‘Beirut rules’ in the region’s shadow wars
The new book “Beirut Rules” centres on William Buckley, the CIA Beirut chief who died in captivity after his kidnapping in 1984, but it is equally about Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah operative who many believe organised the seizure of Buckley and other Americans.
“Beirut Rules,” published by Penguin Random House, was written by Fred Burton, former US State Department counterterrorism agent, and Samuel Katz, counterterrorism consultant and author of “The Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism.”
Burton and Katz say they have no doubt that the CIA and Mossad cooperated in killing Mughniyeh with a car bomb in Damascus in 2008. They argue Mughniyeh, alongside Iran, organised abductions and the 1983 bombings of the US Embassy in Beirut and its Marine barracks.
“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 said “Beirut Rules” was not intended to augment public knowledge of Mughniyeh but to portray Buckley. It traces his childhood fascination with history, his “Hollywood good looks,” his role in US special forces and the CIA in Vietnam and his “significant other.”
The book, said Katz, also argued that “kidnapping Buckley, holding him and torturing him to death” marked an important break. “[Before this] even in high-threat locations like Lebanon, there were gentlemen’s rules,” he said. “Everyone knew who the station chiefs were — CIA, KGB, MI6, et cetera — but they weren’t targets. They were part of the chess match.”
The new “Beirut rules,” said Katz, had been glimpsed in the November 1982 bombing of Israel’s headquarters in Tyre, 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. People [in 1982] never expected that the insanity witnessed along the front of the Iran-Iraq war would come to them,” he said.
Katz denied that the 1982 Israeli invasion fostered the new rules. “No, it was strapping explosives to the bodies of 10-year-old boys on the Iraq front,” he said. “It was this new way of carrying out conflicts by non-state players… rules established in espionage were suddenly thrown out the window.”
Did the “Beirut rules” justify killing Mughniyeh?
Katz rejected parallels between Buckley, a “soldier and a spy,” and Mughniyeh, admired by many in southern Lebanon. “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 said.
He also rejected 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? 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,” Katz said.
But is it credible that Hezbollah and Iran alone brought Beirut rules?
Depicting Buckley’s fate as a radical departure ignores many earlier killings attributed to Israel. These include the 1962 disappearance of Heinz Krug, a German rocket scientist working with Egypt; the 1973 killing of Hussein al-Bashir, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s KGB liaison officer; and the 1981 Paris killing of Egyptian nuclear scientist Yehia el-Mashad.
The bombing of Israel’s headquarters in Tyre was 36 years after 91 people died in the attack on Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, British headquarters in Palestine. Before the 1983 US Embassy bombing, an al-Dawa suicide bomber in December 1981 killed 61 in Iraq’s Beirut embassy. Among those who died was the Iraqi ambassador. In 1980, Saddam Hussein had Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir Sadr, Dawa’s ideological founder, tortured and killed.
“Beirut Rules” calls Hezbollah’s 2006 missile barrage into Israel, killing 50, “the first total war against a Western population since the second world war” but merely notes that Israel’s onslaught on “Hezbollah targets” killed 1,000-1,500 Lebanese civilians.
Katz and Burton root a desire for revenge in the killing of Americans or Israelis but not in the Iraqi invasion of Iran, the 1978 and 1982 Israeli invasions of Lebanon, US support for the shah or in the Nakba of 1947-48. The book 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.
Perhaps this book offers insight into a certain American and Israeli mindset in which Lebanon — even the region — is a “Byzantine” war of sects where “thugs and psychopaths” are “a dime a dozen.” It’s a bleak worldview and just as revenge may have no clear beginning, it has no clear end.