An excursion to Mukhtara, or how I came to suspect Junbulatt in Hariri’s killing
I had 48 hours left for my stay in Lebanon, and Walid Junbulatt’s people had still not given me an appointment. Granted, the Lebanese political class was busy drawing up electoral lists, but no political tourist such as me could leave without dropping a visit to the famously mercurial Druze chieftain.
It was a Thursday in May, and a moldy humidity had hung heavy over the coast since my arrival. A friend dispatched a driver and a fancy Mercedes at my disposal, and I thought this would be as good an air-conditioned conduit as ever to catch a ride out into the mountains for some brisker air. I was told to mope around Hamra Street waiting for a call from Sh., the driver, but I began to realize that this day would drag out longer than projected when he began losing his bearings along the capital’s main thoroughfare. See, Sh.—a boisterous middle-aged man with heavy whiskers and bottle-bottom glasses—hails from the Maronite canton of Kisrawan that sees itself more as a suburb of Paris, rather than Beirut’s.
I called my contact in the Junbulatt camp and told him that I am on my way to Mukhtara—Walid Beg’s ancestral home. Should I get my appointment, then all is well, otherwise, a brief sojourn through Druze country would be interesting in of itself. He said he’d get back to me.
But it took more cigarettes than necessary to calm my brooding irritation at Sh. who would stop every two hundred meters or so along the highway and ask directions from whichever sun-stroked peasant was vending his produce. Of course, we kept getting conflicting directions from these barely-cognizant roadside sages, even though the highway signs to Deir Al-Qamar, a town on our way, were clear enough.
And as we heaved up switchback mountain roads and cliff sides of pine and brush, I was suddenly aware of this beautiful but troubled land, leaving behind the pockmarked testimonials to a savage civil war etched in concrete and stone around downtown Beirut. Majda Al-Roumi’s aching voice, wafting through a fading and static-ridden radio signal, only accentuated a bitter-sweet epiphany.
While driving through the tranquil charm of Deir Al-Qamar, my cell phone rang and someone in Mukhtara was berating me for keeping Walid Beg waiting. This was a good opportunity to ask Sh. to stop so that I can lay some ground rules: “if asked by Junbulatt’s people about how you came to know me, keep your mouth shut or change the subject.” It took another fifteen minutes of repeating myself to get through to Sh. that this was an urgent matter.
I had cause for concern: since coming to Lebanon, I had a change of mind as to who killed Hariri, and the list of suspects invariably included Junbulatt; a man responsible for a sizable chunk of the wartime mayhem. It was reflexive to peg the blame on Hezbollah’s terrorist A-Team: Imad Mughniyah acting on Syrian orders. But the blast site did not bear his signature. No, whoever killed Hariri was flashy and reckless, and had pulled off the terrorist act with equal parts tradecraft, bravado and luck.
Arriving in Mukhtara, I was surprised that the clunky metal gates were widely opened for me, Sh. and the Merc upon identification and without inspection. I got out and put on my jacket, taking stock of a panoramic view of rural idyll and the hazy horizon of a distant sea: the Junbulatt tribal chiefs had picked well for a home. A bald and self-assured man approached, clearly the guy in charge of security. I followed him across a mountain spring gushing out from the foot of the sandstone mansion, and up a winding stairway to the front door. He extended his hand and I physically braced for a pat down, but he had only meant to fix my collar. Coming from terror-stricken Baghdad, I found it odd that a controversial politician targeted for murder would allow such a lax security protocol.
Droopy-eyed Walid Beg Junbulatt emerged and feebly took my hand. I followed him inside and glimpsed his unkempt bed to my left before being ushered to his high-ceilinged home office on the right. He gestured to a couple of seats in the corner, as his baby-blues sized-me up. Offering Arabic coffee served from a pewter pot and some niceties, he was distracted by a call, allowing me an opportunity walk around to appreciate his sense of style. First, there is a huge stainless-steel plane propeller hanging from the ceiling in lieu of a fan. Then, there is assorted paraphernalia from the now-defunct Soviet Union, “the greatest empire” as Walid Beg described it. Rows upon rows of medals, “the whole collection,” he boasted, and officers’ uniforms in full regalia draped over headless mannequins. Heavy tomes on the Bolshevik Revolution lined the tastefully arranged book-cases, as well as an arsenal of high-end machine guns and hunting rifles. A fiberglass Glock pistol—my favorite—with two magazines alongside it, lay within reach of his laptop.
Skipping over the evident contradiction of being a hereditary feudal lord as well as a head-over-heals admirer of all things Red, one would not have guessed that, if anything, Walid Junbulatt was a flashy man. And this was all I needed to know about this enigmatic fellow, perennially-clad in white shirts and jeans, and the long-time chief of the Progressive Socialists Party, a title inherited from his father Kamal: founder of the party and one-time warlord.
In my eyes, his flair in interior design made him a suspect in a flashy and brazen murder back in February.
The conversation was off-the-record, and insubstantial as to who killed Hariri, a topic I did not raise. He autographed a book on his father with this Arabic sentence: “In the words of Fouad ‘Ajami: an open-minded and democratic Arab nationalism remains a better option than returning to the rule of the traditional elites.”
That’s rich, coming from a chieftain of Kurdish ethnic stock.
I thankfully took my leave, and headed outside. Sh. eagerly yelped, “I didn’t tell them a thing,” within earshot of the security guy. I sheepishly grinned and waved good-bye to Mukhtara; watching for any suspicious cars tailing us on the road back to Beirut— Junbulatt had given me the creeps.
