Lebanon’s vicious 15-year civil war ended in 1991 but on Monday, February 14, Beirut experienced a nasty blast from the past. Former prime minister, dominant politician Rafiq Hariri and 14 others were murdered in a huge bomb blast on the city’s luxurious Corniche by exactly the same terrorist coalition that destroyed the US embassy in Beirut 22 years ago.
The suicide bomber who struck on April 18, 1983, murdered 63 people in the embassy. Among them were 17 Americans, the entire roster of CIA station chiefs in the Middle East. They had foregathered for a secret policy conclave when a powerful bomb planted directly underneath the conference room killed every single one in the most devastating attack ever mounted against the American intelligence community.
The same deadly method, focus and precision – and philosophy – went into the planning of the 2005 slaying of a key Lebanese opposition figure, favorite of the United States and France, whose person embodied a rare meeting-point between the two world powers in the Middle East. Destroying Hariri smashed with a single bang US and French regional strategies alike and eliminated the only slim chance of American-European cooperation in Iraq.
Both had the same objective: to force the United States to cut down on its activities, presence and goals in the region.
The 1983 embassy bombing was the subject of a US inquiry for years before the plotters were identified, though never apprehended. In those days, names like those of arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, chief of Hizballah’s special security branch, and General Mohammad al-Khouly, head of Syrian air force intelligence, were new to US intelligence. Precious time was wasted before the Americans discovered – although warned by more savvy observers – that Hizballah’s secret operative Mughniyeh spread his services around as a terrorist mercenary working for Iran and the Palestinians, and later for al Qaeda.
By the time Washington was wise to its adversary, he and his patrons were in full flight on their next offensive. A wave of Western hostage-taking engulfed Lebanon and Iran, targeting US agents and military men, some of whom were savagely executed.
William Buckley, CIA station chief in Lebanon was abducted in South Lebanon in 1984. He died in Hizballah captivity two years later of torture inflicted for months to extract information.
Col. William R. “Rich” Higgins, the US Marine who replaced Buckley, was kidnapped in 1988 and transferred to Tehran. Intelligence data showed he too was tortured to death. He was buried in a cemetery in northern Tehran.
Only four days before Hariri’s assassination, a grave marker was placed for Higgins at Quantico National Cemetery near the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, to stay there until the day that his body is brought home.
The extra-regional dimension
Time-consuming effort was also required to establish the full scope of operation of Khouly and Syrian air force intelligence. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, they were not merely the ears to the wall and muscle that kept President Hafez Assad, father of the incumbent, in power, they also acted as underground hub for the links among Palestinian, Asian and European terrorist groups and their ties to the Russian KGB and the intelligence gathering army (HVA) of East Germany’s Ministry for State Security (MFS), or Stasi, headed by the notorious Markus Wolf.
The information gathered, some of it uncovered by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts, showed that Khouly and Mughniyeh, along with the Syrian Socialist Revolutionary Party – a co-production of the Syrian and Lebanese communist parties, set up the 1983 massacre of CIA station chiefs in Beirut.
Mughniyeh is still at large despite all of Washington’s best efforts to capture him. And he is even based again in Lebanon at the head of the same security apparatus he directed 23 years ago. Only now he has a new partner, al Qaeda, which he serves in conjunction with his old-time Iranian and Syrian masters and allies.
Conspirator Number Two, Khouly is based in Damascus. He no longer runs air force intelligence, but still commands high influence as senior personal adviser to President Bashar Assad.
The 1980s Mughniyeh-Khouly spirit of cooperation is still alive today. More than ever before, the pair are armed with methods, motivation and resources for large-scale operations in their area of expertise: assassination and destabilization by terror.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s terror experts conclude that this duo put Hariri in its crosshairs – or rather atop three or up to five explosives-filled 2.5 km-long tunnels that came out under the ex-prime minister’s armored car outside Beirut’s five-star St. Georges Hotel on the seaside Corniche promenade.
Only three organizations could have arranged for long tunnels to be dug in the heart of the Lebanese capital undisturbed. The first two are: the Syrian Reconnaissance Service headed by General Rostum Ghazallah, whose agents have the run of Beirut, and the Lebanese General Intelligence Service whose head, General Jamil al-Sayyad, is a Syrian stooge. The two groups are run in close tandem from Damascus. Neither would have ventured on a major operation such as the assassination of Hariri without Syria’s say-so.
