The World’s Best Car Bombers?

An interview with ex-CIA agent Robert Baer about terror, the Iran crisis, and Hezbollah blasts

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When reports from US and Canadian intelligence sources surfaced in late June claiming that Hezbollah, a Lebanese political and paramilitary movement which the Canadian government calls a terrorist organization, was scouting Jewish and Israeli locations in Ontario for possible attack, Robert Baer, a former CIA officer, offered his usual blunt take. “They cannot have an operation fail,” said Baer, “and I don’t think they will. They’re the A-team of terrorism,” he told ABC News.

The Lebanese Shia—Hezbollah, in other words—may even be the best car bombers in the world, Baer recently told me. No small praise, it would seem, since he’s also one of those rare terrorism experts with the know-how to build a car bomb himself.

Before retiring from the CIA in 1997, Baer spent what he calls “the best parts of my life in the worst parts of the world.” Think Tajikistan and northern Iraq. He also worked in Syria and Lebanon—Hezbollah’s home turf. In 2002, Baer published a memoir, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, partly about his hunt for the perpetrators of a massive car bomb that destroyed the US embassy in Beirut in 1983, killing over sixty people. It was also about the mistakes that led to 9/11. Hollywood called and Baer became the model for George Clooney’s skilled, disillusioned field operative in Syriana, a geopolitical thriller about power and corruption in Washington and oil and terrorism in the Middle East, which also drew on Baer’s follow-up effort, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude.

Now Baer has a new movie. Car Bomb, a documentary history, recently aired on the UK’s Channel 4. The film follows Baer to Northern Ireland, Italy, Israel, and Lebanon. We meet car bomb makers from the IRA, the Mafia, and Hezbollah. Baer also uncovers the modern car bomb’s surprising Midwestern roots. In 1970, a group of American college students blew up a van packed with 800 kg of fuel oil and ammonium nitrate, near a University of Wisconsin physics building where military-funded research was being conducted.

WMDs and Iran’s presumed nuclear program have garnered substantial attention since 9/11, and hence done more to shape our fears, but the car bomb—cheap, simple, made for crowded city streets—may actually be the scarier weapon. Not only can angry locals use car bombs to make things difficult for foreign armies, as we’ve seen in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003, but one car bomb in an American city could permanently change American politics, Baer says. “You could take down the United States with a car bomb. You could change the nature of politics just by, around Christmas time, putting one in a mall parking lot and knocking the mall down from underneath. The American political system would go into a crisis, and maybe never recover from it.”

I spoke to Baer in late July. After touching on his documentary, we talked about car bombs, Iran (the subject of his forthcoming book, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower), and Baer’s old nemesis: Imad Mughniyah, a shadowy Hezbollah operative, recently met his end by car bomb in Damascus, Syria—prompting party leadership to vow revenge. I also learned that John McCain is not the answer, as this noble twenty-first century proceeds.

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Chris Watt:Did you learn anything more about the subject that you didn’t already know, in terms of car bomb technology and strategy and maybe the psychology of car bombers?

Robert Baer: Well, I’ve been studying this for a long time, and I think there’s a fascinating difference between the Sunni and the Shia car bomb. Shia have tended to go after military targets, and the Sunni are much more indiscriminate about where and who they kill, which has led to all sorts of assumptions and conclusions. The Shia use it much more as a military weapon. The Sunni use it as a weapon against society, against the enemy, and that’s pretty much across the board, especially if you look at Beirut, and you look at Iraq today, where the Sunni use it inside markets.

The Shia just would never do it that indiscriminately. They rarely used it themselves [during the Lebanese Civil War]. It was more Christian vs. Palestinian, which is a different conflict. So you have the marine bombing, which is a military target according to them, and you have the US embassy, which is a military target, and then you had the Tyre bombing on November 11, 1982, the Israeli military headquarters. So that says a lot about the people.

The Irish, the IRA, used it for economic targets. They went out of their way to kill people. They wanted to bring Britain down economically in Belfast. And of course, the Mafia—for the Mafia it was a business tactic.

