Walid Phares lecturing in front of a Lebanese Forces banner in 1986
Walid Phares, the recently announced co-chair of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Middle East advisory group, has a long résumé. College professor. Author. Political pundit. Counterterrorism expert. But there's one chapter of his life that you won't find on his CV: He was a high ranking political official in a sectarian religious militia responsible for massacres during Lebanon's brutal, 15-year civil war.
During the 1980s, Phares, a Maronite Christian, trained Lebanese militants in ideological beliefs justifying the war against Lebanon's Muslim and Druze factions, according to former colleagues. Phares, they say, advocated the hard-line view that Lebanon's Christians should work toward creating a separate, independent Christian enclave. A photo obtained by Mother Jones shows him conducting a press conference in 1986 for the Lebanese Forces, an umbrella group of Christian militias that has been accused of committing atrocities. He was also a close adviser to Samir Geagea, a Lebanese warlord who rose from leading hit squads to running the Lebanese Forces.
Since fleeing to the United States in 1990, when the Syrians took over Lebanon, Phares has reinvented himself as a counterterrorism and national security expert, traveling comfortably between official circles and the GOP's anti-Muslim wing. In a little over two decades, he's gone from training Lebanese militants to teaching American law enforcement and intelligence officials about the Middle East, and from advising Lebanese warlords to counseling a man who could be the next president of the United States.
"I can't think of any earlier instance of a [possible presidential] adviser having held a comparable formal position with a foreign organization," says Paul Pillar, a 20-year veteran of the CIA and a professor at Georgetown's Center for Peace and Security Studies. "It should raise eyebrows any time someone in a position to exert behind-the-scenes influence on a US leader has ties to a foreign entity that are strong enough for foreign interests, and not just US interests, to determine the advice being given."
Phares has long faced questions about his background with the Lebanese Forces. As sketchy details have trickled out, he's tried to downplay his involvement, claiming that he was "politically in the center" of Lebanese Christian politics and that he "was never a military official." But a Mother Jones investigation has found that he was a key player within the Lebanese Forces when it was involved in a bloody sectarian conflict.
Lebanon's civil war, which raged from 1975 to 1990 and claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people, ravaging a cosmopolitan society in the heart of the Arab world, is one of the great tragedies of a region that has experienced more than its share. Lebanon was granted independence by France in 1943, giving Christians an enclave of influence in the region. But by the mid-1970s the growth of the Muslim population and the presence of armed Palestinian Liberation Organization groups within Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps turned the country into a powder keg, as Christians tried to maintain their political dominance and Muslim and Christian militias battled for control of the country. The bloodshed was exacerbated by the interventions of regional powers like Israel and Syria, each trying to ensure their preferred factions would emerge victorious.
"I can't think of any earlier instance of a [possible presidential] adviser having held a comparable formal position with a foreign organization," says CIA veteran Paul Pillar.
There were idealists and opportunists, thugs and honorable people on all sides of the war. But frequently these factions were clashing over no more than turf, money, or influence, with no quarter asked and none given.
"The Lebanese civil war really began as a series of tit-for-tat massacres between the right-wing Christian militias in Lebanon and the various Palestinian groups," says the Center for New American Security's Andrew Exum, a military expert who studied in Beirut. "No party to the Lebanese civil war comes out of that conflict with its hands clean; virtually all parties to the conflict were involved in some sort of massacre and some sort of atrocity."
In 1978, the Lebanese Forces emerged as the umbrella group of the assorted Christian militias. According to former colleagues, Phares became one of the group's chief ideologists, working closely with the Lebanese Forces' Fifth Bureau, a unit that specialized in psychological warfare.
Régina Sneifer, who served in the Fifth Bureau in 1981 at the age of 18, remembers attending lectures where Phares told Christian militiamen that they were the vanguard of a war between the West and Islam. She says Phares believed that the civil war was the latest in a series of civilizational conflicts between Muslims and Christians. It was his view that because Christians were eternally the victims of Muslim persecution, the only solution was to create a national home for Christians in Lebanon modeled after Israel. Like many Maronites at that time, Phares believed that Lebanese Christians were ethnically distinct from Arabs. (This has since proven to be without scientific basis.)
