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  • Tribunal Concealed Evidence al-Qaeda Cell may have Killed Hariri

    Gareth Porter: In focusing entirely on Hezbollah Special Tribunal refuses to acknowledge stronger evidence al-Qaeda was responsible for the assassination -   September 7, 2011
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    Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.


    Tribunal Concealed Evidence al-Qaeda Cell may have Killed HaririPAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington. In mid-August, the special UN tribunal investigating who killed the Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 issued an indictment. It pointed its finger at Hezbollah. Just after the assassination, most fingers were pointing at Syria, and although Syria denied any involvement, it did give rise to what was called the Cedar Revolution. Lebanese people demanded an end to Syrian occupation in Lebanon, and four months after the assassination, Syria in fact withdrew. Months and years later, the special tribunal says they have evidence that in fact it was Hezbollah. But is that really the whole story? Now joining us to help us try to unpack all of this is Gareth Porter. Gareth is an investigative journalist working in Washington, DC. Thanks again for joining us.


    JAY: So before we get into all the forensics and detail at this, set the political landscape for us at the time the assassination takes place. For people who don't know a thing about this story, who's Hariri? What's the role of Syria? Give us [crosstalk] picture.

    PORTER: Right. Well, I mean, Hariri was a Sunni Muslim figure in politics in Lebanon who was close to the Saudis, who was also, of course, very close to Syria. He had cooperated very closely with the Syrian government and was regarded as an ally of Syria. But there were also tensions between the Syrians and Hariri as well. He was, however, a very determined foe of al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups in Lebanon, and they had begun to be a serious problem in the late 1990s and the early part of this century. You have for the first time, really, the rise of al-Qaeda affiliates or al-Qaeda-related kinds of extremists, in northern Lebanon in particular. And in fact there was a whole--an uprising by some of these groups, called the Dinniyeh Group, in 1999-2000, which actually tried to take over part of North Lebanon. So that's part of the background as well.

    JAY: Well, let's just back a bit, though, because Hariri was a multi-billionaire businessman. His family controlled some of the major banks in Lebanon. They had rebuilt some of downtown Lebanon--Beirut, but owned most--owned it all. They had this whole section of the city which was, like, owned by the Hariri family. But my understanding was that around this time, Hariri, although he had worked with the Syrians, and the Syrians were occupying Lebanon 'cause they had--I think most people conceded--play, actually, a constructive role ending--helping to end the civil war in Lebanon. But in those days he had started to become somewhat of a nationalist voice against the Syrian occupation, which is why fingers started pointing at Syria right away, 'cause Hariri had been talking about Syria should get out of Lebanon. Is that not true?

    PORTER: Well, I think that there were calls within the Sunni element of, you know, Lebanese politics, which he was certainly a leader of, that was calling for Syrian withdrawal. No question about that. So that is part of the political landscape [crosstalk]

    JAY: And then, just to finish, Hezbollah, which is a Shia organization which was very popular because it was one of the only organizations seen as having stood up to Israeli invasion over the years, but very allied with Syria--.

    PORTER: Very allied with Syria, but also very close to then-prime minister Rafic Hariri. Nicholas Blanford, in his book on the assassination, talks about how closely the Hezbollah people were in contact with Hariri, secretly, behind the scenes, constantly having meetings with him and really having a very good relationship with Hariri. So that's also part of the political landscape at that point.

    JAY: So, I mean, Lebanese politics is very, very complicated. And we did a series a little earlier called "The Modern History of Lebanon". It was, I think, like, a seven- or eight-part series. So we're going to link--we'll put a link up to that, and if you want to get a better sense of the background of all of this, I suggest you watch that series, 'cause Lebanon is not a simple story. Okay. So let's pick up the tale of the investigation and what happens.

