The Sheikh Who Got Away
How the United States got Lebanon's leading Shiite cleric dead wrong -- and missed a chance to change the Middle East forever.
The coffin of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, covered in a black cloth embroidered in gold with verses from the Quran, wound through Beirut's southern suburbs July 6, traveling from his home to the Hassanein mosque, where he used to deliver Friday sermons. It was followed by thousands of mourners, most of them wearing black and many carrying pictures of Lebanon's most eminent Shiite cleric on their way to his final resting place.
The coffin of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, covered in a black cloth embroidered in gold with verses from the Quran, wound through Beirut’s southern suburbs July 6, traveling from his home to the Hassanein mosque, where he used to deliver Friday sermons. It was followed by thousands of mourners, most of them wearing black and many carrying pictures of Lebanon’s most eminent Shiite cleric on their way to his final resting place.
Tributes poured in from across the Middle East. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei referred to the late ayatollah as a "true companion of the Islamic Republic." Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, even came out of hiding to pay his respects at Fadlallah’s casket and offer his condolences to his family. Nasrallah issued a statement mourning the death of "a merciful father and a wise guide."
But the accolades did not just come from America’s enemies. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni leader considered sympathetic to the United States, called Fadlallah "a voice of moderation and an advocate of unity." Ali al-Adeeb, an official in Iraq’s Dawa Party, which Fadlallah helped create, said that it "will be hard to replace him." Dawa Party leader and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has worked closely with U.S. forces in the country, counted himself among the ayatollah’s many followers. Even British Ambassador to Lebanon Frances Guy offered her praise, writing that when visiting with him "you could be sure of a real debate …
and you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person."
Although Fadlallah may have confounded the Middle East’s traditional fault lines, the United States never wavered on its stance toward the ayatollah: He was the "spiritual advisor" to Hezbollah, a terrorist who was responsible for numerous attacks on U.S. interests in the region. This grudge was formed more than a quarter-century ago, during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, when the CIA reportedly sponsored a notorious plot to assassinate Fadlallah.
On March 8, 1985, a car bomb carrying 200 kilograms of explosives detonated outside Fadlallah’s home in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The bomb devastated the neighborhood, killing 80 people and wounding approximately 200 more. Fadlallah, however, escaped without injury. In the eyes of his followers, there was no doubt who was responsible: They strung up a "MADE IN USA" banner over a destroyed building immediately following the attack. The U.S. government, however, steadfastly denied any involvement. Targeted assassinations, officials pointed out, were explicitly forbidden since Gerald Ford’s administration.
Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s explosive account of CIA involvement in the Middle East, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, would eventually undermine the official denials. Woodward, drawing on interviews with President Ronald Reagan’s aggressive CIA Director William Casey, reported that Casey had circumvented the spy agency’s established bureaucracy to funnel money to a professional hit team trained to assassinate Fadlallah.
It was a bloody time for the United States in Lebanon. The 1983 U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks bombings and the 1984 attack on the U.S. Embassy annex in East Beirut had claimed the lives of hundreds of Americans. The CIA station chief in Beirut, William Francis Buckley, was also kidnapped in 1984 and eventually died in captivity after being tortured by Hezbollah interrogators. U.S. officials were itching for revenge. Fadlallah "had been connected to all three bombings of Americans facilities in Beirut," wrote Woodward. "He had to go."
Woodward may have gotten an explosive scoop on the inside story of the CIA’s involvement, but he got the much easier story of Fadlallah’s relationship with Hezbollah wrong. In Veil, Woodward refers to Fadlallah as "the leader of the Party of God, Hizbollah," and an "archterrorist." The confusion over Fadlallah’s connection to the organization would continue to bedevil U.S officials and media until the current day.
Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer who worked in Beirut during the 1980s, denies that Fadlallah played any operational role within Hezbollah. "I can guarantee you, and I have seen every bit of intelligence, that Fadlallah had no connection [to the attacks]," he told me. "He knew the people carrying out the terrorism acts, but he had no connection in ordering them."
Fadlallah himself consistently denied having any official role within the Shiite militant group, even while making no apologies for supporting many of its aims. "I live in a warm atmosphere surrounded by the youth of ‘Hezbollah,’ whom I consider my sons," he said in one 1995 interview. "However, and since the inception of Hezbollah, I was never part of its organizational structure."
Fadlallah did have relationships with some of the highest-ranking Hezbollah officials and had never made a secret of the fact that he issued rulings offering religious sanctions for its attacks. He enthusiastically supported attacks against Western forces in Lebanon during the civil war and continued to support attacks on Israel until his last days.
"He wasn’t our friend, let’s get that straight," noted Baer. "But that doesn’t mean he was a master terrorist."
Fadlallah’s political worldview considered the Islamic world a victim of oppression and injustice at the hands of imperialism and Zionism. Like his contemporaries in the Shiite Islamic revival of the era, he turned to the Quran for justification to overturn the status quo. "There is no alternative to a bitter and difficult jihad," he wrote in a 1983 article titled "The Islamic Revolution in Iran: Reflections from the Inside," to remedy these ills.
