The coffin of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, covered in a black cloth embroidered in gold with verses from the Quran, wound through Beirut's southern suburbs July 6, traveling from his home to the Hassanein mosque, where he used to deliver Friday sermons. It was followed by thousands of mourners, most of them wearing black and many carrying pictures of Lebanon's most eminent Shiite cleric on their way to his final resting place.
Tributes poured in from across the Middle East. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei referred to the late ayatollah as a "true companion of the Islamic Republic." Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, even came out of hiding to pay his respects at Fadlallah's casket and offer his condolences to his family. Nasrallah issued a statement mourning the death of "a merciful father and a wise guide."
But the accolades did not just come from America's enemies. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni leader considered sympathetic to the United States, called Fadlallah "a voice of moderation and an advocate of unity." Ali al-Adeeb, an official in Iraq's Dawa Party, which Fadlallah helped create, said that it "will be hard to replace him." Dawa Party leader and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has worked closely with U.S. forces in the country, counted himself among the ayatollah's many followers. Even British Ambassador to Lebanon Frances Guy offered her praise, writing that when visiting with him "you could be sure of a real debate … and you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person."
Although Fadlallah may have confounded the Middle East's traditional fault lines, the United States never wavered on its stance toward the ayatollah: He was the "spiritual advisor" to Hezbollah, a terrorist who was responsible for numerous attacks on U.S. interests in the region. This grudge was formed more than a quarter-century ago, during Lebanon's 15-year civil war, when the CIA reportedly sponsored a notorious plot to assassinate Fadlallah.
On March 8, 1985, a car bomb carrying 200 kilograms of explosives detonated outside Fadlallah's home in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The bomb devastated the neighborhood, killing 80 people and wounding approximately 200 more. Fadlallah, however, escaped without injury. In the eyes of his followers, there was no doubt who was responsible: They strung up a "MADE IN USA" banner over a destroyed building immediately following the attack. The U.S. government, however, steadfastly denied any involvement. Targeted assassinations, officials pointed out, were explicitly forbidden since Gerald Ford's administration.
Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's explosive account of CIA involvement in the Middle East, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, would eventually undermine the official denials. Woodward, drawing on interviews with President Ronald Reagan's aggressive CIA Director William Casey, reported that Casey had circumvented the spy agency's established bureaucracy to funnel money to a professional hit team trained to assassinate Fadlallah.
It was a bloody time for the United States in Lebanon. The 1983 U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks bombings and the 1984 attack on the U.S. Embassy annex in East Beirut had claimed the lives of hundreds of Americans. The CIA station chief in Beirut, William Francis Buckley, was also kidnapped in 1984 and eventually died in captivity after being tortured by Hezbollah interrogators. U.S. officials were itching for revenge. Fadlallah "had been connected to all three bombings of Americans facilities in Beirut," wrote Woodward. "He had to go."
Woodward may have gotten an explosive scoop on the inside story of the CIA's involvement, but he got the much easier story of Fadlallah's relationship with Hezbollah wrong. In Veil, Woodward refers to Fadlallah as "the leader of the Party of God, Hizbollah," and an "archterrorist." The confusion over Fadlallah's connection to the organization would continue to bedevil U.S officials and media until the current day.
Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer who worked in Beirut during the 1980s, denies that Fadlallah played any operational role within Hezbollah. "I can guarantee you, and I have seen every bit of intelligence, that Fadlallah had no connection [to the attacks]," he told me. "He knew the people carrying out the terrorism acts, but he had no connection in ordering them."
Fadlallah himself consistently denied having any official role within the Shiite militant group, even while making no apologies for supporting many of its aims. "I live in a warm atmosphere surrounded by the youth of 'Hezbollah,' whom I consider my sons," he said in one 1995 interview. "However, and since the inception of Hezbollah, I was never part of its organizational structure."
Fadlallah did have relationships with some of the highest-ranking Hezbollah officials and had never made a secret of the fact that he issued rulings offering religious sanctions for its attacks. He enthusiastically supported attacks against Western forces in Lebanon during the civil war and continued to support attacks on Israel until his last days.
"He wasn't our friend, let's get that straight," noted Baer. "But that doesn't mean he was a master terrorist."