Tumultuous Lebanon, Where the Intelligence War Never Pauses
Dr. Karim El Mufti
It took longer than usual compared with other political assassinations (given the high secrecy linked to security related areas), but the information eventually came out, the head of the Intelligence Branch of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), Brigadier Wissam El Hassan, was targeted and terminated.
1. The political war and Syria
Minutes into the Ashrafieh blast and 14 March local figures were already trying to make political good fortune out of the tragedy, raising the scenario of an alleged targeting of the Kataeb House, or the 14 March General Secretariat office, or even how Syria the terrorist “targeted the heart of a Lebanese Christian area”. The context changed once the announcement broke of the direct plot against the ISF Brigadier, even though the accused party remained the same: Syria had killed Al Hassan in “retaliation of the arrest of Michel Samaha”, the close advisor of Bashar Al Assad ; he was targeted because of the “efforts made by the ISF to stop Syrian infiltrations into Lebanon”.
Blaming directly the Syrian regime for the terrorist blast, self-exiled Saad Hariri was, from day one, trying to use the killing as a high horse to make a comeback onto the Lebanese political landscape after a period of political numbness: “if I were prime minister, my actions would be to stand against Bachar el Assad and say very clearly that anything that will come into Lebanon, if the regime is trying to export its terrorists to Lebanon, we would definitely refuse it”.
Other spokespersons from the 14 March coalition carried on with the interpretation that this attack was an export of the Syrian conflict into the heart of the Lebanese capital. As clearly put by Kataeb president and anti-Syrian figure, Amine El Gemayel, to the LBC television : “This regime, which is crumbling, is trying to export its conflict to Lebanon”.
But this explanation falls short when, at the same time, the same anti-Syrian coalition eagerly connected the attack (due to “troubling similarities”) with past attacks on anti-Syrian figures (Gebran Tueni or Antoine Ghanem for instance), at a time when “Syria al Assad” was well up on its feet, way before the civil war there.
Still, there is no doubt in the extensiveness of the blow the anti-Syrian coalition 14 March has just received with the decapitation of the head of a security service loyal to its agenda. Along with other public administrations, like the Council for Reconstruction and Development and Ogero within the Telecommunications Ministry, this ISF branch represented little of what was left of the opposition’s influence within State institutions, remotely led by Saad Hariri since he was removed from power in January of last year. Given the sensitive and strategic nature of the Information Branch within the ISF, needless to say how enduring the hit came to the political leverage of the 14 March coalition.
2. The evidence war and the STL
Wissam Al Hassan was not only a top security operative who made possible the dismantlement of pro-Israeli cells, or the arrest of former Minister Michel Samaha last August for planning to carry out terrorist attacks on Lebanese soil, he was most importantly in charge of the Lebanese side of the investigation of Rafic Hariri’s assassination. Brigadier Al Hassan was hence among the people the prosecutor at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) could count on in order to build his case. In that, the indictment against the four members of Hezbollah is based, in the prosecutor’s own words, on “circumstantial evidence” related to a series of interconnected telecommunications cells that were operating in preparation to the attack, and that were allegedly set up by the four suspects yet to be arrested.
With the overturn of the political equilibrium and the formation of the 8 March pro-Syrian government, which is hostile to the STL work, the intelligence unit run by Brigadier Al Hassan had the mission of keeping the cooperation with the STL’s prosecutor alive. It is important to highlight that the ISF Information Branch is the unit that uncovered the telecommunications cells’ matrix (with the support of another police martyr and IT expert, Captain Wissam Eid, assassinated in January 2008), before linking it to Hezbollah members, and then possibly leaking the information to Der Spiegel who suggested this eventuality in May 2009, two years before the indictment was issued. Since that time, a crucial target shift has taken place, passing from the suspicion of an official Syrian involvement to a Lebanese (Hezbollah) involvement in the assassination of Rafic Hariri.
As such, anti-Hezbollah formations in Lebanon had high hopes in the work of the ISF intelligence branch as it was fuelling, genuinely or not, the accusation party, despite the loss of control over the government. Whether these pieces of evidence were authentic or not was never really the primary concern of the 14 March coalition. Some opposition figures, like Samir Geagea, chose to entirely endorse the views of the prosecutor as to the involvement of Hezbollah suspects, even before the pre-trial Judge had set a trial date, whereas Hezbollah officials regularly rejected the telecommunications related evidence considering it fabricated.
This evidence war, that will contribute to determine the fate and outcome of the coming trial, has put Brigadier Wissam El Hassan at the centre of a vast intelligence (national, regional and international) confrontation, as he fell victim of irreconcilable conflicting interests where the battles behind the scenes never pause.
3. The 14 March window of opportunity to regain political ground
For the opposition group, the killing of Al Hassan has hence taken away a strong Lebanese ally in the investigation team that would have been keen on beefing up the accusation party against the four Hezbollah suspects, especially with the trial date (in abstentia) approaching and fixed to 25 March 2013. In the minds of 14 March figures, as the trial would advance against Hezbollah members, the popularity of the party of God would be shaken, and this during election year.
Until then, fearing another May 2008 violent showdown, 14 March leaders have decided to throw their internal wrath against Nagib Mikati. The prime minister now faces a tough spot as the attack happened on his watch while he is representing a pro-Syrian government, despite ingenious manoeuvring to escape impossible contradictions during his mandate through decisions that digressed from core 8 March interests. We can mention for instance the funding of the Lebanese share of the STL, the spearheading of aid towards the Syrian displaced usually considered as supporting the Free Syrian Army, or the freezing of the wage increase, an important component of 8 March agenda, as a gesture to the private sector. At the end of the line, Prime Minister Mikati offered his resignation that has been, curious constitutional outcome, “suspended”, as he is today threatened by experiencing the same political fate as Omar Karame whose political carrier crashed back in April 2005 in close circumstances.
Accumulating political and street pressure against the present prime minister is a convenient way for 14 March to be blaming a Sunni official for the death of another Sunni official, hence hitting on Hezbollah’s hold over the government in an indirect fashion without being accused of fuelling sectarianism, and eventually try and bring it down. This short-term battle represents, for opposition figures, a small window of opportunity to regain some political capital a few months before the 2013 elections, but at the cost of maintaining Lebanon in a state of tumult.
Beirut, 21 October 2012
 Saad Hariri interview to CNN, reported by The Daily Star, 20 October 2012, available at http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Politics/2012/Oct-20/192109-hariri-tells-cnn-hasan-killed-over-samaha-case.ashx#ixzz29owAYqFW
 §3, p.3 of the indictment
 Press conference of Samir Geagea in Meerab on 27 August 2011, cf. Geagea : L’acte d’accusation est basé sur suffisamment de preuves, L’Orient-Le Jour, 28 August 2011.