Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah died at age 75 in Beirut on July 4. As a top Shiite cleric and spiritual influence for Hezbollah, he had a large number of followers—including one senior editor at CNN named Octavia Nasr. Fadlallah had a long history of terrorism and extremism, but this did not disqualify him from being admired by the news network’s senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs.
Fadlallah was an early supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran and was closely tied to Hezbollah when the terrorist group was carrying out kidnappings and suicide bombings in Lebanon against Western targets. It was his fatwa that permitted the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and embassy in Lebanon. His role in terrorist operations was so prominent that he was the target of a car bombing in 1985, said to be set by the CIA or Christian Lebanese officers, and his home was later bombed by the Israelis in 2006.
Fadlallah has denied being involved with Hezbollah, but his denials are not credible. Journalist Con Coughlin says that when he interviewed Fadlallah in 1985, one of his bodyguards checked his passport. Coughlin later found out that the bodyguard was a Hezbollah operative looking to se if he was an American that could be taken hostage. The current chief of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, praised Fadlallah as a “merciful father and a wise guide.” The terrorist group is publicly morning his death, saying “He stood with courage in support of the resistance against the Zionist enemy. He also expressed his outright rejection of the conspiracies of the hegemonic powers.”
Although Fadlallah condemned honor killings, said women could defend themselves if their husbands beat them, and later distanced himself from the concept of Velayat-e-Faqih that underpins the Iranian regime, he was not a moderate. He consistently supported suicide bombings against Israelis. The label of Specially Designated Terrorist applied to him by the U.S. was well-fitting.
Fadlallah is said to have been privately critical of Iran even in the 1980s but calling him an opponent of the Mullahs would be going too far. His nephew said, “Politically, his eminence used to have two concerns. Mainly, he had the concern of the Resistance, the Resistance in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and everywhere. He was also concerned with safeguarding the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Tom Harb, the Secretary General of the World Council of the Cedars Revolution told FrontPage that Fadlallah was not a liberal democrat and promoted the gradual Islamization of Lebanon. His difference with Iran and Hezbollah was “really a matter of style and not substance.”
“Compared to the Iranian Pasdaran and Hezbollah leadership he was more focused on trying to convince women that wearing the hijab was to their advantage. So he wanted to convince people that fighting jihad is not something barbaric. He wanted to be more nuanced than Hezbollah, not different in the basic things.” Harb said.
When he was on his death bed, a nurse asked him if he needed anything, to which replied, “For the Zionist entity to cease to exist.” He also claimed in 2008 that “Zionism has inflated the number of victims in this Holocaust beyond imagination” and he was virulently anti-American. He preached that the U.S. has hatched an evil plot for world domination and he accused the CIA and Mossad of orchestrating suicide bombings in Iraq.
Despite this history of extremism, CNN’s senior Middle East editor, Octavia Nasr, expressed her admiration for Fadlallah on her Twitter page when news of his death broke. She said she was “sad to hear” of his passing, as he was “One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” This led to her involuntary departure from the network. She then said she regretted the tweet, but only went so far as to say he “was declared a terrorist” but had “what many considered a more moderate voice of Shia Islam than what was coming out of Iran.”
“Nasr had a role that helped shape CNN’s overall news coverage of the Middle East. As a senior editor that apparently reported to a senior VP, Nasr presumably had a hand in story selection, assignment, and editing and shaping the final product from her reporters,” wrote Ed Morrissey.
Nasr isn’t the only American to embrace Fadlallah and Hezbollah. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter same. Helen Thomas, who recently retired after saying that Israeli Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine,” said “Thank God for Hezbollah” in 2002. She also blamed Israel for causing “99 percent” of terrorism in the world and compared Palestinians fighting Israel to “those who resisted the Nazi occupation.”
Fadlallah also had connections in the American-Muslim community. The Investigative Project on Terrorism discovered that a charity in Dearborn, Michigan named the Al-Mabarrat Charitable Organization-USA Inc. worked with the Al-Mabarrat Association in Lebanon owned by Fadlallah. The American charity has operated since 1991 even though it is illegal to make financial transactions with Fadlallah or Hezbollah. The Muslim owner of a restaurant chain involved in the charity was indicted in 2002 for funneling money to Lebanon. He had connections to “the highest levels” of Hezbollah,” including Fadlallah’s charity. After his death, three mosques in the Detroit area held services to honor him.
While Fadlallah was widely revered, Middle East expert Martin Kramer says his influence had waned since the 1980s. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah took many of his followers as Fadlallah became less involved in politics and Iranian clerics started to undermine him. His poor health also took away from his charisma, and the rise of the Iraqi Shiite clerics in Najaf since 2003 led to a competing voice. Fadlallah’s death is causing marches and public expressions of appreciation for him but in Najaf, “No banners or open displays of mourning were seen as clergy in Najaf expressed discomfort over the ayatollah’s legacy.” Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki is paying his respects as Fadlallah was an early player in the Dawa Party, but the Iraqi Shiite clergy are much less enthusiastic about him.
Fadlallah may not have been the Iranian regime’s best friend, but the embrace of him by Nasr, Carter, and Chomsky, is scandalous. It was his voice and credibility that helped set the stage for the loss of hundreds of lives to acts of terrorism. If a senior editor for CNN saw him as an admirable moderate, then the reliability of the media’s reporting on the Middle East has to be cast into serious doubt.