Getting Away With Murder?

The investigation into the 2005 assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri is nearing its end—and a trial in international court looms. Insiders say the trail of evidence leads, ultimately, to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But having spent three years fearing for their lives, the investigators are now grappling with a different fear: that Western concerns about regional stability will prevent the naming of the biggest names. Inside the investigation that could blow up the Middle East

At a 2005 rally called by Hezbollah in Beirut, a crowd protests the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and holds aloft a photo of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Rafiq al-Hariri had been killed less than a month earlier.

Photographs by Kate Brooks

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Slideshow: "Fear and Loathing in Beirut"

Politicians and journalists hide from assassins in Lebanon's capital city.

One sweltering afternoon in early July, I drove east out of Beirut to visit the headquarters of the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission, the group probing the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri, the Lebanese billionaire and former prime minister. I followed a road that wound through pine forests, climbing to the top of a ridge in the Mount Lebanon range, until I reached a roadblock manned by the Lebanese army. Zone de Haute SÉcuritÉ, proclaimed the signs before the sandbagged checkpoint. Down below, tucked away in a steep gorge and half-obscured behind unfinished apartment blocks, stood the Monteverde Hotel, a faded resort that once served as a summer getaway for middle-class Beirutis. The UN took over the complex in the summer of 2005, shortly after Hariri’s assassination, and has turned it into one of the best-guarded facilities in the world; a contingent of 450 Lebanese soldiers, policemen, and UN security guards forms a nearly impregnable barrier around the hotel. Real-estate prices in the neighborhood have soared, a source close to the UN investigation later told me, as the ambient effect of so much security has radiated outward, creating a small calm space within the chaos and crime of greater Beirut.

Since the summer of 2005, the Monteverde has been at the center of one of the world’s most sensitive criminal investigations. Inside, a team of about 200 people from nearly two dozen nations—forensics experts, DNA specialists, telecommunications analysts—has been sifting through evidence relating to the assassination of Hariri, one of the Middle East’s best-known and most influential politicians. Hariri had supported a campaign to end Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon, a campaign that had culminated, in September 2004, with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the disarmament of Hezbollah, the Syrian-backed Shia guerrilla group in Lebanon. A suicide truck bomber destroyed Hariri’s heavily guarded six-car armored convoy as it passed the St. George Hotel along the Beirut seafront just before 1p.m. on February 14, 2005. The United Nations commission was created several weeks later, prompted by concerns that the Lebanese security and criminal-justice systems, riddled with Syrian agents, would be unable to effectively investigate the killing.

In the nearly four years since, the UN team has carried on its work in fear. Unsolved car bombings and other attacks have killed or maimed two dozen prominent Lebanese opponents of Syria. The first team leader, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, stepped down from his post and fled Beirut in January 2006; after implicating senior Syrian officials in Hariri’s murder, he had been informed by Western intelligence officers of two assassination plots against him. This past January, Wissam Eid, a high-ranking intelligence official in the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, was killed by a car bomb east of Beirut. He’d been working closely with the UN commission. “Things got very tense after that,” a UN insider who had left the investigation earlier this year told me, when we met at a café in downtown Beirut. “Morale dropped away. People got scared.”

Today the UN investigators live and work in 50 drably furnished rooms spread out over the five floors of the Monteverde. They work in total secrecy—no communication with the press, little association with outsiders. “They are as careful with us privately as they are with journalists,” I was told by Jeffrey Feltman, the former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon and now the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. “We don’t know what they’ve uncovered.” Drawn blinds cut off the spectacular views of the Beirut skyline; a weight room and a large swimming pool provide the only diversions. When team members venture outside to interview witnesses, they use decoy armored convoys and switch vehicles frequently.

As I stepped out of the car and walked to the edge of the gorge, scribbling in my notebook and taking in the views of downtown Beirut and the azure Mediterranean beyond, a pair of Lebanese soldiers from the nearby checkpoint approached. One asked for my passport, leafed through it, handed it back to me, and told me to turn back. “This is a high-security zone,” he said. “Nobody is permitted to stop.”

