubt that the CIA and Mossad co-operated in killing Mughniyeh with a car-bomb in Damascus in 2008.

They argue that Mughniyeh, alongside Iran, organized not just abductions of Westerners but the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight from Cairo to San Diego and also the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy in Beirut and its marine barracks. Burton and Katz claim that Mughniyeh carried out orders from Tehran in 2005 to kill Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, thereby making Hezbollah “nothing more than a powerful Persian pawn.”

But it was the 1984 killing of William Buckley that made Mughniyeh a marked man. “Friends of Buckley wanted revenge,” write Burton and Katz. In killing Mughniyeh, “the CIA finally had its eye for an eye. Biblical justice had been served…”

Katz tells me in an interview that Beirut Rules is not intended to augment public knowledge of Mughniyeh but rather to portray Buckley. It traces his childhood interest in history, his “Hollywood good looks,” his role in both U.S. Special Forces and the CIA in Indo-China. We learn of his “significant other.”

Beirut Rules, Katz elaborates, argues that “kidnapping Buckley, holding him and torturing him to death” marked an important break from previous practice:

[Before this] even in high-threat locations like Lebanon, there were gentleman’s rules, you didn’t go after families, you didn’t go after bosses. Everyone knew who the station chiefs were – CIA, KGB, MI6 etc. – but they weren’t targets, they were part of the chess match.

The new “Beirut rules,” says Katz, were first glimpsed in November 1982 with the suicide-bombing of Israel’s military headquarters in Tyre, south Lebanon, which killed 67 soldiers, nine Shin Bet agents, and 15 detainees.

[This] was a surprise. It was the same when suicide bombers from Hamas hit Israel in 1994. People never expected Beirut would come to them. [In 1982] People never expected that the insanity witnessed along the front of the Iran-Iraq war would come to them.

So, the “surprise” of the 1982 bombing, according to Katz, lay not in Lebanese resistance to the five-month-old Israeli occupation but in the tactic of suicide bombing.

The Creation of Beirut Rules

Did the 1982 Israel invasion foster “Beirut rules”? “No,” says Katz. “It was strapping explosives to the bodies of 10-year-old boys on the Iraq front [in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war]. It was this new way of carrying out conflicts by non-state players…rules established in espionage were suddenly thrown out the window.”

Fast-forward to 2008. Was the killing of Mughniyeh an application of “Beirut rules”? Are there parallels between Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah intelligence and military planner, and Buckley, whom Katz and Burton call “a solider and a spy.”

No, says Katz.

I don’t see Buckley ever chaining someone to a radiator and beating him until he was within an inch of his life and then letting him die. I don’t think there is anything that anyone can write that would save Mughniyeh’s soul in hell in terms of the cruelty and the savagery he displayed.

Katz also rejects any relevance for international law—which lacks any concept of revenge—as an alternative to “Beirut rules.” “Is there international law that applies to espionage agents whose mission is to steal, manipulate, and blackmail?” he says. “I don’t think that law comes into play a lot when it comes to how the Middle East is handled, and how Middle Eastern wars are fought.”

Hence Beirut Rules barely analyses the reasons or justification for the U.S. intervention in Lebanon, which it describes as a “struggle for Lebanon’s soul” and an attempt to “save Lebanon from itself.” The book does not consider any view that the American troops were taking sides by supporting a president elected by the Lebanese parliament in the shadow of Israeli arms.

It’s hardly credible that Hezbollah and Iran alone brought about “Beirut rules.” Depicting Buckley’s capture and fate as a radical departure ignores many earlier murders attributed to Israel, including the 1962 disappearance of Heinz Krug, a German rocket scientist working with Egypt, the 1973 killing of Hussein al-Bashir, the PLO’s KGB liaison officer, and the 1981 Paris killing of Egyptian nuclear scientist Yehia el-Mashad.

The 1982 bombing of Israeli headquarters in Tyre was 36 years after the Jewish group Irgun bombed Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, the British headquarters in Palestine, killing 91 people. Before the 1983 U.S. embassy bombing, an al-Dawa suicide bomber in December 1981 killed 61 in Iraq’s Beirut embassy, including the ambassador: this was a response to Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran and his torturing and killing of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir Sadr, the leading Iraqi Shia scholar.

Later, in 1985, the CIA was involved in an attempt to kill Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the Lebanese cleric whom the Americans mistakenly believed to be Hezbollah’s spiritual leader and even the organizer of the embassy and barracks attacks. The car bomb in south Beirut murdered at least 80 people and wounded over 200 as they departed Friday prayers, leaving the shaken Fadlallah to condemn “tyranny and neo-imperialism.”