    PORTER: So with the beginning of the investigation, the first thing that happens is--Detlev Mehlis is a German prosecutor who's the first head of the United Nations investigating unit, the independent investigation unit that was supposed to help to track down the killers of Hariri. And immediately he bit on some testimony that was given by people who claimed to have been in Syrian intelligence--two people who claimed they were in Syrian intelligence, and some other witnesses as well, who said, we know from our contacts within Syrian military and Syrian intelligence that they were the ones behind this, and they told various stories to support that. Well, even French and American intelligence at that early stage were warning that these people were fabricators, they were not to be believed. And ultimately, of course, their stories fell apart and they were identified as fabricators, as liars, false witnesses. So, eventually, by early 2006, the storyline that the UN investigators had put forward already, publicly, in an early report, saying that we have all this information from our witnesses saying that Syria is behind this, had really fallen apart. And the other thing that happened in the course of the UN investigation between 2007 and 2009 was that Syria and Israel started a flirtation diplomatically, and ultimately, of course, had secret talks, which the Israelis had indicated to Syria they were interested in. And so it was precisely during this period that the UN dropped the whole Syrian line of inquiry and began to hint in 2007, 2008 that there were sectarian reasons, perhaps, for the killing of Hariri. And that was a code word, of course, for Hezbollah.

    JAY: Now, just, again, to give some context at the time, at the time of the assassination, a lot of people were wondering who benefited from this assassination, and it was hard to understand how either Syria or Hezbollah could benefit in creating such Lebanese public opinion against Syria.

    PORTER: Well, absolutely. I mean, that's a critical question to be asked, who benefited. And clearly Syria did not benefit in terms of its agenda. Certainly Hezbollah did not benefit in terms of its political agenda. The one party that did benefit from this, of course, was Israel.

    JAY: And then if you go in--if when you go to Lebanon, which--I was there about a year and a half ago--everyone assumes Mossad's involved in this. Now, the caveat is, when you're in the Middle East, everyone assumes Mossad is behind everything. And who knows? Maybe someday it will turn out that way. But there's no evidence as of now that Mossad is involved. So let's pick up the story [incompr.]

    PORTER: So now we come to 2009 and you begin to have--the special tribunal for Lebanon now comes into existence, replacing the UN investigation, and they're very quiet for quite a long time. But you have leaks then, starting in 2009 and again in 2010, Le Figaro, then Der Spiegel, and then, finally, Canadian broadcasting company issuing stories that suggest that there's a new line of inquiry and that Hezbollah has been identified, that there's evidence that Hezbollah was behind--.

    JAY: Okay. We're going to--because this is a very complicated story, we're going to put some links below our player. So we're going to put Gareth's articles. We're also going to put a link to the CBC report so you can see what's there. The CBC report, if I understand it, the gist of it is is there's a Lebanese policeman investigator who on his own starts to try to figure out all the cell phones in the territory where the assassination took place and, apparently, using an Excel spreadsheet, starts to exclude cell phones that don't talk to each other and comes to a conclusion. So why don't you pick it up from there?

    PORTER: Well, you know, we don't know very much about exactly how this was done, but apparently there was this--a mid-level official, key official in the counterterrorism office of the Lebanese intelligence service who did do some work on a database of telephone calls made during this period.

    JAY: Now, one of the things that the CBC reported on was that Lebanese policeman who had done the original research that had shown there was this group of cell phones connected with each other and those phones were somehow linked to Hezbollah, he had agreed to cooperate with the United Nations investigation, met with them--the report I saw, within a few days. He was assassinated as well, which is also being blamed on Hezbollah, although, again, I don't think there's any actual evidence linking it to Hezbollah.

    PORTER: No, there's no actual evidence. I think it's important for people to understand that he had been involved in a number of investigations of terrorist bombings in Beirut and other places in Lebanon, and some of those bombings clearly, we know, are bombings that were carried out by Sunni extremists, not by Hezbollah. I mean, it's on the record--some of them they claim themselves. And so, clearly, he had other enemies who were out to get him.

    JAY: So, again, not just one operating theory about what was possible for his assassination.

