Six Degrees of Terrorism: Tentative Link Between Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda and the Hariri Assassination
Today, Al-Hayat printed the full text of a Lebanese governmental report on an Al-Qaeda cell that was arrested early last year. This report, apparently released yesterday, reinforced and corroborated a tantalizing yet still tentative assertion that placed Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri over two years ago.
This is my condensed version of the report, followed by what I had written about this cell in the past:
Recruitment: Hassan Muhammad Nab’a, (Lebanese, Born 1981. AKA ‘Muhammad Said Mneimneh’, ‘Ramzi Khalil Hassan’, ‘Sheikh Rashid’. Later designated Emir of this Al-Qaeda affiliate group. He was also associated with the Dhiniyeh clashes in northern Lebanon in 2000, and had gone into hiding in Syria); was recruited by two persons connected to Al-Qaeda: ‘Jamil’, (Syrian from Homs, Al-Qaeda facilitator); and by Faisal Asa’ad Akbar (Syrian, AKA ‘Fahad Muhammad Hassan Al-Khadim Al-Yamani’, ‘Abdel-Ghani Walid Faris’, ‘Hassan Nassir Isa’. Pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in late 1999, then pledged allegiance to Abu Musa’ab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, and was tasked by the latter to go back to Syria and recruit for Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and then tasked with conducting terrorist operations in Lebanon and Syria).
Hassan Nab’a sent ‘Jamil’ to Lebanon to recruit his brother, Malik Nab’a. Malik Nab’a recruited Khalid Midhat Taha (Palestinian resident in Lebanon. AKA ‘Muhammad Ali Safadi’, ‘Ghassan Said Khalil’) who later went and pledged allegiance to Hassan Nab’a in Syria. Taha recruited Hani Hashim al-Shenti (Naturalized Lebanese of Palestinian origin) who also went to Syria and pledged allegiance to Hassan Nab’a. Taha was the alleged recruiter and handler of Ahmad Abu Ades who took responsibility, in a video released by a terrorist organization, for the Hariri assassination on February 14, 2005.
At one point after the Hariri assassination, Hassan Nab’a, Faisal Akbar, and Khalid Taha were living in the same apartment in the Ein al-Rummaneh district of Beirut.
The chief characters in this cell are Hassan Nab’a, Faisal Akbar, Hani al-Shenti and Tariq Raja al-Nassir (Syrian neurosurgeon. AKA ‘Abdel-Salam Abdel-Wahab Khudayir’). All of them, as well as several other associates, are in Lebanese custody. Other important players such as Khalid Taha and ‘Jamil’ still at large, as well as some others listed in the report.
They are not being charged with anything to do with the Hariri assassination. They are being held for being members of Al-Qaeda, hoarding weapons, rockets and explosives, and plotting to target a Lebanese sect—most likely the Shi’as.
Abu Ades is connected to Khalid Taha, who is connected to Malik Nab’a, who was recruited by ‘Jamil’, who had recruited Hassan Nab’a, who was linked to Abu Musa’ab al-Zarqawi directly through Faisal Akbar. Count them: six degrees of separation! (But how is Kevin Bacon involved in all of this?)
Now it’s official: the Lebanese Prosecutor’s Office has linked Ahmad Abu Adas to an Al-Qaeda cell. But Serge Brammertz, the able Belgian prosecutor in charge of the UN’s investigation into the Hariri assassination, has ruled out placing Ahmad Abu Ades at the scene of the crime through some DNA evidence. This is what Brammertz says in his fifth and latest report that was released in March:
b) Ahmad Abu Adass
41. In this reporting period, the investigation has developed its understanding of how Ahmad Abu Adass was identified and chosen to be the person to make the video claim of responsibility, who involved him in this activity and where and when this occurred. A working hypothesis is that he was identified because of his personality and other specific characteristics. It is possible that his association and relationship with one or more individuals whom he met at his place of worship led him to depart his home on 16 January 2005, for reasons that are currently unknown.