He also provided religious legitimacy for the use of suicide operations in this religious war. "There is no difference between dying with a gun in your hand or exploding yourself," he reasoned. "What is the difference between setting out for battle knowing you will die after killing ten [enemies], and setting out to the field and knowing you will die while killing them?"
While Fadlallah’s political agenda often overlapped with Hezbollah’s, he often parted ways with the group on important matters of religion. He came to embody an Arab Shiism that competed for primacy with the Iranian clerics who seized power following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Fadlallah distinguished himself from Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini by fusing Shiism with Arab nationalism.
"[N]obody can criticize the Islamists about their Arabism," he wrote in his 1997 book Hadith Ashura. "We are intertwined with Arabic, our Prophet was Arab, our language is Arabic, and for this reason Islam has been able to expand in the Arab circle."
Hezbollah, with its strong religious and operational ties to Iran, recognized Khomeini and later Khamenei as its preeminent source of religious knowledge and authority. Fadlallah supported wilayet al-faqih, Iran’s religiously inspired system of governance, during the 1980s, under the reign of Khomeini, a respected cleric. However, he soon broke with the system after Khomeini’s replacement by Khamenei, who could not match his predecessor’s religious authority.
In 1995, Fadlallah declared himself a marja, the highest religious authority within Shiism — a step that was opposed by the Iranian religious establishment, which saw Khamenei as the proper source of emulation for the Shiite world. Although both Iran and Hezbollah issued statements praising Fadlallah upon his death, they studiously avoided referring to him as a marja.
For this reason, Western claims that Fadlallah was "the spiritual advisor" to Hezbollah were particularly ironic: Although he was clearly influential, it was on precisely the issue of Fadlallah’s ultimate religious authority that he and the Party of God parted ways.
Starting in the 1990s, Fadlallah began to preach a more self-consciously modern version of Shiism, placing particular emphasis on scientific and rational methods. He opposed the practice of self-flagellation on the Shiite holy day of Ashura, arguing that it accentuated sectarian differences in Lebanon rather than promoting coexistence. His rulings in the field of gender relations have also been important: He asserted that women were qualified to lead men in prayer and were fully capable of moving up the ranks of the Shiite clergy, up to the post of ayatollah. In 2007, he issued a fatwa saying that a woman could fight back in self-defense if she were beaten by her husband.
This debate was more than an internecine feud over religious principles — it had important repercussions for the political balance of power within Lebanon’s Shiite community. Fadlallah criticized Hezbollah openly at times, notably picking a fight with the group after it declared to its supporters that voting for the party in the 2005 parliamentary election was a religious obligation. He argued that such "perverted practices" would eventually delegitimize religious authority. His extensive network of schools throughout Lebanon, which enrolled 14,300 students in 2000, produces its own religious textbooks rather than use those approved by Iran’s religious leadership.
Just as the relationship between Fadlallah and Hezbollah was hitting a low point in the mid-1990s, the United States once again lumped the Shiite cleric in with the party. Fadlallah was declared a "leading ideological figure" of Hezbollah and named a "Specially Designated Terrorist," which empowered the U.S. Treasury to freeze his assets and prohibited him from conducting any future financial transactions with U.S. institutions.
Fadlallah’s charities continued to attract the attention of the U.S. government — even causing problems for some of its erstwhile allies. In 2003, the United States barred then Lebanese Finance Minister Fouad Siniora from entering the country because of a donation he had made to Fadlallah’s charity years earlier. Siniora would go on to serve as Lebanon’s prime minister from 2005 to 2009, acting as a staunch supporter of U.S. policies in the region during a period when the Lebanese government confronted Syria and its domestic Lebanese allies.
Following the end of the Lebanese civil war, Fadlallah became more circumspect about justifying attacks on Western targets. Along with Hezbollah and Iran, Fadlallah condemned the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as incompatible with Islamic law. The attackers, he said, were not martyrs but "merely suicides." He attributed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s motivations for carrying out the attacks to "personal psychological needs" stemming from a "tribal urge for revenge." He also denounced the July 7, 2005, attacks in London as "a kind of barbarism that Islam unequivocally rejects."
As Fadlallah grew in stature throughout the Arab world and also seized the attention of many in Washington, the competing portrayals of him quickly failed to bear even a passing resemblance to each other. For the U.S. government, he was an unrepentant terrorist who played an integral role in Hezbollah’s most vicious operations. To the mourners in Beirut, he was a fierce critic of colonialism and an important pioneer in efforts to reconcile traditional religious teaching with modernity and gender equality.
There was an element of truth to the U.S. stance: Fadlallah was certainly no liberal, nor an ally to be recruited to advance U.S. security goals. However, even a quarter-century after that misguided assassination attempt, U.S. officials failed to appreciate the areas where their interests and Fadlallah’s overlapped, both in isolating Iran and reducing the appeal of fundamentalism within Lebanon. The United States always preferred blunt instruments and simple epithets — crude tools indeed for a complex man.
David Kenner was Middle East editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2018.
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