Active Measures: Part I | Chapter 2

Beirut Slums

5:45 always came too early. A swift smack of his hand silenced the monotone chirping echoing through the bedroom. He double-checked the time and eyed the green-tinted darkness around him through two weary slits; Mary, his wife, still slept soundly beside him. With a subtle hint of jealousy, Ryan Freeman rose and went about his routine. Later, after knotting a crisp blue tie and throwing a suit jacket over his shoulders, he returned to his wife and leaned over the bedspread to plant a kiss on her forehead. Mary rewarded him with a loving groan and rolled back into the tangle of sheets.

Freeman descended the staircase and met his security detail in the kitchen. His personal space had shrunk in the past month. Upon being confirmed by the Senate as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (D/CIA), a section of the basement in his three-bedroom home on Highland Drive in Silver Spring had been walled-off to create a security command post and classified document vault. It was now half-past six and Freeman trailed two of the agents into the world of manicured lawns and joggers that was suburban Maryland. The sky was pink and the air was characteristically still for a bitterly cold winter morning. It was the first of February.

An armored Chevy Tahoe idled in his driveway with pulsating red and blue LED lights behind the windshield. An identical chase car sat alongside the curb. Freeman climbed into the rear right seat and welcomed the heated cabin. His work day had actually begun at ten o’clock the previous evening when a printer in the basement command post automatically started, as it did every night, and spat out a draft of the president’s morning intelligence briefing. The President’s Daily Brief (PDB) was the most important document the intelligence community produced and was referred to by many as simply “the book.” Essentially, it was a classified version of any major newspaper with the key exception that its stories were on topics most reporters would sacrifice their first-born child to break. Freeman would review the draft for an hour each night. On occasion he would call the PDB night editor and give his opinion on the content and provide direction on which pieces may require more, or less, explanation.

But while official Washington slept CIA’s overseas operations were in full swing, and that meant with each sunrise a mountain of cable traffic crowded offices from Fort Meade to Fairfax, all of which had to be sifted, analyzed and prioritized for the policy makers. Freeman was an expert in determining that priority, but to aid him, a sizable anthology of state secrets in three-ring binders and fat manila folders sat at his side. He began cutting through the pile by reaching for a stack of reports his staff had plucked from the Operations Center’s overnight influx of secrets. The reports, fronted by laminated bright-red Top Secret cover sheets, addressed a large swath of issues that the various directorates, desks, stations and centers at his command deemed worthy of his attention that morning. In a matter of minutes he had poured over the pages and filled the margins with cursive shorthand that only his secretary was able to decipher into legible English. Next came something always guaranteed to sour Freeman’s mood: a collection of clippings from The New York Times, The Washington Post and a changing variety of foreign newspapers — the daily leaks, as he called them. Thirty years of experience in the US intelligence community had taught him that staying abreast of the media was just as much if not more crucial than the intelligence. What was reported in the morning broadcast usually fueled policy makers’ agenda and it was consistently the first item they wanted to discuss.

Finally, the D/CIA turned his attention to a leather portfolio containing a collection of one- or two-page articles printed on heavy paper. Freeman walked through the finalized PDB, reading each article in detail, making notes on what to consider, as well as what last minute advice should be phoned in to the briefing team under the aegis of the director of national intelligence that would join the president in the Oval Office promptly at nine that morning. His eyes fell upon an article with intelligence contributed by a targeting officer out of Station Beirut entitled, “Hezbollah Scours Source of Lost IRGC Aid Funds.” The report concerned information gleaned from a Lebanese source identified by the “crypt” or code name AM/TOPSAIL. TOPSAIL claimed that Sheikh Wissam Hamawi, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, was leading an internal investigation aimed at finding two million dollars in missing aid money that had been funneled to the group through private charities controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, known as the IRGC or the Pasdaran. Slapped on the first page of the article was a yellow Post-it note with “Call me!” scribbled over it. Freeman recognized the handwriting and immediately reached for the encrypted BlackBerry in his jacket pocket. It clicked twice and rang on the seventh floor of Langley’s Old Headquarters Building.

