Michael Totten

Hanging with Hezbollah, Part I

Here is an excerpt from my new book, The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel.

Chapter Two: Hanging With Hezbollah

In 1984, Hezbollah kidnapped the CIA’s Beirut station chief William Buckley and tortured him to death. His remains weren’t returned to the United States until they were delivered in a plastic bag on the side of the airport road in 1991.

Lebanon in the 1980s was ferociously dangerous for everyone, especially for Westerners. Civilians as well as officials were hunted. Hezbollah kidnapped dozens, including American University of Beirut President David Dodge and Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson, who was held for seven years.

“The hostage seizures were fully consistent with Hezbollah’s declared goal of expunging America from Lebanon, its citizens as well as its diplomatic presence,” historian Augustus Richard Norton wrote in Hezbollah: A Short History. “Western hostages were held in Lebanon in despicable conditions, often alone and chained to radiators for months on end, denied even the slightest dignity.”

Hezbollah’s kidnapping spree made the country so dangerous for Westerners that the State Department prohibited the use of American passports for travel there until 1997. Westerners outside Lebanon were also at risk.

In 1985, Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh and two other gunmen hijacked TWA flight 847 from Athens to Rome and diverted it to Beirut’s international airport. Seven passengers with Jewish sounding names were taken off the plane and detained. Mughniyeh identified passenger Robert Stethem as a U.S. Navy diver on vacation, shot him in the head, and threw his body onto the tarmac. The remaining passengers—who were held now at gunpoint by nearly a dozen Hezbollah militiamen in a war zone—weren’t released until two weeks later, presumably after Israel agreed to release 700 Lebanese Shias from prison.

Argentine authorities later charged Mughniyeh with wounding and killing hundreds in Buenos Aires with truck and car bombs at the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish cultural center. The United States fingered him for destroying a Khobar Towers housing block in Saudi Arabia with a truck bomb, killing nineteen American military servicemen and wounding 372 others from various countries.

Hezbollah was still officially listed as a terrorist organization by the United States government in 2005, but it had been easing up on Westerners for a while. After the Israeli military withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000, it was rightly perceived as much less immediately dangerous, if not for Israelis, then at least for Americans. Not for years had any Westerners been kidnapped or killed by Hezbollah in Lebanon or anywhere else. An official “no snatch” policy was firmly in place, and everyone in Hezbollah was forced to adhere to it. The party even opened a press office in the dahiyeh [the Hezbollah-controlled suburbs south of Beirut] where reporters like me could meet its officials.

So I called Hussein Naboulsi in the media relations department to ask if I could set up an interview.

“All-oe?” he said when he picked up.

“Hello, sir,” I said. “Is this Mr. Hussein Naboulsi?”

After an uncomfortable pause, he said, suspiciously, “Yes.”

“Hello, sir,” I said. “How are you doing?”

“Fine,” he said.

“I am an American journalist,” I said, “and I’d like to set up an appointment for an interview.”

“I cannot talk to you,” he said. “I do not have permission to talk to the press.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Someone gave me this number and told me you were the person I needed to talk to.”

I waited for him to say something, but he didn’t. So after another uncomfortable pause, I continued.

“Can you please direct me to the right person?” I said.

Who are you!” he said, as if he suspected I was a CIA or Mossad agent. “What do you want!

“I’d like to set up an appointment for an interview if that would be possible. I am interested in Hezbollah and Hezbollah’s projects in South Lebanon and the suburbs south of Beirut.”

“Who do you work for?” he said.

“I’m working on a story about Hezbollah for the LA Weekly,” I said.

“What do you want?” he said.

This was the press office?

“I’d like to set up an appointment for an interview,” I said.

“When do you expect to arrive in Lebanon?” he said.

“I’m in Beirut right now,” I said.

Silence on the other end of the line.

“Can I make an appointment?” I said.

“I do not have permission to speak with you,” he said. “I do not know who you are. Can you come down to my office?”

“Yes,” I said. “Of course. I would love to.”

“You have to come here right now,” he said.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “I can’t come down there right now. Would it be possible for me to see you tomorrow?” The next day was Friday, the Muslim day of prayer.

“Yes,” he said. “Of course. Please call me tomorrow.”

He sounded cartoonishly paranoid, and I wondered what on earth he would be like when I met him in person. I didn’t look forward to calling him the next day, but I had to.

First, though, I casually posted a message on my website announcing that I would soon meet with someone from Hezbollah. Within a couple of hours, I received dozens of messages from concerned readers, most of whom I had never met, telling me I was a fool and about to get myself kidnapped or worse. Some warned me I’d be lucky to get out alive.