42. The Commission is aware that Ahmad Abu Adass was acquainted with individuals associated with extremist groups, at least because they attended the same place of worship which he frequented regularly, and where he occasionally conducted prayers. The Commission has also conducted extensive analysis of communications traffic records associated with Ahmad Abu Adass, including analysis of the telephone communication at his home and place of work and on lines belonging to his alleged associates.
43. A working hypothesis is that Ahmad Abu Adass was either coerced or duped into making the video-taped claim of responsibility. The claim he read out on tape was made on behalf of a group, and Ahmad Abu Adass himself did not state he would be the one who would carry out the attack. In relation to the tape’s production, it is of note that relatives and persons who knew him before his disappearance have stated that his appearance on the video tape was physically different from that before 16 January 2005. To some, he appeared even thinner than previously; his beard had markedly grown, indicating that he may have made the tape towards the end of the approximately four week period between his disappearance and 14 February 2005. His clothing was also different from his usual style in that he had headwear and clothing that his close friends and family had not seen him wearing before."
44. It is of interest to the investigation that a note was included with the video on 14 February 2005 which stated that the bomber was indeed Ahmad Abu Adass. From its forensic findings, the Commission believes this to be highly unlikely. One working hypothesis is that the video and the accompanying note could have been designed to deceive. Another working hypothesis is that while an extremist group may have been involved in part in committing the crime as outlined in the tape and note, this group was actually manipulated by others for another objective not related to its own organizational aspirations.
But the Abu Adas tape was delivered to Al-Jazeera’s office in Beirut within hours of the Hariri bombing and in it a group calling itself Al-Nusra wel Jihad took credit for the attack.
Thus, a role for Abu Adas cannot be discounted, and now a role for Al-Qaeda—because of the information above—cannot be ignored either.
I first wrote about this Al-Qaeda cell when the news first surfaced in February 5, 2006, alleging an attempted cover-up:
I don't know for certain if the Addiyar story or what was relayed by my source is accurate in full, but it seems that the notion that Al-Qaeda (Zarqawi branch? Ansar Al-Sunna branch?) was somehow involved in the Hariri assassination has picked up a momentum of its own, and the members of the Lebanese political elite that are privy to this information are themselves preparing pre-emptive talking points for release upon public disclosure. The anti-Syrian camp is saying that the Asad regime is manipulating Al-Qaeda's activities in Lebanon, just as they supposedly do in Iraq, thus acting as enablers of jihadist terrorism. The pro-Syrian establishment is preparing for a big push to release the four imprisoned generals who stand accused of killing Hariri according the Mehlis report, and to divert some of Brammertz’s attention into an inquiry as to who ‘coached’ the three ‘false witnesses’: Zuheir Siddiq, Hosam Hosam and Ibrahim Jarjoureh.
[For more about the coached witnesses, see my column, The Mehlis Mess, from December 6, 2005. ]
But I also got the role of the Saudis in this completely wrong, or at least my source did, for it turned out that the Saudi national was actually a Syrian (Faisal Akbar) using fake Saudi papers. (I’m still a little antsy about the name ‘Akbar’—sounds South Asian or Afghani to me…)
And I wrote some more about the Al-Qaeda cell on February 11, 2006, and giving some analysis about the role of this group:
My own hypothesis is that this group was just one of four involved in pulling off the Hariri assassination, and their prime task was in picking and handling the suicide bomber, Abu Ades, and preparing the media package of him taking credit for the crime, thus I’d refer to them as the “Spotters and Handlers”. The other groups would have been respectively responsible for information gathering (general data about the Hariri convoy, his security detail, his usual routes…etc), ‘close’ surveillance (these would be the guys with the 6 cell phones tracking Hariri on the day of the assassination), and logistics (these provide safe houses, access to explosives, the stolen vehicle, rigging the car bomb, as well as covering tracks). Given the usual messiness that accompanies such big operations, it is possible that at some points there was overlap between the various groups, such as some of the “Spotters and Handlers” getting a peak at how the car bomb was prepared and where it was stored.