“Morning, boss,” answered Grace Shaw, a legendary field officer, and CIA’s deputy director for operations (DDO).

“Why are you in so early?”

“Pipes in the condo upstairs froze. Had a quick panic attack until I realized I’m lucky if I sleep there two nights a week anyway. You see my note?”

“Yeah, what gives?”

“Let me tell you what I know and you can be the judge.”

“Okay…”

“The Tel Aviv COS got a request overnight from Jerusalem — from Avi Arad’s security advisor, not Mossad — to be read-in on all TOPSAIL intake as it concerns a source of funding to Hezbollah from the Rev Guards.”

“What?”

“Yeah, right on Ilan Halevi’s letterhead — clear as day — my eyes, trained. Who do you suppose talked?”

“Tanner.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Shaw referred to Dr. Eli Tanner, the president’s national security advisor. Tanner was most recently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations — a lifelong academic who had never set foot in the field and didn’t grasp the concept that loose lips do, in fact, sink ships. He was a personal friend of Prime Minister Arad and it wasn’t the first time that their relationship had irked Freeman. However, as Tanner’s office sat mere steps from the president of the United States, he remained untouchable.

“What do they want?” Shaw sensed the annoyance in her boss’s voice.

“A trade.”

“Tell Halevi to go fuck himself.”

“Really?”

“No. Just tell him no.”

“Damn, I got excited there. But just between you and me and anybody who’ll listen, Tanner needs to shut his mouth or one day he’ll let something slip that’ll get somebody killed.”

“Roger that.”

“Your schedule says you’re coming straight in, is that still true?”

“Yep.”

“Okay,” Shaw shifted in her chair, “because I just heard from Ops at NRO and they say the weather should be good when they pass Haj Ali Gholi. They’ll get maybe a twenty-minute window for VTC. You’ve been wanting to see it live?”

“I do. See you soon.”

“Bye, boss.”

The encrypted line went dead just as the Tahoes reached the Beltway and crossed an icy Potomac River.

•     •     •

Ouzai was one of the poorest sections of Beirut’s desolate southern suburbs. For displaced Shia from the south and Palestinian refugees, too impoverished to take up residence in their own scattered camps, the grimy warren of cinder block houses and illegally built apartment buildings was often the only escape from an Israeli prison. Many of the structures in that chaotic, destitute slum were built close enough together that residents could reach out and touch hands. Electrical wires ran exposed along crumbling walls and stairwells. Burning garbage and the thick, oily smoke it produced would choke the cool breeze following off the Mediterranean as middle-aged men and women faded away from diseases the developed world had long since forgotten. Power failures and short circuits were a common occurrence. Those better off could purchase generators and place them on their balconies; when the power was cut, it was a contest to get one’s voice heard over the whine of diesel engines. And in the hot summer of 1982, a young Shiite boy called it home.

Barely over the age of twenty, he was still a child — razor-thin with eyes the color of jade. The boy had, to this point, led a simple existence helping his father push a small vegetable cart through the dusty paths and squalor of the city’s southern suburbs. He was known in the neighborhood for his sense of humor — frequently cracking jokes at family weddings — and for his pious adherence to Islam. A distant cousin was a prominent scholar of Twelver Shiism, had studied in the Iranian seminaries of Qom and even wrote books that could be found in some Muslim enclaves of Europe. The boy admired his cousin yet knew a similar path was impossible for him. But his mind was sharp and on a scholarship he enrolled in the American University of Beirut to study engineering, only to drop out after a single year. As a Shia, a job in Saudi Arabia or anywhere in the Gulf was incredibly unlikely and that was where all the work could be found. For a young man in his situation, he picked up the only tool he could wield: a Kalashnikov rifle.