I wasn’t worried. Hezbollah wasn’t half as “moderate” as it liked to pretend, but journalists went down to the press office in the dahiyeh all the time.

I understood why Americans who weren’t in Lebanon thought I was crazy to be there and even crazier to meet with Hezbollah. Beirut was violent and unstable, and from a distance it looked a little like Baghdad. Terrorism and car bombs had returned as Syrian intelligence agents waged a murder and intimidation campaign against critics of the al-Assad regime in Damascus.

Samir Kassir, the An-Nahar newspaper reporter and activist whom I had met earlier in the year, was killed by a bomb placed under the seat of his car. I saw his face on posters all over East and West Beirut. George Hawi, a former leader of the Lebanese Communist Party, was likewise killed by a bomb placed under the seat of his car.

The most recent act of violence at the time was the attempted hit against May Chidiac. She was a talk-show host on the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation TV channel and, like Kassir and Hawi, was relentless in her criticism of Syria. A bomb was placed under the seat of her car, just as bombs had been placed under Kassir’s and Hawi’s. The explosion blew off one of her legs below the knee. Her clothing and hair caught on fire. Her left arm had to be amputated. But she survived.

Politics and journalism were extremely hazardous professions in Lebanon and had been for decades. Writers, broadcasters, and members of parliament had good reasons to fear Syria’s instruments of repression, as did average citizens. Bombs continued to explode in the eastern half of the city and in other Christian areas outside Beirut, though they weren’t mass-casualty terrorist attacks like those in Iraq at the time.

Most Christians believed they were being goaded into retaliating against one Muslim community or the other and sparking another civil war so the Syrians would be “invited” to return as peacekeepers. Not even the most ferociously bigoted Christians took the bait, though some may have been tempted.

Almost every Lebanese person I knew was more nervous than I was. They knew better than I did just how bad things could get in their country. Everyone over the age of twenty remembered vividly when their country was drowning in blood and fire, when the very name “Beirut” made people shudder all over the world as “Sarajevo” and “Baghdad” would later.

Once in a while, it was difficult to keep myself from thinking that one of the cars parked next to me in the street could explode at any moment and literally vaporize me. Thousands of people had been murdered by car bombs in Beirut over the years. The odds of that happening to anyone in particular weren’t very high, but they were not zero.

Most foreign residents I knew in Beirut weren’t terribly worried. Charles introduced me to a photojournalist named Dan who was particularly blasé about it. Dan had been to Iraq. Dan had been to Afghanistan. Dan had been to Darfur and insisted no one could comprehend how nightmarish the place was if they hadn’t seen the killing fields for themselves. He had a hard time getting worked up over mere car bombs.

He and I liked each other and decided to work together on freelance assignments. I’d write the text and he’d take the pictures. We also decided to share an apartment. He wasn’t getting along with his current roommate, and I couldn’t afford the rent for a decent place on my meager income.

Before we moved in together, however, we had an appointment with Hezbollah’s Hussein Naboulsi.

We hailed a taxi downtown. Our driver sighed and doubled the rate when I told him I wanted him to drop us off at Hezbollah’s socalled Security Square in the dahiyeh.

“Fine,” I said. I did not want to argue, and I understood perfectly well why he didn’t want to go down there.

“The embassy sent you,” he said after driving for a couple of minutes.

“Excuse me?” Dan said.

“The embassy sent you,” the driver said again.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I said. “We aren’t spies.”

“We’re journalists,” Dan said.

“I think you work for the embassy,” the driver said yet again.

I had long ago lost track of how often I’d been accused of spying in the Middle East. It was actually against the law for American intelligence agents to use journalism as cover, but hardly anyone in the Middle East knew that, and hardly anyone would have believed me if I told them.

Our driver, though, had something else in mind.

“Can you get me a green card?” he said.

“We can’t get you a green card,” Dan said.

“We don’t work for the embassy,” I said.

“Maybe you can put in a word at the embassy,” the driver said.

“It doesn’t work like that,” I said.

“I’ve never even been to the embassy,” Dan said.

Our driver finally relented when he crossed the invisible boundary separating the southern edge of Beirut from the dahiyeh. It was obvious where Hezbollah’s territory began. None of us were in the mood to talk anymore when the Hezbollah flags and posters of suicide bombers appeared.

Dan paid the fare when we reached our destination. Heads turned when we stepped out of the car in front of the building. A man who looked like an unarmed security guard stood watch in front of a swing gate. Dan and I walked toward him.