    PORTER: Yes. You simply cannot use the fact that he worked on this specific case and then was assassinated as evidence that it was Hezbollah. What is interesting, though, is that starting in 2007 you have hints from--or late 2006, I should say, you have hints from Serge Brammertz, who had become the new head of the UN investigation, that they had this new line of inquiry which was using this telephone link analysis tool in a--what he called a "speculative" way, "proactive and speculative" way, meaning that they weren't sort of following everybody's telephone calls; they were focusing on a certain group's telephone calls to see if they were linked to the plot to assassinate Hariri.

    JAY: The telephone thing's--is quite complex, and I suggest people read Gareth's article to get the detailed breakdown of how the methodology works and why you're suggesting it's not reliable. But let's kind of just cut to the end of that, which is you talked to an FBI agent for a different story, but he was talking about this technology and methodology.

    PORTER: Right. This was my investigation of the Buenos Aires bombing, terror bombing of 1994, which was a Jewish community center, which was blamed on Iran immediately. And the Argentine intelligence service soon came up with a report saying that this was Iran behind it. And one of the key arguments was that they had linked a telephone belonging to the cultural affairs officer in the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires to a phone in the tri-border area down south, which had been also contacted by phones that they linked to the plot. And so it was in fact this telephone link analysis that was being used to link Iran to the crime in Buenos Aires. And the FBI official, he was the head of the Hezbollah office at the FBI who was sent by the White House to help Argentine intelligence in late 2006, early 2007. He told me in a later interview in 2000--sorry. Excuse me. It was 1996-1997. He told me in a 2006 interview that he found that that use of telephone link analysis was very dangerous. He called it "speculative"--interestingly, the same word that Serge Brammertz used to describe the way they used it. And he said that this telephone link analysis can be used to link my telephone with bin Laden's. He said it's that dangerous.

    JAY: And if I understand correctly, what's dubious about this or speculative, it's not that--like, in the Hariri assassination case, it's not that they have a record that these phones phoned each other within an hour around the time of the explosion in the van, 'cause this is their--Hariri is killed because they have this truck filled with explosives. It's that they're just--they just are in the same--using the same towers in some sort of a pattern that suggests they must be talking to each other.

    PORTER: That's exactly right. The whole case in the indictment, which has been released in mid-August by the special tribunal, is based on the idea of co-location of telephones that they link, the personal cell phones that they link to this one Hezbollah figure being in the same cell phone tower area at certain times in certain places as what they call the red phone network, which is a name that they give to a set of cell phones, which--the last phone call of which was made two minutes before the explosion that killed Hariri.

    JAY: And in your piece you point out this is parsing something like 40,000 or 50,000 cell phones during the--.

    PORTER: Well, I mean, the point is that this ignores the reality that with--at any particular moment in a workday in this part of central downtown Beirut, one of these cell phone towers would serve from 20,000 to 50,000 cell phones, active cell phones, people making phone calls. And so--I mean, this was from a specialist on the Lebanese telecommunications industry, telecommunications system in Lebanon who knows it very well. This means that at any moment during a workday, you have many, many phones, hundreds, thousands of phones who would qualify as being co-located with these red phones which were supposedly held by the terrorists who killed Hariri. So it's really meaningless to say that this personal cell phone or cell phones of this Hezbollah guy were co-located on a number of locations, which is what they're saying, with the red cell phones that were associated with [crosstalk]

    JAY: Okay. So your point is that the evidence is speculative, maybe dubious.

    PORTER: It's speculative and dubious, absolutely.

    JAY: The assumption they're--is--they start out with: this is going to be--got to be Hezbollah. And that's the conclusion they come to. Okay. So in part two of our interview, we're going to explore an alternative theory of who killed Prime Minister Hariri.

    PORTER: Right.

    JAY: Please join us for part two with Gareth Porter on The Real News Network.

