Confessed Killer of Rafik Hariri Released From Prison

Both men have benefited from a recent decision to shorten the prison year in Lebanon from 12 to 9 months. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Thursday, July 4, 2013

On Wednesday, July 3, Hassan Nabaa, the leader of the so-called “Cell of 13” – members of which confessed to the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri – was released upon completion of his seven-year sentence. Nabaa, who fought against US troops occupying Iraq, left Roumieh prison amid chants of “God is great.”

Years after Nabaa’s sentencing, the mystery shrouding his case remains. Is he really one of Hariri’s assassins? Or is he just another Salafi jihadi?

In 2006, Faisal Akbar, a Saudi national and member of the cell, had confessed to taking part in the assassination, but subsequently retracted his confession for unknown reasons. During questioning, Akbar disclosed detailed information that the international commission of inquiry would verify months later.

As soon as word of Nabaa’s release got out, Salafis throughout Lebanon exchanged messages on mobile phones, congratulating one another for the “liberation of the mujahid cleric.”

Akbar will be deported to Saudi Arabia once he pays a fine that was part of his sentence. Both men have benefited from a recent decision to shorten the prison year in Lebanon from 12 to 9 months. They were initially sentenced to 10 years.

Nabaa, born in 1974, is different from other members of his cell, and is known for being taciturn and shrewd. Security officials suspect he may have once been the commander of al-Qaeda in the Levant, while close associates of his have claimed that he was only in charge of providing logistical support for jihadis fighting in Iraq.

Yet his associates state that Nabaa had very close ties with the late Abu Musab Zarqawi, one of the most senior al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq. Nabaa also previously fought in Afghanistan.

Nabaa became known in 2000 when the security services sought him in connection with the clashes that erupted in North Lebanon’s Dinniyeh between radical Islamists and the Lebanese army. Nabaa fled to Syria where he continued his religious studies, until he joined an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, led by a man known only as Jamil al-Souri.

In January 2006, Nabaa was taken in by pure chance. Investigators from the Information Branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces had been in pursuit of Tareq al-Nasser, another member of his group, and got to him while he was making a call from a public phone in the Beirut district of Corniche al-Mazraa. While watching Nasser, the investigators noticed someone standing watch. When the patrol proceeded to apprehend Nasser, an officer decided to arrest the other man before his superiors came to interrogate him.

Nabaa told the officers he was on his way home, and introduced himself using the name of a Lebanese engineer from the Kanafani family, who later turned out to have had been killed in Iraq.

Nabaa was subsequently booked and taken to the Information Branch headquarters. There, he was placed in a holding cell, while a picture of him was placed on the wall for other detainees to see during interrogation. Akbar was once such detainee. When he saw Nabaa’s picture, he was astonished and asked, “Is the emir here?”

This is how investigators came to realize – by accident – that the man was none other than the leader of this cell, which had been uncovered during the inquiry into Hariri’s assassination on account of its members’ ties to Ahmad Abu Adas. Recall that Abu Adas was the man who claimed responsibility for Hariri’s assassination in a video tape leaked to television networks a few hours after the explosion that rocked Beirut in 2005.

Akbar confessed his involvement in the assassination of Hariri to investigators, disclosing information that would later turn out to be accurate. However, on the next day, Akbar retracted his statement, after a six-hour meeting with Samir Shehadeh and Wissam al-Hassan.

When the rest of the cell appeared before the head of the military tribunal, Nizar Khalil, they all retracted their previous statements, which they claimed had been extracted under torture. The suspects accused the Information Branch of fabricating their statements, while Akbar denied any involvement in Hariri’s assassination.

The issue of whether Nabaa and Akbar had anything to do with Hariri’s murder became the focus of much controversy. What is certain is that the cell actively supported fighters in Iraq.

Akbar told investigators that he had entered Lebanon illegally through the Masnaa border crossing along with Nabaa. Once inside the country, he took up residence in flats in al-Basta and Ramleh al-Baida neighborhoods of Beirut.

Akbar had met Nabaa in Saudi Arabia before they joined forces in providing logistical support for the resistance against the occupation in Iraq. Akbar also said that he was injured while attempting to slip into Iraq via Syria.

Nabaa confirmed that he had returned to Lebanon secretly after fleeing Syria, but denied taking part in the Dinniyeh clashes, or undertaking any combat or intelligence training, often stressing that his cell’s work was strictly limited to providing logistical support for the resistance in Iraq.

Nabaa also denied being acquainted with Ahmad Abu Adas. Regarding the weapons seized from him, he claimed during questioning that they were intended for Iraq.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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