Imam Musa Sadr in the Good Spy by Kai Bird

Imam Musa Sadr

Force 17 leader Abu Hasan Salameh

CIA agent Robert Ames

In 1978 the Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi invited the Lebanese Muslim leader Musa Sadr to visit Libya. As the late Fouad Ajami put it, the imam vanished on that trip. There were many theories put forth on what has actually happened. The Libyans claimed that the imam and his companions left Libya for Italy. This turned out to be a blatant lie. The fact remains that the imam entered Libya and never left. The Libyan regime and its successor regime never presented a convincing explanation to provide closure.

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird provides another story of what happened to the imam. Kai presents the findings of the CIA via the Palestinian leader of Force 17 leader Abu Hasan Salameh.  The CIA did not seem to have questioned the story as conveyed by Salameh to the CIA’s Ames. Below are excerpts from Kai’s excellent book, pages 204-206, the subheadings are mine:

Ames seeks Salameh for information regarding Sadr

Two weeks after Musa Sadr’s disappearance, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – then still in exile in Iraq- sent a message to Yasir Arafat asking him to help “clarify the mystery.” At the same time, Ames decided to take an interest in the case. He did so for two reasons. First, he understood that Musa Sadr’s disappearance could exacerbate Lebanon’s smoldering civil war. And second, he knew the imam’s fate was of intense interest to millions of Shi’as not only in Lebanon but also in Iran, a country that was beginning to show signs of revolutionary turmoil in the streets of Tehran. Ames sent a message to Ali Hassan Salameh about the case and asked if he had any intelligence on the imam’s whereabouts. Salameh eventually replied with a detailed account.

Sadr and Beheshti
Arafat had learned that Qaddafi had agreed to host a meeting between Musa Sadr and one of his theological rivals, the imam Mohammed Beheshti. For some years, the latter had led in exile a Shi’a mosque in Hamburg, Germany. But Beheshti was also a close political ally of Ayatollah Khomeini. Like Musa Sadr, Beheshti was a scholar of some repute. But unlike Imam Sadr, Beheshti was an intellectual proponent of a theocratic Shi’ite state. Sadr disagreed, arguing that Shi’a theology prohibited clerics from directly exercising political power.
Both Sadr and Beheshti were recipients of Qaddafi’s largesse, and the Libyan dictator wanted the two men to set aside their theological disputes and cooperate on a common, anti-Western political agenda. (The eccentric Qaddafi was himself a Sunni Muslim and had no interest in the arcane merits of what was essentially a Shi’a theological dispute.)

Sadr in Libya: No meeting with Qaddafi or Beheshti
In any case, Musa Sadr and Beheshti were supposed to meet in Tripoli and iron out political differences under Qaddafi’s auspices. Musa Sadr arrived – but Beheshti and his delegation never came to Tripoli. Musa Sadr was an impatient man, and after several days of waiting in his hotel for a meeting with Qaddafi that never materialized, he announced that he was packing his bags and leaving Libya. Arriving at the Tripoli airport, Musa Sadr was escorted to the VIP departure lounge. In the meantime, Beheshti told Qaddafi over the phone to detain Musa Sadr by all means necessary. Beheshti assured Qaddafi that Imam Sadr was a Western agent. Qaddafi ordered his security force to delay Musa Sadr’s departure. Qaddafi instructed that the imam should just be persuaded to go back to his hotel. But Qaddafi’s security officers accosted Imam Sadr in the VIP lounge and addressed him disrespectfully. An argument ensued, and the imam was roughed up and thrown into a car. Things had gotten so out of hand that the imam was taken to a prison.

Sadr: Imprisoned in Libya
Qaddafi was angered when he discovered what had happened, but he felt he couldn’t release Imam Sadr without embarrassing himself politically. So Musa Sadr sat in a Tripoli prison for many months. Finally, Arafat directly asked Qaddafi for his release. By this time, Ayatollah Khomeini had returned to Tehran, where he and Beheshti were writing postrevolutionary Iran’s Islamic constitution. When pressed by Arafat, Qaddafi reportedly said he had to make a phone call. He called Beheshti, who told him Musa Sadr was a threat to Khomeini.

Sadr: Imprisoned then executed

Ames was told by his Palestinian sources that eventually Imam Sadr and his two traveling companions had been summarily executed and buried at an unmarked desert grave. Ames was shocked by Qaddafi’s wanton ruthlessness but also by Beheshti’s behavior. It gave him the first insight into the cruel character of the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran.


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