When Milton Bearden was questioned in 2013 about the similarities between terrorist leaders Osama bin Laden and Imad Mughniyah, the 30-year veteran of the CIA quickly assessed both of them as “pathological killers.”
Likeness between the two, however, ended there. It was the cunning brutality of Mughniyah — an elusive Lebanese-born mastermind responsible for more American deaths than any other individual prior to 9/11 — that earned him a place among the CIA’s top targets.
“There was always a nagging amateurishness about bin Laden — his wildly hyped background, his bogus claims,” Bearden told author Mark Perry in a 2013 story in Foreign Policy. “Bin Laden cowered and hid. Mughniyeh spent his life giving us the finger.”
Mughniyah was killed in 2008 in Damascus, decades after his reported orchestration of some of Hezbollah’s most deadly terror attacks in Beirut, including the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks bombings of 1983 that killed over 350 people total.
The bomb that killed him — a device triggered by agents in Tel Aviv that was hidden in the spare tire of a vehicle along his walking route — marked the culmination of a joint operation between the CIA and Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency.
The decades-long search for Mughniyah, who was also known as al-Hajj Radwan, now form the foundation of the four-part Showtime series “Ghosts of Beirut,” a massive undertaking shepherded by Emmy Award-winner Greg Barker (“Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden”).
The dramatic retelling, which oscillates between early-1980s Lebanon and 2007 Iraq, weaves in journalistic research and first-hand accounts of CIA and Mossad officials to produce a spy thriller that, while technically fictionalized due to the classified nature of some subject matter, is delivered with “truth at its core,” Barker told Military Times.
“We’re telling it as a fictional story, but I wanted it to be as authentic as possible,” Barker said. “So, that meant talking to numerous sources about what might have happened or what they think happened.”
One source consulting on the series was Douglas London, a Marine Corps veteran who spent 34 years with the CIA’s clandestine service and came to understand Mughniyah’s reputation over the course of 17 years overseas.
“Mughniyah had a great deal of ingenuity,” London told Military Times. “What made him particularly effective was his ability to go beyond what had been done and to be inventive.”
Suicide bombing, in particular, became a staple of Mughniyah’s terror operations. The method was popularized during his rise to power and developed into a routine threat in the conflicts that followed.
“The idea of martyrdom for Islamic terrorist groups was unheard of at the time,” said London, who now teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. “Suicide is forbidden by the Quran, but Hezbollah, with Iran’s support, was able to put another stamp on it — just like we saw al-Qaida and the Islamic State put their own stamp on things. He was very inventive in finding ways to sow chaos and fear.”
High-profile kidnappings were also employed, including the broad daylight abduction of CIA station chief William Buckley in March 1984. Buckley had only just assumed the role after agency officer Robert Ames was killed in the April 1983 blast that rocked the U.S. embassy and sent a shock through the Reagan administration.
Buckley’s kidnapping was unlike any act of terror the agency had encountered. It suggested meticulous surveillance and intelligence gathering, not knee-jerk decision making.
“It was new, the idea that they could touch us directly,” London said.
Buckley was tortured extensively for 14 months and died on June 3 the following year. His remains would not be returned stateside until 1991.
“They show that they can do that, that no one is immune from them. We make extensive and trying efforts over a long period of time to get him back; we fail utterly,” a senior CIA official recalled in an interview with PBS. “Bill Buckley being taken basically closed down CIA intelligence activities in the country. It was a tremendous blow.”
From bombings to kidnappings, Mughniyeh’s bold but calculated sway began to leave its mark around the globe, with terror operations stretching from Lebanon and Iraq to Israel and Argentina.
In his destructive wake, a trail of mangled bodies, innumerable families torn apart. Mughniyeh’s barbaric influence, mimicked by those who have sought to replicate his actions in the years since, continue to scar the region.
“He was in his own league,” Barker said.
The events, portrayed in the series over a 25-year span leading up to Mughniyeh’s assassination, catalyzed introspection among CIA agents and the rest of the intelligence community. Whatever hubris existed, London said, had to be reined in.
“That was a wake up call that you should never dismiss your enemy,” London said. “Unfortunately, it was a lesson that took a little bit of time for us to adapt to, but adapt we did.”
“Ghosts of Beirut” is augmented by American, Lebanese and Israeli perspectives, and charts a course for Mughniyeh’s ruthless tale through an endlessly evolving landscape of regional politics and the rise and fall of its most violent players.
The show stars Amir Khoury as Imad Mughniyeh in 1982, Hisham Suleiman as Mughniyeh in 2007, Dina Shihabi as Lebanese-American CIA agent Lena Asayran, and Dermot Mulroney as CIA officer Robert Ames. It is executively produced by Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz (”Fauda”) and Daniel Dreifuss (”All Quiet on the Western Front”).
Stream “Ghosts of Beirut” now on Hulu and Paramount+.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.