Sneifer, now an author in France who wrote a 1995 book detailing her experiences in Lebanon's civil war, recalls that in his speeches, Phares "justified our fighting against the Muslims by saying we should have our own country, our own state, our own entity, and we have to be separate."
That ideology, some experts say, helped rationalize the indiscriminate sectarian violence that characterized the conflict. "There were lots of horrendous, horrendous atrocities that took place during that civil war, in part fueled by that fairly hateful ideology," says a former State Department official and Middle East expert.
The most well-known of those atrocities was the Lebanese Forces' massacre of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut in September 1982. The Israeli military, which was backing the Christian militias, was present but did not intervene to stop the bloodshed. Phares was never a fighter, and he did not participate. "I can assure to you [Phares] never shot one bullet in his life," says Toni Nissi, who worked with Phares at the time. "He was an ideological man; he was a thinker."
According to Sneifer, Phares' close ties to Afif Malkoun, the head of the Fifth Bureau at the time, ensured that Phares' ideas were widely disseminated among militants and students. But Phares' influence grew even further with the rise of Samir Geagea, a former medical student turned Christian militia leader whose hard-line views jibed with his own.
Geagea's ruthlessness was well known. He led a team of Christian militiamen who, in 1978, killed Tony Frangieh, a political rival of Geagea's boss. According to contemporary press reports and Thomas Friedman's 1989 book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, Geagea's team didn't just kill Frangieh and his bodyguards. They also murdered his wife, four-year-old daughter, and the family dog. (Mother Jones contacted a US-based representative of the Lebanese Forces political party but was unable to obtain an interview with Geagea.)
Geagea's team didn't just kill Frangieh and his bodyguards. They also murdered his wife, four-year-old daughter, and the family dog.
"Mr. Phares was aware of the crimes of Samir Geagea and he was still close to him," Sneifer says.
The rivalries between Christian militia leaders were sometimes just as heated as the war's sectarian skirmishes. After Geagea ousted a rival in a bloody coup and became the head of the Lebanese Forces in January 1986, Phares, according to an official Lebanese Forces announcement, was appointed to the group's new executive committee, handling "expatriates affairs."
"The executive committee was in charge of [the] Lebanese Forces," explains Elias Muhanna, a Lebanon expert who's currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Program for Arab Reform and Democracy. "It would be like being elected to the board of trustees of a company or the top level leadership of a political party."
Phares continued to play a prominent role in the ideological training of Lebanese Forces fighters. Geagea wanted to professionalize the militia, so he established a special school where officers would receive training not only in military tactics, but also in ideology. The various Lebanese factions were already sectarian in character, but Geagea, whom Nissi says used to read to his troops from the Bible, wanted religion to become an even more prominent part of the Lebanese Forces. For that he turned to Phares.
"[Samir Geagea] wanted to change them from a normal militia to a Christian army," says Nissi, Phares' former associate. "Walid Phares was responsible for training the lead officers in the ideology of the Lebanese Forces."
Phares and Geagea ultimately grew apart, associates say, fueled by the latter's decision to accept a Syrian-sponsored accord to end the war that curtailed the political power of Lebanon's Christians and paved the way for Syrian occupation. That development led to a vicious inter-Christian battle between Geagea and his main rival, General Michel Aoun, which devastated Christian-majority areas of Lebanon that until then had largely avoided the war's worst fighting. (Geagea is now part of the anti-Syrian faction in the Lebanese parliament.)
Despite the bloody fighting among Christians, the lesson that many Lebanese Christian exiles took from the war was that Islam was to blame for the destruction that ensued. "There is a problem with Islam…If you want to follow the Koran by the book you have to be like [Osama] bin Laden," says one former Lebanese Forces militiaman. "It is a reality. And Walid Phares knows this reality. He's lived here."