The bomb that killed Rafiq al-Hariri weighed 2,200 pounds and left a crater 30 feet wide in the Corniche, Beirut’s seaside promenade. In addition to Hariri, it killed 21 people, and injured 220 more. It set dozens of cars on fire and knocked down several buildings; all the windows of the nearby, 446-room InterContinental Phoenicia Hotel were blown out, and the hotel—a symbol of Beirut’s postwar rebirth—was forced to close for months.

Eight months later, a report to the UN about Hariri’s assassination outlined a conspiracy of remarkable breadth and complexity. It revealed that three months before Hariri’s death, his security detail had been mysteriously reduced from 40 to eight; that six anonymously purchased mobile phones were used on the day of the attack to keep the bomber informed of Hariri’s movements and to provide intelligence on the three possible routes that Hariri could take from the parliament building to his home; that the suicide truck moved into position one minute and 49 seconds before Hariri’s convoy passed by; and that the truck itself had been stolen on October 12, 2004, in Sagamihara City, Japan. The killers appeared to be sophisticated, politically connected, and well-funded: clearly this was not the work of a lone extremist or a fringe group. It bore the hallmarks of a government-sponsored assassination.

For Lebanon, the reverberations of the attack were deep and long-lasting. The violent death of a charismatic consensus builder, who was nurturing stability and attracting foreign investment, seemed to blow the country back to the 1980s, when Mafia-style assassinations and car bombings were as brazen as they were commonplace. It inflamed long-standing local tensions—Sunni versus Shia, pro-Syrian versus anti-Syrian—and roiled the politics of the Middle East. “Rafiq Hariri was the most important political figure in Lebanon, but he was also much bigger than Lebanon,” Feltman told me. “He had powerful connections, an incredible political mind, and limitless financial resources. Whoever murdered him wanted to create a hole in Lebanese politics that still hasn’t been filled.”

A second bomb, perhaps bigger than the first, has yet to detonate. It involves the naming and prosecution of the people behind the plot—steps that, by most accounts, now appear imminent. The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon, created in May 2007 by the Security Council, is expected to convene as early as January 2009, in a residential suburb of The Hague. Late last year, a UN panel appointed 11 judges, including four Lebanese who, reportedly, were spirited out of the country and placed, with their families, in protective custody. In November 2007, the secretary-general appointed a new investigative commissioner—the third so far—who will also continue on as the tribunal’s lead prosecutor. Several commission insiders told me that he is close to wrapping up the investigation and will call for the tribunal to be seated within weeks.

The ramifications of the Hariri case will extend well beyond justice and jail sentences. Many observers believe that the commission has been building a case against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and his inner circle. Depending on how high up the charges go, the tribunal could have a major impact on the geostrategic map of the Middle East. An indictment of members of the Assad family and their closest allies, all members of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, could scuttle negotiations for a comprehensive peace deal between Syria and Israel. It could drive Assad further into the arms of Iran. It could even lead to a palace coup, or stir the country’s disenfranchised Sunni majority to revolt. “Imagine if the Syrian regime is proved to have planned and executed this assassination,” one Western diplomat with long experience in the region told me. “What will the Sunni majority in Syria think about a leadership that took out one of the major Sunni leaders of the Middle East?”

Indeed, so much is at stake that rumors are now circulating about what the investigation will be allowed to conclude. In recent months, members of the UN commission in Beirut have speculated among themselves about a deal being secretly brokered between Western leaders and Assad that would allow the Syrian leader to hand over a few token officials in exchange for immunity from prosecution. The United States, which joined France in the drive to establish the tribunal, seems to be cooling toward the investigation. “The Americans have Iraq syndrome, so when you talk to American diplomats about Syria being involved up to the top, the reaction is hedging: ‘Syria could become another Iraq,’” one UN commission staff member told me. Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, a Beirut-based think tank, went further: “Israel and the United States are not eager to see this regime collapse,” he told me from Qatar in mid-September. “They are afraid of the consequences.”

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Joshua Hammer is a writer based in Berlin. He is working on a book about a colonial-era rebellion and reprisal in southwest Africa.

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