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Der Spiegel's Sensational Hariri Tribunal 'Breakthrough': "Hezbollah Did It" (Updated)

With six updates appended.

May 25, 2001 Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, left, talks with Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, right, during an official ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, in Beirut, Lebanon. Credit: Mahmoud Tawil

May 25, 2001 Beirut: Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri talks with Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, right, during an official ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon. Credit: Mahmoud Tawil

Der Spiegel has just come out with quite a sensational(ist) piece by Erich Follath, translated from the German by Christopher Sultan. Follath claims that his sources close to the United Nations Hariri Tribunal investigators, who in 2005 found Syrian security forces in collusion with high-ranking Lebanese officials responsible and arrested four generals (pictured below), all released three years later, now believe Hezbollah was behind the Hariri murder.

The Spiegel article claims that the special tribunal has “reached surprising new conclusions — and it is keeping them secret.” (bold emphasis mine). Apparently these are not however “secret” enough to keep Follath from claiming access: “SPIEGEL has learned from sources close to the tribunal and verified by examining internal documents … [that it was] special forces of the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah (“Party of God”) that planned and executed the diabolical attack.”

Follath then states, “Tribunal chief prosecutor Bellemare and his judges apparently want to hold back this information, of which they been aware for about a month. What are they afraid of?” Despite his acknowledging that this explosive allegation could really harm support for Hezbollah, particularly in the lead-up to one of the most important elections in Lebanon’s modern history next month, the journalist frames this as an issue of delayed timing due to (fearful) suppression.

Four details generals, released

Four detained generals, released after being held without charge for over three years

The reader, in contrast, may well wonder why this “secret” dramatic twist and apparent journalistic scoop is suddenly being revealed now, two weeks before the election. Even if subsequently proven baseless and the claimed finding repudiated — just as the first tribunal finding implicating Syria was later overturned — the explosive allegation looks set to cost Hezbollah support. It would succeed in harming not just its electoral prospects but its standing in the whole country and region where Biden’s visit, which Fisk describes as nothing less than a “mission to stop Hezbollah”, likely backfired.

And how is this assassination alleged to have happened? Here’s where it gets curiouser and curiouser; what the allegation seems to boil down to is the claim that a member of Hezbollah called his girlfriend on a ‘hot’ phone:

According to the detailed information provided by the SPIEGEL source, the fact that the case may have been “cracked” is the result of a mixture of serendipity à la Sherlock Holmes and the state-of-the-art technology used by cyber detectives. In months of painstaking work, a secretly operating special unit of the Lebanese security forces, headed by intelligence expert Captain Wissam Eid, filtered out the numbers of mobile phones that could be pinpointed to the area surrounding Hariri on the days leading up to the attack and on the date of the murder itself. The investigators referred to these mobile phones as the “first circle of hell.”

Captain Eid’s team eventually identified eight mobile phones, all of which had been purchased on the same day in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. They were activated six weeks before the assassination, and they were used exclusively for communication among their users and — with the exception of one case — were no longer used after the attack. They were apparently tools of the hit team that carried out the terrorist attack.

But there was also a “second circle of hell,” a network of about 20 mobile phones that were identified as being in proximity to the first eight phones noticeably often. According to the Lebanese security forces, all of the numbers involved apparently belong to the “operational arm” of Hezbollah, which maintains a militia in Lebanon that is more powerful than the regular Lebanese army.  …

The whereabouts of the two Beirut groups of mobile phone users coincided again and again, and they were sometimes located near the site of the attack. The romantic attachment of one of the terrorists led the cyber-detectives directly to one of the main suspects. He committed the unbelievable indiscretion of calling his girlfriend from one of the “hot” phones. It only happened once, but it was enough to identify the man. He is believed to be Abd al-Majid Ghamlush, from the town of Rumin, a Hezbollah member who had completed training course in Iran. Ghamlush was also identified as the buyer of the mobile phones. He has since disappeared, and perhaps is no longer alive.

Ghamlush’s recklessness led investigators to the man they now suspect was the mastermind of the terrorist attack: Hajj Salim, 45. A southern Lebanese from Nabatiyah, Salim is considered to be the commander of the “military” wing of Hezbollah and lives in South Beirut, a Shiite stronghold. Salim’s secret “Special Operational Unit” reports directly to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, 48.

And what about the motives? Before speculating about those, Follath manages the impressive task of pointing the finger at Hezbollah in relation to a spate of other assassinations as well:

The Lebanese chief investigator and true hero of the story didn’t live to witness many of the recent successes in the investigation. Captain Eid, 31, was killed in a terrorist attack in the Beirut suburb of Hasmiyah on Jan. 25, 2008. The attack, in which three other people were also killed, was apparently intended to slow down the investigation. And, once again, there was evidence of involvement by the Hezbollah commando unit, just as there has been in each of more than a dozen attacks against prominent Lebanese in the last four years.

