It was an apparent fall from grace for Lebanon’s former Minister of Information Michel Samaha, still in his pajamas as he was hauled from bed on August 9 during an early morning raid by heavily armed Internal Security Forces (ISF) personnel. His wife reported that it seemed as if the officers from the ISF’s Information Branch had “come to liberate something.”
Samaha, a close friend and ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was widely acknowledged to be Assad’s man in Lebanon, and his arrest shook his Lebanese allies in the March 8 coalition as much as it garnered fanfare from his opponents in the March 14 political alliance. Information leaked from the Information Branch indicates Samaha — whose house was reportedly found filled with explosive devices — was plotting to plant bombs in Sunni and Christian areas in Akkar, North Lebanon, under orders from Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk. The attacks were planned for the following week, during Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi’s scheduled visit to Christian villages in the area.
Samaha started his political life as a member in the students’ branch of the Kataeb political party, later defecting to the Lebanese Forces under the leadership of Elie Hobeika. Known to have close ties with the French intelligence and a Canadian passport, Samaha was also a renowned intellectual with in-depth knowledge of political theories, and had spent the past five years as a Syrian regime spin doctor, while also advising President Assad on foreign policy. Shortly after his arrest, Samaha confessed to taking orders from Mamlouk and transporting bombs himself, in his own car, and handing them over to a “secret witness”, who filmed the whole exchange through the lens of a pen-like camera. Lebanese media later exposed this “secret witness” as Milad Kfouri, the head of a security company that provides security services for politicians and businessmen; among his clients is Finance Minister Mohamad Safadi. Kfouri has since disappeared without a trace.
Notably, the Information Branch, which carried out Samaha’s arrest, is headed by Wissam al-Hassan, previously a bodyguard for the late former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, with Hassan under the authority of ISF Director General Ashraf Rifi, himself known to have close ties to the Hariri family. As with every public department in Lebanon, the Information Branch operates under the unofficial sectarian quota system, and favors Sunnis from the Hariri camp. Thus, Samaha’s arrest is seen by some to be a blow in the internal war currently under way between the variously aligned security apparatuses in Lebanon now divided over the Syrian situation. Samaha, however, confessed to taking orders from the Syrian regime to plant bombs inside Lebanon and implode the country by pitting Christians against Sunnis: the regional instability Assad has warned about since the beginning of the Syrian uprising seems to be itself crafted in Damascus. Given the evidence and Samaha’s confessions, Hezbollah, Syria’s major ally in Lebanon, has kept quiet on the affair. When Member of Parliament Mohamad Raad, part of Hezbollah’s ‘Loyalty to the Resistance’ parliamentary block, condemned Samaha’s arrest, Hezbollah announced that Raad’s comments reflected his own opinion and not that of the party.
Could the surrender of Samaha — a man of often shifting political allegiances — be seen as another defection high in the ranks of the Syrian regime? The simplicity of the plot and Samaha’s personal involvement in the minutiae of the operation make one wonder what happened to the massive human resources and agents operating on behalf of the Syrian regime in Lebanon. Remember, Samaha’s role with the Syrian regime was always in an advisory and scholarly capacity, but never as mercenary. This whole operation does not fit with Samaha’s historical precedent, expertise or style. The criminal aspects and viciousness assigned to the operation simply seem outside of Samaha’s purview, and his CV would show none of the necessary prerequisites for the job. Why was this intellectual suddenly operating as an undercover bomber?
Government deputy Commissioner to the Military Court Judge Sami Sader has charged Samaha and Mamlouk with conspiracy to commit crimes in Lebanon. The Samaha case is another episode of Lebanese upheaval stemming from political and security developments in Syria. Whether Samaha defected, or was caught red-handed, his arrest diffused a plot that could have had similar results to the 1975 bus shooting in Ain Al Roumani — that sparked the 15-year-long sectarian civil war that we have yet to recover from.
MOE ALI NAYEL is a freelance journalist based in Beirut