Skip to comments.Bad News Baer
Posted on 07/29/2006 8:18:23 PM PDT by FightThePower!
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 whod 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 insiders 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 Clooneys 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 childrens backpacks.) After speaking with bombers families and friends, as well as members of Hezbollah and Iranian clerics, Baer concludes that suicide bombers arent crazy, as hed once assumed, but driven by a complex mix of fanaticism, desperation, and twisted ingenuity. They cant 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 alternativeand he stresses, fictionaltheory 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 didnt 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 hes 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, Its 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: Howd 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 couldnt look at as a former CIA guy. I was coming at it as a journalist. I could ask questions Id always wanted to ask but didnt have the leisure to.
The first suicide bombing that entered my consciousness was the Beirut embassy bombing. It was very personal. Id 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 theyve been able to hide the embassy bombers and the Marine barracks bombers identities for all these years tells me were 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. Youve got a 47-year-old man with seven children blowing himself up, you have a Lebanese girlChristian, attractive, youngshe 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 theyre 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 thats 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 theres no way out. But we have political reasons. Its a sensitive subject; they dont want to be labeled as having personal problems; its 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 humiliationThe Israelis are killing us with M-16s; were being invaded by the United States in Iraq; our identity is being attacked; we have no way to address grievances except suicide bombings. Its 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. Theyre just teenage girls. I asked them what kind of TV they watch; they said Oprah. And I said, Come on, youre sitting here on the border of Israel, at war with the Israelis, and youre 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 Lebanons Bekaa Valley?
RB: No, because theyre sophisticated. Its not like dealing with the Khmer Rouge or Zarqawi. You wouldnt tell Zarqawi, Dont worry, Im with the presshed still cut your head off. But you have to be aware of what stage of resistance theyre in. You wouldnt want to be doing this film in 1984; you wouldnt be coming back. But now in Lebanon, Hezbollah is ascendant, the Iranians are sophisticatedthey 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, youve unleashed hatreds that have been submerged for years. Youve 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 sinceI dont know when. Theyve opened Pandoras 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 influencejournalists, diplomats, everybody. And it worked.
MJ.com: So, if Irans been fighting the U.S. since Lebanon, why are we just hearing about it as a threat now?
RB: Its 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. Its not the way [the Iranians] deal with the world. They think theyre in mortal combat against the United States. Their survival is based on this conflict. Our attitude is, Give us the oil. We dont 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. Its the first time since 680 A.D. that the Iranians have been in control of Iraqand they do control it now. So theyve been handed this victory. The United States is in trouble. Were going to leave; we have 140,000 troops tied down in Iraq. You dont find it strange that we couldnt go into Baquba, which is nominally under our control, and arrest Zarqawi? We have to hit him with an F-16? Thats like hitting a crack den with an F-16 because the police are afraid to go in. Theres a problem in Iraq. So Iran is sitting there, thinking, Your troops are tied down; youre 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, were going to win. Go ahead and hit us, because were 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 dont know.
MJ.com: But this is a conflict Iran thinks it can win.
RB: Yeah. I think Ahmadinejads letter to us was an offer for us to surrender [to him]. Were courting disaster. I find the Iranians very sophisticated. Theyre by far the most sophisticated player in the Gulf. They dont really deal in spin like we do at the policy level. They take this very seriously. Theyre capable people. They consider themselves a civilization thats equal to ours intellectually. Theyll go on for hours about this, how just because we invented the computer doesnt 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. Im not saying attack it; Im 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 9/11not the WMDthe 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 authors 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, theres a lot of tantalizing leads. What do they mean? We dont 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 thats never stopped people in the past.
MJ.com: I understand you originally wanted to write Blow the House Down as nonfiction but couldnt 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 cant 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; Im not trying to argue with them. There is a looser standard for fiction. Plus, intellectually its easier to do fiction than nonfiction. Id have a harder time reaching the conclusions in nonfiction Ive reached in fiction. There is this basis of factreal people, real factsand then you get into fiction and connect all the dots. Now, connecting the dots does not mean youve reached the logical conclusion. It means you reach a conclusion. A lot of people are annoyed that Ive gone from nonfiction to fiction. But Im not James Frey trying to present fiction as truth. I dont 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: Youd lose about 40 percent of it, I guess.
MJ.com: Thats not that much.
MJ.com: Do you have a movie deal for this book yet?
RB: No. Theres no characters that fit the genretheres not a guy bursting out in a Superman uniform. I talk to the studios about authenticity and their eyes glaze over. Because thats not what theyre 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 wasnt authenticity that got people into the theatre.
"Its 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. Its not the way [the Iranians] deal with the world. They think theyre in mortal combat against the United States. Their survival is based on this conflict. Our attitude is, Give us the oil. We dont 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."
Iran won't quit until we are dead or they are dead. What will it take for the United States to get serious? In my mind, it would take a nuclear attack on our soil. I hope we can avoid that, but I doubt we will.
WTF-typical lefty/CIA/State dept bullcrap. Don't do anything, just look serious. He keeps talking about "Neocons" and how dangerous they are, but you can't get any more serious than the administration has been since 9/11. Guys like this make me want to puke.
Thats not an answer. Thats an evasion. It gives the appearance of answering the question without answering it.
In short, the article IMO is not about how to fight a "more serious" war, but how Bush lied, led us into the "wrong wae", etc.
Serious would be carpet bombing Tehran. The way we fought WWII was serious. I wish people would look past the politics and get real about this situation. We are not willing do what ever it takes to win this war. Until we do that, will will never win.