This leaves the question of motive unanswered. Many had an interest in Hariri’s death. Why should Hezbollah — or its backers in Iran — be responsible?

hariri_memorial_shrineHariri’s growing popularity could have been a thorn in the side of Lebanese Shiite leader Nasrallah. In 2005, the billionaire began to outstrip the revolutionary leader in terms of popularity. Besides, he stood for everything the fanatical and spartan Hezbollah leader hated: close ties to the West and a prominent position among moderate Arab heads of state, an opulent lifestyle, and membership in the competing Sunni faith. Hariri was, in a sense, the alternative to Nasrallah.

Whether Lebanon has developed in the direction the Hezbollah leader apparently imagined seems doubtful. Immediately after the spectacular terrorist attack on Valentine’s Day in 2005, a wave of sympathy for the murdered politician swept across the country. The so-called “cedar revolution” brought a pro-Western government to power, and the son of the murdered man emerged as the most important party leader and strongest figure operating in the background. Saad al-Hariri, 39, could have become prime minister of Lebanon long ago — if he were willing to accept the risks and felt sufficiently qualified to hold office. After the Hariri murder, the Syrian occupation force left the country in response to international and domestic Lebanese pressure.

Here are some of the interesting tell-tale descriptors. Besides the nuanced finesse of “fanatical and spartan”, Follath arguably also defies plausibility and objectivity when he names Rafiq Hariri’s son Saad as the “most important party leader and strongest figure operating in the background.” Even Lebanese Sunnis I have spoken to commonly laud the older, assassinated Hariri, but almost never extend that to his son, harbouring much greater ambivalence towards the ‘Boy-Hariri’. Also, Sheikh Nasrallah has no reported rivalry, let alone enmity with Rafiq Hariri.

Follath’s description of the events of 2006 are also contentious: “In July 2006, Nasrallah, by kidnapping Israeli soldiers, provoked Israel to launch a war against Lebanon.” The soldiers were captured, not “kidnapped”, and the incident was not a causal provocation, simply a pretext, for a war that was months in the planning by israel and that deliberately targeted much of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure.

Spokeswoman for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Radiya Ashouri

Spokeswoman for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Radiya Ashouri

Perhaps here is where Hariri Senior’s oft-cited quote (a variation on one from Benjamin Franklin) might best be heeded, that particularly when it comes to Lebanon, it is best to “believe nothing of what you are told and only half of what you see!”

We await the response of the Special Tribunal, who may now be compelled to comment to either confirm or deny this report. To date, Tribunal spokeswoman Radiya Ashouri is quoted by AFP as saying, “We don’t know where they are getting the story from. The office of the prosecutor doesn’t comment on any issues related to operational aspects of the investigation.”

The plot thickens.

Update I

Hezbollah have responded:

9:30am Beirut time – Hizbullah media relations’ bureau: “Information published by the German Der Spiegel is nothing less than police fabrications.” The report is aimed “at influencing the election campaign and to deflect attention from the news about the dismantling of spy networks working for Israel. Publishing these accusations and attributing them to sources who are close to the tribunal harms the credibility of the tribunal and its work, and obliges it to respond firmly …”

Sheikh Nasrallah and Saad Hariri

Sheikh Nasrallah and Saad Hariri

Update II

An eagle-eyed reader at Syria Comment has noted striking similarities in the Der Spiegel piece with sentences in an earlier, 2006, La Figaro piece. Other anomalies from readers are noted in Spiegel Article Probably a Plant.

Another tidbit: Follath is apparently author of this 1983 book on Mossad, The Eye of David: The secret commando company of Israelis (Das Auge Davids: Die geheimen Kommando-Unternehmen der Israelis in the original German).

His other Spiegel articles on the region include a co-authored piece on the Tribunal (‘Bye Bye Hariri’: UN Report Links Syrian Officials To Murder of Former Lebanese Leader) and one looking at Lebanon after the so-called Cedar Revolution, both in 2005; a profile on Syria (Wooing The Pariah: How Syria’s Assad Is Steering His Country out of Isolation); and interviews with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2005 and Saad Hariri (‘Assad Is Responsible‘) in 2006.

Erich Follath

Erich Follath

One of his most recent articles is a May 7 opinion piece in the form of an ostensibly critical open letter to Avigdor Lieberman: ‘Dear Mr. Lieberman, in General, You Are not Welcome Here‘. Other articles not directly related to the region include a 2006 interview with Salman Rushdie (‘Terror is Glamour‘) and a 2008 piece on putative US decline and the new Obama administration (‘Battered and Bruised: America Looks Beyond the Bush Warriors‘). He has also authored a biography of the Dalai Lama and penned this article on Tibet.

