The Death of Fadlallah: The Misunderstood Shi'a Cleric

Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah may not have been a friend of the U.S., but he was certainly not the spiritual leader of Hizballah, nor was he responsible for the 1985 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut

  • Cynthia Karam / Reuters

    Lebanon's Grand Ayatullah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in a Beirut suburb on April 8, 2009

    Lebanon's most senior Shi'a cleric died on the Fourth of July. His name, Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, will mean nothing to most Americans, just as they won't see any connection between it and Independence Day. But the fact is, Fadlallah has been a central figure in modern Middle Eastern history, as he has been to U.S. involvement in that part of the world. He was a founder of Da'wa, the Islamic group to which Iraq's current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki belongs. In the 1980s, Fadlallah was at the top of the Reagan Administration's enemy list. The White House mistakenly believed he was the spiritual leader of Hizballah, the Lebanese militant group the U.S. was at war with at the time.

    On March 8, 1985, a car bomb exploded in Beirut's southern suburbs, killing more than 80. The target was Fadlallah, and he was saved only by an unplanned stop near his house. Although the CIA was commonly believed to be behind the assassination attempt, a group of Christian Lebanese army officers in fact were. They acted on the same mistaken belief that Fadlallah was the spiritual leader of Hizballah. [Editor's Note: Indeed, even TIME called Fadlallah the voice of Hizballah in a 1989 interview .] If he were gone, the Christian Lebanese army officers calculated, Hizballah would die as a movement. They also thought they were doing the Americans a favor, believing that Fadlallah was responsible for the truck bombing of the Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport on Oct. 23, 1983, that killed 241 American servicemen.

    The problem is, there never has been a shred of evidence that Fadlallah was responsible for the Marine bombing, other than his preaching against foreign occupation. But in that sense, he was no different from Lebanon's other Muslim clerics who also did not want foreign troops in the country. Fadlallah was with near certainty not involved in Hizballah's terrorist attacks in Lebanon. In fact, he complained privately about the Iranians — through their proxy, the Islamic Jihad Organization — taking hostages in his country, believing it was un-Islamic.

    But where we really got Fadlallah wrong was when we started to call him the spiritual leader of Hizballah. That honor belonged exclusively to Ayatullah Khomeini — and now to his successor, Ayatullah Khamenei, in Tehran. Just as important, the Iranians always looked at Fadlallah as an obstacle to Hizballah's dominance of Lebanese Shi'a. There even was a time when some Iranian intelligence officers considered getting rid of Fadlallah.

    Every time I met Fadlallah, he brought up the 1985 attempt on his life. Nothing I could say would convince him that the CIA hadn't been behind it. But I had a sense the attempt was old history. Why, otherwise, would Fadlallah agree to meet an ex–CIA officer? Fadlallah wouldn't have understood the expression, but he had moved on. Leaving those meetings, I thought that rather than me, it should be our ambassador in Beirut meeting Fadlallah. But he wasn't allowed to, because Fadlallah was on a terrorism watch list.

    Don't get me wrong. Fadlallah was not a friend of the U.S. He preached jihad against the West and created a climate for the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. But at the end of the day, he was an independent Arab voice, a Shi'a Muslim courageous enough to stand up against Iran. In that sense, we should regret his passing.

    Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.