Hezbollah Still Has a Knife at Lebanon’s Throat After Hariri Verdict
A confused tribunal process is a step toward justice in a case that has haunted the country for years.
Lebanon’s postwar hopes of becoming a free and prosperous nation died smoldering in a mangled crater of seared flesh and jagged metal on the Beirut waterfront. The devastating bomb blast that tore through the Beirut coast didn’t just rip the fragile fabric of Lebanese society apart—it permanently mutilated it beyond all recognition.
But this did not happen in 2020; it happened in 2005. That time, however, it was no act of criminal negligence or corruption but a premeditated murder.
On Feb. 14, 2005, a suicide bomber detonated a Mitsubishi Canter pickup truck loaded with over 2,000 pounds of TNT next to the convoy of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, murdering him and 21 other people.
On Tuesday, after more than 15 years of turmoil, bloodshed, and destitution, as well as the murder of one of the men pursuing the killers, the first-ever international court tribunal established to prosecute terrorist crimes returned a verdict that no one in Lebanon ever doubted: Hariri was assassinated by senior Hezbollah operatives.
But justice has come under absurd circumstances. The tribunal, which spent more than $1 billion and took 11 years to return one guilty verdict (out of four suspects on trial in absentia), never had the remit to investigate Hezbollah as an organization, and its final verdict was undermined before it had even been read out by the demonstrably ridiculous statement that the court had seen “no evidence that the Hezbollah leadership had any involvement” in the assassination, before returning a guilty verdict for a senior Hezbollah operative, Salim Ayyash. Ayyash was found guilty of co-conspiring to murder Hariri with Mustafa Badreddine, Hezbollah’s second-in-command, whose case at the tribunal was dropped following his death in Syria in 2016.
Hezbollah, a Shiite paramilitary organization funded by Iran, has always officially denied responsibility for the bombing, just as it has always denied responsibility for assassinating Samir Kassir, Wissam al-Hassan, George Hawi, and Gebran Tueni, among dozens of other political opponents, and for the deaths of hundreds of innocent bystanders from these bombings.
In Lebanon, prominent critics of Hezbollah and their allies in Syria’s Assad regime get killed in car bombs, Hezbollah denies responsibility, and the nation is expected to move on as if nothing happened and mysterious car bombs are just one of those unexplained quirks of life rather than a clear message, etched in blood, for all to understand.
Yet there can be no misreading of this judgement, despite the surreal statement. Hezbollah’s most senior operatives do not act independently from the organization’s leadership. This tribunal and verdict, as flawed and toothless and disappointing as they have been for many Lebanese, has at the very least hammered the nail into the coffin of Hezbollah’s charade of plausible deniability.
As of publication time, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has not responded to the guilty verdict against Ayyash, a man he had previously called an “honorable” resistor alongside the other indicted Hezbollah members in a speech in 2011. After previously vowing to “cut off” the hand of anyone who tried to arrest Ayyash or his co-conspirators, whose whereabouts remain unknown, it is unlikely Nasrallah will accept even a court decision that went out of its way to acknowledge there was no paper trail leading directly to his leadership.
A guilty verdict for Badreddine would have been harder to stomach for Hezbollah, but like Nasrallah’s critics whose cars mysteriously blew up, Badreddine was killed by a conveniently unexplained blast and could not be prosecuted by the tribunal because he was dead, another loose end tied up.
Hezbollah’s gaslighting of the Lebanese people is brutally obvious. The day before the verdict was issued, Hezbollah supporters had been posting photos of Badreddine online alongside the hashtag “whomever we killed deserved it.” Immediately after the court convicted him for murdering 22 people, a banner was raised by Hezbollah supporters in Ayyash’s hometown honoring him as a “proud son of the resistance.”
Lebanon’s public have always known who is holding the knife to their necks.
Hariri had to go. The prime minister was a popular and charismatic billionaire entrepreneur who had powerful allies in the Middle East and in the West, and had governed Lebanon for a decade, for all but two years from 1992 to 2004. Hariri had prospered in the years of reconstruction following the end of the bitter civil war. It was then that Lebanon, despite being constrained by much of the same corruption, incompetence, and sectarianism that still rules today, began to see signs of growth following years of darkness.
