• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

CounterPunch needs you. piggybank-icon You need us. The cost of keeping the site alive and running is growing fast, as more and more readers visit. We want you to stick around, but it eats up bandwidth and costs us a bundle. Help us reach our modest goal (we are half way there!) so we can keep CounterPunch going. Donate today!
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

A Death in Damascus

It was another car bomb in the Middle East, the victim this time one of those “notorious terrorists” seemingly generic to the landscape. Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh died February 12 in Damascus as he lived most of his forty-five years, in that world of searing blast, mutilation, mayhem, and aftershock of cold fear.

Yet behind fleeting, often hackneyed reports of his death, he was no ordinary figure in the long blood-red line of killers and killed. Given a murderer’s good-riddance by Washington and Jerusalem while a martyr’s memorial from Gaza and Beirut to Baghdad and Tehran, Mughniyeh was emblematic of the gulf between worlds-of atrocities and abject failure of statesmanship on all sides, in which American policy has its own half-century share.

Millions on his head, Mughniyeh led a largely unseen life. But some of its milestones can be glimpsed from the archive of the past fifty years in the Middle East. It is in part the story of a man, a country, a region pitted against the United States in a shadow war of intervention and resistance, attack and reprisal, most Americans never saw.

No outrage or theology of the oppressed can rationalize the savagery of a Mughniyeh, spiraling vengeance that leaves the non-state terrorist-or the government practicing its own version in the guise of “special operations” or covert action-no better than the evil they claim as justification, and their cause ultimately no less betrayed. But there will be no end to reciprocal brutality and defeat in the Middle East until the history Mughniyeh embodies is understood.

Born in 1963 to Shiite peasant parents in Tayr Dibba, a village in impoverished southern Lebanon, he grew up in a cinder block house with no running water in a Levant of vast inequity, where pre-World War II French colonialism and then postwar U.S. support heedlessly fastened Western control with the proxy political-economic repression by the Maronite Christian minority with its avowedly fascist Phalangist party and militia. That client tyranny, masked by Beirut’s cosmopolitan façade, was perpetuated by the 1958 military intervention of US Marines and the ensuing CIA corruption of Lebanese politics through the 1970s, including millions in covert subsidies to the Phalange and numerous Lebanese politicians.

He was nine in July 1972 when near where he lived in south Beirut’s Shiite slums the city’s first car bomb, planted by the Israelis in retaliation for the recent Lod Airport massacre, blew up the spokesman of the group behind the Lod attack, Palestinian poet Ghassan Kanafani, along with his 17-year-old niece Lamees with him for a shopping trip.

Mughniyeh was thirteen in 1976 when the CIA and Israel covertly backed the invasion of Lebanon by Syria to thwart the emergence of a broad nationalist coalition representing the country’s Islamic majority and supported by the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

He was an eighteen-year-old engineering student at the American University of Beirut in 1981 when the U.S. gave a “green light” to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in pursuit of the PLO.

He was nineteen in the summer of 1982 when the Israeli Army, with covert U.S. aid, laid siege to Beirut, raking the city with artillery, devastating Shiite neighborhoods. (Osama bin Laden would say later it was the attacks on Beirut’s high-rise apartment buildings that prompted him to retaliate against New York skyscrapers.)

By 1982, like several of his boyhood soccer team, teenage Mughniyeh joined the combined PLO and Lebanese nationalist resistance to the invasion, becoming a sniper along the Green Line. He watched that September as the West negotiated the PLO’s exit from Lebanon with guarantees that U.S. and other peacekeeping troops would protect Palestinian refugee camps from reprisal by hostile Lebanese factions-only to see the US Marine force swiftly withdrawn, leaving Lebanese militias to massacre helpless hundreds at the Shatila and Sabra camps as Israeli forces looked on. Even US officials, Secretary of State George Shultz and National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, would call the episode “treacherous” and “criminal.”

In April 1983, a bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut killed several CIA agents pivotal in past covert actions in Lebanon, an attack Mughniyeh was later accused of “masterminding.” But there would be no real evidence of his role-only that the bombing was in retaliation for the Marine withdrawal allowing the Shatila and Sabra slaughter as well as earlier interventions.

