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The UN deconstructs the Hariri assassination

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Last Thursday, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan received the report of a fact-finding mission headed by Irish deputy police commissioner Peter Fitzgerald. The team was dispatched by the Security Council several weeks ago to look into the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. What Annan got was a bombshell document—strikingly uncharacteristic of the bashful prose of most UN paperwork—that may have irrevocably shaken the Syrian order in Lebanon.

The Fitzgerald report is much more than an investigation into a murder. It is, first, an accusation against both the Syrian and Lebanese security services, suggesting they were responsible for creating a climate that led to Hariri's assassination, even as it strongly implies they were also directly responsible. Second, it is an exposé of how the Lebanese authorities sought to manipulate evidence at the crime scene, perhaps behaving criminally. Third, it is an indictment of the Syrian-dominated order in Lebanon. And finally, it is a proposal to dismantle that order.

Much has been made by some Lebanese officials of the fact that the UN report states, "The specific 'causes' for the assassination of Mr. Hariri cannot be reliably asserted until after the perpetrators of this crime are brought to justice." However, as one reads the document and sees Fitzgerald dismantle the alternative theory, that one Ahmad Abu Adas crashed his explosives-laden vehicle into the Hariri motorcade on behalf of an unknown Islamist group, it is clear where his suspicions lie. Fitzgerald asserts that his mission has "concluded that the Lebanese security services and the Syrian Military Intelligence bear the primary responsibility for the lack of security, protection, law and order in Lebanon. The Lebanese security services have demonstrated serious and systematic negligence in carrying out the duties usually performed by a professional national security apparatus….The Syrian Military Intelligence shares this responsibility to the extent of its involvement in running the security services in Lebanon."

Short of finding Syrian President Bashar Assad's autograph on pieces of the bomb that killed Hariri, that's probably as far as any UN report can go. Nor was the official Lebanese case helped last week when the magistrate charged with looking into the killing, Michel Abu Arraj, resigned. Abu Arraj's official reason for quitting the case—that his workload was too heavy—is patently absurd: as if he's too busy looking into domestic disputes and shoplifting cases to investigate the murder of his country's most important political figure. Hariri's own Al-Mustaqbal newspaper last Wednesday suggested a more plausible scenario: that Abu Arraj threw in the towel because he had nothing serious to go on in his investigation.

Where the bomb that killed Hariri was located had been a matter of much debate. The Lebanese opposition, the Hariri family, and the former prime minister's parliamentary bloc (as well as I, on this website) argued that the explosive device was probably placed under the roadway. That would imply a far more complex conspiracy (planned and executed by the Syrian intelligence services and its Lebanese adjuncts, the opposition says) than the Abu Adas hypothesis supported by the Lebanese government. Fitzgerald appears to resolve the technical issue of placement by saying the explosion "was caused by a TNT charge of about 1000 KG placed most likely above the ground."

Typically, the Lebanese authorities, ignoring the bulk of the UN report, held this up as evidence that their version was correct. In fact, Fitzgerald almost immediately discredits the official version in two ways: First, he undermines the Abu Adas premise by noting its inconsistencies, and concludes, "There is little evidence to support the theory that Ahmad Abu Adas had militant/extremist tendencies." The report also notes: "This assassination would have required access to considerable finance, military precision in its execution, substantial logistical support and would have been beyond the capacity of any single individual or small terrorist group. There is no evidence suggesting that Ahmad Abu Adas could have the capacity to plan and execute this assassination on his own, nor did he have the financial capability."

The UN team also turns to the only photographic evidence available, a CCTV tape taken from the HSBC Bank around the corner of the blast site. On the basis of this, an unidentified Lebanese "judicial source" told Reuters on March 4 that "[t]he attack happened when a car slowed up to allow Hariri's motorcade to pass it. As the motorcade passed it, the car blew up." The fact is, though, that the HSBC camera could not actually see the point of impact, so the claim was, at best, speculative.

The UN investigators do indeed affirm that a white Mitsubishi Canter pickup truck was caught on the film driving very slowly along the road where Hariri was killed, approximately 1 minute and 49 seconds before the former prime minister's convoy arrived. They also say the vehicle may have been the one that blew up. But they then qualify this by stating that "the investigation into this aspect of the case has not been full or extensive, and in the opinion of the Mission, has been critically and fundamentally damaged due to the actions and inactions of the security forces on the ground."

What were these actions and inactions? "Up to approximately one month after the assassination, little or no attempt had been made by the security forces to determine the movements of this suspect truck immediately prior to, or immediately after the explosion," so that it remains unclear "whether the truck continued on its journey and had no involvement in the assassination at all." More damagingly, the UN team insists it knows "with certainty that parts of a truck were brought to the scene of the explosion by a member of the security forces some time after the assassination and were placed in the [bomb] crater and subsequently photographed in the crater by members of the security forces, thus creating serious suspicion and doubt about the actual involvement of this truck in the assassination and seriously damaging the credibility of the main line of investigation. This line of enquiry is now fundamentally damaged, with credibility issues and scope for legal challenge."

The investigators conclude that, because the Lebanese repeatedly tampered with evidence, "the manner in which this element of the investigation was carried out displays, at least gross negligence, possibly accompanied by criminal actions for which those responsible should be made accountable."

But there's more that the report doesn't cover. In interrogating the father of Abu Adas, investigators learned that the alleged suicide bomber couldn't drive. That forced government spinners to posit that he had somehow been chauffeured to his rendezvous with destiny. In the same March 4 Reuters report cited earlier, a "security source" affirmed that DNA tests established that Abu Adas was at the crime scene. Why an anonymous security official, not a forensic specialist, should have been the one revealing such vital information was only one of the peculiarities of the assertion. Another was that nothing was later done to substantiate it. It is possible that Abu Adas' body parts were at the bombing site: whoever took the trouble of asking or forcing him to prepare a videotaped statement claiming responsibility for Hariri's death could have ensured he would be among the dead.

