On Feb. 12, 2008, an explosion ripped through the Syrian capital Damascus.
It came as a shock. At the time, Damascus was widely viewed as being stable and not prone to such bombings.
The information revealed in the aftermath of the bombing was an even bigger shock.
On Feb. 14, 2008, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, announced that Imad Mughniyeh was the victim of the car bomb.
The name Imad Mughniyeh meant little to anyone outside of a select few in Hezbollah, but when his bespectacled and camouflaged image began to appear throughout Hezbollah-dominated areas in Lebanon, it began to click for more and more people: That was Hajj Radwan.
Mughniyeh, more commonly known as Hajj Radwan throughout Hezbollah during his life, was the architect of Hezbollah’s military strategy and is believed to have been behind some of the biggest operations undertaken by the Shiite group.
To this day, he remains shrouded in mystery with little known about him and few photos outside of the ones in Hezbollah’s archives even existing.
Even within Hezbollah where he was a senior leader, few knew his true identity.
“He and somebody else senior in the Islamic Resistance went off to a meeting somewhere and the guard at the entrance refused to let Mughniyeh in, not knowing who he was,” Nicholas Blanford, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Middle East Center and author of Warriors of God told L'Orient Today. “So, instead of Mughniyeh saying ‘Don’t you know who I am? I’m the head of the moqawama,’ basically, he just kept quiet and the other guy that he was with explained that ‘No no no, this guy needs to come into the meeting’ and he was let in.”
This did not deter Greg Barker, an American director, from working to produce and direct the new Showtime miniseries Ghosts of Beirut, alongside Avi Issacharof and Lior Raz, both of whom helped create the Netflix series Fauda, a show that garnered controversy over its depiction of Arabs and its alleged sanitization of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In doing so, Barker hoped to bring a level of nuance to Mughniyeh who remains a revered hero by Hezbollah and a dark and thorny memory for Israel and the United States.
“I hope that it helps people see the world, Americans see the world, in all of its nuance and complexity and shades of gray rather than black and white or good and evil which I think isn’t particularly helpful when we’ve become more and more divisive now," Barker told L'Orient Today.
More than another spy story
Barker first began to hear about Hezbollah and its activities while he was working as a journalist in Tehran for PBS’s Frontline, a news program on US public television, in 2007 and it immediately sparked his interest.
Mughniyeh started his militant activity at the age of 17, Blanford explained to L’Orient Today, when he attended a Fatah training camp in Damour headed by Anis Naqqash and eventually became associated with Force 17, an elite force within Fatah, a militant Palestinian group headed by Yasser Arafat at the time and which went on to become one of the leading political parties in the Palestinian territories.
However, Blanford added, after the Israeli occupation began in 1982 and Hezbollah was established, Mughniyeh eventually drifted into the ranks of the Islamic Resistance. During that time, Mughniyeh’s name became attached, following US accusations, to some of the biggest and most spectacular attacks recorded, such as the bombings of the US Embassy and the US Marine barracks in Beirut — although it remains unclear to what extent, if any, he was actually involved.
Mughniyeh, however, did help to carry out the first suicide bombing perpetrated against the Israelis when, in 1982, Mughniyeh’s childhood friend Ahmad Qassir, drove and blew up a car inside the Israeli headquarters in the southern Lebanese city of Sour.
Later on, while speaking with former CIA members, Barker heard the story of the CIA’s Beirut station chief in the 1980s, William Buckley, and his kidnapping and death, which is believed to have been caused by torture — something that had a major impact on the CIA. Although the extent of Mughniyeh’s involvement in the actual torture is unknown, it is believed it was at minimum carried out under his direction.
Then, a few years ago, fortune struck and Barker was able to speak off-the-record with some of the individuals behind the Mughniyeh assassination. Mughniyeh was killed in Damascus in a joint CIA-Mossad operation, having evaded his enemies for 30 years.
Since people were only really willing to speak off the record, Barker, who has a background as a journalist, explained that it was not possible to give a complete non-fiction account of the story. So, Barker instead opted to blend real-life interviews with former members of the intelligence community and journalists with a fictional but extensively researched account of Mughniyeh's life.
“However, people were [willing] to speak off the record and then I had a wider team and we did some research and were able to piece together something that is a fictional version of a story that shaped the way that, for better or worse, the modern CIA came into being,” he added.
