New York Times/Raffic Al Hariri Assassination: The Hezbollah Connection


Raffic Al Hariri Assassination: The Hezbollah Connection
New York Times
1. Ahmad Abu Adass
In 2005, the last year of his life, Ahmad Abu Adass was 22 and still living with his parents in Beirut, Lebanon. He was kind and liked people, his friends later told investigators, but none of them thought he was very sophisticated. The best way to describe him was simple, one said. He was generous and a little naïve. He was very weak, physically. A Sunni Muslim of Palestinian descent, Adass had become interested in religion and now spent many hours at the Arab University Mosque near his home.

It was there, after a prayer session, that a man approached him. His name was Mohammed, he said. He was born a Muslim, but his parents died when he was young, and he grew up in a Christian orphanage. Now he wanted to return to Islam, learn how to pray, marry a Muslim woman. Could Adass help him? Adass said he could, and the two men became friends.

On Jan. 15, 2005, Mohammed called Adass. He said he had a surprise for him. Would he come see? The next morning, a car pulled up in front of Adass’s home, and he got in. He told his parents he’d return soon to help them clean the carpets, as he had promised. He took nothing with him. A day later, Mohammed called Adass’s family. He told them Adass was going to Iraq and hinted that the purpose of the journey was to join the Sunni fighters there. He said Adass would not see them again.
Five members of Hezbollah are being tried in absentia for the 2005 attack. The defendants, clockwise from top: Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Salim Jamil Ayyash, Assad Hassan Sabra, Hassan Habib Merhi and Mustafa Amine Badreddine. Credit Artwork by Michael Mapes. Photograph of artwork by Stephen Lewis for The New York Times. Source photographs from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Four weeks later, on Feb. 14, 2005, at 12:55 p.m., an explosion just in front of the St. Georges Hotel shook downtown Beirut. It destroyed a convoy of vehicles carrying Lebanon’s former and probably next prime minister, Rafik Hariri, killing him along with eight members of his entourage and 13 bystanders.

Soon after the blast, an anonymous caller claiming to represent “Nusra and Jihad Group in Greater Syria,” a previously unheard-of organization, told a reporter at the Al Jazeera affiliate in Beirut that a videotape from the suicide bomber was hanging from a tree in Riad al Solh Square, just a few blocks from the scene of the attack. If it was not picked up within 15 minutes, it would disappear. An Al Jazeera technician retrieved it, but Al Jazeera didn’t broadcast its contents immediately. At 5:04 p.m., the anonymous caller phoned again and told the reporter that he should broadcast the video right away or he “would regret it.” Shortly afterward, the tape was aired.

In the recording, a haggard Ahmad Abu Adass, dressed in black and sporting a beard and a white turban, read from a sheet of paper. In the name of Allah, he said, and to avenge the “innocent martyrs who were killed by the security forces of the infidel Saudi regime,” his group swore “to inflict just punishment upon the agent of that regime and its cheap tool in greater Syria, the sinner and holder of ill-gotten gains,” Rafik Hariri. A letter from the hitherto-unknown movement was attached to the tape. It clarified that Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, had to die because he had betrayed his fellow Sunnis, and that Adass, also a Sunni Muslim, was the bomber who killed him. Adass’s family was horrified by the confession. They didn’t believe it.
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The United Nations sent a team of experts to help with the investigation. Forensic analysts from the Netherlands began to reassemble what remained of the bomber’s flatbed truck, a Mitsubishi Canter. They were able to make out its block number, 4D33-J01926, and established that the truck had been stolen in Japan, shipped to the United Arab Emirates and finally purchased, just before the attack, from a used-car dealer in Tripoli, Lebanon, a stronghold of Sunni Muslim movements, some of them identified with Al Qaeda.

Interviewed by the United Nations investigators in Tripoli, the dealer explained that two men came to his shop and, after arguing the price down by $250, paid $11,250 in $100 and $50 bills. They provided false names and phone numbers for the paperwork; it was probably not a coincidence that they picked a dealership with no security cameras. It all seemed clear: yet another suicide bombing by Sunni jihadists.