“Salam Aleikum,” I said. Peace be upon you. “We are here to see Hussein Naboulsi at the media relations department.”

“Hussein Naboulsi?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “Hussein Naboulsi.”

He pointed at my notebook and made a “give it to me” motion with his hands. I handed him my notebook and pen. He flipped to a blank page and wrote a sentence in large Arabic letters. Then he pointed toward a man up the street dressed in all black who sported a Che Guevara-style beard and carried an assault rifle slung over his chest.

“You want us to hand this note to the guy with the gun?” Dan said.

The man nodded.

So Dan and I walked toward the Hezbollah militiaman.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t say ‘Arrest these Americans,’” I said jokingly.

I knew, of course, that journalists met with Hussein Naboulsi on a regular basis. That’s what Hezbollah’s media relations department was for. He wasn’t using his office as bait.

Nevertheless, the dahiyeh had a way of making even levelheaded people like me and Dan nervous. Neither of us could forget that Hezbollah used to chain people like us to radiators.

“Salam Aleikum,” I said to the Hezbollah gunman as I handed him the note written in Arabic.

He scrutinized it. Then he gently placed his large hand on my shoulder, turned me around, pointed to a building halfway down the street, and stuck his index finger into the air indicating a “one.”

“You mean we should go up one flight of stairs in that building?” I said as I pantomimed what I thought were his instructions. He nodded.

“Shukran jazeelan,” I said. Thank you very much.

“Afwan,” he said. You’re welcome.

Dan and I crossed the street.

“I think he meant this door,” he said and pointed at an entrance between two small shops.

“I guess,” I said, though it was hard to be sure.

We walked up a flight of steps and passed a man who looked European on his way down. Few Westerners went to the dahiyeh unless they were journalists.

“This must be the place,” I said.

There were two doors, though, at the top of the landing. Neither was marked.

“Which one is the press office?” I said, though of course Dan didn’t know.

“Let’s try this one,” he said and knocked on the door on the left.

After a long pause, we heard feet shuffling up to the other side. An unshaven man in a bathrobe opened it and stared at us without saying anything. We seemed to be in the wrong place.

“Hello,” I said. “We’re looking for Hussein Naboulsi at the Hezbollah press office.”

He still didn’t say anything. He just pointed upstairs.

“Thank you,” Dan said.

We ascended the stairs.

“Why can’t anyone tell us where the office actually is?” I said.

“They seem to be keeping an eye on us,” Dan said, “by having us check in with the neighborhood watchdogs.”

I wasn’t sure that was right. Middle Eastern people, in my experience, weren’t very good at giving directions. It did seem, however, like the entire neighborhood was watching us carefully, as though we were in a surveillance state that used human eyes instead of cameras.

Once again, there were two doors at the top of the next set of stairs. Once again, neither door was marked with a sign. Once again, Dan knocked on the door on the left.

“Do you think this is the place?” I said.

“We’re about to find out,” Dan said.

A young woman opened the door and said “hello” in English.

She wore a conservative coat that covered her arms and a headscarf over her hair.

“Hi,” I said. “We’re looking for Hussein Naboulsi.”

“Yes,” she said. “Please, come in.”

Dan and I stepped inside. The press office looked and felt like a real professional press office. It was surprisingly modern. The dreary look of the place from the street and even the stairway effectively concealed what was inside.

The young woman asked us to sign in before leading us to a waiting room lined with soft chairs and couches. A large mirror took up most of the wall facing the couches—one-way glass, I supposed. Hanging on the opposite wall was a gigantic portrait of an angry looking Ayatollah Khomeini.

I sat on a couch. Dan sat in a chair. I looked at the glass and neither of us said anything. A few minutes later, a handsome man came through the door and outstretched his hand.

“Good morning, gentlemen!” he said. “I am Hussein Naboulsi. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“Hussein!” I said as I shook his hand. “I’m Michael. It’s great to meet you, finally.”

He put me at ease at once. Utterly gone was his strange paranoid tone from our phone conversation.

“I’m Dan,” Dan said as he shook Hussein’s hand.

“Listen,” Hussein said. “You are both welcome. Normally we would serve coffee, but as you know it’s Ramadan.” Practicing Muslims aren’t supposed to eat or drink until after sunset during the month of Ramadan.

“Of course,” I said. “That’s fine.”

He then showed us into his office and asked us to sit.

“Your English is excellent,” I said. “Where did you learn it?”

“I used to live in New York,” he said.

“Really?” I said. “Did you like it?”

He looked at me as though I had asked if he liked rotten cheese. “You must have lived there in the eighties,” I said. The city was famously dysfunctional and crime-ridden then.

