Transcript: “Ghosts of Beirut” A Conversation with Dina Shihabi, Greg Barker and Avi Issacharoff (2024)

MR. HARRIS: Hello, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Shane Harris. I’m a senior intelligence and national security reporter here at The Post, and I’m very pleased to be joined today by three of the people behind Showtime’s new spy drama airing May 19th, “Ghosts of Beirut.” I’m here with the co-creators of the show, Greg Barker and Avi Issacharoff, as well as one of the lead actresses from the series, Dina Shihabi.

Hi, everyone. Welcome. Thanks for being here.

MS. SHIHABI: Hi. Thanks for having us.

MR. BARKER: Hi.

MR. ISSACHAROFF: Hi.

MR. HARRIS: It's great to see you, and congratulations on the series, which I've been watching and really enjoying. Greg, I want to start with you. This show centers on, I guess, the ghost of Beirut, a man who many people probably are going to be unfamiliar with, Imad Mughniyeh. Tell us a bit about this individual who notably was responsible for the deaths of more Americans in terrorist attacks than anyone before 9/11. Who is he, and why is he important?

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MR. BARKER: Well, he's one of the most fascinating characters I've ever come across. I mean, he is--he was a man who from age 19, 21, outwitted the CIA, the Mossad, and rose to incredible prominence in the Middle East as a key player in the region from nowhere. And he drove the agency and Mossad sort of, kind of crazy because they couldn't find him. They didn't even know what he looked like.

And his story plays out over two-and-a-half decades, and my view is he actually shaped the modern CIA, as we know it, from what happened in the 1980s, which then resonates in the mid-2000s. So he was complicated. He was a guy from a poor--regular family, poor neighborhood, started working as a as a bodyguard to Yasser Arafat in Beirut in the late '70s, early '80s. Kind of when the PLO left Beirut, he sort of found--I think sort of found an opening, was also recruited by Iranian intelligence, and kind of stepped into a void and used that and exploited that to his own ends and became, I think, sort of more powerful and more influential at an extremely young age than he ever imagined.

MR. HARRIS: Yeah. And it's a really--it's a very detailed portrait of how he rises into this, you know, position where he is really present for just an enormous amount of attacks that people remember from history, even if they've forgotten some of the details.

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Avi Issacharoff, let me ask you, what was it about Imad's story that drew you to it and why you wanted to tell it visually this way?

MR. ISSACHAROFF: Well, for me, I was kind of longtime reporter, journalist, analyst for Middle East issues working for Haaretz newspaper back in 2006 when the Israeli-Lebanese war--the second war in Lebanon started. And I covered the war as a journalist, of course, and later on, I published a book that was called "34 Days" together with Amos Harel. And I researched Hezbollah in Lebanon, and through the research, you know, I got familiar more with a very prominent figure inside Hezbollah, who was the head of the military wing inside Hezbollah, Imad Mughniyeh.

Later on, I wrote my thesis in my master degree in Middle Eastern studies about Hezbollah and Iranian connection, and over there, again, the name of Imad Mughniyeh was mentioned over and over again. Wherever I looked, wherever I researched, Imad Mughniyeh was this kind of a figure. So it became for me a kind of, almost an obsession, a white whale or whatever you want to call it.

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And when I understood the personal story behind his life--his wife, his kid, the brother, the brother-in-law, everything that happened with him and the CIA and the Mossad, so you understand that you're dealing with a real dramatic story. It's not only about the terrorist that is operating in the Middle East, but this is someone way, way bigger than what you would expect from someone like that: so young, so ambitious, and still someone who managed to change the face of the Middle East and the terror as we know it, the world of terror as we know it today.

MR. HARRIS: Now, Dina Shihabi, you play a CIA officer named Lena in the series who essentially is a targeter. She's someone who is trying to find Imad Mughniyeh and is really kind of a second generation of CIA officers who've been looking for him. So talk a little bit about how you prepared for that role, and what did you know, if anything, about Mughniyeh and his story before you came to the series?

MS. SHIHABI: Not much. I had met Avi a couple of years ago, and he mentioned this story to me, and I, you know, kind of dug in a little bit. But up until I got the scripts, it wasn't a story I was that familiar with, and I was quite taken by his impact and also by his human story of--you know, his downfall is really him falling in love, and I found that so moving, because it's so easy to look at these stories in a vacuum and to see someone as a monster.