The Taif Agreement, which ended Lebanon’s civil war, also became a permanent shackle around its neck, with sectarianism becoming the permanent and unreformable foundation of Lebanese politics. Despite agreements for the full withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, and the full disarmament of militias, the Taif Agreement was never fully implemented. While the problems of today have not changed significantly from the problems of 2005, developments such as the Cedar Revolution and the Syrian civil war have changed the equation.
Lebanon following the civil war effectively became a client state for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which had more than 15,000 troops occupying territory across the country. The Assad regime dominated Lebanese politics, handpicking its president and forcing pro-regime lawmakers onto election slates.
Lebanon was never going to be a shining beacon of liberal democracy in the Middle East under this postwar system. But after years of bloodshed, the Lebanese people were at long last able to start living their lives again.
Hariri was also no hard-liner against the Syrian regime. He had been complying with the regime’s demands for many years before the political realities in Lebanon started to change. Before Hariri’s assassination, Assad was demanding a term-limit extension for his preferred pro-regime president, Émile Lahoud, even though it violated Lebanon’s constitution. This was a deeply unpopular move in Lebanon as the country grew weary of Syrian military occupation, and opposition to the regime’s dominance over political affairs was growing.
Political opposition to Hezbollah’s armed status was also increasing, and Hariri’s growing relationship with the so-called Bristol Group, a cross-confessional political grouping established following the aftermath of the Lahoud extension, that convened at the Bristol Hotel in Beirut to call for the full compliance with the disarmament and withdrawal of the Taif Agreement.
The reality of the relationship between Hariri and the Assad regime was laid bare by the transcripts of recordings of meetings between Hariri and Assad’s diplomatic henchman Walid Muallem passed to the Special Tribunal.
“We want a pro-Syrian regime in Lebanon,” Hariri said. “But, at the same time, Lebanon will not be ruled by Syria forever.”
The conversation was strained, and Hariri’s routine acquiescence to the regime became apparent, but Hariri was signing his own death warrant by saying what nobody was allowed to say in Lebanon to Hezbollah or Assad: “No.”
“Brother, you are like a father to me. Is there more? Can you be more than that? You may be my father, OK, but I can’t accept for you to choose the woman I will marry, what she will wear, name my children, which school they will attend,” Hariri said to a Syrian diplomatic representative. “You know how there is interference in every small detail in the country.”
A day after this conversation took place, Hariri would join with the Bristol Group opposition in calling for the immediate and total withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
Less than two weeks later, Hariri was dead.
The real hero of the farcical Hariri tribunal is a man whose name appears only once in footnote in the full judgement. Hariri’s murder, like so many of Hezbollah’s assassinations, would have remained shrouded forever but for the bravery, genius, and defiance of one man.
When the Lebanese Internal Security Forces intelligence officer Capt. Wissam Eid was handed responsibility for the organization’s investigation into the Hariri assassination, few expected it was a case he could solve. Perhaps he wasn’t even supposed to.
But Eid was no run-of-the-mill police officer—he was a once-in-a-generation analytical genius. While the Special Tribunal notably poured scorn on how the Lebanese authorities handled the crime scene and subsequent investigation, not one word was saved for the man whose investigation was the basis of the overwhelming weight of telecommunications evidence that initiated the tribunal.
Hezbollah had no idea just who they were up against.
Using nothing but an Excel spreadsheet and raw cell tower communications data, over the course of one year, Wissam Eid painstakingly found patterns in the data that he successfully identified as a comprehensive network of mobile devices used to both plan and execute the Hariri assassination.
As Eid began getting closer to the truth, the death threats began. He began to receive messages that the phones he was investigating belonged to Hezbollah, and that he should stop digging.
Far from being intimidated, Eid began sleeping in his office so he could finish his investigation and not endanger the life of his family. Astonishingly, he cracked the case.
But this groundbreaking achievement of Alan Turing-like brilliance was not celebrated—it was ignored. Eid had cracked the case in 2006. He had sent his report to the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission, a report he had risked his life to write, one that few people could have ever written. It remained ignored for at least a year.
