November 23, 2010

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has just broken the story that, based on the evidence collected by the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission and an independent police investigator, Hezbollah was behind the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri. Neil Macdonald, the investigative reporter who put together this report, also has a few choice things to say about the competence and diligence of the UN commission in question.

As so often in Lebanon, the truth may not be nearly so simple.

Since long before French colonial times, Lebanon has been more sectarian than united. Which country is not? but unlike most western countries, Lebanon stands between several of the world's powers: and its sectarian divisions reflect that reality. Lebanese government is not only a religious compromise between Shi'ite, Sunni, and Maronite but also a delicate balancing act between Syria, Iran, Israel, France, Saudi Arabia, and the United States: all of which countries have an interest in ensuring that the others do not gain too much of a power base in Lebanon.

Some Lebanese side with one or another of these countries as the path to Lebanon's future unity and (ironically) ultimate freedom from sectarianism. Some hate all of them equally. Most Lebanese wish all the occupiers and foreign interests would just go quietly away: but however hopeful, most Lebanese are also realists. Years of invasions and civil war will do that to you.

Three key pieces of evidence stand out in the CBC investigative report.

The first is the inexplicable absence of Colonel Wissam al Hassan from the motorcade at the time of the explosion. At that time, Hassan was Lebanon's chief of protocol, in charge of Harari's security and required by his job to be at Hariri's side at all public functions. A year and a half after the assassination, Hassan became the head of Lebanese intelligence.

The second is the intricate networks of cellphones shadowing Hariri in the days before he died. These networks were carefully isolated from each other, but cellphones in proximity to each other use the same cell towers. Through painstaking correlation, Captain Wissam Eid traced each network to the next, until he ended up at four cellphones which had been issued by the Lebanese government. There the trail went blank but for one oddity. On the long list of telephone numbers on the goverment record provided to the commission, four entries are highlighted, with the word "Hezbollah" written beside them in Arabic.

The investigative report makes no mention of who made these notations, or why. At the time of the assassination, Hezbollah was one of several political parties and a part of the governing coalition. Macdonald does mention that shortly after getting to this point in the networks, Eid was contacted by Hezbollah and
told that some of the phones he was chasing were being used by Hezbollah agents conducting a counter-espionage operation against Israel's Mossad spy agency and that he needed to back off.
Macdonald adds:
The warning could not have been more clear.
Yet there are two ways to take what had been said. Macdonald chooses to assume that what was said is a lie. Since we hear Eid only through Macdonald's parsing, we cannot say what Eid thought at the time.

Elsewhere in the report, Macdonald also notes that in September 2006, Samir Shehade, who was Eid's superior, was nearly killed in a bomb blast. He was replaced by Hassan. What Macdonald fails to mention is that Shehade was not the only anti-Syrian official, politician, and other public figure killed or nearly killed during the months following Harari's assassination by far: even though the Syrian army had already left Lebanon in April. Although it seems clear that Hezbollah certainly knew of Eid's investigation by the time he reached the government telephones, nothing happened to Eid at this time, even though he was still taking a predictable route to his workplace. The attack on Shehade is thus unlikely to be connected directly with Eid's investigation.

The third key piece of evidence does not appear in the CBC report. Between November 2008 and June 2010, several Israeli spies have been arrested in Lebanon. Some reports mention dozens of spies, even as many as a hundred. Accounts vary. What all the accounts agree on, however, is that many of the Israeli spies had been in place for fifteen or more years, and many of them had been employed with mobile telephone companies. Israel has thus far remained silent on the issue.

This final piece of evidence would suggest that, at the very least, Israel would certainly have known about the plot to assassinate Hariri. Israel's computers are just as capable of crunching numbers and making correlations as Eid's were: with presumably more manpower behind them.

The days immediately after Hariri's assassination were a public relations mess. Most Lebanese immediately blamed Syria: which led to large, country-wide demonstrations that became known as the Cedar Revolution. Syria ended up withdrawing all its 14,000 soldiers and intelligence agents from Lebanon on April 27, 2005. Observers one and all sounded stunned at how quickly the movement had swelled and how determined the demonstrators were; but I cannot think that anyone familiar with Lebanon could have been surprised by the Lebanese public's reaction to Hariri's assassination. It was a thing waiting to happen. It needed only the proper spark.

Most western media also assumed that Syria was behind the assassination, although opinion was split on whether Hezbollah had been involved as well. Many people who had known Hariri suddenly remembered things that had been said; and many of those who suddenly remembered were also known in Lebanese circles to change sides from time to time: at least one of them the British Broadcasting Corporation has called "the country's political weathervane". The western media also gave a brief mention to Hezbollah's claim that Israel was behind it: although not nearly as well reported in western newspapers was that Hezbollah had presented evidence against Israel.

Some of Hezbollah's evidence consisted of intercepted spy-drone video footage. Curiously, Hezbollah also showed evidence that the Lebanese telephone network had been sabotaged and otherwise compromised by Israeli spies.

So, we now have two sets of stories, neither of which can be discredited on the basis of available evidence. The truth hangs upon a series of telephone calls. (Unless of course one assumes, sight unseen, that one side is truthful and the other is not.)

Ask, then, what possible other action could have so united a divided nation as to force out an occupying army. Ask who stands most to benefit by Syria's departure, and who gains not at all.

Syria's presence has never been altogether welcome to many in Lebanon: but it did stabilise the nation. Syria's withdrawal left a power vacuum, a Lebanon once again divided within itself.

Ask again: who had most to gain?

In the end, Eid did not survive his investigation. One day after his second meeting with the United Nations team, Eid was killed in a car bombing. Before he met with the UN team, Eid had been working on his investigation for two years. Clearly the UN team had a leak: quite possibly Hassan. Just as clearly, Eid's investigation was not seen as a threat, even though it was known previously to Hezbollah.

But who is Hassan working for?

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