His name was Ibrahim al-Din and it would soon become synonymous with the spate of bombings, hijackings and kidnappings that would scourge Lebanon and its foreign occupiers for the next thirty years. Al-Din and his friends rested in the glow of the Mediterranean sun with their legs pulled up beneath them, contemplating their bleak futures. In that single-story house next to the Airport Road there was no running water or electricity — the Israeli Air Force ensured as much when they began their siege of Beirut. A few short miles to the north, a string of luxury flats along the sea were being pounded by relentless artillery fire and the rumble of cannons was clearly audible over his family’s struggling generator. War was a fact of life for these young men and they accepted it and the death it brought like many accepted a rainy day. Al-Din knew in his heart that the end was near, that it was simply a matter of time before the PLO — then the vanguard of the Islamic resistance — would capitulate its Lebanese base and flee. The Arabs had consistently failed to protect their own people and once more humiliation and defeat would be their fate. It was a precedent for which the eager young man grew tired.

All three spent their teenage years fighting in the Lebanese civil war on the side of Fatah as snipers targeting Christian neighborhoods in the cratered wasteland of East Beirut. The combat that was native to these men crafted them into masters of urban warfare. Al-Din, especially, was a prodigy in the art of death and there was not a weapon he couldn’t unjam, nor an AK-47 he couldn’t fieldstrip blindfolded; he could crimp a blasting cap with the skill of a demolitions expert and put a rocket-propelled grenade on target at over a hundred meters. By the time he was sixteen he had organized a hundred men into a student brigade for Force 17, the personal bodyguard service of Yasser Arafat, who spoke openly of al-Din’s skill and intelligence. Now, as the Israelis inched closer to Verdun Street, where the PLO was headquartered, it was obvious to al-Din, and the others that their former commander had failed. It was time to fly a new flag.

Al-Din, the two others in the room, and countless more spread throughout Lebanon and the Arab world were exiles in their own homeland. Ouzai’s position on the northwest perimeter of Beirut International Airport served as a constant reminder of how they had been subjugated by forces outside their borders. Day and night, jets full of rich Lebanese flew in from New York, Paris, Rome and London. Chauffeured Mercedes and hand-built Bentleys would queue in front of the terminal and ferry the decadent back to their mansions in the Baabda hills above the city. Their heavy bags of Swiss chocolate, French cognac and Italian couture kept a reality present to the angry men that, in Lebanon, the Lebanese were second-class citizens.

The Ottomans, the French and now the Israelis with their American protectors, were their occupiers. The sound of commercial airliners was replaced with screeching F-16s manufactured in the United States, and the airport was closed — now a pockmarked sheet of asphalt — but nothing would change once the Israelis completed their mission.

However the young men had a different plan and they were determined to change Lebanon for good.

Yet they were not naïve and knew they could not take back Lebanon or Palestine from its occupiers alone. The Palestinian elite failed them just as much, if not more, than their rich Arab brethren in the Gulf. The Saudi royal family and the Emiratis only gave their oil-soaked cash to the Palestinian cause out of guilt. Twice, the massed armies of the Arab world had stood up together to run the Zionists back into the Mediterranean and twice they had failed. But Al-Din was aware of a new movement stirring on the eastern shores of the Persian Gulf led by a charismatic ayatollah named Ruhollah Khomeini. Three years earlier Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolution — a Shiite revolution — that overthrew the shah and expelled Western influences from Iran. The ayatollah was now promising to do the same across the Middle East and eventually the whole world. The “Imam,” as he was affectionately known within his new Islamic Republic, succeeded where countless revolutionaries before had failed.

The boy stood and wished his family and friends farewell, but he would return. With a small amount of money he saved from helping his father, he took a shared taxi east to Baalbek in Lebanon’s lawless Beqaa Valley. A man al-Din knew as Sheikh Mostafa agreed to meet with him there, out of reach of the Israeli Air Force and Mossad’s hit squads. Together, they would plot the future of the Lebanese people. Al-Din knew little of this Sheikh Mostafa other than that he was an ethnic Arab, a Shiite like himself, and an officer in Ayatollah Khomeini’s new Revolutionary Guard Corps, a separate military force committed to preserving and expanding the wave of fundamentalist Islam that washed over Iran. Al-Din went to see if the Iranians were serious about conquering the Jews and forcing out the French and American soldiers that would soon arrive in Lebanon. Al-Din wanted to know if the sheikh and the ayatollah behind him would flinch at the sight of blood.

