From the start, the United Nations-sponsored inquiry into the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has looked more like an agit-prop campaign, first aimed at Syria and now Hezbollah, than an impartial investigation into the crime. Gareth Porter notes the inquiry’s curious blind eye toward an al-Qaeda confession.
By Gareth Porter
In focusing entirely on the alleged links between four Hezbollah activists and the 2005 bombing that killed Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the indictment issued by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has continued the practice of the U.N investigation before it of refusing to acknowledge the much stronger evidence that an Al-Qaeda cell was responsible for the assassination.
Several members of an Al-Qaeda cell confessed in 2006 to having carried out the crime, but later recanted their confessions, claiming they were tortured.
However, the transcript of one of the interrogations, which was published by a Beirut newspaper in 2007, shows that the testimony was being provided without coercion and that it suggested that Al-Qaeda had indeed ordered the assassination.
But the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) was determined to pin the crime either on Syria or its Lebanese ally Hezbollah and refused to pursue the Al-Qaeda angle.
Detlev Mehlis, the first head of UNIIIC, was convinced from the beginning that Syrian military intelligence and its Lebanese allies had carried out the bombing and went to extraordinary lengths to link Ahmed Abu Adas, who had appeared in a videotape claiming responsibility for the assassination for a previously unknown group, to Syrian intelligence.
Violating the general rule that investigators do not reveal specific witness testimony outside an actual courtroom, Mehlis described testimony from “a number of sources, confidential and otherwise,” which he said “pointed to Abu Adas being used by Syria and Lebanese authorities as scapegoat for the crimes.”
Mehlis cited one witness who claimed to have seen Adas in the hallway outside the office of the director of Syrian intelligence in December 2004, and another who said Adas had been forced by the head of Syrian military intelligence to record the video in Damascus 15 days before the assassination and was then put in a Syrian prison.
Mehlis quoted a third witness, Zouheir Saddiq, as saying that Adas had changed his mind about carrying out the assassination on behalf of Syrian intelligence “at the last minute” and had been killed by the Syrians and his body put in the vehicle carrying the bomb.
The Mehlis effort to fit the Adas video into his narrative of Syrian responsibility for the killing of Hariri began to fall apart when the four “false witnesses” who had implicated Syrian and Lebanese intelligence in the assassination, including Saddiq, were discredited as fabricators.
Meanwhile a major potential break in the case occurred when Lebanese authorities arrested 11 members of an Al-Qaeda terrorist cell in late December 2005 and early January 2006.
The members of the cell quickly confessed to interrogators that they had planned and carried out the assassination of Hariri, The Daily Star reported Jun. 6, 2008.
Obviously based in large part on the interrogation of the cell members, the Lebanese government wrote an internal report in 2006 saying that, at one point after the assassination, Ahmed Abu Adas had been living in the same apartment in Beirut as the “emir” of the Al- Qaeda cell, Sheik Rashid.
The full text of the report was leaked to Al Hayat, which published it April 7, 2007.
The report said Rashid, whose real name was Hassan Muhammad Nab’a, had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1999 and later to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq.
Rashid had also been involved in the “Dinniyeh Group” which launched an armed attempt to create an Islamic mini-state in northern Lebanon in 2000, only to be crushed by 13,000 Lebanese troops.
The members of the Al-Qaeda cell later retracted their confessions when they were tried by military courts in summer 2008 for “plotting to commit terrorist acts on Lebanese soil,” claiming that the confessions had been extracted under torture.
But the Al-Qaeda cell members were being held by the Ministry of Interior, whose top officials had a political interest in suppressing the information obtained from them. The full transcript of the interrogation of one of the members of the cell was leaked to the Beirut daily Al Akhbar in October 2007 by an official who was unhappy with the ministry’s opposition to doing anything with the confessions.
The transcript shows that the testimony of at least one of the members contained information that could only have been known by someone who had been informed of details of the plot.
The testimony came from Faisal Akhbar, a Syrian carrying a Saudi passport who freely admitted being part of the Al-Qaeda cell. He testified that Khaled Taha, a figure the U.N. commission later admitted was closely associated with Adas, had told him in early January 2005 that an order had been issued for the assassination of Hariri, and that he was to go to Syria to help Adas make a video on the group’s taking responsibility for the assassination.
Akhbar recalled that Sheikh Rashid had told him in Syria immediately after the assassination that it had been done because Hariri had signed the orders for the execution of Al-Qaeda militants in Lebanon in 2004. Akhbar also said he was told around Feb. 3, 2005, that a team of Lebanese Al-Qaeda had been carrying out surveillance of Hariri since mid-January.
Akhbar also told interrogators some details that were clearly untrue, including the assertion that Abu Adas had actually died in the suicide mission. That was the idea that the cell had promoted in a note attached to the videotape Adas made.
When challenged on that point, Akhbar immediately admitted that a youth from Saudi Arabia, who had been sent by Al-Qaeda, had been the suicide bomber. He acknowledged that Rashid had told him that, if detained, he was to inform the security services that he knew nothing about the subject of Abu Adas, and that he was to warn the other members of the cell to do likewise.
But the interrogator employed a trick question to establish whether Akhbar had actual knowledge of the assassination plot or not. He gave the Al-Qaeda cadre a list of 11 phone numbers, four of which were fake numbers, and asked him if he remembered which ones were used in the preparations for the assassination.
Akhbar immediately corrected the interrogator, saying there had only been seven numbers used in the preparations for the assassination, including the five members of the surveillance team. That response corresponded with the information the investigation had already obtained, and which had not been reported in the news media.
The response of UNIIIC, under its new chief, Belgian Serge Brammertz, to the unfolding of an entirely different narrative surrounding the assassination was to shift the focus away from the question of who were the actual perpetrators of the bombing.
In his March 2006 report, Brammertz said the “priority” of UNIIIC “is being given not to the team that carried out the assassination but to those who ‘enabled’ the crime.”
And Brammertz had still not abandoned the story originally planted by the false witnesses in 2005 that the role of Adas in making the videotape had been manipulated by Syrian intelligence.
In his June 2006 report, Brammertz said the Commission continued to “entertain the idea” that whoever detonated the bomb may have been “coerced into doing so”. And in the September 2006 report, he suggested that Adas may have been coerced into delivering the videotape, just as Mehlis had suggested in 2005.
Despite the official Lebanese government report confirming it, Brammertz never publicly acknowledged that Adas was deeply involved with an Al-Qaeda cell, much less that its members had confessed to the killing of Hariri.
Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, similarly chose not to pursue that evidence, which directly contradicts the assertion in his indictment that it was a Hezbollah operative – not Al-Qaeda – who had convinced Adas to make the videotape.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006. (This story first appeared at Inter Press Service.)