You're wasting your time looking for wisdom from a fool.
I agree. In fact, "serious" would be carpet bombing the entire Muslim Mid-East. If there are so-called moderate Muslims who feel their religion has been hijacked, they should overthrow those a$$holes, or risk their own destruction. They will never do this. The "moderates" are like the Lebanese, bending over and grabbing their ankles for Hezbollah, while maintaining their own innocence.
But, again, that was not the thrust of the article, IMO.
Well Baer isn't even close to serious. He doesn't say what he would do, just criticizes what has been done. God save us from such vain fools.
Only Mother Jones would believe that 6 tons of dynamite was "the largest nonnuclear explosion since World War II."
With 1,375 tons of explosives packed into the peaks, April 5, 1958 was the date set for detonation . On that day, at 9:31 a.m., Dr. Victor Dolmage, consulting engineer for the Ministry of Public Works, pushed the plunger that set off the largest non-nuclear explosion ever.
I remember that! Saw it on live TV.
For me he exposed himself way back when he lectured us on our "war for oil". This would be when he first came on the public scene. He somehow failed to notice that we drew our "no fly zone" boundaries to leave the oil in Saddam's hands all those years, even though we could easily have justified occupying the south, and the north too, which would have put all of Saddam's oil in our hands.
If we were all about warring for oil, how is it that at the end of our 100 hour war, in which we smashed Saddam's military, we failed to actually get our hands on any of it?
And even now, we take criticism from Dems for not using Iraq's oil to pay for the war. Again, we managed to fight a war for oil without getting any of it.
Baer is smart enough to notice that Al Qaeda has taken refuge in Iran, at least some of Bin Ladin's inner circle have, and they (with Syria) are the powers behind the insurgency in Iraq. He didn't notice the continuous contacts between Saddam and Al Qaeda, or fails to mention them because it doesn't serve his case. Yes, with the fall of Saddam, Iran becomes Al Qaeda's new sugar daddy. Good job you noticed that, Robert. Too bad he didn't notice anything prior, like Ramsi "the iraqi" or Yasin the "other" iraqi.
But we also find ourselves with a ring of airbases all around Iran, should we decide to get jiggy with them. A policy he does not endorse. He wants us to set "serious" with Iran, but not "serious-serious".
I would have fought the war (on terror) smarter... I agree we should have been actively trying to help the Iranian people. Since 9/11, I've been hearing about how they love us and hate the mullahs. Baer has been all over Fox the past few days (or maybe it just feels that way). Lefties said we should have dealt with Iran and NK, they're still saying it now. When/if we do, they'll screech, "NO!" Something in his demeanor doesn't seem right. He is too earnest, yet has nothing to say.
Baer has also just published his first spy novel, Blow the House Down, which offers an alternativeand he stresses, fictionaltheory of who was behind September 11.
People who further the lurid fantasies of the 9/11 conspiracy moonbats--even in a novel--deserve absolutely none of my time. Sorry.
However, it seems to me that there is something very much wrong with our position today in Iraq which should be fixed but cannot be fixed so long as we dismiss all criticisms out of hand. I am not suggesting you do that, quite the contrary, your point is well taken. My concern arises out of criticisms which come from a more respectable source, Pulitzer prize-winning author Thomas E. Ricks in his new book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.
By all accounts this reporter who spent four tours in Iraq, and did not isolate himself in the Green zone, has made a well-documented and devastating criticism of the conduct of the war, all toward reinforcing this point: Bush's decision to invade Iraq "may come to be seen as one of the most profligate actions in the history of American foreign policy." Yet he is quick to add this point, in an explicit warning directly aimed at Democrats which I just heard him make on C-SPAN to the effect that we cannot withdraw and we must not lose. In the event of an American bug out he sees a disaster in the making in the region with Saudi oil and its money going to Al Qaeda as that regime inevitably falls, and with Pakistani nukes going to Al Qaeda as that regime inevitably falls as the consequences of an American bug out.
Although I have not read the book, I did read a transcript of his interview with Amazon and watched carefully his interview on C-SPAN and I read all the online reviews available. Ricks does not leave his criticism with Bush and Cheney but includes Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. He cites massive intelligence mistakes. He faults the media, especially Judith Miller of the New York Times. And he blames Congress for failing to conduct oversight. Finally, he blames the military itself for forgetting all the lessons it had learned about counterinsurgency and reverting to self-defeating and counterproductive big army tactics. His criticisms in this regard seem to be in keeping with the insights which appear in the book Imperial Grunts.
He offers concrete ideas which he says the military will never accept: He advocates that top brass be required to stay in Iraq until the war is won while being granted extensive and frequent leave out of the country. He wants to see more officers of the caliber that teach in the war College to be posted to Iraq to operate his advisers. He wants our troops withdrawn leaving a very large cadre of advisers to train up the Iraqi forces while lowering our own profile which only feeds the insurgency. He wants the money currently being wasted on amenities for our troops to be diverted to equipment for the Iraqi forces, presumably because our troops for longer be there.
He sees a 5% chance of success if we continue on our present course. As I noted above, he is very pessimistic about the disaster which will befall us if we fail.
I intend to read this book just as soon as I can get it over here in Germany. I do not believe this author can be dismissed as easily as we can dismiss Baer. It is my hope that people like you on these threads will undertake a serious response to a serious analysis. Otherwise, these threads are doomed to degenerate into one long screed against liberals and forfeit their role as the most important web site on the Internet.