He sat across from Sheikh Mostafa and listened intently without blinking an eye. That was a distinguishing feature of Ibrahim al-Din — his eyes would gaze on unnervingly and pass through a person without reverence for the soul within. It was a stare that proclaimed he would murder you as easily as he would shake your hand. The future that Sheikh Mostafa presented was clear: a war with Israel, a war with the United States, a war with the West and any other enemy of Shia Islam. That part of the plan was not particularly important to al-Din. He was a believer and a follower of God, but he was not tutored in Islam like his cousin, nor did he necessarily fall down at Ayatollah Khomeini’s new interpretation. Al-Din saw the Shia faith as a means of recruitment and as a way to market a wholly political struggle to a people wholly uneducated in politics. The fact that he would carry the banner of Shiite revolution to the shores of the Levant was a contractual obligation to which he did not object. Iran’s goal in Lebanon was clear and all that was needed were martyrs to turn it into a reality. The sheikh asked if al-Din and his followers were ready, but he already knew the answer.

From that summer day in 1982, Ibrahim al-Din became a captain and a founder in what would become the most effective guerrilla army in the world: Hezbollah — the “Party of God.” The thin, honey-eyed man returned to Beirut with his instructions. He would only recruit relatives and trusted fighters from Fatah. With Iran as a rear base, this war would be fought entirely from Lebanon. The IRGC would provide the weapons and funding, but there would be no payroll and transactions would be handled only in cash. Al-Din was never to contact the sheikh electronically and a trusted courier would relay their messages. All of his activities, his movements and the names of his fighters would be kept under the utmost secrecy; only Sheikh Mostafa and a handful of officers in Tehran would know that al-Din even answered to the Iranians.

His ascendance to the world stage as a master terrorist was swift and brutal. At 1:03 in the afternoon on April 18, 1983, a delivery truck laden with two thousand pounds of plastic explosives rammed through an outlying guard post and lodged itself in the lobby of the US embassy in Beirut. Before anyone could respond, its cargo detonated, taking the lives of sixty-three people, including most of CIA’s top echelon in the Middle East. The force of the expertly crafted bomb collapsed the central façade of the chancery building and shattered windows as far as a mile away. In October of that same year, another bombing ordered by al-Din ripped through a barracks housing American marines at Beirut airport. Two minutes later, another blast struck a company of French paratroopers. In the costliest day for the US Marine Corps since Iwo Jima, 241 American servicemen perished.

After the attack, the United States withdrew its force from Lebanon and, for the first time in history, Ibrahim al-Din — and by proxy, Iran — had accomplished what every other Arab state had failed to do: they prevailed against the technological and conventional might of a Western military power. His campaign to cleanse Lebanon continued through the decade with a rash of kidnappings that targeted journalists, members of the clergy and even CIA’s Beirut Station chief. A wave of commercial airline hijackings in the eastern Mediterranean that al-Din also masterminded, and even participated in, expanded the fight. However, in the skies between Cyprus and Lebanon, al-Din was about to witness a philosophical shift in the strategy of his Iranian backers and it would signal a greater shift in the value of the trade he perfected.

On April 5, 1988, eight hijackers stormed the cockpit of Kuwait Airways Flight 422 under orders from al-Din. Armed with grenades, three of the terrorists informed the captain that they were now in control. The hijacking was an effort to free members of the savage Dawa 17 organization who awaited execution in a Kuwaiti prison cell for their efforts to attack the American and French embassies in the country. Al-Din’s cousin was among them.

His men aboard the plane were professionals, and they kept their hostages under complete control — quiet, submissive and terrified. To hide their Lebanese accents, they only spoke classical Arabic, swapped clothes and wore masks so their captives could not tell them apart. They kept the window shades drawn to degrade the hostages’ sense of time, and they turned the lights and air conditioning on and off to maximize discomfort. They prowled the aisles like vultures, shouting and picking out individuals to shine lights in their eyes, making them believe they were seconds from execution.