The third group is Mughniyeh’s terrorist network. He has carte blanche to use Hizballah combat units and spotters anywhere and any time without prior notice to the organization’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah.
The tunneling method they used is uncomfortably familiar to Israeli counter-terror agencies which are still grappling with the threat. Last December, a similar 800 meter long bomb-tunnel designed by Hizballah and operated by two suicide killers blew up an Israeli military position at the Rafah-Egyptian border crossing injuring 11 soldiers. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s terror experts do not rule out the possibility of the Rafah blast having been a practice run for the main action in Beirut.
Al Qaeda didn’t do it
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terrorism experts, clandestine strings tie the assassins to intelligence organizations inside and outside the region in 2005, just as they did two decades ago.
Khouly and Mughniyeh have been working hand in glove with former Iraqi Baathists now harbored by Syria as well as foreign agencies. They are all part of a terrorist supply system that funnels fighters, explosives, weapons and funds into Iraq to fight US troops. The big difference between then and now is the parallel al Qaeda network that occasionally taps the Syrian-Lebanese infrastructure.
Back in 1983, a member of the mysterious Revolutionary Socialist party was sent to plant the explosives at the US embassy. To this day, no one knows how he tricked his way into the building, spent days planting the bomb in a concealed place and then detonated it by remote control on a signal from an inside informant that the CIA meeting had begun.
In the Hariri killing, Ahmed Abu Hada, a Palestinian from the Beirut area, was designated to hide in the Corniche tunnel and trigger the explosives as Hariri’s heavily guarded motorcade passed overhead.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Lebanese sources report that Hada was no stranger to Lebanese security services. Jailed in Beirut’s central prison in early 1999 for belonging to a radical, Islamic Palestinian group called The Devil’s Disciples, Hada was released in November 2004. This shadowy group boasts no more than a few dozen members in all of Lebanon. The planners of the Hariri hit knew Hada was home from jail and out of work. They offered him martyrdom – a suicide attack for a handsome fee to his family.
The blast that killed Hariri and 15 other people in his motorcade, including several former Lebanese cabinet ministers, occurred precisely at noon. A short time after, Hada appeared on videotape against the backdrop of an al Qaeda flag to announce the group had condemned the Lebanese opposition leader to death for his ties with the Saudi royal family. The dead multi-billionaire had extensive business interests in Saudi Arabia.
But then al Qaeda made the unprecedented move of repudiating responsibility for the bombing and denying Hada was one of theirs.
Someone had clearly gone to the trouble of preparing a videotape pointing a finger at al Qaeda, assuming the group would not bother to confirm or deny involvement in the assassination. That was a bad miscalculation, for al Qaeda has no interest in shouldering the blame for an act that could touch off civil war in Lebanon. Quite the reverse. The current haphazard political mess in Lebanon suits the jihadist organization very well because it gives operatives total freedom of movement, whereas civil conflict war would force al Qaeda to choose sides. This would limit its scope of operations and deflect Osama bin Laden followers from their true path of struggle to destroy America.
The Lebanese leader’s murder had two main goals: regional and domestic.
The most pressing was to disrupt the combined US-French campaign to release Lebanon from Syria’s clutches and free Beirut to establish a government that was no longer an outpost of Damascus. The loss of Lebanon would deal Bashar Assad a deathblow economically and politically. Syria derives more than $1 billion dollars of annual revenue from Lebanon. Loss of this income and political sway over Beirut would put an end to Syria’s perceived role as a regional Middle East power and downgrade its ability to play out that role by providing insurgent forces in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority with logistical backing.
Damascus would also be cut off from its primary manpower reservoir for the stream of “Arab fighters” pumped through Syria into Iraq. Most are recruited from the ranks of the Lebanese Hizballah and among the Palestinian and Sunni populations in southern and northern Lebanon.
Moreover, once out of Lebanon, the Syrians would forfeit their primacy as patrons and hosts of the radical wings of the Palestinian camp, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine. Today, it is in the Bashar regime’s gift to bestow on them headquarters, propaganda offices and training camps in the two countries, Syria and in Lebanon.
Damascus would also have to give up its tight and lucrative grip on the vaunted Lebanese banking system. Their domination of Lebanon cut away, the Syrians would have to compete for a foothold on equal terms with the enterprising Lebanese.
Kicked out of Lebanon, Syria as well as Iran would be cut off from oversight of Hizballah, the main military and intelligence force in control of Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast and its border with Israel.