He was twenty in September 1983 when the U.S. Sixth Fleet intervened in the Lebanese Civil War by firing on rebel forces fighting the reactionary Phalangist regime, the USS Virginia and John Rodgers pounding hills above Beirut with 24,000 pounds of ordnance, soon followed by the battleship New Jersey’s small car-size 2,000-pound shells inflicting untold civilian as well as combatant casualties.

On October 23, 1983, a truck bomb with 12,000 pounds of explosives killed 241 Marines quartered at the Beirut Airport after being sent back to Lebanon. U.S. officials later accused Mughniyeh in the attack, though again there would be no evidence-only that the assault on the Marines was in retaliation for the U.S. naval shelling and other interference in Lebanon’s civil war. “We still do not have the actual knowledge of who did the bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport,” Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense at the time, told PBS in 2001, “and we certainly didn’t then.”

A turning point came for Mughniyeh came in 1985 when he was a twenty-two-year-old bodyguard to Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. A fiery preacher, spiritual mentor to many in the rising political consciousness of Lebanon’s Shiite community, Fadlallah took no political role, opposed violence and sectarian division, and defied growing Iranian influence in Lebanon. But on March 8, 1985-in reprisal for the Marine barracks bombing, and in an operation goaded by the Israelis and funded by the Saudis, both of whom saw Fadlallah as a threat to their own interests in Lebanon-the CIA tried to car-bomb Fadlallah. By chance the cleric escaped harm, but the huge explosion ravaged the poor Shiite area where he lived, wounding 200 and killing 80, among them Fadlallah’s bodyguards and Mughniyeh’s close friends. The next day, a banner hung over the smoking ruins-“Made in the USA.”

With the Fadlallah bombing, Mughniyeh joined the terrorist arm of the increasingly militant political impulse among Lebanon’s Shiites from which Hezbollah soon emerged, and as the resistance movement’s chief of security and intelligence, he joined one of history’s more vicious chain reactions.

Later in 1985 he reportedly interrogated kidnapped CIA agent William Buckley who soon died in captivity, and whose abduction set in motion the Washington sequel of trading arms for hostages that led to the Iran-Contra scandal.

In July 1985 he was involved in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 with the brutal killing of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem, for which Mughniyeh and others were indicted by an American court.

In 1988, he was implicated in the kidnapping and murder of Marine Colonel William Higgins serving with UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, a crime a U.S. official would describe as a “blood debt” driving Washington’s further intervention in Lebanon and the region.

Over the 1980s, Mughniyeh conducted much of the Middle East’s shadowy minuet with Washington in which dozens of Western hostages were taken and traded for American arms for the Palestinians and Iranians as well as Hezbollah-the U.S. feeding Iran weapons in its 1980s war with Iraq while supplying the Iraqis intelligence on Iran in a ruthless policy of bleeding both.

Mughniyeh evaded numerous U.S. and Israeli attempts to assassinate him, including a 1994 car bomb that killed his brother. Become mythic, in the West a faceless monster, in the Middle East a tall, handsome, well-dressed hero fluent in English and French, he was widely credited with historic feats, including the deployment of armor-piercing roadside bombs driving Israeli forces from Lebanon in 2000 and 2006, and plaguing the U.S. occupation of Iraq. “When in doubt, and we are always in doubt about this,’ said an ex-CIA official, “blame Mughniyeh.”

His death, predictably, was shrouded in intrigue and menace. As Hezbollah threatened revenge, there were reports that he had been planning some retaliation for the recent Israeli bombing of Syria, that the headrest explosive in his SUV was triggered by satellite as only the U.S. or Israel could have managed, that some of his Syrian hosts may have conspired with the CIA in some new cabal, or even that the killing was faked so that he could go still deeper underground. In the old ceaseless, senseless cycle, reprisals were in the offing.

About his life, as Churchill said of historical tragedy, the terrible ifs accumulate. If in a Lebanon free of any real cold war Russian threat the West had not so reflexively and so long colluded with the colonial oligarchs against a political-economic democracy bringing long-term stability. If there had been from any side an equitable peace between Palestinians and Israelis. And perhaps most decisively, if the U.S. had not continuously thrown its vast weight into the scales-furtively if not always openly-with so little knowledge and sensibility that it ended with enemies America and its Israeli client need never have made.