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But when you actually go back to the history, you see what was happening in Beirut at the time and the Middle East, there really is a cause-and-effect of why someone like him makes the choices that he does and becomes who he is, and, you know, there's always a hero and a villain, depending on which side of the story you're on. And I think he was a hero to many and to himself, and the CIA was the villain and vice versa. And so I just found that the story itself was actually quite fascinating, like Greg said, an incredibly fascinating person.

When I got the part--when I was offered the part, I told Greg I wanted to be connected with as many people as possible, and he really rose for the occasion and sent me every book and every contact. And there were two women, in particular, that had an immense impact on me--Hanin Ghaddar, who's a journalist, a Shia Lebanese journalist who lives in Washington, D.C.; and then a woman who's an ex-CIA targeter. And I just spoke to them at lengths and asked them, you know, uncomfortable, intimate questions that they were very generous with.

And Hanin, in particular, had an effect on me because of her anger. I think people forget when you're looking at it from a Western perspective that Arabs get affected by someone like Imad Mughniyeh as much as the West does, maybe even more. And her anger towards what's happened in Lebanon and her--how important that was for Lena to channel that anger really stayed with me for the project.

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MR. HARRIS: Was there anything you learned from the former CIA officer that really stuck with you as you were trying to think about how to play Lena in this and how to take on the role?

MS. SHIHABI: Yeah. You know, when I first got the scripts, Lena had a--Lena, it stayed with her, had a lot of, like I said, anger, passion. She really follows her instincts. She stood up for herself a lot, and one thing that the CIA targeter told me is there's only so far you can go until you get taken off a project. If you're too obsessed, too passionate, pushing back too much, you'll get fired, or you'll get taken off of that particular mission and put somewhere else.

And so Greg and I met when I first got to Morocco and really found the middle ground of that, found the place where she had the personality, she had had that fuel, that fire, but was smart, good at her job, knew what her boundaries were. And I just--I think that her coming across as someone good at her job was very important to me and important to--as a promise to this woman.

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MR. HARRIS: Greg, for those who are, you know, maybe too young to remember, really, some of the--just the awful attacks that occurred in the Middle East in the '80s that Imad Mughniyeh was behind, give us kind of a rundown of some of the more notorious events that he played a role in.

MR. BARKER: It's extraordinary. In fact, if you glean through history books of that era, it's like his work is throughout, even though at the time it wasn't widely known.

So there's an initial suicide bombing on an Israeli base in Tyre, soon followed by an attack, massive attack on the United States embassy in 1983 in Beirut, which killed hundreds of people and wiped out the entire CIA station at the time, including--well, I won't give away--but one of the very, very prominent CIA officers who was on the cusp of what he hoped was a Middle East peace plan, a regional peace plan; TWA bombing attack on the--TWA hijacking, attack on the marine barracks, hostage taking.

You think about Beirut hostage crisis mid-80s, it was all Mughniyeh, including the kidnapping of the CIA station chief, William Buckley, which is portrayed in Episode 2, which really sort of brought the agency to its knees. And the list goes on and on, Argentina, more recent attacks in Hungary on Jewish--which was in [unclear], right, Avi? And then he was a military strategist, so he was the architect of Hezbollah's military strategy. A hundred thousand small missiles, that was all Mughniyeh.

Behind the scenes, there was no--there was no image of him, no photograph of him for decades. All the agency and Mossad had were--was his passport photo from when he was probably 15 years old, because we know he went to Iran with Arafat as a young guy, so--and that was it. And that's part of our story is how do they even--not even know where he is or what does he look like.

And so it's extraordinary, and you sort of can go back and look through that whole period of history and see Mughniyeh's fingerprints all over it, including then against U.S. forces in Iraq, which is how Lena comes into the story and the--and the story--the series begins with an audacious attack on American compound in Iraq in 2007 with a bunch of guides dressed like U.S. soldiers drive into a compound and kidnap American soldiers, hoping to trade them for some Iranian diplomats. And that kicks off everything and, in fact, was what led to the final unraveling of his identity, that one incident in Iraq in 2007.

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MR. HARRIS: Yeah. The breadth of his career, really. I mean, it's astonishing, and I mean, it's--for those of us who kind of grew up in that time too, who do remember these things, I mean, these were on the news and featuring very prominently, and they were--kind of became almost sort of a background noise, as I remember it, of these just constant attacks. And it's incredible to think about one person being behind so much of it.

Avi, let me ask you. I mean, part of the compelling part of this narrative is not just that Imad has this hand in all these brutal attacks, but that he is just--he is a ghost. I mean, he is--the "father of smoke," I think is one of the terms that people gave to him. How was he able to outwit the CIA and Mossad for so long and go without being captured?

