Showtime’s ‘Ghosts of Beirut’ examines CIA-Mossad op that brought down one of world’s most elusive terrorists
The new limited series follows elusive Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh’s rise from the slums of South Beirut to his mysterious killing in Syria in 2008
Imad Mughniyeh is the most famous terrorist you’ve never heard of.
That’s the premise of “Ghosts of Beirut,” a new limited series from Showtime that traces the elusive Hezbollah leader’s rise from the slums of South Beirut to his mysterious killing in Syria in 2008. He orchestrated attacks that killed hundreds, and pioneered suicide bombs as a brutal method to shock and sow chaos.
The full story of Mughniyeh’s death, which was long assumed to have been masterminded by the CIA and the Mossad, remains classified by the intelligence agencies. So the series’ creators — “Fauda” creators Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz, Emmy-winning documentary producer Greg Barker, and “All Quiet on the Western Front” producer Daniel Dreifuss — offer what the show’s title sequence calls “a fictional account of deeply researched events.”
“We’re intentionally not saying this is the full story. But in broad strokes, this is pretty much what happened,” Barker told Jewish Insider during a recent interview. “It’s the closest possible to the truth that we’re likely to get for quite a while, until a lot of this stuff is declassified in 30 or 40 years.” The four-part series, which is as much a testament to intelligence agencies’ grit as it is to their deep commitment to secrecy, premieres on May 19, with new episodes released weekly.
Barker and a team of journalists and researchers spent half a year tracking down CIA and Mossad sources who had knowledge of the events and said to them: “‘We’re trying to tell the story as accurately as possible, but we know it’s still classified. So what do you think happened, or what’s plausible?’” Barker recalled. “Then people told us a lot that they wouldn’t have told us had I just been saying, ‘Look, I need you to go on the record about this.’ So we got a lot of insight.”
The result is a dramatic retelling of Mughniyeh’s life and the many horrific terrorist attacks he orchestrated targeting Americans and Israelis, starting with the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon, which killed 63, including CIA Near East Director Robert Ames, and of the Beirut barracks where hundreds of French and American troops were killed. (He was also indicted by Argentina for his role in the 1992 Israeli Embassy bombing in Buenos Aires, which killed 29.) The show attempts to make sense of the origins of the trends and stories now common in the Middle East, like Iran’s support of terrorism and the use of targeted killings as a tactic to root out terrorists.
The series follows the CIA analysts whom Mughniyeh stymied for decades — earning him the nickname “The Ghost” — and the intelligence agencies’ many failed attempts to capture or kill him. Viewers get a glimpse of the strategic rivalry between the CIA and Mossad, and the tricky calculus that ensues as the two allies pursue goals that are not always perfectly aligned.
“I’ve heard about that tension in the friendly relationship for years, and from people in both services,” Barker explained. “It was an interesting way of unpacking what these sort of friendly relationships are like from the inside, and what they tell us about the different priorities, the different methods, of both of these different intelligence services, but also of the countries.”
The series alternates between two storylines. One follows Mughniyeh, his family and his fellow Hezbollah fighters and their Iranian backers. The other follows the American and Israeli operatives working to identify and, later, kill him. Some are real, like Ames, the idealistic CIA official who earnestly believed in the early 1980s that Middle East peace was just around the corner, and William Francis Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut who was abducted and tortured by Hezbollah.
Then there are the two main protagonists in the hunt for Mughniyeh, who are not based on any single real-life analyst, even though they are rooted in real stories. One is a CIA agent from Dearborn, Mich., who has a relative in Hezbollah, the other a Mossad agent grappling with the moral costs of his work while his wife begs him to quit the service. (The actor Iddo Goldberg, who plays the Mossad agent in the series, got to meet the person on whom his character is based, on the condition that he keep the agent’s identity secret.)
“We’re not trying to make docu-drama,” said Barker. “We’re drawing from reality but then interpreting it and finding a way, given what we know that actually happened, and using that to tell the best dramatic story.”
The two characters must overcome a deep distrust of each other and of the national-security apparatuses in which they operate. The Mossad agent is worried that the Lebanese-born American agent is a double agent who is secretly harboring a connection to the terrorist group she is trying to fight. And the American worries that the Israeli is too trigger-happy, willing to kill terrorists even if it might lead to civilian deaths or spark violence in the region.
The tension between the Israelis and the Americans reaches its climax in a scene where Mughniyeh is walking with Qasem Soleimani, who until his death in 2020 was the commander of the Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The CIA received presidential permission to assassinate Mughniyeh, and the CIA and Mossad agents were directly on his heels. But the 2007 “presidential finding,” as the permission is officially called, did not extend to Soleimani. The Israelis, helmed by then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan, wanted to take Soleimani down too, but Washington said no.
“As far as we know, that really happened, that there was a moment where the two of them were walking together, and there was a decision made,” said Barker. “It was just incredibly compelling drama. But I also think it speaks to a deeper aspect of that relationship and the question of, like, How does one in these positions operate in a very murky world where moral lines are quite ambiguous?”
The Americans in the show feared that killing Soleimani would start a massive war with Iran. Thirteen years later, Soleimani was killed by American hands, in a 2020 drone strike ordered by former President Donald Trump.
“Maybe their calculation at the time was wrong, but I tried to just view it simply in the context of how they felt at the time,” said Barker, who spent time in Iran in 2007 while producing a documentary about Iran for PBS’ “Frontline.”
“It was very much in the minds of people at the time that if they pushed Iran too far, like killing Qasem Soleimani, it might start a war,” he noted, and added that the military reality was different then, too. “We also had, and this is the difference from when he was killed [in 2020], a massive troop presence in Iraq, with Iranian-backed militias all over the country.”
In 2007, the CIA was very much on the defensive in light of reporting on its controversial “black site” prisons. “The agency was incredibly aware that anything it did was going to be scrutinized,” Barker noted. “They were very, very specific that they had to get authorization [to kill Soleimani], and they could only act according to what was spelled out by the letter of the presidential finding.”
The series intersperses these dramatic sequences with commentary from real-life journalists, analysts and experts who witnessed and even took part in these events from the 1980s to the early 2000s, as an attempt to add context. The goal of including those voices — including prominent American journalists like the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer — was to “give a sense that a lot of this stuff really happened,” said Barker.
So what, exactly, is real in this hybrid fiction-nonfiction universe that Barker, Issacharoff, Raz, Dreifuss and screenwriter Joëlle Touma created?
The car bomb that killed Mughniyeh on a Damascus street in 2008 “was 100% a joint operation” between Israel and the U.S., Barker said. And the Americans’ last-minute choice not to kill Soleimani happened, too.
This may be the closest anyone can get to the truth. According to Barker, the CIA wouldn’t comment on any of what happened. “We went to them,” he recalled, “and they said, ‘We cannot tell you anything about any aspect of the story.’”