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.
But who are these people? I immediately jumped to the pat answer that they were psychologically disturbed. Over the years this has been broken down and proved to be wrong. Israeli intelligence has summed it up for me: There is no profile. You’ve got a 47-year-old man with seven children blowing himself up, you have a Lebanese girl—Christian, attractive, young—she blows herself up for nationalism. You have the famous case of a Palestinian woman who was married with two children, had an affair, husband finds out about it. The husband and boyfriend get together and say the way they’re going to solve this problem is by having her blow herself up. And she did.
MJ.com: When you talked with the family members of suicide bombers, they told you they were happy that their children had become martyrs. Do you think that’s just what they tell the cameras, or is that emotion genuine?
RB: Could be. This woman in Tehran was very categorical about it. She said, “suicide is when you have serious personal problems and feel there’s no way out. But we have political reasons.” It’s a sensitive subject; they don’t want to be labeled as having personal problems; it’s political—[they say] their relative died for a purpose, not to wreak havoc. You can reduce it to things like humiliation. There is a feeling of humiliation—“The Israelis are killing us with M-16s; we’re being invaded by the United States in Iraq; our identity is being attacked; we have no way to address grievances except suicide bombings.” It’s all about grievances.
MJ.com: Speaking Arabic, can you get more of the story than a typical Western journalist might have?
RB: Speaking Arabic, you can go in you and just chitchat. I went to a Hezbollah school and was talking to these young girls whose dads had blown themselves up. They’re just teenage girls. I asked them what kind of TV they watch; they said Oprah. And I said, “Come on, you’re sitting here on the border of Israel, at war with the Israelis, and you’re watching Oprah?” They said, “We love Oprah!” And then you ask the obvious question: “If the Israelis invaded again, would you sacrifice a brother, a father?” “Absolutely.” So you have these two worlds.
MJ.com: As a former CIA officer, were you nervous hanging out with Hezbollah or visiting Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley?
RB: No, because they’re sophisticated. It’s not like dealing with the Khmer Rouge or Zarqawi. You wouldn’t tell Zarqawi, “Don’t worry, I’m with the press”—he’d still cut your head off. But you have to be aware of what stage of resistance they’re in. You wouldn’t want to be doing this film in 1984; you wouldn’t be coming back. But now in Lebanon, Hezbollah is ascendant, the Iranians are sophisticated—they obviously agreed to this film. I assume they knew who I was.
MJ.com: In the film, you note that there are more suicide bombings in Iraq in one month than there are in Israel in a year. But in Iraq, it seems that this is not just a reaction to occupation but another tactic in a civil war.
RB: Well, you’ve unleashed hatreds that have been submerged for years. You’ve got the Sunnis cutting the heads off of heads of Shiites and putting them in boxes. We have split open this volcano. We have no control over it. I think the neocons have done more damage to the United States’ reputation and foreign policy than anybody since—I don’t know when. They’ve opened Pandora’s box in Iraq.
MJ.com: You think that Iran started a “secret war” against the United States in Lebanon. What do you mean?
RB: They started off by taking us on directly, when they kidnapped [American University president] David Dodge and took him to Tehran. They brought him back and released him. Then they used surrogates. The idea was to get us out of Lebanon and completely get rid of American influence—journalists, diplomats, everybody. And it worked.
MJ.com: So, if Iran’s been fighting the U.S. since Lebanon, why are we just hearing about it as a threat now?
RB: It’s pure spin. We deal with it superficially. We follow current events; we get a paragraph in the newspaper about Zarqawi or whatever it is. And then we get on with life. It’s not the way [the Iranians] deal with the world. They think they’re in mortal combat against the United States. Their survival is based on this conflict. Our attitude is, “Give us the oil.” We don’t take this part of the world seriously and yet it is so important to us. Iran has always been looked at like a crazy uncle in the attic: Every once in a while he starts knocking things around and breaks a window, but otherwise we just ignore him.
MJ.com: Do you think the current attention on Iran is just temporary or the wrong kind of attention?
