If Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, is planning to base his case against the four Hezbollah members indicted for the assassination of Rafik Hariri solely on the telecommunications evidence contained within the indictment, the actual trials, should they occur, could be over in a very short time. As it is, the indictment acknowledged that the case against the accused is built “in large part on circumstantial evidence”. Indeed, at a certain level it must be tempting for Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, to dispatch the four accused to the Netherlands with a good team of lawyers in the belief that they can beat the rap. After six years of investigations, we could be forgiven for expecting more than telecom analysis to support an indictment that has polarized Lebanese society more deeply than at any other time since the end of the civil war and still threatens further political turmoil. As it stands, the centerpieces of the indictment are five covert and overt mobile networks related to the assassination the prosecution says it discerned and color-coded from the millions of phone calls made each day in Lebanon.
It was widely expected that telecom analysis would play apart in the prosecution’s case; as long ago as October 2005 the cell phone networks used by the perpetrators of the assassination were made public in the first report of the United Nations commission charged with investigating the crime.
Regardless of whether Bellemare has more evidence to hand out or not, there are a couple of questions to ask regarding the contents of the indictment. First of all, the indictment acknowledges that the perpetrators were aware that at any given time their locations could be traced by the process of co-location — using mobile phone signals to triangulate the position of an individual. That, the indictment claims, is why the assassination team’s “red” network of color-coded phones was activated in Tripoli a month before the murder, an area where few Shiites live and home to Sunni Islamists on whom the accused planned to pin the blame for Hariri’s murder.
Yet, if the perpetrators were aware of this technological tracking system, why did they then continue to carry other color-coded phones along with their regular phones while going about their daily business? It was the proximity of their regular phones to the color-coded ones that apparently led to the identification of the alleged perpetrators. During the wave of assassinations of prominent anti-Syrian figures following Hariri’s death, people under potential threat routinely removed batteries and SIM cards from their cell phones before leaving home so that they could not be traced. Hezbollah’s signals intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities are highly advanced and its technicians thoroughly trained. It is inconceivable that the organization would have been unaware that a cell phone can still be tracked even when not in use.
The second, and more pressing, question is why Hezbollah would want Hariri dead in the first place. Certainly, Hezbollah and Hariri were poles apart politically, each having different visions of a future Lebanon. Hariri was a pragmatist, was well accustomed to the necessity for compromise and was not on a moral crusade to oust Syria from Lebanon or disarm Hezbollah. Hariri was willing to accept an armed Hezbollah and respect Syria’s interests in Lebanon so long as he was given free rein to run daily Lebanese affairs as prime minister.
In the months before his death, Hariri and Nasrallah struck up a close and secret friendship — one which even Hariri’s advisors still maintain was genuine — and they met at least once a week in secret. They had much in common, both being devout Muslims, originating from south Lebanon, sharing a strong sense of humor, and even both having lost their eldest sons.
Nasrallah must have not only realized that Hariri was not a threat to Hezbollah and Syria, but he could in fact be exploited as an asset. After all, Hariri’s friendship with Jacques Chirac, the then French president, helped keep Hezbollah’s name off the European Union list of terrorist organizations compiled in January 2005.
More importantly, Hezbollah did not possess the leeway to independently undertake an assassination of such strategic import. If there was Hezbollah involvement in the Hariri assassination, the orders came from elsewhere. That begs the question that if it has taken six years for the tribunal to accuse four men, two of whom supposedly played a minor, ancillary role, how much longer will it take for the tribunal to identify those whodecided that Hariri must go?
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London