Lebanon is bracing for the verdict into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that will be announced by the UN-backed tribunal in The Hague on Tuesday. The entire country and region are waiting to see whether the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) will convict or acquit four Hezbollah members who have been indicted in the crime.
Former Lebanese Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi said the assassination was not a spur of the moment decision, but it was part of a “plot devised by the Iranian and Syrian regimes and carried out by Hezbollah with the support of Syrian intelligence.”
It is well known that Hariri’s life was threatened months before his murder on February 14, 2005 in a massive bombing in Beirut that killed 21 others. He became a target after he stepped down as premier in 2004.
Rifi, who also served as Internal Security Forces (ISF) chief and was part of the Hariri investigation in collecting evidence, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The signs that he would be targeted began to emerge when ISF members in his security entourage were withdrawn.”
He added that he had twice personally informed the former PM of threats against his life, but he dismissed them because he had received international guarantees that he would not be harmed.
The Lebanese-Syrian security apparatus that had a complete stifling grip over Lebanon did not anticipate the local, regional and international uproar over the assassination. The reaction “confused” the security regime and prompted the United Nations Security Council to dispatch a fact-finding mission, headed by Peter FitzGerald, to Lebanon. After a one-month investigation, he concluded that the Lebanese judicial-security system was not qualified to look into the crime and he therefore, proposed the formation of an international probe.
Rifi, who acted as a liaison officer between the FitzGerald committee and Lebanese state, realized then that the investigation was in a race against time and that it was walking through a minefield. He spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat of the role of the ISF, which he headed soon after Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in April 2005. He highlighted the central role it played in assisting the international probe and protecting investigators and witnesses.
Rifi highlighted how Captain Wissam Eid succeeded, through his genius and high moral and national duty, in grasping the first and primary piece of evidence that led to the perpetrators by analyzing their telephone data. The breakthrough cost him his life as he was killed in a bombing in Beirut in 2008.
Rifi said Eid managed to pinpoint the users of telephone lines who were monitoring Hariri’s each and every move two months before his assassination. The lines were active and followed the former premier’s movement between the Keserouan region and his villa in Faqra. The lines were almost always active near his residence in Qoreitem in Beirut. The lines shut abruptly and permanently all at once just before the assassination.
Rifi said the process of uncovering who was behind those telephone lines took several long months. “We were very patient and operated on the basis that no crime is perfect.”
And then a breakthrough. In April 2006, Wissam al-Hassan, head of the intelligence bureau, came to Rifi’s office with the news that one of the shut telephone lines became active and carried out a single call from the eastern Bekaa region to a line in Beirut’s southern suburbs of Dahieh. “It was through this call that we were able to identify the owner of the line and the remaining conspirators,” recalled Rifi. Like Eid, Hassan was awarded for his feat with a bombing that claimed his life in Beirut in 2012.
Saad Hariri, the slain premier’s son, was informed of the details of the investigation. Saad would follow in his father’s footsteps and enter Lebanon’s fraught political scene. He became head of the Mustaqbal movement, was elected to parliament and headed a number of governments.
Rifi informed Saad that his father’s killers were members of Hezbollah’s security apparatus. At this, Saad telephoned Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and demanded that a meeting between him and Hassan be arranged immediately, said Rifi.
Indeed, Hassan met with Nasrallah and informed him about the leads in the investigation, demanding an explanation. Twenty-four hours later, Nasrallah arranged a meeting for him with a party security official known as Abou Ali. Hassan again briefed him on the probe and the damning findings. Abou Ali claimed that the Hezbollah security cell was at the scene of the assassination and was following Hariri’s movement because it was monitoring Israeli agents. The weak justifications were not convincing, said Rifi.
Amid negotiations with the party over this issue, the July 2006 war suddenly erupted and contacts with Hezbollah came to a complete halt, he added. Even after the war, contacts remained severed, significantly after Shiite ministers resigned months later from then Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s government.
Amid the severed communication with Hezbollah, the Lebanese security team presented its findings to the international investigation, which was then led by Belgian Serge Brammertz. Rifi noted that the probe made little progress at the time. Brammertz resigned soon after and was succeeded by Canadian prosecutor Daniel Bellemare, who positively assessed the findings. He said the evidence was objective and scientific and soon after the probe began to zero in on the suspects. The suspects were soon indicted and the STL trials kicked off.
Rifi detailed a significant part of the case. He recounted how one day a secret witness came to his office. A resident of the northern city of Tripoli, he did not disclose his identity, but gave accurate information about a person who had approached Palestinian Ahmed Abou Adas. Abou Adas had famously filmed a video claiming responsibility for the Hariri bombing, but it was soon dismissed.
The secret witness said the unidentified person would meet with Abou Adas at a mosque in Beirut and would ask him to teach him about Islam. Days later, that same person would visit Abou Adas’ house and request that he accompany him somewhere. Two weeks later, Hariri was assassinated and Abou Adas disappeared without a trace. The investigation would later find out that the man who approached Abou Adas at the mosque was Assad Sabra, one of the four Hezbollah members indicted in the assassination. No trace of Abou Adas was found at the blast site.
Rifi stressed to Asharq Al-Awsat that an assassination of such a massive scale and with such major repercussions could not have been decided by Hezbollah alone. It is a product of joint decision taken by the Iranian and Syrian regimes that tasked the party’s security apparatus to carry it out.