On April 18, 1983, someone drove a van packed with explosives into the United States embassy in Beirut, demolishing it and killing 63 people. Six months later, 241 Marines and soldiers were killed when their Beirut barracks were torn apart by a truck carrying 12,000 pounds of dynamite, which detonated the largest nonnuclear explosion since World War II.
The twin suicide bombings shocked and intrigued Robert Baer, who at the time was stationed in Lebanon as a Central Intelligence Agency officer and knew several agency employees who had died in the embassy. He became preoccupied with who had plotted the attacks and what had motivated the bombers who’d carried them out. But he put his curiosity on hold as he continued his career, going on to earn a reputation as “perhaps the best on-the-ground field officer in the Middle East,” as Seymour M. Hersh put it. In 1997, he quit the CIA and wrote See No Evil, a scathing insider’s account of its counterterrorism efforts. The book inspired the 2005 film Syriana and its main character, a rumpled and idealistic undercover agent played by George Clooney.
Now Baer has revisited the mysteries of the Beirut bombings and their legacy in The Cult of the Suicide Bomber, a new Frontline-style documentary. Traveling to Iran, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories (and dressed throughout in the tan sports coat immortalized in Clooney’s Oscar-winning performance), Baer charts the history of this now ubiquitous terrorist tactic. He traces its origins back to Iran, where in 1980, a 13-year-old named Hossein Fahmideh strapped on explosives and threw himself under an Iraqi tank, inaugurating a new form of asymmetrical warfare and religious martyrdom. (Fahmideh is still publicly celebrated on posters and children’s backpacks.) After speaking with bombers’ families and friends, as well as members of Hezbollah and Iranian clerics, Baer concludes that suicide bombers aren’t crazy, as he’d once assumed, but driven by a complex mix of fanaticism, desperation, and twisted ingenuity. They can’t be easily profiled or stopped. They are, he says, “the ultimate smart bomb.”
Baer has also just published his first spy novel, Blow the House Down, which offers an alternative—and he stresses, fictional—theory of who was behind September 11. Baer says the book is an attempt to connect some hypothetical dots and to present a realistic alternative to the current crop of espionage fantasies. “Why didn’t they ever let me into the Mission Impossible group, or the 24 group?” he jokes about his CIA days. “Why was I excluded?”
As different as they might sound, The Cult of the Suicide Bomber and Blow the House Down strike some similar dark notes. Besides starring former CIA agents determined to tie up loose ends from their past, both contain warnings about Iran, a country Baer thinks America has long ignored at its own peril. In his documentary, he portrays Iran as the spiritual godfather of jihadist suicide bombing and the likely mastermind of the Beirut bombings; in his novel, he imagines Iran as a player in the 9/11 plot. Baer insists he’s not peddling conspiracy theories or pushing for a showdown with Tehran, but rather expressing his concerns about what he sees as its ongoing “secret war” with Washington. As he writes in the afterward to his book, “It’s obvious that the United States went to war against the wrong country in March 2003.”
Baer spoke with MotherJones.com during a recent stop in San Francisco.
MotherJones.com: How’d you decide to make The Cult of the Suicide Bomber?
Robert Baer: For me, the interesting thing was looking at an aspect of terrorism I couldn’t look at as a former CIA guy. I was coming at it as a journalist. I could ask questions I’d always wanted to ask but didn’t have the leisure to.
The first suicide bombing that entered my consciousness was the Beirut embassy bombing. It was very personal. I’d been in the embassy and I knew most of the people in the station who were killed in the bombing. So you take the personal aspect of it and the mystery of who the bomber was and the fact that a small group of people could drive us out of a country that was absolutely key to the United States, and what was behind this... The fact that they’ve been able to hide the embassy bombers’ and the Marine barracks bombers’ identities for all these years tells me we’re up against a very capable movement.