From there, he was able to hire a team to work on the project with him, most importantly two Lebanese women, scriptwriter Joëlle Touma and consultant Hanin Ghaddar, who were able to lend their perspectives to make the story more real.
“I really was connected to it [the story] because, for me, it was both personal and professional,” Ghaddar, a Shiite Muslim from South Lebanon who previously worked as a journalist in Lebanon and currently works as a Friedmann Fellow at the Washington Institute focusing on Hezbollah, told L'Orient Today. “Personal in the sense that I grew up with this ghost of Imad Mughniyeh and what he could do.”
On a professional level, Ghaddar wanted to ensure that Mughniyeh was portrayed correctly and that his death, like that of Qassem Soleimani for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, served as a major blow to Hezbollah as his skillset cannot be easily replicated.
Blanford elaborated. “He is supposed to be the architect of the post-2000 buildup of Hezbollah after the Israelis had left the occupation strip [in May 2000] which culminated in the 2006 war,” Blanford said, speaking of the bunker system developed by Hezbollah and the newer high-tech weapons acquired by them. “He is also said to be the guy that designed the post-2006 strategy [following the July war with Israel] for whatever comes next between Hezbollah and the Israelis.”
A matter of portrayal
Ghaddar, like Barker, wanted Mughniyeh to be viewed as a complicated human being rather than just a terrorist mastermind in the eyes of Americans and Israelis and a near saintly hero for supporters of Hezbollah.
Barker did not want any specific character in his series to be viewed as wholly good or bad; rather, all of them existed in a gray area where things cannot be simply categorized.
“I tried not to take a view of how it played out but definitely the conflict in the 80s put the CIA into a very dark space from which, you could argue, that it never fully recovered,” he said, using as an example the alleged joint CIA-Saudi 1985 assassination attempt of Sheikh Mohammed Fadlallah, who was considered to be the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, which killed 80 people but not Fadlallah.
He added that many of the former CIA members he interviewed spoke of Mughniyeh with respect and deference despite him being one of their greatest modern adversaries.
Touma, who previously worked on projects such as the Oscar-nominated Lebanese film The Insult, said that while writing the script and going over it with Barker, she worked to ensure that the writing reflected the complicated nature of the story and the situation’s lack of simplicity.
“This project pushed me to look at every corner and every side of the story,” she told L’Orient Today.
“When you watch the series, it’s not that you only think about what Imad Mughniyeh did. You don’t think ‘Oh he’s good or bad.’ You think about everyone involved — the Americans, the Israelis. Are they right to use those methods? Who do they think they are to decide when someone lives or dies? You ask yourself all of these questions. Every side is questioned.”
Despite not being a supporter of Hezbollah or Mughniyeh, in working on the series, Touma explained that she grew to be more “open-minded” and, even if she does not agree with his ideology, she ultimately understood him as a person.
In telling this story, Barker explained that he hoped that people from all sides of the conflict could watch the show and come away understanding one another on a more human level rather than as just enemies.
“It goes back to those shades of gray. That’s where real life happens. It’s easy to categorize and demonize other people. It’s what we do as humans,” Barker stated. “But the real work, the hard work, gets done in the murkiness between where you actually have to engage with adversaries and people you disagree with and try to understand them.”
‘The soul of Hezbollah’
After his death, Mughniyeh’s presence remained with his image being plastered everywhere and Hezbollah’s elite special forces, Unit 1800, being renamed the Radwan Brigade in his honor, a group that is supposed to stage operations in northern Israel in the event of another war with Israel and who have seen combat in Syria since Hezbollah’s intervention in the civil war that broke out there in 2011.
The unit’s capabilities were also on display during the massive May 21, 2023, war games held by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon to which the media were given a rare invitation. During the exhibition, the various units within Hezbollah demonstrated their skills, culminating in a mock raid on an Israeli outpost.
“Imad was the resistance builder of Hezbollah,” Hilal, who says he’s a member of the party, told L’Orient Today on the condition that only his first name be used. “He is the person who turned Hezbollah from the resistance to an army. He is the soul of Hezbollah and an icon for me. Even after his assassination, being martyred he was reborn. He is the light that does not fade.”
Despite having not watched Ghosts of Beirut, Hilal said that he had no issues with the show even though it is an American production, adding that he has watched other shows similar to it.
“I do not have a problem watching it even if it was an American-Israeli production because in order to know your enemy you must be able to watch them up close,” he said.
Ghosts of Beirut's final episode premiered on Showtime on June 9.