    End of Transcript

    DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

    More Info

    Special Tribunal for Lebanon Indictment can be found here:

    CBC Investigation: Hariri Assassination: Getting Away with Murder

    Part 1:

    Part 2:

    Real News Series: The Modern History of Lebanon

    Gareth Porter Articles

    Hariri Bombing Indictment Based on Flawed Premise

    WASHINGTON, Aug 29, 2011 (IPS) - The indictment of four men linked to Hezbollah in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri made public by the Special Tribunal on Lebanon Aug. 17 is questionable not because it is based on "circumstantial evidence", but because that evidence is based on a flawed premise.

    The evidence depends on a convoluted theory involving what the indictment calls "co-location" of personal mobile phones associated with five distinct networks said to be somehow connected with the plot to murder Hariri.

    The indictment, originally filed Jun. 10, says that, if there are "many instances" in which a phone is "active at the same location, on the same date, and within the same time frame as other phones", but the phones do not contact each other, then it is "reasonable to conclude from these instances that one person is using multiple phones together".

    Based on that assumption the indictment asserts that "a person can ultimately be identified by co-location to be the user of a network phone."

    On that reasoning, one of the four accused, Salim Jamil Ayyash, is said to have participated in a "red" network of phones that was activated on Jan. 5, 2005, only contacted each other, and ceased operations two minutes before the blast that killed Hariri. The "red" network is presumed to have been used by those who carried out surveillance as well as prepared the logistics for the bombing.

    But Ayyash is also linked by "co-location" to a "green" network that had been initiated in October 2004 and ceased to operate one hour before the attack, and a "blue" network that was active between September 2004 and September 2005. The only basis for linking either of those two sets of mobile phones to the assassination appears to be the claim of frequent "co-location" of Ayyash's personal cell phone with one of the phones in those networks and one red phone.

    But the idea that "co-location" of phones is evidence of a single owner is a logical fallacy. It ignores the statistical reality that a multitude of mobile phones would have been frequently co-located with any given phone carrying out surveillance on Hariri in Beirut over an hour or more on the same day during the weeks before the assassination.

    In the area of Beirut from the parliament to the St. George Hotel, known as Beirut Central District, where the "red" network is said to have been active in carrying out its surveillance of Hariri, there are 11 base stations for mobile phones, each of which had a range varying from 300 metres to 1,250 metres, according to Riad Bahsoun, a prominent expert on Lebanon's telecom system. Bahsoun estimates that, within the range of each of those cell towers, between 20,000 and 50,000 cell phones were operating during a typical working day.

    Given that number of mobile phones operating within a relatively small area, a large number of phones would obviously have registered in the cell tower area and in the same general time frame - especially if defined as an hour or more, as appears to be the case - as at least one of the red network phones on many occasions.

    The indictment does not state how many times one of Ayyash's personal phones was allegedly "co-located" with a "red" network phone.

    To prove that Ayyash was in charge of the team using the red phones, the indictment provides an extraordinarily detailed account of Ayyash's alleged use of red, green and blue phones on seven days during the period between Jan. 11 and Feb. 14, the day of the assassination.

    But according to that information, during the final nine days on which the red network was active in surveillance of Hariri, including the day of the bombing itself, Ayyash was in phone contact with the red and blue networks on only three days – a pattern that appears inconsistent with the role of coordinating the entire plot attributed to him.

    The most senior Hezbollah figure indicted, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, is accused of involvement only because he is said to have had 59 phone contacts with Ayyash during the Jan. 5-Feb. 14 period. But those phone contacts are attributed to the two Hezbollah figures solely on the basis of co-location of their personal mobile phones with two phones in the "green" network on an unspecified number of occasions – not from direct evidence that they talked on those occasions.

    Evidence from the U.N. commission investigating the Hariri assassination suggests that investigators did not stumble upon the alleged connections between the four Hezbollah figures and the different phone networks but used the link analysis software to find indirect links between phones identified as belonging to Hezbollah and the "red phones".

    In his third report, dated Sep. 26, 2006, then Commissioner Serge Brammertz said his team was using communications traffic analysis for "proactive and speculative" studies.

    Brammertz referred in his next report in December 2006 to the pursuit of an "alternative hypothesis" that the motive for killing Hariri was a "combination of political and sectarian factors". That language indicates that the "proactive and speculative" use of link analysis was to test the hypothesis that Shi'a Hezbollah was behind the bombing.