MR. ISSACHAROFF: Well, I think that if you would talk to Mossad and CIA agents or handlers, officers, you would hear more of the same, like he was the best. I mean, yeah, you had bin Laden, of course, and bin Laden was, in a very twisted way, talented in what he did. But Imad Mughniyeh was one level up, if not two levels up. He was so sophisticated and smart and clever. He was very careful about his identity. He used nicknames all the time. He switched identities. He traveled to Iran. He traveled to Central America. He traveled to Africa. He met Osama bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan, using a fake passport, and he was very smart about, you know, the way that he managed to maneuver everyone.

Even when he got into Beirut, even when he got into his own neighborhood, people didn't know who he was, because he stayed an enigma, because he managed to keep his identity as a kind of a--as an organizational secret. No one knew who he was, really, till the later days, of course, that he became more and more strong, popular, and then a very small group knew about his identity and how does he look like.

I think that when you understand that the two agencies needed to collaborate--and they failed when they tried to pull it separately. Over and over, they failed in trying to get to him, but when they managed to collaborate and to go together into this first-ever joint assassination operation of the CIA and the Mossad, this is where the success came from, including finding out about the way that he looks, including about reaching his whereabouts, and of course, executing the assassination.

MR. HARRIS: Yeah, it really is a tremendous joint operation, and it took, you know, decades really, didn't it, to pull it off?

And that obsession really of the CIA and of, you know, Mossad to try and find him, it comes through. And, Dina, there's one scene in particular from the first episode where you are interrogating an Iranian official, trying to just extract some information out of him to help put together the puzzle. Let's watch that clip right now, actually.

[Video plays]

MR. HARRIS: It's just a great scene of the cat-and-mouse between the two of you. It's really great, and it--how do you empathize with this and her challenge of trying to find this man who she's been, you know, clearly hunting with her colleagues for so long?

MS. SHIHABI: It goes back to what I was saying about wanting to be--there's a part of her, I think, that just wants to be the best. Obviously, there's a personal--you know, she's Shia. She's Lebanese. She grew up with stories of Lebanon and what happened to it and Hezbollah from her parents. And so there's a really deep part of her that has a connection to this. But beyond that, she is great at her job, and she wants to win.

And something Greg told me about early on is that there was a sort of ruthlessness to people that have her job, that they're after something, and they're going to do whatever it takes to get it. And doing this scene, in particular, was really fun because I wanted to find the ways in which she could connect to him and charm him and make him trust her and make him feel like they had something in common, which was all manipulative.

I don't think she's genuinely having those feelings, but she knows--she knows what her power is in that situation, and she's using it. And I think the guy--you know, plus, the guy playing Asgari is a brilliant actor, and it was really just great to have that back-and-forth with him.

MR. HARRIS: Yeah. And it really is--I know in talking to CIA officers and the reporting I do, you have to build rapport with people, even with people who you might find, you know, repugnant or dangerous.

MS. SHIHABI: Yeah.

MR. HARRIS: Now, you were born in Saudi Arabia and spent part of your youth, I think, in Beirut. How did those memories and your experience in Lebanon inform how you approached the role? Were you able to draw from that in putting your performance together?

MS. SHIHABI: Oh, yeah. I think it just seeps into your body, the fact that I have a connection to the place. I know what it feels like and smells like. I know what the--what it's like to walk down the street and experience the people, and so it just was an inherent part of--it's an inherent part of me, and so it just became an inherent part of what I brought to the character, something I didn't have to work for.

There's a moment in which I'm looking towards where Lebanon would be, and that's a very real moment. I know what it feels like to be there. I love Beirut. If I could live there, I would. I think it's an incredible place.

MR. HARRIS: Yeah. And the love for Beirut and the kind of the romanticism of it does--is something that comes through in the story really effectively, I think.

Now, Avi, in terms of the narrative of this story, it's told from the perspective of, you know, the Iranians, the Lebanese, the CIA, the Mossad, and you're really moving around from all these perspectives. You know, talk a little bit about how you construct that as a storyteller and why you felt it was important to tell it from, you know, these multiple points of view.

MR. ISSACHAROFF: You know, there's a kind of a cliché in script writing that says that the better the villain, the better the movie, meaning, you know, you need to make your bad guy, the terrorist, the one that is--that has killed hundreds of people, innocent people--you need to make him more interesting than just a kind of a villain, just a kind of a simple, bad guy.

