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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.


Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In part one of our interview with Gareth Porter on the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri of Lebanon in 2005, we explored the case of the UN special tribunal that has come to the conclusion that Hezbollah was responsible for the assassination and in August issued an indictment. And I urge you to watch part one, because I’m not sure this part two will make a lot of sense if you haven’t watched part one. So, assuming you have, here’s part two. Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: So Gareth is an investigative journalist, works in Washington, writes for IPS, and is an often-contributor to The Real News Network. So you have explored and found through your research that there’s a quite plausible alternative theory of who killed Prime Minister Hariri. And what is that?

PORTER: Well, what I’m saying in this second piece that I wrote is that there’s a lot of evidence pointing to an al-Qaeda cell which had been organized in the period between 2001–started to be organized between 2001 and 2005, which was linked directly through the “emir”, quote-unquote, of the al-Qaeda cell to bin Laden, because he had fought in Afghanistan and had pledged his allegiance, as all al-Qaeda people do, to bin Laden when he was there. And then, again, when he fought in Iraq, he pledged allegiance to al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq. So there’s a long history here of this cell having direct links, through the emir of the cell, the head of the cell, to the top figures in al-Qaeda. And there’s a very strong motive that becomes clear in the story that emerges from various evidence from the Lebanese government, from the publication of stories about the cell being arrested.

JAY: Yeah, let’s make clear: this cell gets arrested some time–how long after the assassination?

PORTER: The cell gets arrested at the end of 2005 and the very beginning of 2006, in just a few days, because one of the key figures in the cell was arrested December 31. They used his cell phone–they captured his cell phone, waited for the calls to come in, and as people called him, then they found out where they were and arrested all the people who’d made calls.

JAY: And, again, just to give a little bit of context, at the beginning of part one you explain how Prime Minister Hariri had been on the warpath against al-Qaeda activity in Lebanon.

PORTER: Right. And so the motive–one of the motives which came out in the evidence that’s been published for al-Qaeda to have killed Hariri was that he signed the order for the execution of several al-Qaeda people who had been involved in terrorist acts previously and had been captured and tried. So that’s one thing. But then we also know that they believed that–they viewed Hariri as somebody who was really a tool of Saudi power, and therefore somebody who they tied in with the crimes of the Saudi regime.

JAY: And just, again, again, in part one I mentioned that we have a whole series of interviews called The Modern History of Lebanon, and one of the things that’s talked about in that is the alliance between Hezbollah and Syria and Hariri in Saudi Arabia, and particularly banking interests. The Hariri banking interests are very, very closely connected with the Saudi banking–more than connected, Hariri banking interests are actually seen as a jumping-off platform for Saudi money to get to Europe, and many, many ties there.

PORTER: One of the other points in the evidence that involves al-Qaeda in this plot is that really the key figure who was–the one public name associated with the plot to kill Hariri was a guy named Abu Adas, who had appeared in a videotape that was actually made public or was discovered the day of the bombing. And Al Jazeera and Reuters were phoned about this videotape, and then it was immediately played on television.

JAY: And what’s in the tape?

PORTER: And in the tape, he says we–and he names a group that had never been heard of before, something about a militant group in greater Syria was the name of the group that he gave, and–in Arabic, of course–and he said that we decided to do this, citing–

JAY: This being killing Hariri.

PORTER: –the killing of Hariri–because of our colleagues, our, basically, al-Qaeda people who were militants in Saudi Arabia who were executed there. And so this was retribution against the killing of the militants in Saudi Arabia because of Rafic Hariri being associated with Saudi Arabia. And so one of the things that the UN investigation, of course, was trying to do was to figure out who is this guy Abu Adas. But what Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor, did when he was in charge of the investigation was immediately to swallow this line that was given to him by these false witnesses, that this guy, Abu Adas, was working closely with Syrian intelligence, that he was put up to it by Syrian intelligence. And so he even issued a report, which in a very unusual manner talked about detailed witness testimony that he’d been given, which [crosstalk]

JAY: Just to remind–just for people, again, you’ve really got to watch part one to get all this. But these false witnesses are people that were later discredited who had supposedly had contacts with Syrian intelligence and were later discredited.

PORTER: Yes. They claimed they were in Syrian intelligence.

JAY: And UN and everybody did accept the fact these people were discredited.

PORTER: They were accepted at the time, except for the fact that, as I point out, French and American intelligence both said, uh-uh, this guy’s–these people are not to be believed. So, essentially, that story which the UN investigation put forward as to who this guy was, Abu Adas was, fell apart very quickly.

