At a press conference on Saturday, Prime Minister Najib Mikati was asked: “You say that this crime [the assassination of Brigadier-General Wissam al-Hassan] is of the same gravity as the murder of [the late] Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. So why has the case not been referred to the international tribunal, especially when you are speaking of ‘international investigations’?”
Mikati replied: “The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) was set up for a specific situation, at a specific time. I did not wish to preempt the issue before discussing it with the international organizations. The decision is clear – it is to cooperate with every foreign and international body, agency and authority. The tribunal is one of the organizations we can resort to for help when needed.”
Besides the clear indication that he will be inviting foreign intervention into Lebanese affairs, Mikati’s reply is not even factually correct. The STL, the international tribunal tasked with investigating the assassination of Hariri, only has jurisdiction over the 14 February 2005 attack, in which Hariri and others died, and dozens were wounded. If the tribunal comes to consider – according to the principles of criminal justice and through investigations carried out by its own public prosecutor – that other attacks in Lebanon carried out between 1 November 2004 and 12 December 2005 are linked to the 14 February 2005 attack, and that their nature and gravity are comparable, then the court will also have jurisdiction over these attacks.
This link would have to include – for example, but not exclusively – a number of the following factors: criminal intent (motive), the aim of the attacks, the status of the targeted victims, the modus operandi of the attacks, and the alleged perpetrators. The government will not be able to reach a conclusion on any such link in a short period of time. The official agencies in charge of the investigation would have to complete the first phase of their mission and place the preliminary information in the hands of the judicial authorities, who can in turn send their report to the cabinet via the justice minister.
Three days after the bombing in Achrafieh, one can discuss some of the preliminary information to determine whether there is any basis for a link between the attacks, though the investigation is a long way from being resolved:
First, it seems that investigating criminal intent will include local parties, as well as regional and international parties. One of the motives for the crime could have been to disable a security/ intelligence apparatus that has proven capable of arresting several persons, some of whom were later convicted in court, for working on behalf of Israeli intelligence services. Hassan’s Information Branch also foiled an operation to transport explosives to Lebanon from Syria, allegedly at the behest of the Syrian government. Possible motives for the attack, therefore, could include regional intelligence services settling scores.
However, examining the motives for the attack against Hariri – according to the STL prosecution’s indictment – and the possible motives for Hassan’s assassination, leads to the conclusion that a connection ought to be ruled out. The international indictment, or arrest warrants resulting from it, do not point to any relationship between the four accused in Hariri’s assassination and the Syrian or Israeli intelligence services.
Second, it seems that the aim of the Achrafieh attack was not just to assassinate Hassan, but also to spread fear among the people in a predominantly Christian area. Some of the attacks that followed the assassinations of 2005 were also aimed at spreading fear among people in areas that belonged to this same sect, without targeting any specific person (such as the attacks in Kaslik, Sadd al-Bouchrieh and Ashrafieh between 2005 and 2007). Undoubtedly, a careful examination of the criminal techniques used in the Hassan assassination will help uncover the motive behind the attack.
Third, the largest number of direct victims of this attack were civilians with no relationship to the target. When it comes to the target himself, one can clearly distinguish the significance of his institutional position from his political, sectarian or religious one. Hassan was an officer in the Internal Security Forces, but despite law number 17/90 forbidding officers of this institution from getting involved in politics, Hassan also played a political role, which almost overshadowed his institutional one. On this basis, we can say that Hassan’s status does correlate with that of Hariri. In addition, Hassan was one of Hariri’s closest companions before the latter was assassinated, because he was in charge of protocol at the time. Hassan had resigned from the security forces, but decided to rejoin them after the Hariri assassination with the aim of establishing a sophisticated security intelligence force. Therefore, it seems that Hassan operated in a more practical and functional capacity than a merely symbolic or superficial one.
This compels a return to the motives of the crime, where it appears that the argument for deactivating the agency Hassan led is stronger than the motive for inciting strife. In other words, Hassan’s security, intelligence and operational position, and his responsibility for essential daily tasks, can help establish the criminal intent. It also permits a distinction from other assassinations, which targeted persons who were playing or had played a political, media or military role, with the exceptions of Major Wissam Eid, assassinated in 2008, and Lieutenant Colonel Samir Shehadeh, who survived an assassination attempt in 2006.
Fourth, as for the modus operandi of the attack, preliminary information indicates that it differed from previous ones. From camera and audio recordings, it appears that the attack was the result of two bombs – not one – as was the case with all other assassinations since 2005, with the exception of the attack against ex-minister Pierre Gemayel, who was shot. As with the previous attacks, it is most likely that the target was being carefully surveilled. But the difference between Hassan and most of the previous targets is that he was the best qualified to protect himself from such surveillance. The founder and director of the most sophisticated intelligence service in Lebanon should have been able to uncover any attempt to infiltrate his service or to monitor his movements.
Fifth, searching for possible suspects in the initial phase should not be limited to the intelligence and security services operating on Lebanese soil that are technically capable of carrying out such an attack. Rather, the investigation should also consider the degree to which this attack benefits each of these services and states.
As for the international tribunal, it seems that most security and government agencies in Lebanon, with Prime Minister Mikati at the forefront, are pointing the finger at Syrian intelligence, not to Hezbollah – the party to which the four men accused by the STL of assassinating Hariri belong.
Can the Investigation be Entrusted to the Information Branch?
Assassinated Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan built a sophisticated security-intelligence apparatus that was supposed to be under the authority of the chiefs of staff of the Internal Security Forces’ General Directorate. The Information Branch is considered to be the most sophisticated and effective security apparatus in Lebanon. Its officers and rank and file are highly-qualified as are its technical experts, who underwent training in Lebanon, the US and Europe. As for equipment, Hassan presided over the most state-of-the-art equipment, offices and technology.
However, despite all these qualifications and abilities, professional standards dictate that another apparatus should be placed in charge of investigating the assassination of the agency’s director and founder. Officers at the Information Branch knew Hassan personally, which implies an emotional connection that has to be suspended in criminal investigations.
Tasking officers at the Information Branch with investigating Hassan’s assassination should be avoided – not least of all because Hassan’s movements were a closely-guarded secret, and the trap set for him in a back alley of Achrafieh presupposes that his assassins may have been privy to inside information.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
Wissam al-Hassan and the Information Branch