CW: To go back to the Sunni-Shia divide…. [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah, lately, seems to want to show what he can do in Beirut without actually doing it, and [Iraqi Shia cleric] Muqtada al-Sadr, if I’m not mistaken, told his guys to stand down and stop fighting the Iraqi army. Does this show discipline on the Shia side?

RB: There’s an incredible discipline, though Sadr—and you may want to correct me—wasn’t particularly disciplined. The Iranians have brought him into the fold. You see the deployment of the [Iraqi] army into Basra, and that was done with the help of the Iranians. You don’t see the Shia going after the Sunni. It would be very easy for the Shia to put a car bomb in Fallujah or someplace like that, or a neighbourhood in Baghdad. And what you see is the Sunni, when they were going after targets, were killing as many Shia as they could, indiscriminately… and this has subsided. My theory is that this has subsided because the Iraqis essentially turned against the Sunni car bombers. They didn’t want to fight a civil war because they would have lost…

The Shia have won. Iraq, for the first time since 680 AD, is a Shia country. Why should they be blowing things up? They have the reins of power. It’s their order.

CW: Is Iran trying to create a Shia crescent?

RB: No, they want an empire. If you’re Iran and your enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq have been defeated … there’s going to be some form of Iranian control over Iraq. Whether it’s limited to keeping out Sunni fundamentalists, or oil cooperation, that’s yet to be played out. But right now Iran is the only serious military power after the West in the Gulf. A country of seventy million, it has the ability to close off the Gulf’s oil. So, treating Iran like a banana republic, they’re saying “Wait a minute: We think your perception of our power, there’s a disparity here. If we have to, we’ll prove it.” That’s when a war’s going to happen. “We think there’s a disparity of power and we’ll prove it on the battlefield.”

CW: This is off the topic of car bombs, or maybe not. I was in Damascus in November…and wound up at a press conference at the Iranian embassy. I asked the ambassador, “Why wouldn’t Iran build nuclear weapons?” I mean, if your power is such that you see yourself as this empire and you live in the neighbourhood that you do, where Pakistan has nuclear weapons, Israel probably has nuclear weapons, and there’s a huge amount of sabre-rattling from the United States….

RB: And what was his reaction?

CW: He said there’s a fatwa against nukes, and he told some other reporters that Iran would be happy to share its nuclear technology, but it’s for the purpose of energy. Perhaps my question wasn’t as well structured as it could have been. But isn’t it basically the case that powers get nuclear weapons for deterrence, rather than to, you know, drive Israel into the sea?

RB: Well, [for them to bomb Israel] you’d have to assume the Iranians are suicidal, which they’re not. They’ve backed away from conflict everywhere. In Iraq, they’re cooperating in the occupation. They’ve backed away from conflict in the Gulf. They’ve backed away from conflict in Lebanon. So, are they suicidal? No. Are they going to fire a nuclear weapon at Israel? No, not with this leadership. And then, of course, the argument becomes reduced to Ahmadenijad and what he says, and that seems to change day to day, but he doesn’t have his finger on the nuclear trigger. It’s sort of irrelevant what he says. Why listen? The Arabs have been talking about destroying Israel forever and they haven’t really fought a war since 1973. You have to look at what they do, more than what they say. They’re not doing anything. They’re not pre-emptively invading other countries, unlike the United States, which did, and for no particularly good reason.

CW: Meanwhile the Iranians have this pretty sophisticated ability to lash out with car bombs, if they want to, right?

RB: Yeah, there’s no reason why they couldn’t put ten of them in Baghdad right now, and use them against the military, and they don’t.

They are happy the way Iraq is going because the United States can never successfully occupy an Arab country, and by successfully, I mean turn it into some beacon of democracy, fighting corruption and the rest of it. Iraq is now more corrupt than it ever was under Saddam.

CW: Have we reached the point where the military might that a conventional superpower builds—because it has a lot of money and it invests in innovation—[is] basically worthless now?

