Center of the Web; Who Killed Rafik Hariri? A Long-Awaited U.N. Report Points Clearly to Damascus

Newsweek International, October 31, 2005 | Go to article overview

Center of the Web; Who Killed Rafik Hariri? A Long-Awaited U.N. Report Points Clearly to Damascus


Byline: Christopher Dickey and Kevin Peraino (With John Barry and Mark Hosenball in Washington)

Sheik Ahmed Abdel-Al was a busy man last Feb. 14, the day an enormous truck bomb in Beirut killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others. He says he was working in his office at the benign-sounding Association of Islamic Philanthropic Projects in Lebanon at the time and is innocent of any crime. But calls made on the sheik's cell phone in the minutes before the bombing and the hours and days afterward have led the United Nations commission probing the murder to conclude that Abdel-Al, more than "any other figure," is "linked to all the various aspects of this investigation."

There are other, higher-profile names in the report, which President George W. Bush termed "deeply disturbing" after it was submitted to the Security Council last week. The commission cites "converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act." President Bashar al-Assad is not directly implicated, but an unnamed source in the report "who claims to have worked for the Syrian intelligence services in Lebanon" fingers his brother, Maher al-Assad, and brother-in-law Asef Shawkat as the masterminds behind Hariri's murder.

Damascus tried to dismiss the findings as rumor and speculation by anonymous witnesses with their own agendas. "It's a pity that people are sitting and dreaming and writing reports," said Syria's U.N. Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad. But the U.S. and other countries were contemplating sanctions, including a ban on commercial air traffic to Syria. What makes the commission's work a nightmare for the al-Assad regime, in fact, is a mountain of documentary evidence that includes the records of 70,195 telephone calls. "This is the first time anyone has ever had the tools to build up a case as complicated as this against Syria," says an Arab intelligence officer who served in Beirut during the civil war and insists on anonymity.

Analyzed with what the report calls "specialized software," the phone records expose networks of fear and conspiracy as complex as wiring diagrams. Set against the 30-year history of Syrian intrigues, they conform to a longstanding pattern of covert activity using Lebanese officials and fronts to carry out murderous attacks on the enemies of Damascus. In the 1980s, the targets included American diplomats, soldiers and civilians. Today, even though Syrian troops withdrew in April after enormous international pressure and popular protests in Beirut, many of those networks still appear to be in place. The U.N. report cites nine bombings and assassinations since May. As a result, several anti-Syrian politicians, even though they won a majority of seats in the Lebanese Parliament last June, have decided for their own protection to spend much of their time outside the country.

In the schematics of the Hariri assassination laid out by Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who heads the commission, Abdel-Al looks like a switchboard in the middle of these elaborate circuits. His organization, known as Al-Ahbash in Arabic, works among Palestinians in their refugee camps, preaches an Islamist line and maintains close ties to Lebanese and Syrian intelligence services. …

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