    This is not the first time that communications link analysis has been used to link telephones associated with a specific group or entity to other phones presumed to be part of a major bombing plot.

    In the investigation of the Buenos Aires terror bombing of a Jewish community centre in 1994, the Argentine intelligence service SIDE used analysis of phone records to link the Iranian cultural attaché, Mohsen Rabbani, to the bombing, according to the former head of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's Office on Hezbollah, James Bernazzani.

    Bernazzani, who was sent by the White House in early 1997 to assist SIDE in the bombing investigation, told this reporter in a November 2006 interview that SIDE had argued that a series of telephone calls made between Jul. 1 and Jul. 18, 1994 to a mobile phone in the Brazilian border city of Foz de Iguazu must have been made by the "operational group" for the bombing.

    SIDE had further argued that a call allegedly made on a mobile phone belonging to Rabbani to the same number showed that he was linked the bombing plot.

    Bernazzani called that use of link analysis by SIDE "speculative" – the same word that Brammertz used to describe the U.N. investigation's employment of the same tool. Such speculative use of link analysis "can be very dangerous", Bernazzani said. "Using that kind of analysis, you could link my telephone to [Osama] bin Laden's."

    Tribunal Concealed Evidence Al-Qaeda Cell Killed Hariri

    WASHINGTON, Aug 31, 2011 (IPS) - In focusing entirely on the alleged links between four Hezbollah activists and the 2005 bombing that killed Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the indictment issued by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon earlier this month has continued the practice of the U.N investigation before it of refusing to acknowledge the much stronger evidence that an Al-Qaeda cell was responsible for the assassination.

    Several members of an Al-Qaeda cell confessed in 2006 to having carried out the crime, but later recanted their confessions, claiming they were tortured.

    However, the transcript of one of the interrogations, which was published by a Beirut newspaper in 2007, shows that the testimony was being provided without coercion and that it suggested that Al-Qaeda had indeed ordered the assassination.

    But the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) was determined to pin the crime either on Syria or its Lebanese ally Hezbollah and refused to pursue the Al-Qaeda angle.

    Detlev Mehlis, the first head of UNIIIC, was convinced from the beginning that Syrian military intelligence and its Lebanese allies had carried out the bombing and went to extraordinary lengths to link Ahmed Abu Adas, who had appeared in a videotape claiming responsibility for the assassination for a previously unknown group, to Syrian intelligence.

    Violating the general rule that investigators do not reveal specific witness testimony outside an actual courtroom, Mehlis described testimony from "a number of sources, confidential and otherwise", which he said "pointed to Abu Adas being used by Syria and Lebanese authorities as scapegoat for the crimes…."

    Mehlis cited one witness who claimed to have seen Adas in the hallway outside the office of the director of Syrian intelligence in December 20O4, and another who said Adas had been forced by the head of Syrian military intelligence to record the video in Damascus 15 days before the assassination and was then put in a Syrian prison.

    Mehlis quoted a third witness, Zouheir Saddiq, as saying that Adas had changed his mind about carrying out the assassination on behalf of Syrian intelligence "at the last minute" and had been killed by the Syrians and his body put in the vehicle carrying the bomb.

    The Mehlis effort to fit the Adas video into his narrative of Syrian responsibility for the killing of Hariri began to fall apart when the four "false witnesses" who had implicated Syrian and Lebanese intelligence in the assassination, including Saddiq, were discredited as fabricators.

    Meanwhile a major potential break in the case occurred when Lebanese authorities arrested 11 members of an Al-Qaeda terrorist cell in late December 2005 and early January 2006.

    The members of the cell quickly confessed to interrogators that they had planned and carried out the assassination of Hariri, The Daily Star reported Jun. 6, 2008.

    Obviously based in large part on the interrogation of the cell members, the Lebanese government wrote an internal report in 2006 saying that, at one point after the assassination, Ahmed Abu Adas had been living in the same apartment in Beirut as the "emir" of the Al- Qaeda cell, Sheik Rashid.