Visiting Tair Debba

When the FBI after 9-11 included Mughniyeh as one of three Lebanese among its “22 most wanted terrorists,” I went to his village Tair Debba. Before I was told by a Hezbollah representative to “leave while you still have your dignity,” I met many who saw Mughniyeh not just as a master of disguise but as a hero. “He defended his land. He raised our heads high,” said Rajah Faqih, a cousin. “Why do they want to punish him for it?”

Katz and Burton root a desire and need for revenge in the killing of Americans or Israelis. Others of course might have looked for revenge for the Iraqi invasion of Iran, for the 1978 and 1982 Israeli invasions of Lebanon, for the U.S. support for the Shah of Iran, or for the displacement of Palestinians in the nakba of 1947-8. Notably, Beirut Rules fails to mention that Ahmed Qassir, the “unexceptional” young man who bombed the Israelis in Tyre in 1982, had lost several relatives during the 1978 Israeli invasion.

Neither is the use of suicide bombing, which Hezbollah employed in the 1980s before largely abandoning it, a break in rules from other violence, writes American historian David Crist in The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran:

While Israel and the United States condemned these as acts of terrorism, in truth the attacks were not terrorism. The founders of Hezbollah had devised the poor man’s smart bomb and aimed it at their opponents’ ill-prepared military. “If Hezbollah had GPS-guided bombs dropped from thirty thousand feet, they would not need martyrs,” said one Lebanese with ties to the organization.

When the story of Beirut Rules reaches the Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006, Burton and Katz describe Hezbollah’s missile barrage into Israel, killing 50, as “the first total war against a Western population since World War II.” They merely note that Israel’s onslaught on “Hezbollah targets” killed “1000-1500 Lebanese civilians.”

Their judgement on Buckley as “one of the bravest American heroes” who tried to “meld together” the fractious Lebanese into “the cohesive bond of one nation” does not make them blind to the glaring failures of the CIA in the 1980s. After all, Buckley was sent to Beirut only because the 1982 embassy bomb had killed the CIA regional leadership.

Beirut Rules attributes these failures partly to poor intelligence, taking up points made in earlier works by former CIA agent Bob Bauer. Strangely, Katz and Burton don’t mention the allegation, made in Crist’s The Twilight War, that Buckley, when captured, had in his pocket a written list of every CIA officer in the country.

Beirut Rules fails to show that the proliferation of work by experts of “counter-terrorism” has improved U.S. knowledge of Lebanon. Consider the book’s errors. Amin Gemayel was the older, not the younger, brother of Bashir. Sigheh-e mut’a (‘pleasure contract’, temporary marriage) is indeed a Farsi phrase, if Arabic-derived, but the practice, generally called nikah mut’a by Arabs, was not introduced to Lebanon by Iranians in the 1980s.

Ouzai and Awza’i are not, as the book suggests, two different places but different transcriptions from Arabic of the name of the quarter near the airport where Hezbollah is strong and which was the home of the embassy-bomber of 1983. Ironically for all concerned, Ouzai/Awza’i is named after the eighth-century jurist Abu Amr Abd al-Rahman al-Awza’i, who believed the killing of innocents in war was always wrong.

Perhaps Beirut Rules offers insight into a certain American and Israeli mindset. Katz and Burton frequently employ the word “Byzantine”—not because they are thinking of Constantinople but because they see the Middle East as a perpetual war of sects, an inherently hostile place full of irrational and unprincipled actors. They are happy to relay hearsay from “an officer” that Shia women are promiscuous and to write that thugs and psychopaths are “a dime a dozen” in the Bekaa Valley.

This is a bleak worldview in which tentative efforts to create stability, improve understanding, or maintain peace are inevitably doomed. Just as Beirut Rules fails to explain the past or present, it offers a future of endless revenge.

Gareth Smyth, who has reported from the Middle East since 1992, was 2003-7 the chief correspondent of the Financial Times in Iran.

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  1. For the record, not sure when Beirut rules were established – the blatant murder of such as Kamal Jumblatt in 1976 may have been the beginning? And the murder of Bashir Gemayel. And yes indeed the suicide bomber precedent was set by Palestinians at the Olympics in Munich and places like Damascus – Semirames Hotel September 1976 (a bad year!). I filmed the Jumblatt funeral and was a hostage at the hotel in Damascus. and don’t forget the Hizbollah truck bomber who blew himself up inside the US Embassy Kuwait 1983.

  2. Were those the same “Beirut Rules” by which Israel and the United States supplied arms to Iran starting in 1980-81 (respectively) – i.e. a time when those “mad mullahs” were supposed to be at the height of their revolutionary zeal and well before Buckley’s kidnapping?

    Amazing how every one is revisiting those days (albeit selectively) as the new, new regime-change campaign against Iran gets under way.

    Maybe things haven’t been as exciting since those days – or at least have not offered material as easily woven into a black-and-white narrative.

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