In a general sense, I’ve been following Al-Qaeda’s presence in Lebanon for a while: see my post from January 28, 2006 and my columns, Ashen Cedars (February 15, 2006) and Lebanon’s Fuse (September 7, 2006). At the time, the concept of Al-Qaeda being active in Lebanon, or that the Sunnis there were being radicalized, seemed ludicrous to many, but now it is accepted as certain fact.
And I first began to rethink my initial take on the Hariri murder in my September 28, 2005 column, Who Killed Hariri?
My interest in all of this is to gauge how much strategic vision Al-Qaeda possesses. Did they foresee the chain of events that killing Hariri would unleash: Syria’s withdrawal and isolation, and political chaos in Lebanon? Both these prospects are good news for Al-Qaeda should they wish to expand operations beyond Iraq. See excerpts from my column, Deadlock in Beirut (April 2006):
Why would Al Qaeda be interested in a place like Lebanon, full of quarrelsome non-Muslim or heterodox minorities and a penchant for loose values? The Lebanese civil war was sparked as the Palestinians sought a margin of chaos from which to operate against Israel. They were a catalyst in an already unstable situation. Zarqawi is interested in Lebanon as a staging ground to bring down the Syrian regime and install a militant Islamic sultanate in its stead that would fight Israel and lay the groundwork for a full-fledged caliphate. He also sees the Sunni birthrate as a recruiting pool for future generations of jihadists with an axe to grind against hated next-door neighbors such as Shias and Christians.
Of particular use is the piece of real-estate known as the Western Beka'a, a hilly landscape seasonally inhabited by wealthy expatriate Sunnis who have the funds and temperament to be good patrons of Al Qaeda's goals. This is an island of Sunnis surrounded on all sides by hostile sects, apparently engendering a deep sense of embattled orthodoxy. One of its more famous sons was Ziad Jarrah, one of the principal September 11 terrorists. From here Al Qaeda would be in striking range of Israeli settlements, and thus would enjoy periodic "good press" among Muslim masses whenever their shocking tactics had gone too far. And through the valleys to the east, they can access the environs of Damascus lying only a short distance away.
Another interesting sight is the abject poverty in the Sunni towns to the north of Lebanon that are bursting with children and teenagers. Over there, fundamentalism is apparent in the dress code and the numerous Islamic charities that provide services such as schools and clinics. Although the rhetoric of disenfranchisement and poverty was traditionally the realm of Shia politics, a whole swath of Lebanon dominated by Sunnis languishes in a state far worse than the Shia "ghetto" of south Beirut or the Shia towns in the south or east of the country. It is those Sunnis who are showing up as fighters in Iraq, or who are now coming under increasing suspicion as the perpetrators of Hariri's murder.
And because, symbolically-speaking, Syria would be a major prize for the jihadists, see my column Zarqawi’s Heartbreak (March 9, 2006).
Let’s wait and see what Brammertz will have to say about this Al-Qaeda cell: Did they kill Hariri, and what was their motive? Did they act alone? Were they manipulated by the Syrian regime? Did the Syrians know about their plans and turn a blind eye?
In his latest reports, Brammertz seems to be focusing on modus operandi to ascertain the identity of the culprits: a massive car bomb navigated by a suicide bomber seems to bear Al-Qaeda’s signature. Hariri was a secular Sunni, with deep ties to the Saudi regime and would be a difficult figure to challenge should Al-Qaeda want to lure Lebanese Sunnis over to their ideology; so it may have made sense to them to kill him and get him out of the way. And maybe some among them saw that if the Syrians took the fall and the regime there was weakened, then that would put Damascus in play for Al-Qaeda’s designs.
Are Al-Qaeda’s strategists that smart? Or were they just lucky? Or are they not part of this picture at all? The answers to these questions would allow us to determine what Al-Qaeda intends to do next, and where.