But the investigators remained puzzled, and not just by the oddity of gentle Ahmad Abu Adass suddenly deciding to commit mass murder. Experts who examined his taped confession noted that the tone and production did not match those of other Sunni jihadist tapes. They found subtle discrepancies, too, between the tape and the letter, as if someone had feared that the tape, perhaps made long before the incident, was not totally convincing and wanted to flesh out the story. Then there was the question of means. The driver of the Mitsubishi truck was evidently skilled; he had reached the Hariri motorcade with incredible precision despite heavy traffic in downtown Beirut. Adass, his family and friends all agreed, had never driven a car. He couldn’t even ride a bicycle.

Finally, there was the problem of the DNA evidence. Forensic experts collected hundreds of body parts at the site, and most were identified as belonging to Hariri, members of his entourage and other known victims. Some 100 samples were genetically compatible with one another, but not with the identified victims. The scatter pattern of those parts showed that they belonged to the person closest to the explosion. This was the suicide bomber. Investigators compared this DNA to genetic material in scrapings from Adass’s toothbrush. The results were unambiguous: Adass was not the bomber.

The United Nations team called in more experts, genetic specialists who subjected the remains to isotope analysis — a process that can determine where a person has been living, what he has been eating, the air he has been breathing. They concluded that the bomber spent the last six months of his life in combat or active military training, where his body absorbed large quantities of lead. The largest body part to be found was his nose, the shape of which led some investigators to believe that he came from Ethiopia, Somalia or Yemen. A senior investigator, who asked to remain anonymous because of concerns about his own safety, said the investigation team preserved the nose in formalin.

“I sat and looked at that nose,” the investigator told me. “I said to myself: ‘Whose nose are you? Who sent you to kill Hariri? Why did he try so hard to make the world think the suicide bomber was someone else?’ ”
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2. The Tribunal
“Whose nose are you?” Answering this macabre question has since become the work of one of the most expensive, significant and controversial criminal investigations ever conducted. The United Nations established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague for pursuing the investigation, and prosecutors filed indictments in 2011 against four members of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful militant organization, and in 2013 against a fifth member. In one sense, the tribunal is necessary simply because of Hezbollah’s unique role in Lebanon and the world: Although the group is classified by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, it is also a popular political party in Lebanon, and therefore it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for Lebanon or any other single nation to provide an appropriate venue for its prosecution. But more is at stake. This is the first major international trial involving the Arab world, and one of the greatest challenges for the prosecutors and the defense lawyers alike is simply to show that justice is possible.

The tribunal’s five trial judges began hearing the case of The Prosecutor v. Ayyash, Badreddine, Merhi, Oneissi and Sabra on Jan. 16, 2014. After a full year of proceedings, they have heard and seen just a fraction of the hundreds of witnesses and thousands of exhibits the prosecutors intend to present. So far, 28 countries, including Lebanon, the United States and France, have contributed roughly half a billion dollars to fund an investigation and trial that will probably cost hundreds of millions more by the time the case is closed, most likely in two to three years. If convicted of all the charges — various acts of terror, 22 counts of murder, 231 counts of attempted murder — the defendants face life in prison in a nation to be determined by the presiding judge.

The tribunal has taken over the seven-story concrete building that once housed the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service and converted the basketball court into a courtroom. Nearby, in a large warehouse, are the exhibits, including the charred wreckage of Hariri’s car and the suicide bomber’s truck, now parked peacefully side by side. The entire compound is very large and rather drab. “It is reminiscent of courtrooms in East Germany,” Vincent Courcelle-Labrousse, one of the defense attorneys, told me, only partly in jest.

Because missiles can fly through windows, the courtroom is windowless. Even the upper gallery, from which spectators once watched basketball games, is walled off by bulletproof glass, its lower half blacked out to obscure the witness stand below. Such measures are not a sign of paranoia: Several witnesses have been threatened, and one investigator was killed.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this high-end courtroom is what’s missing: a dock for the accused. The Lebanese authorities could not — or would not — arrest the five defendants, and Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, has vowed that the United Nations will never capture them, not in a month “or even 300 years.” For this reason, the tribunal decided to hold an international trial in absentia for the first time since the Allied tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946 sentenced Hitler’s aide Martin Bormann to death. Some argue that such a trial is an empty exercise. Under international law, defendants convicted in absentia have the right to a retrial, unless the prosecutors for the authorities who do finally capture them can show that the defendants knew they were under indictment. The counterargument, of course, is that the second trial would not be possible without the work this tribunal has already done.
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The trial judges — an Australian, an Italian, a Jamaican and two Lebanese — are distinguished by the red vests they wear over their gowns, which themselves have red sleeves. The Australian, David Re, is the presiding judge and a veteran of the special international tribunals for Bosnia and Herzegovina and the former Yugoslavia. Like Re, many of the other judges and lawyers involved in the case have made a career of serving in such international tribunals.

