The story of an assassination

Lebanese politics, for the past six years, has in large part revolved around competing stories. In the wake of the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the country’s political factions have struggled to provide a more persuasive account of who killed the iconic Sunni leader and why, and how the perpetrators carried ...


Lebanese politics, for the past six years, has in large part revolved around competing stories. In the wake of the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the country’s political factions have struggled to provide a more persuasive account of who killed the iconic Sunni leader and why, and how the perpetrators carried out the operation. The latest chapter in this growing opus came today, with the release of the U.N. Special Tribunal on Lebanon’s long-awaited indictment.

Much of this version of the story was already known. The tribunal had made public the names of the four Hezbollah members that were charged under the indictment in late July. A series of leaks, first to Der Spiegel and later to the CBC’s Neil Macdonald, also hinted at the indictment’s reliance on telecommunications analysis.

However, the indictment provides some important details about the prosecution’s evidence, which appears to be based almost entirely on analysis of the mobile phones used by the Hezbollah operatives. These overlapping networks allegedly allowed Mustafa Badreddine to serve as the overall controller of the attack, Salim Ayyash to directly coordinate the assassination team’s actions, and for Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra to find a patsy that would falsely claim responsibility.

How was the U.N. investigating team able to identify these different networks, and determine that Hezbollah members were owners of the phones? By analyzing call data records, the investigators discovered that some phones within the Hezbollah network were repeatedly used at the same location and at the same time, and extrapolated that they were owned by the same person. They also were able to find personal mobile phones used by the operatives and, by investigating those who they called, were able to determine their owners’ identity.

Using this method, the investigators identified five networks, which they labeled by color: Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, and Purple. Each of these networks were allegedly used to coordinate different aspects of the assassination plot.

The Red phones, whose users exclusively called each other, were registered under false names and activated within 30 minutes of each other in January 2005, six weeks before the attack. They reportedly allowed Ayyash to coordinate the assassination team that killed Hariri. The Red phones were largely used in locations that corresponded to Hariri’s movements, including 33 calls near downtown Beirut in the two hours before the former prime minister was assassinated there. The entire Red network went dark two minutes before the attack, and none of the phones were ever used again.

The Blue network, according to the indictment, was used to connect members of the Red network to those outside their inner circle. It was allegedly used to track Hariri’s movements in the months prior to the attack and was operational from September 2004 to September 2005 (interestingly, the only network that operated for a significant period after the assassination). The Blue phones were also used to coordinate the purchase of the Mitsubishi Canter van used in the attack. These phones were often found to be used in the same time and place as the Red phones, leading the investigators to conclude that they were owned by the same people. The Yellow network apparently served the same purpose, before largely being replaced by the Blue network.

Badreddine communicated to Ayyash through the Green network, giving him command-and-control over the entire operation. The last call on these phones was made by Ayyash to Badreddine at 11:58 a.m. on Feb. 14, 2005, from near the site of the assassination – the investigators conclude that it was to receive final authorization for the attack.

And finally, there are the operatives involved in the cover up: the so-called Purple Network. These phones were in conventional use from before 2003 – giving investigators a long trail of potential contacts to explore in order to determine the identity of the owners of the phones – until shortly after the attack. It was used by Oneissi, Sabra, and a third interlocutor who allegedly served as the contact with Ayyash.

The indictment charges that the "Purple network" operatives were tasked with finding a stranger who would be willing to make a false claim of responsibility for the attack. They located a 22-year-old Palestinian man called Abu Adass at the Arab University Mosque of Beirut; their phones showed repeated activity near the mosque in December 2004 and January 2005. Oneissi and Sabra convinced Adass to make a video claiming responsibility for the attack in the name of a fictional group called "Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria." Adass would then disappear on Jan. 16, presumably killed.  Following the attack, Oneissi and Sabra made a series of phone calls to Reuters and al-Jazeera claiming responsibility for the attack in the name of their fictional jihadist group, and directing al-Jazeera to a copy of the videotape where Adass claimed to be the suicide bomber that killed Hariri.

This is, in short, STL prosecutor Daniel Bellemare’s narrative of how Hariri was killed. In some ways, what is included in the indictment is just as important as what was left out. The investigators largely base their case on this telecommunications data, with a scant few details that appear to be culled from interviews or forensic analysis to support their conclusions. They were also apparently unable to find any phone links between Badreddine and other top-tier Hezbollah figures (let alone Syrian regime officials), which explains why Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has not received an invitation to join his subordinates in The Hague.

The indictment concedes that its case "is built in large part on circumstantial evidence," which "works logically by inference and deduction."

That may be well and good in The Hague. However, the prosecution will find that its case will not only be challenged by defense lawyers, but also by its political antagonists on the streets of Beirut. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah told his followers in July that Israel was behind the killing – he will reportedly speak again tonight, and his supporters will call on deep personal relationships and a long history of grievances toward Israel to win the battle for popular opinion within Lebanon. But that’s a story for another day.

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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