Amir Khoury (center) as a young Imad Mughniyeh in SHOWTIME's 'Ghosts of Beirut.' (Sifeddine Elamine/SHOWTIME)
Main image: Amir Khoury (center) as a young Imad Mughniyeh in Showtime's 'Ghosts of Beirut.' (Sifeddine Elamine/SHOWTIME)
'Nobody knew what he looked like for so many years'

Hunting for a ghost: New show depicts CIA-Mossad pursuit of most-wanted terrorist

‘Fauda’ co-creators Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff team up with Showtime on ‘Ghosts of Beirut,’ a mostly-true account of the assassination of Hezbollah terror chief Imad Mughniyeh

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Main image: Amir Khoury (center) as a young Imad Mughniyeh in Showtime's 'Ghosts of Beirut.' (Sifeddine Elamine/SHOWTIME)

Before 9/11, Imad Mughniyeh was responsible for killing more Americans than anyone else in the world.

In 2008, after decades of being hunted, the senior Hezbollah figure was killed in a car bombing in Damascus that has since been attributed to a joint CIA-Mossad operation.

A new SHOWTIME miniseries, “Ghosts of Beirut,” tracks Mughniyeh as he rose from the slums of Lebanon to become the most dangerous terrorist in the world, and explores how US and Israeli spies put their differences aside to work together in taking him down.

The show is the brainchild of Israelis Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, who first teamed up on the acclaimed TV series “Fauda” and have since worked together on a range of other projects. The duo co-created the show with Greg Barker, who also directed, and the trio co-wrote the series alongside Lebanese screenwriter Joelle Touma.

“It’s a fascinating story, about the number one terrorist in the world, and nobody knew where he was, where he lived, what he looked like for so many years,” Raz told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “Everyone was looking for him all the time and couldn’t get him.”

Issacharoff told The Times of Israel that he first became intrigued by Mughniyeh while he was working as a reporter during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and his name came up “over and over again… he was so crucial for Hezbollah, for the beginning of the organization, for the suicide attacks that he brought into the Middle East.”

Two years later, Mughniyeh was killed, and as details began to emerge about his shock assassination, “It really fascinated me; the more I learned about it, the more I understood that there was a story for a drama,” Issacharoff said.

“Ghosts of Beirut” is a four-part limited series that interweaves dramatic storytelling with archival footage, news broadcasts and interviews with top Middle East experts – including ex-Mossad and CIA officials – to tell the full story of the hunt for Imad Mughniyeh.

The show’s title sequence stresses to viewers that each episode is “a fictional account of deeply researched events.”

“A lot of things are still unknown, and because of this we had to rely on our imaginations to complete the puzzle,” said Raz. “It’s partly documentary, partly fiction.”

‘Fauda’ and ‘Ghosts of Beirut’ co-creators Avi Issacharoff (left) and Lior Raz pose for a photo in Tel Aviv, May 30, 2019. (AP/Oded Balilty)

After extensive research including US, Israeli and Lebanese sources, Raz said, a screenplay was created in which “a lot of it is true, and the things we couldn’t find out, we filled in.”

Issacharoff, who worked for years as a journalist, including at The Times of Israel, said the team dug deep to create as accurate a picture as possible, though questions remain.

“Our research involved many intelligence people from the Israeli side and from the American side,” said Issacharoff. “But their job in life is to lie, this is their specialty, this is their art… is it possible that they manipulated me? It’s possible.”

At the end of the day, he added, “I wasn’t in the bedroom with Imad Mughniyeh and his wife – this is where the script comes to life, and this is where you take something like that and make a drama.”

A Lebanese woman walks past a billboard bearing a portrait of slain Lebanese Hezbollah military leader, Imad Mughniyeh, in Beirut on September 26, 2008. (Ramzi Haidar / AFP)

While Mughniyeh may not have been a household name for most, he was considered responsible for some of the deadliest and most heinous attacks in the world over the past 50 years and is credited with engineering the first modern suicide bombing.

He was accused of orchestrating the 1982 explosion at the IDF headquarters in Tyre, Lebanon, the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut and the subsequent barracks bombings in 1983, the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish cultural center in the city, as well as countless other acts of terror, including a range of hijackings and kidnappings.

The series portrays a nuanced and at-time humanizing portrait of Mughniyeh, depicting his romantic and familial relationships, including his later-in-life entanglement with a woman in Damascus that likely led to his downfall.

“This is a drama, at the end of the day,” said Issacharoff. “Making the villain, the bad guy, more interesting, makes the show more interesting – it’s a kind of cliche in scriptwriting, that the better the villain, the better the show.”

Amir Khoury as Imad Mughniyeh and Hiba Bennani as his wife, Saada, in a scene set in 1982 from ‘Ghosts of Beirut.’ (Sifeddine Elamine/SHOWTIME)

Raz said they wanted to “show the complexities of his life” to make him a fully realized character: “If there’s someone who just kills people without a life, it wouldn’t be very interesting.”

The series also spotlights a number of Mughniyeh’s victims, including Robert Ames, the CIA’s Middle East director, who was killed in the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, and William Buckley, the CIA Beirut station chief, who was kidnapped and tortured for more than a year before being killed.

Iranian-born actor Navid Negahban (“Homeland,” “Tehran,”) plays the older version of Ali-Reza Asgari, a general in the Revolutionary Guard Corps who was believed to have been Iran’s key player in the founding of Hezbollah and its chief liaison with Mughniyeh.

In 2007, Asgari disappeared, and for 15 years reports and rumors of his whereabouts have circulated – whether he defected to the US, was kidnapped by the Mossad, killed himself in an Israeli prison, or any number of other scenarios.

Dina Shihabi as Lena and Navid Negahban as Ali-Reza Asgari in a scene from ‘Ghosts of Beirut’ set in 2007. (Sifeddine Elamine/SHOWTIME)

In “Ghosts of Beirut,” Raz, Issacharoff and Barker depict the former Iranian deputy defense minister as living a quiet life in West Palm Beach, Florida, while providing key intelligence to the CIA about Iranian activity.

“According to our American sources, what we have learned is that he defected to the US and is somewhere in the US,” said Issacharoff, though nobody has publicly confirmed his whereabouts.

Raz said that working alongside Issacharoff as well as Barker and Touma brought “three points of view, the US, the Israeli and the Lebanese” to the series, creating a well-rounded portrait.

Filmed almost entirely in Morocco, the ensemble cast is populated by actors from around the world and dotted with a handful of familiar faces to Israeli and US audiences.

Dermot Mulroney as Robert Ames (center) in ‘Ghosts of Beirut.’ (Sifeddine Elamine/SHOWTIME)

Both the older and younger versions of Mughniyeh are played by Arab Israelis: Amir Khoury and Hisham Suliman, who both previously appeared in “Fauda.” Saudi native Dina Shihabi plays a CIA agent of Lebanese origin, with UK-Israeli actor Iddo Goldberg faking an Israeli accent to play a Mossad spy.

Dermot Mulroney (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) plays Ames, and Garret Dillahunt (“12 Years A Slave”) plays Buckley.

“There were Israelis and Americans and Europeans and Moroccans and Lebanese and Palestinians, all of them together – it was a very international production,” said Issacharoff, who himself had a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo in the first episode. “Everyone really added some kind of extra value to what we brought.”

In the US, the series will hit SHOWTIME’s streaming and on-demand service on May 19 and air live beginning May 21. In Israel, the show will go live on Yes and StingTV’s on demand on May 20 and air on Yes TV beginning May 27.

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