The tribunal’s budget makes it possible for lawyers to present their graphic exhibits in the clearest possible manner. During some hearings, prosecutors place impressively accurate before-and-after models of the scene of the bombing on an enormous table at the center of the room. The model makers, who spent weeks constructing them, put special emphasis on precisely reproducing the destruction, even the damage to trees. The proceedings are conducted in Arabic, English or French, and transcriptions are produced in all three languages. I have read thousands of pages of these records and found only two typos.

The process in The Hague is also likely to establish new precedents in murder convictions on the basis of circumstantial evidence. For all the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the investigation, the prosecution has produced no direct evidence, let alone secured cooperation from any of the defendants or their potential accomplices. Its case is largely based on the records of dozens of cellphones that it claims were used by the assassins, among them the five defendants.

Many of the people wounded in the blast and family members of those killed were present when the trial opened. They regarded it as a day for rejoicing, when the truth would begin to be told. Nada Abdelsater-­Abusamra of Lebanon was one of the lawyers the tribunal hired to represent the interests of the victims. “For more than 40 years,” she said in court, “we have been told that we should forgive and forget and turn the page. Turn the page? Which page, Your Honors, if we haven’t read it yet? Forget? Forget what? How do you forget something that you don’t know? Forgive? Forgive who?”

3. Rafik Hariri
To understand the assassination of Rafik Hariri, you must begin decades earlier, in 1975, when a civil war originally between Maronite Christians and Palestinians threatened to tear Lebanon apart. The government asked neighboring Syria to send troops, and the Syrians, who have always seen Lebanon as part of greater Syria, were happy to oblige. The troops stayed, and soon Hafez al-Assad, the president of Syria, was installing his own puppet politicians in positions of power.

The struggle eventually swept up Christians, Druse, Palestinian refugees, Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims — a five-way war of constantly shifting allegiances — and left at least 120,000 people dead, with hundreds of thousands more wounded or homeless. More than a million Lebanese fled the country, even as Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia and especially Syria made it hostage to their own regional agendas. As the war progressed, the Syrians switched their own allegiances however they saw fit, as long as they could continue running the country. Syrian businessmen took advantage of Lebanon’s more advanced financial infrastructure, entering under protection of their armed forces, and the Syrian Army became involved in the growing Lebanese drug trade.
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In 1982, Israel began an invasion across its northern border, seeking to root out elements of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Israeli military wreaked destruction all the way up to Beirut and forced the P.L.O. out of Lebanon. It also defeated the Syrian Army and particularly the Air Force wherever it engaged them. Realizing he couldn’t win a conventional war against the Israelis, Assad, an Alawite Muslim, took a different and somewhat surprising tack: He withdrew his opposition to a plan, proposed by clerics loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, to establish a Shiite political party in Lebanon. The new organization was supposed to provide Lebanon’s Shiite minority with an alternative to the Christian-Sunni governments that had discriminated against them, and also provide Lebanon with a well-funded educational, religious, social and (especially) military organization. The organization, which was a resounding success, called itself the Party of God — in Arabic, Hezbollah. Assad hoped that the Shiite guerrilla force would maul the Israeli Army, which still occupied a “security zone” in southern Lebanon. It did, and Israel’s response was to assassinate the secretary general of Hezbollah, Sheikh Abbas Musawi, in February 1992.

Musawi was succeeded by a capable young cleric, Hassan Nasrallah, and Nasrallah in turn appointed Imad Mughniyeh to run Hezbollah’s military wing. Mughniyeh was a kind of genius of terrorism. He made suicide bombing a strategic weapon, and he was a master of guerrilla tactics, blitz attacks and radio-controlled explosive devices. He also had a gift for propaganda: It was Hezbollah that first started recording its own attacks and broadcasting the results. Mughniyeh is widely believed to be the architect of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing that killed 241 American servicemen, 58 French servicemen and six civilians and led to the withdrawal of the United States Marines in 1984. In 2000, with just a small militia under his command, he succeeded in forcing the Israeli Army, the strongest military force in the Middle East, to withdraw from southern Lebanon.

