Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Who Killed Rafiq Hariri?

Nobody knows yet. But here's a roundup of plausible speculation. Larry Johnson at the Counterterrorism Blog thinks it is Syria.

Today's bomb blast in Lebanon, which killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, is a harbinger that a peaceful, democratic transition of Governments in the Middle East is a foolish pipe dream. Hariri, aka Fatso, has been a long time pawn of Saudi Arabia and a favorite of both Washington and Paris. His murder comes against the backdrop of increased pressure by the United States and France to force Syria to withdraw its military forces from Lebanon. This car bombing was probably designed to send an unambiguous message to both Lebanese and the international community that Syria will not stand idly by and surrender to pressures from Washington, Paris, and the United Nations. Hariri, who had been staying on the sidelines in recent months as political parties in Lebanon jockeyed for position in upcoming parliamentary elections, was a convenient and potent symbol of a Lebanese power broker perceived as too close and too accommodating of Western desires. His killers are providing a simple message, Syria will not leave Lebanon without a fight and Damascus is willing to destroy Lebanon in order to save itself.

Juan Cole thinks it was either Al Qaeda one of Hariri's business rivals.

Personally, I find the likelihood of the Saudi connection generating al-Qaeda-type violence against him somewhat more plausible than that it came out of local politics, since local politics had been fairly civil in Lebanon. It is also possible, since al-Hariri was worth $4 billion and had all sorts of shady deals going on even when he was PM, that this assassination had an economic/ mafia-type background that we are not aware of.

The Cole theory got a boost from a videotape played on Al Jazeera from "The Organization for Victory and Jihad in the Levant" claiming responsibility for the attack.

According to the statement, "For the sake of our Mujahideen brothers in Saudi Arabia ... we decided to implement the just execution of those who support this regime... This was a martyrdom operation we carried out ... This is the beginning of many martyrdom operations against the infidels and apostates in the Levant.”

On the other hand, a New York Times article suggests the US government strongly suspects Syria. (Hat tip: Belgravia Dispatch)

In Washington, the Bush administration, while not accusing Syria of the killing, reacted today with unusually strong language aimed at Damascus. President Bush was “shocked and angered” over the killing, said his chief spokesman, Scott McClellan. Mr. McClellan said the United States would consult with other governments in the region and members of the United Nations Security Council about ways “to punish those responsible for this terrorist attack” and to free Lebanon “from foreign occupation.” And the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said American diplomats may convey Washington’s anger directly to the Syrians, “given their influence and interest in Lebanon.”

Moreover, some Lebanese political figures have pointed the finger straight at Syria.

Exiled Lebanese political leader Michel Aoun accused Syria of responsibility for the death of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. "They are responsible. It's they who control the security and intelligence services" in Beirut, he said and added there were "many indications" to back up his assertion. Lebanese opposition figures blamed Syrian and Lebanese authorities for the death of Hariri. In a statement after an emergency meeting, opposition figures also called for Syrian forces to pull out before elections in May, as well as a three-day strike.

Only a few hours after Hariri's death, the US seemed sure enough of the perpetrators to set in motion punitive measures against Syria. The New York Times reports:

The Bush administration, condemning the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in Lebanon, suggested Monday that Syria was to blame and moved to get a new condemnation of Syria's domination of Lebanon at the United Nations Security Council. ...

"We're going to turn up the heat on Syria, that's for sure," said a senior State Department official. "It's been a pretty steady progression of pressure up to now, but I think it's going to spike in the wake of this event. Even though there's no evidence to link it to Syria, Syria has, by negligence or design, allowed Lebanon to become destabilized." At the United Nations, the Security Council called for a meeting on Tuesday to discuss the bombing, but there was some doubt that the Council would vote to condemn Syria by name. In a resolution passed last year to condemn Syria's role in Lebanon, Syria's name was not mentioned; there was only a reference to foreign forces in Lebanon.

In the view of American analysts, Syria has in turn done the bidding of Iran, using Syrian territory to support Hezbollah, a major presence in Lebanon, and other Islamic groups that have attacked Israel. The United States has focused mounting attention on Iran in recent weeks, both because of its suspected nuclear arms program and because of its support of groups trying to disrupt a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hariri's was protected against small-time assasination attemptions by the use of armored vehicles which equipped with electronic sweeping devices. It can be safely assumed that the Lebanese billionaire could afford the best private security that money could buy. Those security forces would employ countersurveillance, deceptive scheduling and decoys. But those formidable defenses were defeated by a truly massive bomb of several hundred pounds possibly detonated by a suicider, hence the "martyrdom" operation referred to in the videotape. They must have been supported by a surveillance and intelligence operation of no mean quality. That combination of expertise, access to large quantities of explosive and ready money makes it almost certain that Hariri's killers were either state-sponsored or belonged to a very powerful terrorist organization. Moreover, if Hariri's death was intended to "send a message" it was one that had to be widely understood by the intended audience without additional embellishment. As the Jerusalem Post put it:

The murderers of Rafik Hariri knew their target was among the most significant figures in Lebanon. The self-made billionaire helped reconstruct his country after a destructive civil war, knew all the top people in Washington and was a personal friend of French President Jacques Chirac and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. "You can't go any higher than blowing up Hariri in the middle of Beirut in the middle of the day," said one analyst in Beirut. "It's a very powerful message to all the Lebanese, and to the opposition."