Car Bomb in Beirut: Wissam Al-Hassan
Another car bomb in Lebanon and another assassination in the long series of assassinations that preceded the assassination of Rafik Hariri. This is a continuation of the previous series but with a new twist. Wissam al-Hassan was far more influential than all the previous victims of March 14 figures who were targeted, and his assassination takes place in a very different context.
There is a cold war in the Middle East: it is a war that is comparable in its dimensions and complications to the Suez of 1950s or to the Afghanistan war in the 1980s. It is comparable to the early phase of the Lebanese civil war. The region is now undergoing a war of proxies. There is little that the Syrian and Lebanese people can do about a war that is raging on their territory and in their names. It is a cold war that pits Syria and its regional and international backers against the Free Syrian Army gangs which enjoy the support of various regional and international powers. Both sides want to fight to the finish: this is what the French foreign ministry meant when it said yesterday that the time has not arrived “yet” for a cease-fire in Syria. It is a regional-international war with stakes. Wissam al-Hassan was a player in that war, playing on behalf of regional-international powers.
Wissam al-Hassan was a Haririst. He started his work for Rafik Hariri as a protocol aide (Hariri paid high premium on protocol because he believed it boosted his sectarian standing in Lebanon), and then became an aide to Hariri, before he assumed a security post. He was not a military man: he rose through the intelligence apparatus because he was a “professional” in a state apparatus that abhorred professionalism. He knew how to get the job done regardless of the methods and he knew how to follow orders. But Wissam al-Hassan was more than that. After Rafik Hariri’s death in 2005, the Hariri family, under the highly incompetent and unqualified Saad, abandoned the caution and shrewdness that characterized Rafik’s tenure in office. Rafik never antagonized and always worked to reconcile with his rivals and enemies (with the exception of the Phalanges and the Lebanese Forces against whom he harbored deep animus), even while plotting in secret against them. Rafik was also cautious about playing the sectarian card; he was a sectarian through and through but knew when to back off out of fear of civil war, not so much out of concern for the people but for concern for the interests of Saudi Arabia that were primary on his mind. Saad Hariri has no such scruples, he enjoys — from exile, mind you — to push things to the brink but then pleads and begs his enemies to back off when they take the offensive: that was the story of 7 May 2008.
After 2005, sectarian polarization under the direction of Saudi intelligence and the subservient Hariri family reached a peak. There was a need for a separate security branch for the family and for the … sect. The Information Branch (or Shuubat al-Maalumat as it is technically known) was boosted and resurrected as a separate and powerful intelligence apparatus that took orders not from the government but from the Hariri family itself, which in turn took its marching orders from the Saudi intelligence apparatus.
The US and European governments, along with Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf, showered the agency with generous funding the likes of which were never enjoyed by the ineffective Lebanese Army. New equipment and gadgets were provided to the apparatus without any control by the government and without any paper work for the budget of the agency. Wissam al-Hassan presided over that branch and with Ashraf Rifi (the director-general of the Internal Security Forces who also sits on the board of Prince Nayif University for Security Studies) constituted a Hariri team that operate outside the Lebanese state but with the logo of the Lebanese state. When Najib Mikati’s government took over, he was pressured by his Maronite and Shia allies (who nominated him) to dismiss Hassan and Rifi but he could not because he was afraid of the reactions of the US, EU, and most importantly Saudi Arabia.
Wissam al-Hassan knew how to husband his resources and how to recruit and how to operate his network around Lebanon. He was also very keen on his image: while he strictly avoided media interviews and appearances, he cultivated ties with many journalists and reporters and correspondents through cash payments. This can explain partly the tears that are being shed about him in the Lebanese press. He was as good at PR as he was at detailed security work. He was the only agency of government that was trusted by the highly politicized Hariri investigation team and later by the Hariri tribunal. He lost his chief aide, Wissam Eid, who was assassinated in 2008, and another high ranking officer who also worked on the Hariri investigation, Samir Shehadeh, survived an assassination attempt and is now residing in Canada.
Hassan cultivated excellent relations with Syrian intelligence over the years: and after the rapprochement between Saad Hariri and the Syrian regime two years ago (when Hariri spent the night at Bashar al-Assad’s residence), Hassan was a contact man and Bashar is said to have requested to meet with him personally — an unusual personal gesture for a man like Bashar. Hassan also kept good relations with Hezbollah and would render covert services on occasions.
To boost his standing nationally, the Information Branch announced a series of highly publicized “uncoverings” of Israeli networks of spies: some thirty-odd operations of this kind. But there are questions about these announcements: did the Information Branch really uncover Israeli spies in Lebanon when it received much of its support from the US itself? One source very close to Hezbollah informed me that another explanation was that it was purely accidental — the branch was keeping surveillance on senior Hezbollah leaders and they stumbled on a group that was also keeping surveillance on Hezbollah leaders; this second group consisted of Israeli spies.