RB: I wouldn’t say they’re worthless…. [But] who wants a tank? A lot of good they did Saddam. You can’t really patrol with them. You never connect with the people. You can disable them with a truck bomb and knock one of these things over. And when you’re fighting a sophisticated power like the United States, they’re gone, immediately—rockets hit them, Hellfire missiles. So the Iranians have taken a look at Lebanon and looked at the 2006 war and said, wait a minute, unconventional warfare is the way to go. We can deter a superpower. You can’t beat it, but you can deter occupation with unconventional weapons. That means anything from those double-effect Russian anti-tank weapons, to car bombs, to small unit tactics, to swarming, and it stopped the Israelis in Lebanon in 2006.

CW: Would you say the Lebanese were the “best” car bombers in the world, if we can describe them that way?

RB: Oh yeah, they’re the most practiced, and a lot of foreign technology showed up in Lebanon before [the 1975-90 civil war].

CW: What technology showed up that enabled whoever was doing this in Lebanon to become so good at it?

RB: Well, you double-prime charges, you use partially filled acetylene tanks, you use ammonium nitrate if you want to lift up buildings, and if you want to just slaughter, you use military explosives, which travel faster with higher brisance. And you don’t want your bomb to not go off. You’re not really striking fear if only one of five bombs work.

CW: Who was the best that you talked to? I don’t even know how you’d define that or quantify it.

RB: I go back to the Shia. No one knows who did that Tyre military headquarters bombing [on November 11, 1982] when seventy-five Israeli soldiers were killed. In a lot of ways you can consider that the beginning of the end of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, although it took another eighteen years before they left. The fact that they could get a truck inside the building, kill seventy-five soldiers and until this day no one knows the group who did this.

CW: Who do you think it was?

RB: I think it was Hezbollah, again because it was a Shia boy who drove it in, and they’re very close to Iran. The fact that they haven’t announced the kid who drove the marine vehicle in….

CW: I watched Cult of the Suicide Bomber. There’s been no attempt to claim that attack?

RB: There was a claim in the name of a group, the Islamic Jihad, but the fact is that no one in the family or the group has come forward and said we did it, or wrote a memoir or whatever people do after all these years. It’s been twenty-six years.

CW: And so the Shia just quietly celebrate these things?

RB: No, they don’t celebrate them at all. They just do it. And that’s why I consider them the best. We have a Christian guy in the film that talks about how he found God, and he talks about sending car bombers into West Beirut. You just don’t see that among the Shia. They sat down and they systematically—Hezbollah did, in particular—went against what they consider foreign occupation.

CW: I don’t know if you’re tired of talking about Imad Mughniyah, if I’m pronouncing that correctly. What was the nature of his talent? I don’t want to focus on words like “talent” and “the best”, but this was a guy who was suspected of pulling of some pretty major attacks and yet he remained at large for so many years. How do we account for that?

RB: Largely because there’s no Lebanese state. The fact is, the state in Lebanon is Hezbollah. A judge or a prosecutor is not going to grab Imad Mughniyah driving through Chtaura or someplace like that and say, well, the Americans are going to extradite him, because the judge would be killed. It just wouldn’t happen. The Syrians would kill him, or Hezbollah. In this part of the world it all goes back to Israel. Because he was fighting the Israelis, he was protected by the Syrians, the Iranians and the Lebanese.

CW: Who killed him?

RB: I’d suggest the Israelis, I don’t know. He was training Hamas and it is very easy to infiltrate Hamas, and from there it’s an easy operation….. either the Jordanians or the Israelis, one of the two.

CW: So, it’s not difficult to get in to Damascus or somewhere in Syria and find someone there and get this done?

RB: No, it’s very difficult. They would have had to get into the Hamas leadership and paid somebody or some way blackmailed them. It’s not easy in Syria. In Lebanon, you could have killed him fairly easy. I would have thought he’d be killed in Lebanon. There was a political message there, that they had him killed in Syria. It was a message to the Syrians, because the Syrians all along were, “We’ve never heard of this guy,” which, of course, is just bullshit.