This is what we did in "Fauda," Lior Raz, the other co-creator of ours and us--and me in "Fauda," and this is what we tried to pull here also with Greg, trying to show the other narrative, trying to show the other side. And one of the things that really struck--struck us is not only the fact that, yes, of course, as every human being, you have kind of a more complicated character than just good and evil. But one of the things that really made us understand that we have a real drama is to understand that the process that the Mossad and the CIA went through in order to reach their obsession, in order to get to the bad guy, they were willing to do horrifying things, including things that we might call as terrorist attacks.

1985, Bir al-Abed, southern suburb of Beirut, there's a car bomb exploding at the entrance to a mosque, a Shiite mosque that is led by Sheikh Fadlallah, in an attempt that was pulled by the CIA and probably some Phalanges in order to kill Sheikh Fadlallah and Imad Mughniyeh himself. Eighty-five people--most of them were innocent--got killed in this explosion. So this is horrible to think about.

Then later on, something that we didn't get into the show, but 1995, the Mossad pulls out a horrifying operation killing the brother of Imad Mughniyeh that wasn't really involved in Hezbollah, just in order to get Imad to the funeral and then to kill him over there. And by the way, Imad didn't get to the funeral. So you understand that the price at both sides, Mossad and the CIA, are paying in what they do is that actually it's eating their moral from the inside. You lose your own morality when you go on a war against the terrorist like Imad Mughniyeh.

MR. HARRIS: Yeah. Greg--

MR. BARKER: And then for--

MR. HARRIS: Sorry.

MR. BARKER: For Dina's character and her counterpart in the Mossad, they're grappling with that history themselves, and how do we carry out this sort of joint assassination without succumbing to these horrible accidents that their agencies committed in the past? And that's kind of the driving force for the back end of the series, but the history is alive in them and the institutions there within.

MR. HARRIS: Right. And there's even that--

MS. SHIHABI: And the--

MR. HARRIS: Yeah. Sorry. I'm sorry, Dina. Please go ahead.

MS. SHIHABI: No, I was just reiterating what Greg said is that that's something we talked about a lot. You know, you--when you're working for the CIA or the Mossad, you're carrying the mistakes that have been made along--you know, it's part of your history. It's the consequence of what they all come into this moment in time with, and so I think they're--you know, Teddy and Lena are trying to do better, but I think their morality gets in question too. I don't think you get to kill someone without your soul getting destroyed in some way, no matter what.

MR. HARRIS: Yeah. And there--

MR. ISSACHAROFF: I think that's one of the--

MR. HARRIS: The car bomb you mentioned, Avi, one of the CIA officers, in fact, says to his boss, if we do this, we're going to pay a price for it. So he's warning them, isn't he?

MS. SHIHABI: Mm-hmm.

MR. BARKER: Yeah. That's right.

MR. ISSACHAROFF: You know that towards the end, that really happened in reality, according to the research that we did. You know that right before they executed the assassination, there was a kind of a gathering in the headquarters where they pulled the operation, and there was a demand from the people in charge on both sides, from all the people that were around them: After we execute the assassination, no one is going to clap his hands. No one is going to cheer up or anything like that. This is a man, and we're going to take people's life. And this is what happened in reality. People didn't clap their hands or cheer up after the assassination.

MR. HARRIS: And, Greg, talk a little bit about the research for this show. When the show opens, you point out that this is a story based on deeply--it's a fictional version of "deeply researched"--I think is the word you use--historical events. So how did you all go about piecing this together and choosing when to insert, you know, fictional characters and then real-life characters? How did you go about that?

MR. BARKER: It was a long and very intellectually stimulating process. Avi and I and our team spent at least six months and longer researching this by talking to people directly. There's really not a book or a series of articles we could just rely on. We did our own research.

And I found that by talking to people who may have been involved and saying, look, we--it was clear they couldn't go on the record, because they're just--they couldn't say anything of substance on the record. But what I said is like, look, we're going to--we're going to fictionalize a lot of this, but we want it to be as authentic as possible, so tell me what you think happened or what might have happened. And then people like opened up, and then we got all this interesting, really amazing details, a lot of which found a way in the scripts and different perspectives. Like the CIA would say we built the bomb and we constructed it, and the Mossad was like, no, we built the bomb. So we kind of had to choose our own path through it.

MR. HARRIS: Yeah.

MR. BARKER: Choose our own truth. It was--and it was great. I mean, Showtime gave us the time to do this and to really sort of dig in deep, and then constructing it into a narrative was--you know, was challenging because there's so much information, but that's part of the fun as well. And it was--yeah, it was an extremely intellectually, sort of satisfying process.

MR. HARRIS: Yeah.