JAY: And the point of your piece is the UN never goes back and picks up the trail of the possibility of an al-Qaeda involvement.

PORTER: Well, supposedly they were continuing to investigate, and they did mention in passing that, yes, Abu Adas did have contacts with Syrian–excuse me–with Lebanese and foreign militants who were Sunni extremists, but never mentioning al-Qaeda, not once [crosstalk]

JAY: Okay. So there’s videotapes taking responsibility, and then there’s some kind of confession.

PORTER: That’s the other thing that happened. Very quickly, these people basically confessed to the bombing of Hariri, saying that they actually did the planning of it and carried it out, they did the surveillance of Hariri. And several of the members of this cell, separately, of course, made confessions.

JAY: Now, they–later they said these confessions took place under torture.

PORTER: Later they retracted–later they retracted the confessions.

JAY: But in your piece you point out that there’s a–one of the investigators uses a trick question. And what was that?

PORTER: Well, specifically, on the other side of the equation, the evidence indicates–this was an interrogation, a full transcript of an interrogation of one of the key members of the al-Qaeda cell, who gave great details on how this was done and who was involved directly in Abu Adas’s preparation of the videotape, according to his testimony. There’s a four-part complete transcript of his testimony, which was published in Al Akhbar newspaper in Beirut in 2007. And this four-part transcript shows that the guy was clearly giving his testimony freely and not under duress, not under any kind of torture of any kind. You can see that–.

JAY: Assuming the transcript’s not [crosstalk]

PORTER: Assuming the transcript is not a complete fake, which seems to me very unlikely. And in that transcript, very interestingly, the interrogator uses a technique to find out if the guy is really on the level, if he really knows what happened from inside the plot. And what he does is to hand the member of the al-Qaeda cell a list of 11 phone numbers, who–he says, we found these phone numbers associated with the cell, and we want to know which of these were used in the plot. If you can tell us [crosstalk]

JAY: Now, are these phone numbers that are supposed to be these red phone numbers? I mean–.

PORTER: Well, of course, he didn’t say, but what he knew for a fact was that it was seven phone numbers which they associated with this red network of phones used in the plot, which were finished, which never transmitted a phone call after two minutes before the bomb went off. So what he found out by using that technique was that this al-Qaeda guy did in fact know that it was only seven, not 11. He corrected him immediately.

JAY: But doesn’t that then give some credibility to the finding that there is a red network if they believe there are seven?

PORTER: Oh, I believe it does. I think that there was a red–.

JAY: But the question is: but whose phones are they?

PORTER: Whose phones are they? And what this suggests is that those phones were al-Qaeda phones.

JAY: Not Hezbollah.

PORTER: Not Hezbollah phones.

JAY: You got a tape where this group takes responsibility. You have a confession where they take responsibility. Does the UN in their report or indictment dismiss this in a thoroughgoing way? ‘Cause if you’ve got a confession and tape, before you can move on to some other theory, don’t you have to dismiss this one?

PORTER: The answer is no, of course, they don’t deal with it. They’ve never dealt with it in any of their reports. They’ve never said, here’s the evidence as to why we don’t think that al-Qaeda was behind this. That’s never been dealt with at any time during the course of the UN investigation. And in the indictment itself, of course, there’s absolutely no suggestion [crosstalk]

JAY: Has anyone ever asked them how they didn’t? Are they on the record explaining why they haven’t followed up on this?

PORTER: They are not on the record, no. No one has asked them. This is a story still to be written.

JAY: So the main point here is their operating theory was it’s Hezbollah. They seem to want to pin it on Hezbollah. And I guess as we know from other kinds of murder cases, if you want to pin it on someone, it ain’t so hard to find a pattern to do it.

PORTER: Yeah. And, of course, I mean, this is part of the political agenda that has been associated with, first of all, the UN investigation, and then this special tribunal on Lebanon, from the beginning. I mean, they are reflecting a general orientation on the part of Western governments–France, of course, Germany, Canada, the United States, Israel–all very much convincing themselves that it has to be–the bad guys are Hezbollah, so they must be involved in this, and therefore really not interested in pursuing the al-Qaeda line of inquiry. It simply was not in their interest.

JAY: Or any other line of inquiry.

PORTER: Or any other line of inquiry.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us. So, below this player, video player, you will find Gareth’s two articles, you will find the PDF of the report from the UN special tribunal, and you’ll find a link to the CBC piece. And so thank you for joining us on Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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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.