CW: Was Mughniyah’s assassination interesting to you at all in terms of craft, if you will?

RB: No, I don’t think so. They probably remotely detonated it. They put it in the headrest of his car. I suppose that guy always knew he was going to meet his end that way, and he probably didn’t much care. The Middle East is such a complicated place—I mean, the fact that no revenge has been taken. Hezbollah has told me that they will take their revenge at their own time. But they don’t want to be provoked into giving up their gains in Lebanon. They don’t want a civil war. It’s the last thing Hezbollah wants, because they can’t win it, and then their whole persona of a successful guerrilla movement disappears.

CW: What I don’t understand about his assassination is how they even got to his car.

RB: It was parked in a secure compound, I think. Who knows, you know? It was somebody with access to the car, probably a Palestinian, or the keys. They could have co-opted a Syrian, which would really scare the Syrians, if you can co-opt a Syrian intelligence officer. I think you can get to most people in any part of the world. You could kill somebody in Tehran, too, if you were really determined and had a lot of money.

CW: How about in Iraq—where are the resources for so many thousands of car bombs coming from?

RB: I think they come from the [Persian] Gulf. The way the Gulfies look at it, Baghdad was a Sunni city forever, and along comes the United States very clumsily and changes its regime. They looked at Iraq as this very thin membrane that was protecting them from Shia Iran and the Shia in general, and we come along and get rid of it, without any plan. The first reaction is, we can’t invade Iran, so what we’re going to do is scare the shit out of the Shia and make them go back to living in the marshes.

CW: So what we see in Iraq now is America vs. Iran?

RB: See, I don’t think the Americans—including the press—are going to admit to themselves what’s happened in Iraq. When I mention things like the Iranians and that the Iraqis are building a pipeline that goes from Basra to Abadan, they look at me like where did you get that obscure fact? You can get that on the Internet. There are press statements. Or the fact that a lot of families of Shia members of parliament live in Iran. It’s sort of like relations with Canada. The Canadians are not going to let a group hostile to the United States set up in Ottawa or somewhere like that. It doesn’t mean [you] occupy Iran. It’s not worth it to Canada. We’re tied to the hip when it comes to national security. Canada’s not going to go to Vietnam and fight, or to Iraq, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not an enormous amount of influence from the United States over Canada, and Mexico. At the very least, that’s the kind of influence that Iran will insist on exercising over Iraq, and that’s to have a say of what goes on inside Iraqi borders, as well as economically.

CW: Wasn’t it understood before the war that the majority, that a lot of the politicians who were going to come to power in Iraq would be Shia, because America was going to insist on elections, and the Shia have a majority….

RB: No, I think they really truly thought there would be some sort of turnaround. Because it was Saddam that was forcing these ideas of nationalism, or pro-Palestinian [ideas], it was inconceivable that the average Iraqi would [actually] care about Palestine—fellow Arabs, fellow Sunni Arabs, at that. But once we got Saddam then everybody would turn around and say, yeah, alright, we want our iPods and we want to move into the 21st century in lockstep with the United States. And no, we’re not going to mind that the Americans are going to put permanent bases in Iraq. And start production-sharing agreements which have been rejected by everyone in the world. Basically the U.S. can’t understand that the Iraqis didn’t want to turn back the clock and accept a colonial relationship. It came truly as a surprise to Democrats and Republicans alike.

CW: Were you surprised?

RB: No! Why would you want to be occupied? Who wants to be occupied?

CW: I understand that Washington has its view of the world, and that maybe their people, when they do go to Iraq, they probably don’t see a whole lot, and would have had even less sense what was going on in that country before the war. Still, they didn’t understand how things could happen the way they did?

RB: John McCain doesn’t understand the difference between the Shia and the Sunni, and he didn’t realize that Pakistan doesn’t share a border with Iraq, and he’s been around longer than most.

Christopher Watt