A year later, someone from the U.N. commission’s team eventually found Eid’s report and finally established contact. The man who alone had uncovered Hezbollah’s complicity in the murder of Hariri was finally being heard. A few weeks later, Wissam Eid was killed by a car bomb.
But while Eid’s slaying will never be the subject of an international tribunal, nobody in Lebanon is in any doubt as to who is responsible.
Without Eid’s telecommunications data investigation, there would be no conviction for Salim Ayyash, there would be no evidence of Badreddine’s involvement, and the Lebanese public could continue to bury their heads in the sand about who was responsible for the murder of 22 of their fellow citizens on Feb. 14, 2005.
It is remarkable that Eid wasn’t prominently recognized by the tribunal. Without him, they would have had nothing. Despite 11 years of work, the overwhelming majority of their evidence against Hezbollah was discovered by one man three years before the tribunal even started.
But Eid’s sacrifice will see no justice, his genius won’t be marked by statues or street names, and his bravery won’t be taught in schools—at least not as long as Hezbollah continues to threaten every speaker of truth in Lebanon from the shadows.
Speaking to Foreign Policy, Eid’s parents Mahmoud and Samira Eid expressed their pride in their son’s achievements following the conclusion of the tribunal.
“Wissam sacrificed his life for his work,” they said, speaking jointly in response to questions e-mailed earlier. “Despite the big opportunities he had and the threats he received, he refused to leave his work and continued till the very end.”
Eid’s parents were also in no doubt that if he had continued to work on the case, it could have gone further.
“Had he been alive, he would have been of great help to the investigations and he wouldn’t have been surprised with the verdict simply because what he discovered 15 years ago was beyond any doubt,” they said. “The only evidence that the court took into consideration is the communication data which Wissam was able to discover one year after the assassination relying on personal effort and using simple techniques.”
Like many Lebanese, Samira and Mahmoud expressed their frustration and disappointment that the verdict did not go further.
“We accept its verdict. It’s true that we wanted to know the assassin, but we were hoping to know who orchestrated this assassination,” they said.
They are not alone in that sentiment.
Some in Lebanon are now arguing whether the tribunal was worth it at all. The defendants were tried in absentia, and, as a result, if Ayyash is ever apprehended he will have to be tried all over again. There is no chance Hezbollah will admit complicity, and even if the court had convicted Nasrallah himself, it would have made no material difference to the lives of Lebanese people.
Lebanon remains a country held hostage by a murderous foreign-backed terrorist organization. There is no prospect of economic or political reform that does not require dismantling Hezbollah, and there is no prospect of dismantling Hezbollah without a civil war, and Hezbollah’s leadership has started threatening the Lebanese public again with the simple message: fall in line or you will be next.
The mass protest movement that has been raging since October 2019 under the slogan “All of them means all of them,” referring to the entirety of Lebanon’s corrupt political ruling class, has escalated following the ammonium nitrate blast that smashed Beirut’s port into pieces earlier this month. Effigies of Lebanese politicians, including Hassan Nasrallah, are being publicly hanged in the streets of Beirut, a city close to an uprising. But while the Lebanese public may be sick of all of their sectarian overlords, Hezbollah holds dominion over all, with its terrifying domestic military capabilities dwarfing that of many regional states.
The mood in the international community toward Hezbollah has started shifting, with the United Kingdom and Germany recently moving toward Washington’s position by proscribing Hezbollah in full after many years of trying to draw a distinction between Hezbollah’s military and political wings. (Even by Hezbollah’s own standards, no such distinction exists.) France and the wider European Union, so far, remain unconvinced on the issue, but with an international tribunal conviction and the introduction of sanctions against the Assad regime and its allies under the Caesar Act in the United States, Hezbollah is beginning to find itself increasingly isolated. But an isolated Hezbollah is simple a more paranoid and violent Hezbollah, and the international community can’t defeat the group by closing a few offshore European bank accounts.
Samira and Mahmoud Eid tell me that justice in Lebanon “will only be served when the people behind the assassinations are sentenced and held accountable. Whoever killed Rafik Hariri killed Wissam Eid and the rest of the martyrs. Justice will be served by punishing those who planned, not those who served as mere tools to commit the murders.”
But even after 11 years of work, that justice seems as far away as it was on Feb. 14, 2005.