But Sh. wanted to stop: he had heard that a childhood friend of his had relocated to the general area twenty-five years ago, that is from the early days of the civil war, and had opened a barber shop. They had been neighbors and played hide-and-seek before the fighting forced the Druze to leave mixed areas, and I thought to myself “might as well, for it was clear that Sh. wasn’t going to venture out of Kisrawan that often in his lifetime and especially not into an area hostile to Maronites like the Shouf Mountains.” Our excursion ended on a happy note as Sh. climbed back into the car after several detours and tearfully rejoiced over embracing a long-lost pal. But it was too bad that he had—in the excitement of the moment—forgotten to take a phone number.
So, now I had to ‘walk back the cat’ as to Junbulatt’s suspected complicity in Hariri’s murder, which was basically a journey to the foggy days of the civil war, and the macabre cast of characters who had worked for Walid Beg. In order to firm up my suspicions, I had to track down the kinds of lowlife who would be able to pull-off a complicated assassination, and then keep mum about it. I came across names such as ‘Isam ‘Anterazi, made infamous in a front-page photo in the late 1980s depicting him shooting a young PSP hoodlum for not following orders, and Abu ‘Abid Al-Kurdi Electron, so called because a bullet had punctured his larynx, and so spoke through his neck through one of those voice-actualizing gadgets. ‘Anterazi now runs a couple of gas stations in North Carolina, while Mr. Electron is dead.
Mr. Electron was in charge of a Kurdish gang that fought on behalf of Walid Junbulatt in the 1985-87 skirmishes with Nabih Berri’s Amal forces. Some of these guys were subcontracted out by Junbulatt to Qadafi as mercenaries in the Libyan war against Chad; most cashed out and nowadays lead idle lives in Lebanon. Some others went to Afghanistan to join the jihad against the Russians, but I’ve been unable to track the whereabouts of the fellows in this latter category.
But in this exercise in conspiratorial theorizing, I had to establish motive. Hariri was killed at a time of increasing tensions between a group of Lebanese politicians that included Junbulatt, and the Syrian leadership. There was a mounting expectation that Syria’s thugs would lash out at someone, and it could be possible that Walid Beg, who supposedly told Hariri “it’s going to be either you or me” according to subsequently published accounts, had made a survivalist’s calculation: “better Hariri than me.” In a sense, Hariri’s murder, and the international indignation it was sure to engender, would be a catalyst facilitating Syria’s expulsion from Lebanon, and getting Walid Beg off the hook.
It isn’t much of a theory, but then again, neither is the one that says that Syria went ahead and killed Hariri knowing that the world would erupt in uproar.
There was another name that came-up, but this time of Walid Beg’s own volition in an LBC interview on June 9th. He asked, “Where is Abu Haitham, and who let him go?” Junbulatt was, of course, referring to an ex-aide of his who had grown to big for his brooches: Jamal Karar, a half-Egyptian, half Maronite psychopath and terrorist of the first order. Abu Haitham got so haughty and crazy, that he even plotted to kill Ghazi Kana’an—Syria’s strongman in Lebanon—which prompted Junbulatt to hand him over to Damascus in 1987. Abu Haitham was convicted of being an Israeli spy and rotted away in a Syrian prison cell until 2001, when he was unexpectedly released. His whereabouts are unknown, and Junblatt was insinuating that Abu Haitham had a hand in killing Hariri.
There was even a weird story in Elaph back in June quoting a Syrian opposition figure (almost certainly Nazar Nayouf in Paris) as saying that a certain ‘M. S.’ was responsible for killing Samir Qassir, another Lebanese opponent of Syria. The source implied that M.S. works for Junbulatt, and the murder of Qassir was another attempt to provoke an international outcry against the Asad regime.
Somewhere along the line, and as it became increasingly clear that the bomb-laden Mitsubishi truck that detonated beside Hariri’s motorcade was driven by a suicide bomber, I began to suspect Junbulatt less and less. It seemed unlikely that the now seemingly docile parliamentarian would be able to compel anyone to die for him.
But this mental brainstorming was important to understand a crucial point about political violence in Lebanon: nobody has been held accountable for prior violence. People like Junbulatt, Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun are dealt with as respectable statesmen, even though there were responsible for some of the most horrendous episodes of the civil war. When things go wrong in Lebanon, they shouldn’t be above suspicion given their track-records. Even their sidekicks at middling levels such as ‘Anterazi were never questioned or castigated as to their roles, and some like Elie Hobeiqa went on to bigger and better things. And in a country where nobody stops at fully-functioning traffic lights, the mindset of ‘anything goes’ still goes strong.
All that is frivolous at this point for there is yet another suspect: Al-Qaeda. I’ve written about this in my columns (The Saudi Mega-Plot, Who Killed Hariri? and The Mehlis Mess), but my thoughts were met by institutional friction. It is easy to point the finger at Syria, but “Sunni Wahhabis operating in Lebanon?” That seems ridiculous to many. But if I were Al-Qaeda, and specifically its Zarqawi-led Jund Al-Sham arm (previously headed by Abul-Ghadia Al-Suri), wouldn’t I want to get rid of a galvanizing figure among Lebanon’s Sunnis like Hariri, and have the blame for the crime cast on another hated regime I seek to overthrow?
Late on Tuesday night, three projectiles landed in the Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona. Zarqawi’s organization, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, claimed that this was its doing and that it had fired 10 GRAD (BM variety) missiles from Lebanon. The GRAD has a range of 25 Km at best, and guess what? There is a Sunni enclave just north of Marj ‘Ayoun along the Litani River, some 25 Km from that Israeli town.
Do the math.