In indicting four members of Hizballah (who were apparently acting for Syria) for murdering former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) detailed how the plot was carried out. One aspect of this story tells more about the Middle East than a library full of books on the subject.
Two of those indicted — Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra — had the task of covering up the crime. How to avoid the revelation that Hizballah and Syria were behind this murder and others?
Their solution was to create a phony Sunni Islamist, al-Qaeda style group they called “Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria.” The hit team recruited a 22-year-old Palestinian named Abu Adass to record a video that bore all of the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda operation: a black flag was placed in the background, with writing similar to what’s found on al-Qaeda flags.
The Adass flag reads: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger” (the Islamic Shahadah, or statement of faith) with “God is greatest” underneath, and the fake organization’s name under that. A bearded and turbaned Adass read from a statement claiming responsibility. The video was then sent to Al Jazeera.
Adass has never been seen again and was presumably killed by Hizballah because he knew too much. Among those swallowing this deception was the author Nicholas Blanford who, in his book Killing Mr. Lebanon, concluded that the video’s authenticity was proven since it referred to the “Land of the two mosques,” a popular al-Qaeda euphemism for Saudi Arabia.
The deception didn’t stop there. According to the STL indictment, cellphones and pre-paid cellphone cards used in the assassination and cover-up operation were bought in Tripoli, Lebanon, a Sunni- majority city and hotbed for Sunni Islamist movements. Even the Mitsubishi van used in the car bombing was purchased in Tripoli.
The STL noted, “The conspirators expected that the false trail, together with the false claim of responsibility…would cause authorities to investigate others in Tripoli, and so shield the conspirators.” Since the 2005 Cedar Revolution, other anti-Syrian Lebanese were also assassinated by fabricated groups. The “Strugglers for the Unity and Freedom of Greater Syria” suddenly appeared and claimed responsibility for a number of high-profile killings including Gebran Tueni, Samir Kassir, and MP Pierre Amine Gemayel.
Even the former head of the STL, Detlev Mehlis, was threatened by the group. Early in Hizballah’s history it used a combination of different front-group names when claiming responsibility for attacks. Even twenty years later, academics and policymakers still dispute whether Hizballah was associated with those operations, a testament to the effectiveness of that simple ploy.
No one had heard of the Hizballah front group, Islamic Jihad (not to be confused with the Palestinian group of the same name), until it claimed responsibility for bombing the Marine barracks and U.S. embassy in Beirut. Yet wasn’t U.S. government unwillingness to punish Hizballah for this attack, the single most costly terrorist assault on Americans prior to September 11, related at least in part to this plausible deniability?