Assad died that same year, and his son, Bashar al-Assad, took over as president of Syria. He noted well how the partnership of Nasrallah and Mughniyeh had succeeded where the entire Arab world, including his own father, had failed, and he made Syria’s link with Hezbollah — and its patrons in Tehran — the central component of his security doctrine. (Assad’s wager on Hezbollah paid off in 2013, when Nasrallah sent forces­ that bolstered the Syrian government against its own rebels.)

But inside Lebanon, Israel’s withdrawal in 2000 began to raise hopes that Syria, too, might soon depart. To the consternation of Hezbollah leaders and many Syria-backed politicians, an anti-Syria coalition began to form, drawing together Christian, Druse and Sunni Muslim figures. The most prominent politician in this group was Rafik Hariri.

Hariri was born to a poor Sunni family in southern Lebanon in 1944 and quickly rose to great wealth. After securing a degree in business administration from Arab University in Beirut in 1965, he moved to Saudi Arabia, where he demonstrated a virtuoso talent for completing huge projects — mosques, palaces, shopping malls — efficiently and on time. He became a favorite of the royal family and in the early 1980s moved back to Lebanon a well-­connected billionaire. In 1992, he ran for prime minister and won, on a platform of liberalizing the Lebanese economy; after serving until 1998, he ran again two years later and took office from 2000 to 2004.
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As prime minister, Hariri did not directly confront Hezbollah or the Syrians, but conflict simmered nonetheless. The Syrian Army continued to occupy Lebanon from the north, and Hezbollah’s battles with Israel to the south did little to help most of the Lebanese people. Hariri’s wealth and popularity — not to mention his influence as the owner of a growing portfolio of Lebanese and French newspapers and television and radio stations — gave him a reputation far beyond Lebanon. He wanted to make Beirut the financial capital of the Middle East, as it had once been, and Lebanon a liberal, Western-­oriented country. Assad sought to maintain the status quo, with Syria in control of Lebanon and Hezbollah its most powerful military force.
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In the end, Assad prevailed — if not on the larger question of Syria’s presence in Lebanon, then at least on whether it would be him or Hariri who would determine the outcome. The struggle for control found its object in a dispute about the fate of Emile Lahoud, the president of Lebanon since 1998, who was about to end his final term in office. The role of the president was largely ceremonial, but Lahoud, a Christian, had long backed Syrian involvement in Lebanon, and Assad decided it was important to keep him in place, a move that would require amending Lebanon’s constitution. Hariri was firmly opposed to the amendment, and the Syrians were also convinced that he and Walid Jumblatt, a Druse opposition leader, were acting behind the scenes to help the United Nations Security Council pass Resolution 1559, calling upon Hezbollah to disarm and Syria to withdraw from Lebanon.

On Aug. 26, 2004, Assad summoned Hariri to his presidential palace in Damascus to deliver an ultimatum. Lahoud must remain in office, Assad said, even if the United States and France didn’t like it. Hariri objected, but Assad cut him short. “It will be Lahoud,” he said. If Hariri or Jumblatt tried to stop him, another person present at the meeting told the tribunal, he would break Lebanon over their heads. Then he repeated the threat. “I will break Lebanon over your head and over Walid Jumblatt’s head,” he said. “So you had better return to Beirut and arrange the matter on that basis.” (Assad has since denied threatening Hariri’s safety in any way.)

Hariri returned to Beirut — one of his bodyguards would later tell the United Nations investigators that the prime minister was so shocked by the encounter that his nose began to bleed — and drove immediately to Jumblatt’s home. Assad’s father had almost certainly ordered the death of Jumblatt’s father, the Lebanese opposition leader Kamal Jumblatt, in 1977, and he was also most likely behind the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Christian president-elect of Lebanon, in 1982. Hariri and Jumblatt had little reason to doubt that Assad would do the same to them. The risk only increased on Sept. 2, when the Security Council passed Resolution 1559; the Syrians suspected, not without justification, that Hariri was involved.
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Hariri was losing the parliamentary vote on the Lahoud amendment in any case, and several Syria-backed ministers threatened to resign, taking the government down with them, unless Hariri himself stepped down. In early September, shortly before a ceremony in which he received a prize from the United Nations for rebuilding Lebanon, Hariri announced his resignation. He left office on Oct. 20, 2004, and immediately turned his attention to the regional elections scheduled to take place in six months. A new government, his advisers told him, would almost certainly put him back in the prime minister’s office.

