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UAE, Port Security & the Hariri Hit

By Robert Parry
February 22, 2006

The Bush administration is letting the United Arab Emirates take control of six key U.S. ports despite its own port’s reputation as a smuggling center used by arms traffickers, drug dealers and terrorists, apparently including the assassins of Lebanon’s ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

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.

Security Skills

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 Hariri’s murder.

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, 2005]

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 van.

Congressional Uproar

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 Orleans.

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 Consortiumnews.com’s “The 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 terrorist ring.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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