MR. ISSACHAROFF: And part of the fun was to understand that, you know, what Greg had just mentioned that, you know, Mossad is saying we did it, CIA is saying, no, we did it, and it's a kind of a competition. But even when they pulled this thing together, they had some arguments. They had some, you know, disagreements, including one of the picks of the show, which is the argument about whether to kill Qasem Soleimani, the head of Quds force in the Revolutionary Guard, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, yes or no, because he was walking together with Imad Mughniyeh, and then you come to the question of should we execute the assassination, then kill Qasem Soleimani or not? The Israelis were in favor; the Americans were completely against. And at the end of the day, the Americans--the Israelis followed the Americans, and they did not execute the assassination of both of them.

MR. BARKER: Yeah. It was really satisfying to get into--to try to unpack that intelligence relationship, which is very complicated and has--I mean, it goes all the way back to the '80s in Beirut, and to kind of get inside that was dramatically--was, you know, fun and I think very authentic and will be eye-opening to people.

MR. HARRIS: And, Greg, did you find that people were perhaps--maybe not many on the record, but were willing from the CIA and Mossad to talk about this, and how much do they officially acknowledge publicly today about the role that their services played in ultimately killing Mughniyeh?

MR. BARKER: Officially, at least as far as the CIA, nothing.

Yeah. I mean, I actually came to the story a decade ago by doing a--when I was doing a project on the hunt for bin Laden for HBO, and a number of senior people then were telling me that their true obsession was Mughniyeh and Hezbollah, which dated back to their time in Beirut in the mid-'80s, so--and it goes--I found people willing to talk about it off the record and go into--because it--the wounds, the emotional scars run very, very deep, to the highest levels.

But what was interesting is a lot of the people who were young officers on the ground in the Middle East, often in Beirut in the mid-'80s, after 9/11 are in senior management positions and are making decisions at that time informed by the searing, sort of emotional turmoil that they went through back early in their career.

So they wanted to talk. Officially, we--you know, I sort of knocked on the front door of the agency and was like, "What can you tell us?" and the word came back, "Nothing."

[Laughter]

MS. SHIHABI: So then we did our own.

MR. HARRIS: I can sympathize with that experience covering the CIA.

MR. BARKER: Yeah

MR. HARRIS: You unearthed a remarkable amount of detail, though. It's really quite extraordinary.

Din, I'll put our last question to you. What do you want people to take away from this series? So much of it is about history, but it's such a deeply emotional and, in many ways, actually quite empathetic story about Imad Mughniyeh, which is really challenging, I think. So what do you want people to walk away from with this story?

MS. SHIHABI: I mean, that's what's--that was so beautiful about the scripts to begin with was that it's a really character-based, character-driven story, and I think you get to spend time with everyone in a way that shows their humanity and also shows their flaws. And that's always going to be the best story that's told when you finish watching something and you feel empathy towards the person that you might have thought was just a monster, and you have complicated feelings towards the people that you thought were just the hero. And you leave, I think, with a more expansive view of people and who they become because of their circ*mstances and their choices.

And I hope it reflects back on to, you know, the viewers themselves, which we all have parts of ourselves that are--because of generational trauma, because of what we went through in our adolescence or--it's just we are complicated. We're contradictory. We're--no one is simplistic. And I think this show does a really good job in giving you that feeling by the end of it.

MR. HARRIS: And I would think as an actor too, those are really some of the most satisfying kinds of roles to play too, right?

MS. SHIHABI: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, every role has that in it, and then it takes good writers like Greg, Avi, and Joëlle to really put it on the page and bring it to life. And then I just have to, you know, make sense of it all on the day. [Laughs]

MR. HARRIS: Well, you all did a great job of that, truly, in a very complex and emotional story.

So it's unfortunately all the time we have to talk about it. The series drops on May 19th, "Ghosts of Beirut." Thank you to Avi Issacharoff and Greg Barker, the co-creators--

MR. ISSACHAROFF: Thank you.

MR. HARRIS: --and Dina Shihabi, the actor in the role of Lena. Thank you so much for joining us to talk about it today. It was a really great conversation.

MS. SHIHABI: Thank you so much.

MR. ISSACHAROFF: Thank you very much.

MR. BARKER: Appreciate it.

MR. HARRIS: And thank you to all of you for watching. If you want to find out what programs we have coming up, please go on over to WashingtonPostLive.com and register there, and on behalf of everyone and our guests today, I’m Shane Harris. Thank you so much for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

[End recorded session]

Transcript: “Ghosts of Beirut” A Conversation with Dina Shihabi, Greg Barker and Avi Issacharoff (2024)
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