4. The Assassination
Hariri lived and worked in a sprawling, nine-story compound, Quraitem Palace, and around 10 a.m. on Feb. 14, 2005, he alerted his bodyguards that he would soon be leaving for an appointment. He liked to drive himself, even when he was prime minister, but while in office he traveled with 50 guards from the Internal Security Forces. Now he had just four I.S.F. guards, supplemented by his own private security team, led by Yahya al Arab, known commonly as Abu Tareq, who had been at Hariri’s side since 1975, wearing dark sunglasses and a stern expression. The guards all carried handguns and wore radio earphones connected by a private network under Abu Tareq’s supervision. In their cars were automatic rifles, a radio-­signal jammer (to counter attacks by remote-­controlled devices) and, according to one source, rocket-propelled grenades and missile launchers.

At 10:41 a.m., Hariri’s motorcade set out for Nejmeh Palace, Lebanon’s Parliament building. It arrived about 13 minutes later, and Hariri spent the next hour talking with several members of Parliament, including his sister, Bahia Hariri. In news photographs taken at the time, he appears to be calm and happy. At 11:56 a.m., Hariri returned to his convoy, and his bodyguards began entering their vehicles, awaiting the order from Abu Tareq to return home.

At that same moment, several cellphone calls were made from the vicinity of the Parliament building to another group of phones about a mile northwest. Shortly after these calls, security cameras in the President Suleiman Franjieh Tunnel, in roughly the same area, recorded the Mitsubishi Canter flatbed truck moving north, toward the St. Georges Hotel. The truck was carrying two tons of a military explosive called RDX — enough to create the blast equivalent of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

As he moved to step into his car, though, Hariri paused. Abu Tareq had told him that Najib Friji, the United Nations spokesman in Beirut, was meeting some reporters at Place de l’Etoile, a cafe just across the street. Hariri decided not to drive away just yet. Instead, he walked briskly to the cafe. Abu Tareq notified the bodyguards by radio of the delay. Another series of mysterious cellphone calls took place, and the driver of the Mitsubishi truck made a right turn after leaving the tunnel and parked. Hariri spent 45 minutes in the cafe, chatting with Friji and the reporters, as well as a few passers-by. The cellphones remained silent, and the truck remained parked, waiting.
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Hariri had a guest with him, Basil Fuleihan, a Christian, who had served as Lebanon’s minister of economy and trade. At Hariri’s request, Fuleihan had cut short a ski vacation in Switzerland to consult on some economic matters. He had made two separate flight reservations for his return to Switzerland — one for Sunday, the day before the attack, and one for the day after it. He chose the second date because he wanted to take part in a parliamentary debate.

Finally, Hariri left the cafe and returned to his car. Fuleihan took the passenger seat. Hariri opened his door and waved and smiled to the small crowd that had gathered. In a photograph of this moment, the last ever taken of Hariri alive, a reflection of Parliament’s clock tower is visible in the bright, clean window of the Mercedes. Like sleuths in an implausible detective novel, the investigators turned the image around and saw the exact time of departure for Hariri’s last convoy: 10 minutes before 1 p.m.

Hariri’s motorcade was made up of six vehicles. The I.S.F. guards took the lead in a black Toyota Land Cruiser, followed immediately by private security guards in a black Mercedes-Benz S500. Then came Hariri, at the wheel of his own S600 (with Fuleihan), and then two more S500s with more private security guards. Bringing up the rear was a dark blue Chevrolet Suburban that had been refitted as an ambulance. Abu Tareq, in the fourth car, radioed ahead to the I.S.F. team the route he wanted to take. The other drivers knew to follow only their lead.

When the convoy set off, the cellphone chatter picked up again, and the Mitsubishi truck pulled back into traffic. The security camera at the exit to the President Suleiman Franjieh Tunnel captured the truck again as it drove toward the St. Georges Hotel. The time was 12:51 p.m. Another security camera, this one on the HSBC Bank building, also captured the Mitsubishi, now moving very slowly, much slower than the other traffic.

The truck approached the St. Georges Hotel, passing in front of yet another security camera. A second after the Mitsubishi left the area covered by the camera, Hariri’s motorcade came into view. The six vehicles were traveling fast, approaching 45 miles per hour, in accordance with security protocols. The cars flew by, each about 20 feet apart. Then the motorcade also exited the range of the cameras.