A more specific question is why nothing was done by the Lebanese to identify the remains of Abu Adas' purported "driver." That would have involved preparing (the word is unfortunate) an inventory of all the victims' body parts and testing them for DNA, which would have allowed investigators to determine if there was a driver at all (assuming Abu Adas was there). This was not done, and indeed soon after the attack it was reported both in the media and from hospital sources that several probable fatalities in the explosion were still unaccounted for. While two bodies were later found, Syrian laborers who had been carried to the American University hospital and checked in were removed soon thereafter by persons unknown, to the desperation of relatives trying to locate them.

While Fitzgerald's conclusions strike down the view of an underground bomb, they do not directly address an idea that members of the Hariri family have been privately talking about: that that the former prime minister was actually killed by not one but two bombs—one placed under the roadway, the other above the road and containing a flammable chemical agent able to permeate the armored protection of the cars in the convoy. There is no proof for this, but assuming the Hariri family had good information to act on in reaching such a conclusion, it is also not, strictly speaking, contradicted by Fitzgerald's contention, or by his worries that the investigation of the blast "was not full or extensive."

The third line of attack in the UN report, and perhaps the most remarkable, is its indictment of the Syrian-dominated power structure in Lebanon. Fitzgerald headed a fact-finding mission with wide prerogatives, so this assessment was within his mandate. In a section on the consequences of the Hariri killing, the UN team describes the growing revolt it provoked in Lebanon against the Syrian military presence, before emphasizing, in a subsequent section that:

[T]he Government of Syria bears primary responsibility for the political tension that preceded the assassination. The Government of Syria clearly exerted influence that goes beyond the reasonable exercise of cooperative or neighborly relations. It interfered with the details of governance in Lebanon in a heavy-handed and inflexible manner that was the primary reason for the political polarization that ensued. Without prejudice to the results of the investigation, it is obvious that this atmosphere provided the backdrop for the assassination of Mr. Hariri.

While this reality is obvious to the vast majority of Lebanese, its inclusion in an international document is a considerable victory for the opposition, as is Fitzgerald's account of how Bashar Assad threatened Hariri last August, when he forced the reluctant prime minister to vote in favor of an extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's mandate:

According to these testimonies, Mr. Hariri reminded Mr. Assad of his pledge not to seek an extension for Mr. Lahoud's term, and Mr. Assad replied that there was a policy shift and that the decision was already taken. He added that Mr. Lahoud should be viewed as his personal representative in Lebanon and that "opposing him is tantamount to opposing Assad himself". He then added that he (Mr. Assad) "would rather break Lebanon over the heads of [Mr.] Hariri and [Druze leader Walid Jumblatt] than see his word in Lebanon broken". According to the testimonies, Mr. Assad then threatened both Mr. Hariri and Mr. [Jumblatt] with physical harm if they opposed the extension for Mr. Lahoud.

This particular passage takes on particular importance in light of what the Fitzgerald team recommends, namely the formation of "an international independent investigation" to look into the circumstances of the Hariri assassination, which would have "an executive authority to carry out interrogations, searches, and other relevant tasks." The UN Security Council is set to discuss this proposal starting tomorrow, and it seems virtually certain that it will be adopted, though the parameters of the investigation's actions and where it will lead legally remain to be negotiated. Certainly, among the first people to be interrogated, one presumes, would be Assad himself and Lahoud.

Fitzgerald's conclusions also include a passage that shows the extent to which the world has changed on issues of sovereignty: "[I]t is the Mission's conclusion that the restoration of the integrity and credibility of the Lebanese security apparatus is of vital importance to the security and stability of the country. A sustained effort to restructure, reform and retrain the Lebanese security services will be necessary to achieve this end, and will certainly require assistance and active engagement on the part of the international community."

Barring such a transformation, the UN report admits, an international investigation would probably lead nowhere, since the Lebanese would do everything to hide the truth. But the onus for the investigation to succeed is clearly on Beirut, which is asked to reform its various security agencies.

Though Lahoud has declared Lebanon would collaborate with the UN, there is as yet no sign he intends, or is able, to fulfill its request to reform the intelligence apparatus. After all, one of the individuals whom the opposition considers most responsible for the state of affairs leading to Hariri's assassination is the head of the Presidential Guard, Mustapha Hamdan. It was notable that Hamdan, who happens to be a Muslim, was present at the Easter Mass Sunday attended by Lahoud, a clear sign of presidential support, though both men could have also been using the moment to appreciate the mystery of political resurrection.

If so, they're unlikely to succeed. An international inquiry into Hariri's murder, if it is approved, is a dangerous virus for the Syrian regime, both with respect to its authority in Lebanon and at home. While an investigation may take time, it will very soon start eating away at Assad's credibility and that of his Lebanese friends. Its progress might also be used by the United Nations as leverage to secure Syrian concessions in the short term, particularly on the timing of a military pullout from Lebanon. There is a good chance that legal action will be forthcoming, and that it will target those at the very top in Beirut and Damascus.

The UN team wrote that Hariri's assassination had "an earthquake-like impact on Lebanon." Indeed it did, but the Fitzgerald report has all the makings of the tsunami that follows the earthquake. The Syrians will try to brace themselves for the impact, but that may well prove to be in vain. Rafik Hariri's death was just too big a bite for Bashar Assad.