Published October 23, 2012
BEIRUT – Syria's powerful ally Hezbollah was accused Tuesday by Lebanese political opponents of playing a role in the assassination of a top intelligence officer who used his post to fight Syrian meddling in Lebanon.
The group, which dominates Lebanon's government, rejected calls to refer the investigation of the killing to the international tribunal that implicated Hezbollah figures in the truck bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri under similar circumstances.
Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan was killed Oct. 19 in a car bomb that exploded next to his car in a residential Beirut neighborhood, shearing the balconies off apartment towers and killing al-Hassan, his bodyguard and a civilian. Scores more were injured.
The killing has sent tremors along Lebanon's most tenuous political fault line, that separating allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad and those who oppose him.
Lebanon's two largest political coalitions have lined up on opposite sides of Syria's civil war. The Shiite group Hezbollah and its partners who dominate the government have stood by Assad's regime, while the Sunni-led opposition backs the rebels seeking to topple the government.
Al-Hassan, a Sunni Muslim, was clearly in the latter camp, and his killing has led to sectarian violence in Lebanon, whose myriad sects have strong ties to their brethren across the border. At least 13 people have died in clashes between pro- and anti-Syria factions since the assassination — the deadliest violence in Beirut in four years.
Lebanese investigators have yet to cast blame in al-Hassan's killing, but details about the plot made public Tuesday suggest it was an inside job by someone who tracked al-Hassan's international travels and monitored the secret office he used to meet informants.
Those details offered new ammunition to anti-Syria politicians who accuse the Assad regime and Hezbollah in the killing.
"I said from the beginning, 'Who killed General Wissam al-Hassan and was behind the terrorist attack?' They are the Syrian and Iranian regimes through the hands of Hezbollah," parliament member Khaled Daher said on LBC TV.
Security officials say al-Hassan returned to Lebanon from Europe the night before he was killed but traveled under a false name and told almost no one he was in Beirut. Daher suggested that officials at the Beirut airport, a Hezbollah stronghold, tipped off the killers.
"This airport is full of Hezbollah gangs who bring into Beirut whatever they want," he said.
Al-Hassan's killing bore a striking similarity to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a massive truck bomb in Beirut in 2005. Al-Hassan handled security for Hariri and was close to his son, Saad, who also served as prime minister and inherited his father's role as the leading opponent of Syrian involvement in Lebanon.
Noting the similarities, some lawmakers have called for the investigation into al-Hassan's death to be referred to the international tribunal set up to probe the elder Hariri's killing. The U.N.-backed tribunal has indicted four Hezbollah members in the killing of Hariri and 22 others. Hezbollah has denied involvement.
On Tuesday, Hezbollah's deputy leader rejected these calls, saying al-Hassan's killing was a crime that sought to destabilize Lebanon and should be dealt with in Lebanese courts.
"Any attempt to add an international dimension will not do anything to this case," Sheik Naim Kassam said in a statement. "This is a Lebanese affair and under the authority of Lebanese laws."
New details from the investigation into al-Hassan's killing emerged Tuesday, suggesting it was carried out by a group that had cracked the intelligence chief's tight security regime.
The head of Lebanon's police, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, said the bomb that killed al-Hassan was planted in a stolen car that had been parked on a narrow street near a secret office al-Hassan occasionally used to meet sources.
Al-Hassan had returned to Lebanon from Paris the night before, but few people knew he was in Beirut, Rifi said. Al-Hassan and his bodyguard were driving a rented Honda Accord that was not armored to avoid drawing attention.
Rifi said the bomb was detonated by remote control from a place overlooking the site. He confirmed reports from Washington Monday that the FBI was sending a team to Lebanon to help with the investigation. FBI teams have helped investigate several bombings in Lebanon since 2005.
Lebanese newspapers reported Rifi's comments Tuesday after he briefed top editors the night before.
A senior Lebanese security official said al-Hassan entered Beirut's airport using a false name and later sent his passport back to be stamped. The official said this could have alerted the attackers that al-Hassan was in Lebanon.
Authorities are examining phone calls to and from al-Hassan's mobile phone, the official also said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The killing echoed assassinations of other anti-Syria figures: the newspaper editor and lawmaker Gibran Tueni in 2005 and the Christian lawmaker Antoine Ghanem in 2007. Both were killed by car bombs soon after they secretly returning from abroad.
After the killing, opposition politicians called for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his government, which is dominated by Hezbollah. But such calls appeared to have lost steam Tuesday, following three days of clashes and protests.
At his first day back at work since the killing, Mikati received EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who called on all Lebanese leaders to help maintain Lebanon's stability.
Mikati later referred al-Hassan's case to the Supreme Judicial Council, which handles political and state security crimes, then left for Saudi Arabia to perform the annual Muslim pilgrimage, or hajj.
In the northern city of Tripoli, the army was deployed between two neighborhoods that support opposite sides in Syria's uprising and had been clashing since the killing. The state news agency said authorities had detained 100 people involved in the unrest in Beirut and Tripoli.
Al-Hassan was known for breaking up foreign spy rings and terrorist cells as well as for cases seen as strikes against Hezbollah and Syria.
Earlier this year, his work led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, who is accused of plotting a wave of bombings in Lebanon at Syria's behest. Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, one of Assad's most senior aides, was indicted in absentia in the August sweep.
Lebanon expert Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington said it is too early to cast blame for al-Hassan's killing. Besides the political cases, al-Hassan also pursued people involved in money laundering and other crimes.
"There is no shortage of people who disliked him for what he did," Nerguizian said.
He also said that the immediate political fallout from al-Hassan's killing appeared limited, probably because Lebanese leaders fear creating a political vacuum that could suck Syria's violence into Lebanon.
"You can only do so many things before you trigger a cycle of violence that nobody wins and Lebanon ultimately loses," he said.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed reporting from Beirut.