Gone would be Assad’s chief bargaining chip in any bid to force Israel to hand back the Golan Heights captured in the 1967 war.
Iran would lose its sole operational arm on the Mediterranean.
For Damascus the stakes were so high, therefore, that the murder of a single stout Lebanese politician – and even the ensuing international howls of protest – were a small price to pay to ward off this serial nightmare.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Beirut reveal here for the first time that Hariri had been holding secret meetings with Hizballah’s Nasrallah.
Their last encounter took place in Beirut on Monday, February 7, ten days before he was assassinated. The two totally dissimilar rivals, who normally had little to say to each other, got together on the key issue of the general election scheduled for Lebanon in early May: the marking off of the country into voting constituencies.
The United States and France have been employing every means at their disposal to abort gerrymandering by Syria’s intelligence services that would have packed the Lebanese parliament with pro-Syrian legislators and kept the Land of the Cedars a Syrian satellite.
Washington and Paris threw their combined weight behind three foremost opposition leaders, Druse chief Walid Jumblatt, the Maronite Christian patriarch Archbishop Abdullah Sfeir and the Sunni Muslim Hariri.
Drawing constituency lines in Lebanon is extremely sensitive and tricky.
Because of the big towns’ multiethnic and multi-religious populations, a line drawn down a single street or a small village is capable of tipping the balance of an election. The Hariri-Nasrallah meeting on district divisions was therefore of vital importance to their shared interest in averting outbreaks of ethnic violence that could spread to civil strife.
According to our sources, Nasrallah thought it best to come to terms with the opposition leader, aware that he could afford to buy tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of votes. In 2000, he did just that to win election in Beirut as prime minister.
Damascus believed that a Hariri-Nasrallah agreement would neutralize US influence on the tycoon and reduce his and other opposition leaders’ chances of polling a parliamentary majority.
But as the negotiations proceeded, Syria and Hizballah began to realize that Hariri was stringing them along for what he could get in the way of support for himself in some districts of Beirut without reciprocating in a way that would better the prospects of the pro-Syrian candidates in other parts of the country.
When the Syrians saw they were getting nowhere – and for all the above reasons too – they decided Hariri was dispensable.
Who Needs a New Civil War in Lebanon?
Druse leader Jumblatt declared Thursday, February 17, after the Hariri funeral: “We are going to sweep this filthy regime away.”
The Parliament Speaker, the Shiite Amal leader Nabih Berri shows signs of drawing away from his allegiance to Damascus and President Lahoud and sitting on the fence. This would divide the Shiite ranks between pro and anti-Syrian.
Most opposition leaders are anxious for regime transition to take place without bloodshed.
Nonetheless, the possibility looms large in the crisis following the assassination of Hariri. It is a development that would present Washington and Paris with both a challenge and an opportunity – depending on how far they are willing to go to back the forces bent on expelling Syria from Lebanon once and for all.
But it is not at all clear that Lebanon will revert to civil strife.
As things stand, Damascus has successfully rid itself of a threat to its hold on Lebanon and therefore strengthened that hold. Measured against this, the anti-Syrian opposition – Sunnis, Druses, Christian Maronites – are expected by their own countrymen to ride the popular whirlwind of grief and revenge and give the Syrians the last push.
Their failure to rise to this occasion will bespeak weakness of resolve and leave the hated Syrian stooge Emil Lahoud unscathed in the presidential palace.
The two Lebanese factions who stand to lose by any major outbreak of hostilities are Hizballah and the Palestinians.
To fight its anti-Syrian enemies, Hizballah will have to draw its horns in and pull back from its ambitious foreign adventures in Iraq and alongside Palestinian anti-Israeli terrorists on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
As for the Palestinians, their centers of Ain Hilweh and Mia Mia are uncomfortably lodged in the Sunni heartland of South Lebanon which is controlled by the dead Lebanese politician’s Sunni militias. Those centers will be quickly overrun. Rashidiyeh, the second Palestinian center near Tyre, is wedged inside Hizballah country and will be forced to fight alongside the Shiite group.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s experts conclude that Syria can avert bloodshed and salvage some of its influence in Beirut by forcing Lahoud to step down. All the Lebanese factions would combine to install an interim administration to arrange a general election.
This way out of the crisis would also be welcomed in Washington. Bush Administration officials have been careful to skirt around blaming Syria directly for the assassination in the hope of a formula that would take the heat out of the crisis and avert violence.