Breakthrough in Tribunal Investigation: New Evidence Points to Hezbollah in Hariri Murder

By Erich Follath

The United Nations special tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri has reached surprising new conclusions -- and it is keeping them secret. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, investigators now believe Hezbollah was behind the Hariri murder.

It was an act of virtually Shakespearean dimensions, a family tragedy involving murder and suicide, contrived and real tears -- and a good deal of big-time politics.

The terror attack in Beirut on Valentine's Day, 2005: Intensive investigations in Lebanon are all pointing to Hezbollah and not Syria.
REUTERS

The terror attack in Beirut on Valentine's Day, 2005: Intensive investigations in Lebanon are all pointing to Hezbollah and not Syria.

On February 14, 2005, Valentine's Day, at 12:56 p.m., a massive bomb exploded in front of the Hotel St. Georges in Beirut, just as the motorcade of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri passed by. The explosives ripped a crater two meters deep into the street, and the blast destroyed the local branch of Britain's HSBC Bank. Body parts were hurled as far as the roofs of surrounding buildings. Twenty-three people died in the explosion and ensuing inferno, including Hariri, his bodyguards and passersby.

The shock waves quickly spread across the Middle East. Why did Hariri have to die? Who carried out the attack and who was behind it? What did they hope to achieve politically?

The Hariri assassination has been the source of wild speculation ever since. Was it the work of terrorist organization al-Qaida, angered by Hariri's close ties to the Saudi royal family? Or of the Israelis, as part of their constant efforts to weaken neighboring Lebanon? Or the Iranians, who hated secularist Hariri?

At the time of the attack, it was known that Hariri, a billionaire construction magnate who was responsible for the reconstruction of the Lebanese capital after decades of civil war, wanted to reenter politics. It was also known that he had had a falling out with Syrian President Bashar Assad after demanding the withdrawal of Syrian occupation forces from his native Lebanon. As a result, the prime suspects in the murder were the powerful Syrian military and intelligence agency, as well as their Lebanese henchmen. The pressure on Damascus came at an opportune time for the US government. Then-President George W. Bush had placed Syria on his list of rogue states and wanted to isolate the regime internationally.

In late 2005, an investigation team approved by the United Nations and headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis found, after seven months of research, that Syrian security forces and high-ranking Lebanese officials were in fact responsible for the Hariri murder. Four suspects were arrested. But the smoking gun, the final piece of evidence, was not found. The pace of the investigation stalled under Mehlis's Belgian successor, Serge Brammertz.

The establishment of a UN special tribunal was intended to provide certainty. It began its work on March 1, 2009. The tribunal, headquartered in the town of Leidschendam in the Netherlands, has a budget of more than €40 million ($56 million) for the first year alone, with the UN paying 51 percent and Beirut 49 percent of the cost. It has an initial mandate for three years, and the most severe sentence it can impose is life in prison. Canadian Daniel Bellemare, 57, was appointed to head the tribunal. Four of the 11 judges are Lebanese, whose identities have been kept secret, for security reasons.

As its first official act, the tribunal ordered the release, in early April, of the four men Mehlis had had arrested. By then, they had already spent more than three years sitting in a Lebanese prison. Since then, it has been deathly quiet in Leidschendam, as if the investigation had just begun and there were nothing to say.

Hezbollah supporters in Beirut listen to a speech given by the movement's leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Hariri's growing popularity could have been a thorn in the side of Lebanese Shiite leader Nasrallah.
AP

Hezbollah supporters in Beirut listen to a speech given by the movement's leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Hariri's growing popularity could have been a thorn in the side of Lebanese Shiite leader Nasrallah.

But now there are signs that the investigation has yielded new and explosive results. SPIEGEL has learned from sources close to the tribunal and verified by examining internal documents, that the Hariri case is about to take a sensational turn. Intensive investigations in Lebanon are all pointing to a new conclusion: that it was not the Syrians, but instead special forces of the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah ("Party of God") that planned and executed the diabolical attack. Tribunal chief prosecutor Bellemare and his judges apparently want to hold back this information, which they have been aware for about a month. What are they afraid of?

According to the detailed information provided by the SPIEGEL source, the fact that the case may have been "cracked" is the result of a mixture of serendipity la Sherlock Holmes and the state-of-the-art technology used by cyber detectives. In months of painstaking work, a secretly operating special unit of the Lebanese security forces, headed by intelligence expert Captain Wissam Eid, filtered out the numbers of mobile phones that could be pinpointed to the area surrounding Hariri on the days leading up to the attack and on the date of the murder itself. The investigators referred to these mobile phones as the "first circle of hell."

Captain Eid's team eventually identified eight mobile phones, all of which had been purchased on the same day in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. They were activated six weeks before the assassination, and they were used exclusively for communication among their users and -- with the exception of one case -- were no longer used after the attack. They were apparently tools of the hit team that carried out the terrorist attack.

But there was also a "second circle of hell," a network of about 20 mobile phones that were identified as being in proximity to the first eight phones noticeably often. According to the Lebanese security forces, all of the numbers involved apparently belong to the "operational arm" of Hezbollah, which maintains a militia in Lebanon that is more powerful than the regular Lebanese army. While part of the Party of God acts like a normal political organization, participating in democratic elections and appointing cabinet ministers, the other part uses less savory tactics, such as abductions near the Israeli border and terrorist attacks, such those committed against Jewish facilities in South America in 2002 and 2004.

The whereabouts of the two Beirut groups of mobile phone users coincided again and again, and they were sometimes located near the site of the attack. The romantic attachment of one of the terrorists led the cyber-detectives directly to one of the main suspects. He committed the unbelievable indiscretion of calling his girlfriend from one of the "hot" phones. It only happened once, but it was enough to identify the man. He is believed to be Abd al-Majid Ghamlush, from the town of Rumin, a Hezbollah member who had completed a training course in Iran. Ghamlush was also identified as the buyer of the mobile phones. He has since disappeared, and perhaps is no longer alive.

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