A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Catching Up: The Der Spiegel Story

The three-day Memorial Day holiday here in the US means I haven't been posting since Friday — in fact, I've been showing my daughter New York City for the first time — and short of war breaking out I don't post on weekends, even long ones.

War didn't break out, and as I look around the news the most fuss and fury seems to surround a story that the German newsweekly Der Spiegel ran recently claiming that it was not Syria, but Hizbullah, that was behind the Rafiq Hariri assassination. Allegedly this is the conclusion of Daniel Bellemare, the third investigator (Detlev Mehlis and Serge Brammertz preceded him) in the Hariri investiagation.

This is, of course, a sensational allegation. And it comes two weeks before the Lebanese elections, and it could have momentous consequences. It's also a rather sensational unsourced story, available here in English. Der Spiegel is the grand old newsweekly of Germany (originally of course of West Germany), so clearly modeled on Time that in its early days it always had both a red border on its cover and similar typefaces within. But newsmagazines the world over are trying to figure out how to survive in the digital age, and this is a strange story indeed. Not only is it explosive, but it's the first alleged leak from an investigative team that hasn't leaked an iota since Detlev Mehlis left it. Bellemare has been totally silent to date. From Erich Follath's lead:
It was an act of virtually Shakespearean dimensions, a family tragedy involving murder and suicide, contrived and real tears -- and a good deal of big-time politics.
Melodramatic? Read it all at the link, but note that there is a great deal of circumstanital detail for an unsourced story:
Imad Mughniyah, one of the world's most wanted terrorists, ran the unit until Feb. 12, 2008, when he was killed in an attack in Damascus, presumably by Israeli intelligence. Since then, Salim has largely assumed the duties of his notorious predecessor, with Mughniyah's brother-in-law, Mustafa Badr al-Din, serving as his deputy. The two men report only to their superior, and to General Kassim Sulaimani, their contact in Tehran. The Iranians, the principal financiers of the military Lebanese "Party of God," have repressed the Syrians' influence.

The deeper the investigators in Beirut penetrated into the case, the clearer the picture became, according to the SPIEGEL source. They have apparently discovered which Hezbollah member obtained the small Mitsubishi truck used in the attack. They have also been able to trace the origins of the explosives, more than 1,000 kilograms of TNT, C4 and hexogen.

The Lebanese chief investigator and true hero of the story didn't live to witness many of the recent successes in the investigation. Captain Eid, 31, was killed in a terrorist attack in the Beirut suburb of Hasmiyah on Jan. 25, 2008. The attack, in which three other people were also killed, was apparently intended to slow down the investigation. And, once again, there was evidence of involvement by the Hezbollah commando unit, just as there has been in each of more than a dozen attacks against prominent Lebanese in the last four years.

It's certainly a sensational story. But the first German investigator for the UN, Detlev Mehlis, thought all the fingerprints were Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese security forces; still, as noted previously, the four detained Lebanese generals were released for lack of evidence. Even those who want to believe Hizbullah is capable of the worst (and given its history that's not an outrageous position to take) are a bit cautious on this one. The rather conservative Middle East blogger Michael Totten posted that "I’m no fan of Hezbollah, but I need more evidence before I’m willing to say 'Hezbollah did it.'” He later updated to suggest that since the UN didn't deny it outright, it might be true. Andrew Exum, the counterinsurgency guru who blogs at Abu Muqawama, also finds it fishy. I need hardly emphasize that these folks are not Hizbullah apologists. Josh Landis, who is our best blog observer of Syria, suggests it's a plant and offers several reasons and good links. Another skeptic here.

The astute blogger on Lebanese politics Qifa Nabki gives us a Clue. Some nationalities or generations may not get this, but those who do should see it.

And Abu Muqawama has asked "Oh, and who the hell is Erich Follath?" and one of his commenters has responded:
UJ said...

Erich has previously written a book on Mossad using inside sources. That should jump start the conspiracy theories


Neither my blog nor my comment, but suggestive perhaps. In these shadowy circles it is always wise to ask the cui bono? question: who benefits from this story? Two weeks before the elections? A Mossad plant is a cliché, but it does happen; somebody in the March 14/Hariri movement would make sense too, so would many Western intelligence services. Those who really subscribe to Middle Eastern Byzantine conspiracy theories could even blame Syria: it shifts the blame from them and distances them from Hizbullah.

If this is a real finding, it's a dramatic one, but if it proves to be a disinformation plant, it could have unforeseen repercussions, especially if revealed before the elections. Plenty of people in Lebanon, the US, and other Western countries (not to mention many Arab countries) would love it if Hariri had been a Hizbullah operation. But why would they have done it, from their own internal standpoint?

Everybody is expressing caution, even those who very much want the story to be true. That should tell you something. Tread very warily on this one until the UN investigative team makes their report to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Until then, assume this is an electoral ploy.

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