From his base in Ouzai, al-Din ordered the plane down at Mashad in eastern Iran where it sat beside the runway for several days. In past operations, the IRGC would allow the hijackers off the plane to refresh in shifts, but this time they did not. The peculiar change in protocol was the first sign to al-Din that something was different. After an inordinate amount of time, the airliner took off again, this time bound for Beirut and the airport that Hezbollah now controlled. Once in Lebanese airspace, the political bosses of Hezbollah and al-Din’s handlers in Tehran made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with the hijacking. The plane circled for hours until al-Din realized that his masters would not let the plane land. Frustrated, he directed the hijackers to Larnaca, Cyprus.

The Cypriots did not have a particularly well-equipped hostage rescue team and the small airport there had good fields of view from all directions around the runway. It was a prudent tactical move that would keep the hijackers in control. Al-Din also had a competent surveillance team at his disposal in Cyprus that would alert him of any troop movements toward the airport. On the fifth day of the ordeal, the Kuwaitis still refused to negotiate. In anger, al-Din radioed his men aboard the plane and ordered them to execute two of the hostages. They did so in earnest, but it had no effect. The Kuwaitis were not intimidated and the Iranians refused to associate themselves with al-Din. The plane’s next stop was Algeria, where after PLO negotiations, the hijackers were granted safe passage back to Lebanon in exchange for abandoning the airliner. For the first time, an operation al-Din meticulously planned and executed had failed to achieve its purpose, but why?

Central to Iran’s developing goal of regional hegemony in the Middle East was a desire to transform itself from a terrorist state to a conventional military power. One could not accomplish such a thing by executing airline passengers. Iran’s interest was now rooted in air and naval tactics, armor and advanced weaponry, and the political posture to be noticed. For Iran to be taken serious it had to act serious, and that was not done by basing its policy in the Arab world on a terrorist, noble as his cause may have been. With his specialty service no longer required by his employers, al-Din’s role, too, shifted from hijacker and kidnapper to liaison, military commander and strategist.

He was given the chance to spill Israeli blood numerous times throughout the nineties as the Israel Defense Force (IDF) continued its costly occupation of Lebanon’s southern Shiite heartland. Hezbollah militants would continuously ambush Israeli patrols or bombard a fortified outpost with anti-tank missiles and swarming raids. In the summer of 2006, it was al-Din who made the Zionists’ advance to the Litani River a tactical hell. Still, his job was that of a glorified logistics officer, overseeing the transfer of Iranian weapons by sea and land through Syria. The rest of Hezbollah’s commanding Shura Council was concerned with being seen as the modern reincarnation of Saladin, and the Iranians were more concerned with conquering the atom than Jerusalem.

For his efforts, al-Din was placed on the kill and capture lists of every major Western intelligence agency. An Interpol red notice hung over his head since the mid-nineties, making travel beyond the safe harbor of Hezbollah’s strongholds a risky endeavor. To survive, he vanished back into the cinder block jungle from where he once emerged. In time — and with new, more pressing threats coming to the fore — the memory of his many enemies began to fade. There were several theories in circulation on what became of him. The Saudis, the French and the Germans held to a flimsy rumor that he died of a brain tumor some years ago under an assumed name in Damascus. The Americans and the British quickly became too obsessed with al-Qaeda to even pretend to care; so long as al-Din kept off the radar, he was as good as dead. Only the Israelis, led by Mossad’s merciless and vindictive director-general — who tried no fewer than four times to assassinate him — dared to keep the chase alive. But as with any ghost, finding it meant first being haunted.

From the moment the initial Israeli shell fell on Lebanon, Ibrahim al-Din was a man committed to finishing his mission, and so long as there was an Israeli state, his was a struggle without end. He would never lose sight of the vision he set out to realize over thirty years earlier. But he needed the means, he needed inspiration, he needed an opportunity — and in due time he would get them all.

“Timely, gripping, and unbelievably authentic…” Active Measures: Part I is available for purchase on Amazon.

Published by H-Hour Productions, LLC. Copyright © 2016 Matthew Fulton. All rights reserved.