On that sunny February day in 2005 when they killed Rafik Hariri, Basil Fuleihan and 21 others outside the St. Georges hotel, I was due to have lunch at Le Vendôme at 1pm. However, that morning the venue was changed. Had it not, and being the punctual sort, I would have arrived in Ain Mreisseh minutes before 1pm. Quite where I would have been as Hariri’s convoy hurtled past Marina Towers seconds before its fiery denouement, I am not sure. I could have missed the blast, been caught in it or been blown flat on my back as I handed my car keys to the parking valet. As it was, I never even heard the blast. It was warm day, the a/c was on and the radio was blaring. I had taken a bad route and was stuck in traffic outside the French embassy. Lunch was cancelled. I went home, poured a large whisky before turning on the TV and watched the news unfold. My mother called from London. “Yes,” I told her. “He is dead.” Reads like a Ludlum thriller
Nearly two years on, the crime, while momentarily overshadowed by the recent summer war, is still etched on our minds. It was a defining second in Lebanese history, one of those moments that we divide into life before and life after. For those who care about such things, the events that took place in the hours before and after the explosion are thrillingly and minutely recounted in Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East by Nicholas Blanford. The opening chapter reads like a Ludlum thriller, made all the more compulsive because Blanford has skillfully knitted together the events of that Valentine’s Day morning through the eyes of no more than 15 people in whose lives that day will forever resonate.
However, there is much more to KML that makes it one of the most important and entertaining books in a long time to examine the tectonic plates that grind under Lebanon’s political surface, charting as it does the raw power struggle between Lebanon and Syria that eventually led to the presidential extension, Hariri’s resignation and the passing of the fateful UN resolution 1559. As its title hints, the book also seeks to portray Hariri—“He was a corrupter rather than corrupt”—as the prodigal son who rode into town on the back of a billion-dollar fortune and set about realizing a dream to take Lebanon and transform it into what he saw as its rightful position as the Hong Kong of the region. In the interest of disclosure, Nicholas Blanford is a friend. He is also a dogged and thorough reporter for the Times, Christian Science Monitor, Time Magazine and occasionally, the pages of Executive. He has lived in Lebanon since 1994 and has reported from Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He is also one of the most knowledgeable reporters in the world on Hizbullah. Tragic epilogue
KLM was written over eight months. It contains over 80 interviews conducted in three countries—Lebanon, France and Syria—lasting over 100 hours. Blanford traveled to Paris to interview Saad Hariri and Abdel Khalim Khaddam. He sat with an emotionally drained Jumblatt in Mokhtara, and quizzed Marwan Hamadeh and the late Gebran Tueni. In examining the role of Syria in Lebanon, he spoke to Fares Boueiz, who is by all accounts a great raconteur, and Qassem Qanso, whom Blanford found surprisingly likable. Even if it needs to be updated, the book will stand the test of time when others will loiter in the remainder bins. IB Tauris took a gamble by asking Blanford to write what is the defining book on the event and its impact. The investigation was, and still is, a work in progress, so at any time the book could have been overtaken by events. It is, however, bang up to date. It concludes with a powerful epilogue written on July 23, midway through this summer’s war between Israel and Hizbullah, in the form of a dispatch datelined Tyre. As Blanford notes, the war was a tragic finale to the Hariri story. “Hariri had always feared that Hizbullah’s hostility toward Israel would lead Lebanon into just this kind of slaughter and destruction. How he had bargained, negotiated and maneuvered to avoid such a catastrophe. Yet it had all come to nothing. His death and the subsequent chain of events—the polarization in Lebanon over Hizbullah’s arms, resurgent sectarianism, government weakness, Syrian meddling and international manipulation—had led to this unfolding disaster.”—MK
Killing Mr Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East by Nicholas Blanford is published by IB Tauris, £17.99