Who knows what really happened but it is clear that the Information Branch played no role whatsoever — very much like the defeated Lebanese Army — in defending or protecting Lebanon during the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006. It stood and watched and probably coordinated with Saudi intelligence to thwart Hezbollah’s plans in Lebanon.
And during the years, Hassan was heavily involved in cooking the books for the Hariri investigation. He reportedly supervised the management of false witnesses and he personally supervised the arrest of the four Lebanese generals, who were released four years later for lack of evidence. It is now certain that their arrest was undertaken by Hassan on behalf of the Hariri family and for purely personal-political reasons. This is also part of the legacy of Hassan.
But Hassan was not killed for any of that. He was a big player in Syria. His branch controlled some militant Islamist groups: there is some evidence that he approved the links with Fatah al-Islam to use them in domestic Lebanese politics but they may have gotten out of hand. Hassan was a big player on behalf of Saudi intelligence in the war in Syria. He never denied that role at all. A well-known journalist who saw him recently told me that he did not deny his involvement in the Syrian conflict but complained that firstly, the reports about his role were exaggerated and secondly, that Western powers were not providing as much support as is needed. And when Asef Shawkat was killed in a bomb, none other than Ashraf Rifi invited the media to watch him as he read al-Fatihah at the tomb of Rafik Hariri. It was personal.
But Hassan may have scored with the arrest of Michel Samaha, a vulgar pro-Syrian regime politician. Not much is known about the case and all that we do know about the case was leaked to the press (local and international) by the office of Hassan himself. The story goes that Samaha (who had no military background even when he was an official of the Phalanges during the war years) undertook a dangerous mission on behalf of Syrian intelligence and in cooperation with Ali Mamlouk (one of the senior heads of an intelligence apparatus in Syria) in order to detonate bombs in Lebanon against enemies of Syria and to instigate sectarian war.
Samaha has not spoken publicly and the information remains under the exclusive control of the Information Branch but it seems that Hassan skillfully did what the FBI does regularly here: he entrapped Samaha through a close friend of his who hatched the plot for Samaha and asked him to obtain Syrian approval (and bombs). To be sure, the Syrian regime is capable of such crimes and worse, but questions remain as to why the Syrian regime would entrust such a highly dangerous operation to a man with no background in security matters. Pro-Syrian regime parties in Lebanon, even Hezbollah, have not come to the defense of Samaha and believe that he is guilty at some level and many accuse him of undertaking the mission on behalf of French intelligence, with which he has worked for years.
Hassan was clearly coordinating help and assistance for the armed Syrian groups and he bragged to journalists about his support for the “Syrian revolution.” There is plenty of cash these days for those who support the "Syrian revolution” and who can provide logistical help. And Hassan and Rifi worked closely (on a daily basis) with Saudi intelligence. It is possible that the Syrian regime wanted to get rid of him. Others think that Israel may have wanted to punish him for his arrest of various Israeli spies (a senior Israeli military intelligence commander committed suicide after the arrest of Israeli spies in Lebanon).
Some may even point to extreme Sunni fanatical groups in Lebanon (even Ashraf Rifi considered the possibility in an interview with al-Safir), or even to al-Qaeda or to a group which wants to destabilize Lebanon and the region. But many in March 14 now accuse Hezbollah because the Hariri tribunal has already named four members of Hezbollah as suspects (we remember that they revealed themselves to Nicholas Blanford — or to someone who knew Blanford, or to someone with whom Blanford co-wrote the article but without being with him). Accusations will only increase and intensify.
But now is the time for PR: the Hariri family may not be skilled politically but they know how to lavishly spend on PR. They will turn Hassan into a hero and will claim that he fought Israel far more intensely than Imad Mughniyeh or Abu Iyad. A Lebanese opportunist journalist, Charles Ayoub (who is known for his long standing ties with Syrian intelligence although he publicly admitted that he received cash payments from Prince Bandar in 2009 to write against General Aoun), has been writing series of articles against Hassan and accusing him of working for the CIA and for Mossad. He has also been accusing him of undertaking a dangerous mission in Lebanon after meeting with David Petraeus in Lebanon. Today, Ayoub’s paper is in mourning. Ayoub wrote, in a front-page article, that he lost his “best friend” and that his attacks on Hassan were merely intended to “revive” the friendship between them. Others (both friends and enemies of Hassan) will offer similar eulogies.
Yet, what is left unsaid is that Saad Hariri — as incompetent and foolish as he is — has been playing with fire. He foolishly decided to play the game of "regime change" which brought about the humiliation of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sitting on his yacht in exile in the Mediterranean, Hariri may have been responsible for instigating a game that ultimately resulted in the death of his key aide.