RB: The thing is Iraq. Take the Iranian side: This is a total gift. It’s the first time since 680 A.D. that the Iranians have been in control of Iraq—and they do control it now. So they’ve been handed this victory. The United States is in trouble. We’re going to leave; we have 140,000 troops tied down in Iraq. You don’t find it strange that we couldn’t go into Baquba, which is nominally under our control, and arrest Zarqawi? We have to hit him with an F-16? That’s like hitting a crack den with an F-16 because the police are afraid to go in. There’s a problem in Iraq. So Iran is sitting there, thinking, “Your troops are tied down; you’re not going to send a million soldiers to the Middle East. Yeah, you could knock out some of our nuclear facilities, but at the end of the day, we’re going to win. Go ahead and hit us, because we’re just going to strike back in the Gulf, against oil, against your troops in Iraq, in Lebanon.”
MJ.com: In the United States?
RB: Maybe they can. I don’t know.
MJ.com: But this is a conflict Iran thinks it can win.
RB: Yeah. I think Ahmadinejad’s letter to us was an offer for us to surrender [to him]. We’re courting disaster. I find the Iranians very sophisticated. They’re by far the most sophisticated player in the Gulf. They don’t really deal in spin like we do at the policy level. They take this very seriously. They’re capable people. They consider themselves a civilization that’s equal to ours intellectually. They’ll go on for hours about this, how just because we invented the computer doesn’t make us superior.
MJ.com: So if we were go back in time a few years, do you think the country we should have paid attention to was Iran, not Iraq?
RB: We should have dealt with Iran. I’m not saying attack it; I’m saying we should have taken it seriously. The Iranian connection to 9/11 is much stronger than the Iraqi one ever was. That was the big lie: That Saddam had something to do with 9/11—not the WMD—the connection between Saddam and bin Laden. We were spun on that and we were spun on the famous Prague meeting between Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence, which was a complete lie. Both the CIA and the FBI came out and said that never happened.
MJ.com: Which brings us to Blow the House Down. Can you talk more about the possible links between Iran and al Qaeda, which you write about in your author’s note?
RB: There was a meeting in 1996 between bin Laden and an Iranian intelligence officer. We know this. They agreed to conduct joint terrorism operations, with utmost secrecy. You had the mastermind [of 9/11], Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, putting his family in Tehran after he was indicted in the United States. You have the hijackers crossing Iran and going into Afghanistan. You know, there’s a lot of tantalizing leads. What do they mean? We don’t know.
MJ.com: So if the CIA and FBI knew about this 1996 meeting, why did we ignore Iran and go after Iraq?
RB: There is a tendency in any conflict, especially in a democracy, to fight the enemy you can, not the enemy you should. There were all sorts of ideological reasons to go after Iraq instead of Iran. It served the neocons’ interest to fight this old war against Iraq. So then the people in Washington started spinning he few facts they had. The facts did not support the Iraqi option. But that’s never stopped people in the past.
MJ.com: I understand you originally wanted to write Blow the House Down as nonfiction but couldn’t get it past the CIA.
RB: Intelligence is a like a good lawyer who knows what evidence is. If you go into court you have to know where the evidence is coming from. I can’t say I have an anonymous witness; you have to expose your sources. So [the CIA] said no. I talk to the CIA all the time; I’m not trying to argue with them. There is a looser standard for fiction. Plus, intellectually it’s easier to do fiction than nonfiction. I’d have a harder time reaching the conclusions in nonfiction I’ve reached in fiction. There is this basis of fact—real people, real facts—and then you get into fiction and connect all the dots. Now, connecting the dots does not mean you’ve reached the logical conclusion. It means you reach a conclusion. A lot of people are annoyed that I’ve gone from nonfiction to fiction. But I’m not James Frey trying to present fiction as truth. I don’t even see the crazies, the 9/11 conspiracy folks, glomming onto this book.
MJ.com: But if you had written this book as nonfiction, what percentage of it would still be in there?
RB: You’d lose about 40 percent of it, I guess.
MJ.com: That’s not that much.
MJ.com: Do you have a movie deal for this book yet?
RB: No. There’s no characters that fit the genre—there’s not a guy bursting out in a Superman uniform. I talk to the studios about authenticity and their eyes glaze over. Because that’s not what they’re selling. I think Syriana was lucky to get away with the authenticity and the complication. That was thanks to Clooney and [Matt] Damon and the names and a good script. But it wasn’t authenticity that got people into the theatre.