Paul Vidich’s Beirut Station is a novel with deep historical roots, and it reads like a real-life thriller. Spies, revenge, betrayal—buckle up your seat belt!
By Paul Vidich
On March 16, 1985, William Francis Buckley, the newly appointed CIA Chief of Station in Beirut, left his tenth-floor apartment in the city’s western suburb and went to his car in the basement garage. It was one of those glorious spring mornings when the scent of jasmine and a cool Mediterranean breeze made up for the hellish violence that gripped the city. That day, unlike other days, he chose to drive himself the short distance to the American embassy. When his car emerged from the garage, a Renault blocked its path and two Hezbollah militia forced him at gunpoint into their car, kidnapping him.
Spy novels are often set against the backdrop of actual historical events. Alan Furst’s novels brilliantly play out against the drama of World War II; John Le Carré’s debut novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is set in the months following the building of the Berlin Wall. Historical settings make an imaginary story feel familiar, they lend authenticity, and provide the built-in drama and conflict that shape characters’ choices.
My novel, Beirut Station, is set during the 34-day Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006, but the event that set the story in motion is the kidnapping of Buckley twenty-two years earlier.
William Buckley had been in Beirut less than a year, having served in Vietnam, Cambodia, Egypt, and Pakistan. He arrived after the 1983 bombing of the American embassy that killed 63 people, of which 17 were American, including several CIA employees. Beirut was viewed as a dangerous assignment and his immediate task was to organize the rescue of foreign nationals held hostage by Hezbollah.
Buckley was well educated and highly regarded inside the upper ranks of the CIA. He chose a career in the military then the CIA, but his manner and sophistication would have served him well on Wall Street or in a Washington law firm. The CIA satisfied his need to serve his country in a way that would make a difference, and it provided the excitement and danger he sought. He wasn’t a desk man. He was drawn to the challenges of a war zone.
Buckley’s kidnapping was a grievous blow to William Casey, CIA director, who considered Buckley a friend. Casey marshaled all the agency’s resources in a search for Buckley and he sought help from Mossad, MI6, and others. A joint FBI/CIA team flew to Beirut to turn the country upside down in its hunt for the kidnappers. Months of dedicated effort produced no results. Buckley was believed to be held in Beirut’s sprawling southern suburbs that were home to displaced Palestinians and Syrians.
The first VHS video of Buckley in captivity arrived two months after his kidnapping. It showed Buckley, his body naked and bruised, holding up a top-secret document that had been in his specially outfitted burn-bag attaché case, designed to ignite if improperly opened. A second video was received three weeks later and showed he was horrifically treated. His voice was slurred, he’d lost weight, and it appeared that he’d been drugged. A third video arrived in October 1985. Buckley spoke incoherently, his eyes rolled into his head, and without provocation, he screamed in terror. It was believed that he was held in a coffin-like cell and blindfolded. Efforts to locate and free him were unsuccessful.
Buckley was confirmed dead in October 1985 when a photograph of his corpse was delivered by Hezbollah. His body was recovered years later and buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was made a black star on the Memorial Wall in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley.
Buckley’s death was only the second time in the history of the CIA that a station chief was assassinated. A Greek terrorist group assassinated Athens station chief Richard Welch in 1975, and Hezbollah murdered Buckley.
Buckley’s assassination set in motion a decade-long plan to avenge his death. One of the curious unwritten rules of the Cold War was that the KGB and the CIA didn’t kill each other’s spies. They followed each other, attempted to turn each other’s agents, but the murder was off limits. Terrorist organizations operated differently.
Imad Mughniyeh, a Lebanese Shi’ite, was identified by the CIA as the architect of Buckley’s kidnapping, although he was not one of the two men who carried out the attack. Mughniyeh was also implicated in the 1992 suicide attack on the Israeli embassy in Argentina. He was accused of dozens of bombings, murders, and kidnappings. On February 12, 2008, a joint CIA-Mossad operation was initiated against Mughniyeh. On that day, he walked down a quiet nighttime street in Damascus after dining in a nearby restaurant. A team of CIA targeters were not far away tracking his movements. Mughniyeh approached a parked SUV that had been fitted with a bomb placed in the vehicle’s rear-mounted spare tire. As he passed, the bomb was set off, triggered remotely by Mossad agents, in contact with an American spotter, sending a tightly shaped cone of shrapnel that killed him instantly.
The extra-judicial execution of a foreign national, even a known terrorist, was a violation of international law, and was approved after a rigorous and tedious process that required a presidential finding by George W. Bush and signoff by government agencies and lawyers. The agreement was: the US would build the bomb, and it could object and call off the assassination, but it could not trigger the device. The US hid behind a line veil of blamelessness.
My novel starts where the historical record ends. Mughniyeh, the architect of Buckley’s murder, was brought to justice, but the men who carried out the kidnapping and the one who murdered Buckley, were never identified. I give a life, a face, and a name to this man: Qassem. Beirut Station is a story of the joint CIA/Mossad operation to bring him to justice.
Inspired by Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the Greek revenge cycle trilogy, Beirut Station takes place in the chaotic 34-days of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The war is the backdrop for a story of love, revenge and betrayal among competing national and personal interests in the war on terror. As one character says in the novel: “The scourge of this land is the curse of revenge.”
Readers, do you read historical fiction because the historical details make it more believable, or to learn more about the real events in our history?
Paul Vidich‘s sixth novel, Beirut Station, will be published by Pegasus Books in October 2023. Prior to turning to writing, Vidich had a distinguished career in music and media at Time Warner, AOL, and Warner Music Group, where he was Executive Vice President in charge of global digital strategy.
He presently serves as an independent board director, angel investor, and advisor to Internet media companies in video and music. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University where he was a Trustee and received a Distinguished Alumni Award, and The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Vidich received his MFA from Rutgers-Newark, and he was a co-founder and editor of Storyville. He lives in lower Manhattan.