Update III

Over at Moon of Alabama, blogger “b” has these interesting observations about Spiegel:

I personally know a bit or two about the Spiegel publications interior workings and the above leaked Hariri story is quite curious:

Spiegel is the biggest German news-magazine and the Hariri/Hezbollah story is part of next weeks print edition that will not be available for sale until Monday. The German Spiegel website carries some of the Spiegel print stories but only after the print edition published them. It mostly creates its own content. The English part of the Spiegel website carries translated stories from the German website and very few pieces from the print edition. Those usually with a few days timelag.

This is the very first time I see a story from the German print edition pre-published on the (money losing) English Spiegel site while it is not even available on the (profitable) German Spiegel website.

Someone really felt a huge urge to get the Hariri/Hezbollah story out in English very, very fast and pulled some serious string at the Spiegel chief-editor level to get that done. This might well be the same person(s) that leaked the story.

One of the two Spiegel editors-in chief is Mathias Müller von Blumencron. He was Spiegel’s Washington and New York correspondent from 1996 to 2000 and still has excellent connections there. After 2000 he edited the Spiegel website, turned it to the right and introduced the English part. Since 2008 he is one of the two editors-in-chief of the whole Spiegel publishing group.

Thanks to Mathias, the Spiegel English website has an exchange agreement with the New York Times website. Expect a ‘reprint’ of the Hariri story there soon.

Now – who gave Mathias that call?

I’ve embedded the link above on Mathias Müller von Blumencron.

Meanwhile, the israeli joke of a Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has called for Sheikh Nasrallah’s arrest — based on the claims in the Der Spiegel article. In contrast, see this far saner pre-election portrait of Hezbollah by Andrew Lee Butters.

ADDED: See Franklin Lamb’s take in Der Spiegel Tries Again.

Update IV

Update V

Andrew Lee Butters, correspondent for Time, is also skeptical.  He had this to say in his blog:

The Der Spiegel theory also doesn’t fit with the current understanding about the relationship between Hizballah and Hariri. The former prime minister and billionaire businessman may have been one of the few other people in Lebanon whose outsized character could compete in the spotlight with Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, but Hariri was not a threat to Hizballah’s main concern — its military infrastructure. True at some point, Hariri’s push for greater autonomy could have been a problem for Hizballah, if independence came with pressure on Hizballah to disarm, or if it became difficult to get weapons over the Syrian border. But as my colleague Nick Blanford points out in his excellent book about the Hariri assassination, “Killing Mr. Lebanon”, in the weeks before his death, Hariri began a series of clandestine meetings with Nasrallah in order to reconcile their two visions of Lebanon. Hariri believed that he was close to reaching an agreement.

Update VI

The English-dubbed video and audio clips of Nasrallah’s 25 May address on the occasion of the 9th Anniversary of the israeli withdrawal from Lebanon are now available. He mentions the Der Spiegel claims from around the 63 minute mark. Nasrallah calls it a “dangerous” report and “Israeli provocation” that aims to sow strife between Lebanon’s Shias and Sunnis.

30 May: Sami Moubayed also weighs in on the skeptical side over at Asia Times Online, as does Ghassan Saoud at Menassat: Erich Follath, when a journalist provides incentive for war.

3 comments on “Der Spiegel's Sensational Hariri Tribunal 'Breakthrough': "Hezbollah Did It" (Updated)

  1. MRW
    24 May, 2009

    Ptolemy reigns. Der Spiegel has lost any credibility with me. Give me Robert Fisk any day.

  2. cedros
    24 May, 2009

    “noted striking similarities in the Der Spiegel piece with sentences in an earlier, 2006, La Figaro piece”

    The site is offline! does anyone have the similarities saved? Wich 2006 piece has been analyzed?

  3. realistic bird
    24 May, 2009

    Most Hezbollah commanders don’t even use cell phones because the Israelis infiltrated it and they will locate them that way.

    Second a girlfriend?! How they got the word fanatical and girlfireind in the same place I don’t know.

    Third, Sayyed is jealous of his popularity?! How can this newspaper get any more childish?

    Fourth, is there a crime in this world they haven’t accused Hezbollah of doing?

    And lastly, the Israelis want Sayed Nasra’Allah caught based on this lie.

    http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=95835&sectionid=351020203

    Yeah it is clear what they are up to.

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This entry was posted on 24 May, 2009 by in Hezbollah, Lebanon and tagged , , .

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