Press accounts have noted that the UAE’s port of
Dubai served as the main transshipment point for Pakistani nuclear
engineer Abdul Q. Khan’s illicit transfers of materiel for building
atomic bombs as well as the location of the money-laundering operations
used by the Sept. 11 hijackers, two of whom came from the UAE.
But the year-old mystery of the truck-bomb
assassination of Hariri also has wound its way through the UAE’s port
facilities. United Nations investigators tracked the assassins’ white
Mitsubishi Canter Van from Japan, where it had been stolen, to the UAE,
according to a Dec. 10, 2005, U.N. report.
At that time, UAE officials had been unable to
track what happened to the van after its arrival in Dubai. Presumably
the van was loaded onto another freighter and shipped by sea through the
Suez Canal to Lebanon, but the trail had gone cold in the UAE.
While not spelling out the precise status of the
investigation in the UAE, the Dec. 10 report said U.N. investigators had
sought help from “UAE authorities to trace the movements of this
vehicle, including reviewing shipping documents from the UAE and, with
the assistance of the UAE authorities, attempting to locate and
interview the consignees of the container in which the vehicle or its
parts is believed to have been shipped.”
The UAE’s competence – or lack of it – in
identifying the “consignees” or the freighter used to transport the van
to Lebanon could be the key to solving the Hariri murder. This tracking
ability also might demonstrate whether UAE port supervisors have the
requisite skills for protecting U.S. ports from terrorist penetration.
The evidence about the van also could either
buttress or repudiate the tentative U.N. investigative conclusions
implicating Syrian intelligence and pro-Syrian Lebanese officials in
Though Syria’s supposed complicity has already
hardened into conventional wisdom, those tentative U.N. conclusions were
undercut by disclosures that chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis
relied on two witnesses whose credibility later crumbled.
One of those witnesses – Zuhair Zuhair Ibn Muhammad
Said Saddik – was later identified by the German newsmagazine Der
Spiegel as a swindler who boasted about becoming “a millionaire” from
his Hariri testimony.
The other witness, Hussam Taher Hussam, recanted
his testimony about Syrian involvement, saying he lied to the Mehlis
investigation after being kidnapped, tortured and offered $1.3 million
by Lebanese officials.
In the Dec. 10 report, Mehlis countered by
asserting that Hussam’s recantation was coerced by Syrian authorities.
But the conflicting accusations had given the investigation the feel of
“a fictional spy thriller,” the New York Times noted. [NYT, Dec. 7,
Mehlis subsequently resigned as chief investigator
and was replaced in mid-January by Belgian Serge Brammertz, a prosecutor
for the International Criminal Court. Brammertz has not issued any
public updates on the investigation since then, so it is not clear
whether UAE officials were able to track down data about the Mitsubishi
This week, U.S. congressional leaders of both
parties, plus local and state officials, protested Bush’s approval of
the $6.8 billion deal letting a state-owned UAE company manage U.S.
ports in New York, Miami, Baltimore, Newark, Philadelphia and New
Bush staunchly defended the decision and threatened
to cast his first veto if Congress tries to block the UAE takeover. Bush
said he saw no risk to national security.
“If there was any chance that this transaction
would jeopardize the security of the United States, it would not go
forward,” Bush said on Feb. 21.
One international businessman who frequently uses
the port of Dubai told me that the UAE runs a competent operation which
offers a relatively freewheeling approach to commerce that is popular
with shipping companies.
“You’re going to bring the security percentage
down” by turning the U.S. port operations over to the UAE, said the
businessman who asked not be identified. “But there’s never 100 percent
security and the ports have to be run by somebody.”
This businessman said bigger factors in the
decision to turn the U.S. ports over to the UAE were financial –
post-9/11 security precautions had eroded the profitability of the port
operations and the UAE was one of the few countries with sufficient
resources to invest almost $7 billion to take over the U.S. ports.
While agreeing that the UAE management could
increase risks for U.S. security, the businessman said those dangers
pale against the security problems created by Bush’s occupation of Iraq
and other actions that have riled up the Muslim world.
Tracking the Van
As for Hariri’s assassination of Feb. 14, 2005, the
white Mitsubishi Canter Van was seen on a security camera rolling toward
Hariri’s motorcade immediately before the explosion. The vehicle was
described by U.N. investigators as the vehicle that delivered the bomb.
Forensic specialists later identified the precise
vehicle from numbers found in the debris, including a piece of the
engine block. Japanese police reported that a van with those identifying
numbers had been stolen in Japan four months before the bombing.
After the first interim U.N. report was issued in
October 2005, I wrote an article suggesting that possibly the most
promising hope for cracking the case was to pursue more aggressively the
forensic leads, particularly who last possessed the van. [See
Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report.”]
The second U.N. report in December revealed some
progress on that front. Japanese police concluded that the van likely
was shipped, either in whole or in parts, to the UAE before reaching its
final destination in Lebanon.
But Lebanese security officials said they had no
record of the identification numbers from the van’s engine or chassis on
any vehicle registered in Lebanon. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Elusive
Truth About the Hariri Hit.”]
With the Lebanese unable to track the vehicle in
its last days, the investigative pressure fell back on the UAE port
authorities to show how effective they can be in helping break a