    The full text of the report was leaked to Al Hayat, which published it Apr. 7, 2007.

    The report said Rashid, whose real name was Hassan Muhammad Nab'a, had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1999 and later to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq.

    Rashid had also been involved in the "Dinniyeh Group" which launched an armed attempt to create an Islamic mini-state in northern Lebanon in 2000, only to be crushed by 13,000 Lebanese troops.

    The members of the Al-Qaeda cell later retracted their confessions when they were tried by military courts in summer 2008 for "plotting to commit terrorist acts on Lebanese soil", claiming that the confessions had been extracted under torture.

    But the Al-Qaeda cell members were being held by the Ministry of Interior, whose top officials had a political interest in suppressing the information obtained from them. The full transcript of the interrogation of one of the members of the cell was leaked to the Beirut daily Al Akhbar in October 2007 by an official who was unhappy with the ministry’s opposition to doing anything with the confessions.

    The transcript shows that the testimony of at least one of the members contained information that could only have been known by someone who had been informed of details of the plot.

    The testimony came from Faisal Akhbar, a Syrian carrying a Saudi passport who freely admitted being part of the Al-Qaeda cell. He testified that Khaled Taha, a figure the U.N. commission later admitted was closely associated with Adas, had told him in early January 2005 that an order had been issued for the assassination of Hariri, and that he was to go to Syria to help Adas make a video on the group's taking responsibility for the assassination.

    Akhbar recalled that Sheikh Rashid had told him in Syria immediately after the assassination that it had been done because Hariri had signed the orders for the execution of Al-Qaeda militants in Lebanon in 2004. Akbar also said he was told around Feb. 3, 2005 that a team of Lebanese Al-Qaeda had been carrying out surveillance of Hariri since mid-January.

    Akhbar also told interrogators some details that were clearly untrue, including the assertion that Abu Adas had actually died in the suicide mission. That was the idea that the cell had promoted in a note attached to the videotape Adas made.

    When challenged on that point, Akhbar immediately admitted that a youth from Saudi Arabia, who had been sent by Al-Qaeda, had been the suicide bomber. He acknowledged that Rashid had told him that, if detained, he was to inform the security services that he knew nothing about the subject of Abu Adas, and that he was to warn the other members of the cell to do likewise.

    But the interrogator employed a trick question to establish whether Akhbar had actual knowledge of the assassination plot or not. He gave the Al-Qaeda cadre a list of 11 phone numbers, four of which were fake numbers, and asked him if he remembered which ones were used in the preparations for the assassination.

    Akhbar immediately corrected the interrogator, saying there had only been seven numbers used in the preparations for the assassination, including the five members of the surveillance team. That response corresponded with the information the investigation had already obtained, and which had not been reported in the news media.

    The response of UNIIIC, under its new chief, Belgian Serge Brammertz, to the unfolding of an entirely different narrative surrounding the assassination was to shift the focus away from the question of who were the actual perpetrators of the bombing.

    In his March 2006 report, Brammertz said the "priority" of UNIIIC "is being given not to the team that carried out the assassination but to those who 'enabled' the crime".

    And Brammertz had still not abandoned the story originally planted by the false witnesses in 2005 that the role of Adas in making the videotape had been manipulated by Syrian intelligence.

    In his June 2006 report, Brammertz said the Commission continued to "entertain the idea" that whoever detonated the bomb may have been "coerced into doing so". And in the September 2006 report, he suggested that Adas may have been coerced into delivering the videotape, just as Mehlis had suggested in 2005.

    Despite the official Lebanese government report confirming it, Brammertz never publicly acknowledged that Adas was deeply involved with an Al-Qaeda cell, much less that its members had confessed to the killing of Hariri.

    Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, similarly chose not to pursue that evidence, which directly contradicts the assertion in his indictment that it was a Hezbollah operative - not Al-Qaeda - who had convinced Adas to make the videotape.



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