“Yes,” Hussein said. “It is better now, I know. I have heard about your Giuliani.”

“What do you think about the media in the United States?” I said. Hezbollah routinely denounced the U.S. media as “Zionist,” and I wanted to know what he thought of the average American journalist who stepped into his office. Did he see us as the enemy? And, if he did, would he say so?

“I don’t like CNN as much as I used to,” he said. “Just look at Larry King. We need someone more fresh.”

Hussein was smooth.

“Have you caught an episode of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart?” I said.

He shook his head as if he had never heard of it.

“That’s what the kids are watching these days,” I said.

After a few more minutes of small talk, we got down to business. “So,” he said and clapped his hands loudly together. “What can I help you gentleman with?”

“We’d like to set up an interview with Hassan Nasrallah,” Dan said.

Hussein leaned back in his chair and laughed so loud the receptionist down the hall surely heard him.

“I guess that means no,” I said.

“Sayyed Nasrallah very rarely gives interviews,” Hussein said.

“I guess most journalists don’t even ask,” I said.

“Everybody who comes in here asks for an interview with Hassan Nasrallah,” he said.

Dan’s question couldn’t have been funny if it was so routine and predictable. Hussein laughed to make a point: Don’t even think about pestering me for an interview with the boss.

“Okay,” I said. “Can we get an interview with somebody else?”

“Of course,” Hussein said. “I will arrange for you to speak with someone in our political bureau, somebody very high up. It will be a good interview. Don’t worry about it.”

“Terrific,” Dan said.

“There’s something else I’d like to ask you for, too,” I said. “Can you give us a tour of the south?” I wanted to see what Hezbollah was up to along the border with Israel. We needed access to the south, and we needed their point of view.

“I’m sorry,” Hussein said. “That won’t be possible.”

“Look,” I said. “I’m going to write about what’s going on down there. It will be best for all of us if you give me as much access as possible.”

“I can’t take you to the south,” he said again.

“How about showing us around your summer camps, hospitals, or schools?” I said.

“All these things are closed,” he said.

“Can you show us around this area?” Dan said, meaning the dahiyeh.

“We can’t give you a guide or a tour,” he said. “But you can walk around and take a look by yourself. Just don’t take any pictures.”

Dan winced. He couldn’t do his job if he couldn’t take pictures. Hezbollah was supposed to be reaching out. Its South Lebanon Commander Sheikh Nabil Qaouk had recently said he wanted to build strong relations with American journalists and academics. So what was this business about Hezbollah being closed?

“What’s the problem?” I said.

“I was given a security directive a few weeks ago,” Hussein said. “I am sorry, but I have to obey it.”

“If we go to the south by ourselves,” I said, “can we talk to some of your people down there?”

“None of our people in the south are authorized to talk to the media,” he said. I sighed. Writing about Hezbollah wouldn’t be easy—or so I thought. “But I’ll get you an interview with someone in our political bureau,” he continued. “Just call me in a couple of days and I’ll let you know when to come back.”

“Okay,” I said. “That would be great.”

“And bring a translator with you,” Hussein said.

Dan and I hailed a taxi outside and returned to Beirut. Our apartment wasn’t yet ready, so I returned to my cheap hotel room, where I made a terrible mistake that would get me in serious trouble. Before al Qaeda’s attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, Hezbollah had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group in the world. Still, I chuckled slightly at those who worried I wouldn’t survive a trip to the press office. I was partly amused and partly annoyed with what I felt was excessive and even paranoid concern for my welfare. Still, I decided to post a quick note on my website saying I was okay.

“I met with Hezbollah in person today,” I wrote. I felt like gently ribbing those who didn’t understand Hezbollah’s own rules, but what I wrote next was reckless and foolish. I, too, had a lot to learn about Hezbollah.

“The goons picked me up at my hotel,” I wrote. “They stuffed me in the back of the car, blindfolded me, drove me around in circles, then took me (I think) into the mountains to a ‘safe house’ to talk to the sheik.”

I was joking, of course, even though that was more or less what happened to a 60 Minutes journalist played by Al Pacino during the opening scene of Michael Mann’s film The Insider when he arranged a preliminary meeting with Hezbollah in the 1980s.

My website was informal. It was not the front page of the NewYork Times. Still, I had to indicate that I was kidding. So I wrote, “Actually, that’s not what happened at all.”

Hezbollah was not amused. I should have known Hezbollah would not be amused.

You can read the rest by ordering a copy of The Road to Fatima Gate from Amazon.com.