How history will see Mughniyeh-vicious killer, fierce patriot, or both-will depend, of course, on who writes it in the era’s clashing dogmas. If only his death could teach, this figure who killed so many might yet save lives. But so long as the world’s greatest power lacks the wisdom and courage to face its past culpability and change its course in the Middle East, the key to so much else in its policies at home as well as abroad, one outcome seems sure. In some cinder block hovel in south Beirut, the rubble of Gaza, or the walled-in ghettos of the West Bank, some young man, or woman, is waiting to take his place.

ROGER MORRIS, who served on the Senior Staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Johnson and Nixon before resigning over the invasion of Cambodia, is an award-winning historian and author of several bookson Nixon, Kissinger, Haig, and the Clintons. More recently, he co-authored with Sally Denton The Money and the Power, a history of Las Vegas as the paradigm of national corruption. His new book Shadows of the Eagle a history of US policy and covert action in the Middle East and South Asia, forthcoming from Knopf in 2008.

[A shorter version of this article ran in Canada’s Globe and Mail February 23]

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

Weekend Edition
May 24, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Iran, Venezuela and the Throes of Empire
Melvin Goodman
The Dangerous Demise of Disarmament
Jeffrey St. Clair
“The Army Ain’t No Place for a Black Man:” How the Wolf Got Caged
Richard Moser
War is War on Mother Earth
Andrew Levine
The (Small-d) Democrat’s Dilemma
Russell Mokhiber
The Boeing Way: Blaming Dead Pilots
Rev. William Alberts
Gaslighters of God
Phyllis Bennis
The Amputation Crisis in Gaza: a US-Funded Atrocity
David Rosen
21st Century Conglomerate Trusts 
Jonathan Latham
As a GMO Stunt, Professor Tasted a Pesticide and Gave It to Students
Binoy Kampmark
The Espionage Act and Julian Assange
Kathy Deacon
Liberals Fall Into Line: a Recurring Phenomenon
Jill Richardson
The Disparity Behind Anti-Abortion Laws
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Chelsea Manning is Showing Us What Real Resistance Looks Like
Zhivko Illeieff
Russiagate and the Dry Rot in American Journalism
Norman Solomon
Will Biden’s Dog Whistles for Racism Catch Up with Him?
Yanis Varoufakis
The Left Refuses to Get Its Act Together in the Face of Neofascism
Lawrence Davidson
Senator Schumer’s Divine Mission
Thomas Knapp
War Crimes Pardons: A Terrible Memorial Day Idea
Renee Parsons
Dump Bolton before He Starts the Next War
Yves Engler
Canada’s Meddling in Venezuela
Katie Singer
Controlling 5G: A Course in Obstacles
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Beauty of Trees
Jesse Jackson
Extremist Laws, Like Alabama’s, Will Hit Poor Women the Hardest
Andrew Bacevich
The “Forever Wars” Enshrined
Ron Jacobs
Another One Moves On: Roz Payne, Presente!
Christopher Brauchli
The Offal Office
Daniel Falcone
Where the ‘Democratic Left’ Goes to Die: Staten Island NYC and the Forgotten Primaries   
Julia Paley
Life After Deportation
Sarah Anderson
America Needs a Long-Term Care Program for Seniors
Seiji Yamada – John Witeck
Stop U.S. Funding for Human Rights Abuses in the Philippines
Shane Doyle, A.J. Not Afraid and Adrian Bird, Jr.
The Crazy Mountains Deserve Preservation
Charlie Nash
Will Generation Z Introduce a Wizard Renaissance?
Ron Ridenour
Denmark Peace-Justice Conference Based on Activism in Many Countries
Douglas Bevington
Why California’s Costly (and Destructive) Logging Plan for Wildfires Will Fail
Gary Leupp
“Escalating Tensions” with Iran
Jonathan Power
Making the World More Equal
Cesar Chelala
The Social Burden of Depression in Japan
Stephen Cooper
Imbibe Culture and Consciousness with Cocoa Tea (The Interview)
Stacy Bannerman
End This Hidden Threat to Military Families
Kevin Basl
Time to Rethink That POW/MIA Flag
Nicky Reid
Pledging Allegiance to the Divided States of America
Louis Proyect
A Second Look at Neflix
Martin Billheimer
Closed Shave: T. O. Bobe, the Girl and Curl
May 23, 2019
Kenn Orphan
The Belligerence of Empire
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail