Analysis of the Faisal Akbar testimony and how it relates to the Hariri assassination
I’ve lumped the various translated parts of Faisal Akbar’s testimony here: Narrative of a Conspiracy.
Who is Faisal Akbar, and what does his testimony tell us?
Maybe he began by telling the truth; he may have concluded that the jig was up since the others who were arrested must have spilled the beans.
Or maybe he wanted the world to know that he had been responsible for an event of massive proportions for the Middle East and had almost gotten away with it, but he still wanted to confuse his interrogators by fudging some elements of the story so that they won’t be able to make the accusation stick. This would make him a jihadist version of O.J. Simpson and his If I Did It, Here’s How it Happened book of “fiction” that had been originally intended for publication.
Maybe yet, Akbar was so thoroughly adept at misleading his interrogators that he was actually a real life “Keyser Soze”, the character played by Kevin Spacey in Usual Suspects.
Then of course, Akbar could be a huge loss for the literary world—especially the spy novel genre—who in another life would have given John Le Carre a run for his money.
Or maybe the whole testimony was a journalistic fabrication, as alleged by Ahmed Fatfat, who became acting Minister of Interior shortly after Akbar was arrested, in a recent private conversation with me. In this case Fida’ Itani, the journalist under whose byline these testimonies were published in Al-Akhbar newspaper, soundly deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature.
This is what we know for certain: about an hour and 20 minutes after the explosion that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 21 other individuals at around 1 PM on February 14, 2005, the Aljazeera bureau in Beirut got a call whereby the caller gave them directions to where they could find a tape on a which a claim of responsibility for the Hariri assassination was made. This was the second call that was made to the Aljazeera bureau; the first came in about 30 minutes after the explosion and a hitherto unknown group calling itself “Al-Nusra wel Jihad in the Levant” told Aljazeera that they had killed Hariri.
In the late afternoon, Aljazeera aired the tape that it was led to.
Clearly, given the time constraints, this tape and the claim of responsibility it contained must have been made before the time of the assassination. So the persons involved in Al-Nusra wel Jihad were the only ones who can be publicly identified as having prior knowledge of a conspiracy to kill Hariri. There is no hard and irrefutable evidence in the public domain that we know of that shows that any other entity had prior knowledge of the conspiracy to the same degree as these jihadists.
Nobody had heard of this self-described jihadist group before, but the unmasked face of the young man who appears on the tape and takes credit in the name of his group—emblazoned on a black banner behind him—was quickly identified as that of Ahmed Abu Ades.
Furthermore, there was a note attached to the tape and it alleged that Hariri was killed by a suicide bomber and that the bomber was none other than Ahmed Abu Ades.
Ahmed Abu Ades was born in Saudi Arabia in 1982 to a lower middle-class Palestinian family that had resided in Lebanon. In 1991, his family moved back to Lebanon and settled in a middle-class neighborhood in Beirut. Around 2001, young Ahmed turned devout and by 2003 he was already administering religious lessons at a local mosque.
Abu Ades’ actual role in the explosion remains in much dispute, and according to some—including the UN-mandated investigation team into the Hariri assassination—it has been refuted by DNA evidence. However, he did record that tape and he chose to do so without hiding his identity.
Since then, nobody has been able to prove whether he is alive or dead, or what happened to him since he made the tape.
Nevertheless, the Lebanese authorities continued to look for a mystery man associated with Ahmed Abu Ades whose real name is Khalid Midhet Taha.
While looking for Taha, the Internal Security Forces stumbled upon a Saudi national, Faisal Akbar (born 1976), and managed to arrest many of Akbar’s associates during the early days of January 2006. But Taha had managed to escape the dragnet two weeks before Akbar’s arrest and find sanctuary in a Palestinian refugee camp that is off-limits to Lebanese authorities, and he remains at large to this day.
FAISAL AKBAR SPEAKS
Akhbar told his interrogators three different stories. The only common theme in all three is that he and Taha were members of a jihadist cell that was directly associated with Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi.
Akhbar’s first story was the most detailed: He had trained Ahmed Abu Ades, and was a constant companion of his for the whole month preceding the assassination. He had even bid Abu Ades farewell on the morning before Hariri’s murder and that Abu Ades was the suicide bomber.
Akhbar’s second story was less detailed: He had been part of the cell monitoring Hariri’s movements and preparing for the assassination from mid-November 2004 to mid-January 2005, but that he had never met Ahmed Abu Ades, and that the suicide bomber was another Saudi national who went by the pseudonym “Abu Muqatil al-Asadi”.
By the time Akbar tells his third story, he seems to have been struck by amnesia: he had nothing to do with the Hariri assassination and that’s that.
But what if his first and second stories contained elements of the truth? What if they were actually parallel? What if there were two suicide bombers, not one?
Here’s an alternate theory: What if this jihadist cell had adapted the suicide bomber model because they were calibrating their conspiracy against what they thought was the best security money could buy. Hariri would have bought the best gadgets and hired the best brains in the business to keep him alive, and consequently the jihadists may have reasoned that a lone driver milling around in a truck would arouse suspicion and attention, especially while waiting for Hariri’s convey to pass through one of two bottlenecks—that is, one of only two spots on Hariri’s route that could not be regularly changed—from Hariri’s parliamentary office to his home. It stands to reason that Hariri’s security detail would be trying to spot something that Beirut had seen plenty of: the specter of the lone suicide driver of a car bomb.
So how would the jihadists work around it? They’d do so by having two occupants in the truck—quite an innovation. Abu Muqatil al-Asadi would drive, while Ahmed Abu Ades would be seated next to him pretending to ask directions, or looking over at invoice, or picking something up, etc. After all, this is what Akbar claimed in his second account: “…someone drove the pick-up while Abu Ades was next to him, and he was a member of the surveillance team and I don’t know who he was.”
[Note: in his first account, Akbar gives the aliases of the surveillance team even though he claimed not to have met them. He said that they were “Fahed”, “Thamir”, “Adnan”, “Fawwaz” and “Bassam”. In his second account, he claims to have worked with them for two months and he gives their aliases as “Adnan”, “Fawwaz”, “Thamir”, “Bassam” and “Muhanned”. Notice that he substitutes “Fahed” for “Muhanned”, which could indicate a gap in his knowledge; this person could be the one who drove Abu Ades to the St. George Hotel where the blast occurred; this could be Abu Muqatil al-Asadi. At one point the interrogators confronted Akbar and told him that the truck was moving at a certain speed at the time of detonation and that Abu Ades’ family had claimed that he could not drive, and certainly could not have handled the vehicle at that speed, the interrogators reckoned. I find it hard to believe that a young man in the Middle East would have grown up without taking a car for a spin, but even so if Abu Ades really didn’t know how to drive then that strengthens the theory that there was another suicide bomber in the truck who was behind the wheel. It should also be noted that Nicholas Blanford makes the claim on page 12 of his book Killing Mr. Lebanon (2006) that the Mitsubishi truck was double parked, hence stationary, at the time of detonation.]
But what about the DNA evidence? Plausible doubt: 33 bits of human remains and an upper right central incisor (found in February 2005) all belong to one person and were found near each other. But another tooth, a lower right central incisor, was found in June 2006 nearby and it cannot be conclusively determined, since no DNA was extracted, that this tooth belongs to the same suicide bomber.
Unless one can conclusively prove that the ‘lower right central incisor’ belongs to the same, lone suicide bomber, then one cannot conclusively disprove the ‘Two Suicide Bombers’ theory.
[By the way, Brammertz describes in detail the chemical analysis into the 33 human parts and how they are related to geographical markers, so when one links this to the rumor that he had been to Saudi Arabia to collect soil samples, the implication is that Brammertz is at least entertaining the notion that the suicide bomber was a Saudi, and hence could be Abu Muqatil al-Asadi.]
Getting back to the Faisal Akbar testimony, it is clear to me that there are eight principal characters:
1-Faisal Akbar: Saudi, joined Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 1999, tasked by Zarqawi to liaise with Jund al-Sham in Lebanon in 2001, met Zarqawi in Iraq in June 2005, in custody.
2-Hassan Naba’a (alias: “Sheikh Rashid”): Lebanese, he was the emir of this jihadist cell, met Akbar in Afghanistan in 2000, tasked by Zarqawi in 2000 to travel to Lebanon and “prepare the ground for jihad”, identified by Akbar as one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Levant, in custody.
3-Khalid Taha: Palestinian, early 30s, recruited by Hassan Naba’a’s brother, at large and hiding in the Ain al-Helwah Palestinian refugee camp, according to Akbar.
4-Ahmed Abu Ades: Saudi-born Palestinian, 22 years-old at time of assassination, recruited by Khalid Taha, whereabouts unknown.
5-“Jamil”: an alias, identity unknown, described as a Syrian male in his late 20s, he emerges as the principal organizer of the conspiracy to assassinate Hariri, identified by Akbar as a member of Al-Qaeda in the Levant, at large and hiding in Syria, according to Akbar.
6-“Nabil”: also known as “Abu al-Ghadieh al-Souri”, whose real name could be Khalid Darwish, top aide to Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, killed in Iraq in June 2005.
7-“Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi”: emir of Monotheism and Jihad in Mesopotamia, then head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then a member of the Shura Council of the Mujaheddin, killed in June 2006.
8-Abdel-Aziz al-Migrin: “Abu Hajer”, emir of Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Haramein (Saudi Arabia), killed in June 2004, his death was alluded to by Ahmed Abu Ades as one of the motivations to kill Hariri, who was seen as a very close regional ally of the Saudi royal family. Akbar also claimed that “Abu Muqatil al-Asadi” was sent by “Abu Hajer” and then he clarifies that “Abu Hajer” was al-Migrin.
Whichever one cuts it, there is no escaping that Ahmed Abu Ades, the guy who took credit for killing Hariri, was associated through Khalid Taha with three persons who had direct access to Zarqawi: “Sheikh Rashid”, “Nabil” and Faisal Akbar.
Of all the detainees in Lebanese custody, it seems that only Akbar and “Sheikh Rashid” have firsthand knowledge of the conspiracy to assassinate Hariri and were directly involved in it. The others don’t seem to be part of the picture.
AKBAR’S FIRST ACCOUNT
Akbar’s first narrative is breathtaking for all its details, and for the later assertion that it was all a figment of his imagination. But could he be that good of a storyteller? How would he have maintained ‘plot discipline’ during an tense interrogation when he was alleging to remember details like what clothes Khalid Taha wore on a certain date, or that Abu Ades had shaved his beard upon returning to Lebanon or what “Jamil” did with the keys to the Skoda rental, all the while being intimidated by the Lebanese ISF guys. Furthermore, the narrative is logically coherent, which is quite a feat considering the pressures he’s under, and he apparently gets some things right—later on, he’d claim that it was all a coincidence—such as the price of the Mitsubishi truck, which hadn’t been published before.
I found two immediate problems with this narrative:
1-Akbar claims to have trained “Abu Turab”, who he identifies as Ahmed Abu Ades, before training Hani al-Shenti, Amer Hallaq, Selim Halimeh and finally Bilal Za’aroureh, in that order. Akbar used to administer a security seminar to fresh recruits at a ‘guest house’ in Damascus before these young jihadists would travel to an Al-Qaeda run farm near Aleppo (specifically located on the Zerbeh road off the main Damascus-Aleppo highway) to pledge allegiance to the emir of the group, “Sheikh Rashid”. But this conflicts with Hani al-Shenti’s account (Shenti is another Saudi-born, naturalized Lebanese citizen of Palestinian descent) who gives the following timeline: he, as in Shenti, gave allegiance to Sheikh Rashid in August 2004, he was followed by Bilal Za’aroureh in November 2004, and then by Amer Hallaq in January 2005 and finally by Selim Halimeh in March 2005. Akbar’s account matches Al-Shenti when he says that there was a two month interlude between Hallaq’s training and that of Halimeh’s. However, Akbar claims to have never met Abu Ades before January 2005, even though he says that he was the first to be trained. The two-month gap between Za’aroureh (November 2004) and Amer Hallaq (January 2005) would coincide with what Akbar says later in his second account; that he was in Beirut during that time with the logistics and monitoring team.
[Note: it is clear to me that Shenti did not play an active part in the Hariri conspiracy since he claims to have only met “Jamil”, the principal organizer, in March 2005, after the assassination took place.]
Why would Akbar switch around the chronology of Bilal Za’aroureh’s training and clearly state that he was the last to be trained, when Shenti says that he recommended Za’aroureh for membership and that the latter had pledged allegiance to Sheikh Rashid in Aleppo in November 2004? We already know that the training seminar always preceded the pledge of allegiance, according to Akbar, so why the discrepancy?
It is also interesting to note that Bilal Za’aroureh and Khalid Taha were the only two members of the group to change their aliases (Za’aroureh changed his from “Jalal” to “Ramadhan” and Taha changed his alias from “Badr” to “Nour”) after the Hariri assassination, which would suggest that they were being isolated from the rest of the cell. It is also interesting that Akbar was tasked by Sheikh Rashid and Jamil to make sure that both Taha and Za’aroureh were tucked away safely in the Ain al-Helwah camp in the two weeks leading up to the arrest. All this seems to indicate that Za’aroueh had a crucial role in the Hariri conspiracy, and that Akbar’s change of the training timeline aims to hide something that is particularly related to Za’aroureh.
Early on in the investigation, the interrogators showed him the identification cards of some members of the cell and told Akbar that all these fellows were in their custody. So Akbar may have assumed that Khalid Taha and Bilal Za’aroureh were already held by the Lebanese authorities, in addition to Sheikh Rashid whom Akbar had helped entrap on behalf of the ISF. It also seems that Akbar held Sheikh Rashid, who was his nominal emir, in low esteem, at least when it came to tradecraft (Akbar seemed frustrated that Sheikh Rashid had not burned the letters addressed by Usbet al-Ansar and by Sheikh Rashid to Zarqawi, which were found by the Lebanese authorities later during the searches) and may have concluded that Sheikh Rashid, that is Hassan Naba’a, had already been singing like a canary. This, if taken with the ruse that both Taha and Za’aroureh were also being interrogated, may have prompted Akbar to come clean with the story and to minimize his role in the Hariri assassination as an enabler rather than a plotter or active organizer; after all, in the first account all he is only guilty of is training Abu Ades on general security matters, helping to tape the claim of assassination, scouting the scene of the crime to be, and babysitting Abu Ades throughout.
2-There is something that doesn’t add up about “Ahmed” the smuggler, who first brought Ahmed Abu Ades across the Syrian-Lebanese border on or around January 18, 2005 [Note: it would make sense to use a smuggler since Abu Ades didn’t have a passport, and it is a headache for Palestinians to travel back and forth with their refugee papers, this may also explain the delay in Abu Ades’ pledge of allegiance to Sheikh Rashid, even though he seems to have been recruited by Taha early on in the latter’s career] according to Akbar, who met the smuggler briefly when delivering Abu Ades to both him and Khalid Taha near Merjeh Square in Damascus. When first mentioning the smuggler, Akbar states that “Ahmed” is from Mejdel Anjar, a Lebanese town. But Akbar also says that when he, “Jamil”, Khalid Taha and Abu Ades crossed back into Lebanon from Syria on January 31, 2005, they used the same smuggler, “Ahmed”. But when mentioning the smuggler the second time around, Akbar says that “Ahmed” has his home in a town on the Syrian side of the border, which contradicts the first assertion that “Ahmed” is from Mejdel Anjar. The identity of the smuggler is important since he could be found and could serve as a witness to the veracity of Akbar’s account.
[A note on smuggling in the Middle East: an ‘information specialist’ once told me, “Give me a baby elephant in Istanbul, and I can produce the same baby elephant in Doha within 72 hours.” Smuggling happens, that’s it. So when Akbar claims that the explosives used in the truck bomb were smuggled into Lebanon from Iraq via Syria—that would make perfect sense. Lebanon in particular is a major smuggling node for all sorts of arms and drugs to regional and worldwide markets, and recently Lebanon itself has turned into a big domestic consumer for small arms from Iraq, e.g. Glock pistols and Kalashnikovs, as the population re-arms in anticipation of internal strife.]
There are several ‘truth markers’ that add credibility to Akbar’s account, and the three I found most interesting were:
1-Akbar claims that the final cut of the Abu Ades tape was made on January 26th, 2005, that is eleven days after Abu Ades was last seen by his family and acquaintances in Lebanon. This fits their assertion that he looked “different”; he looked more haggard, thinner and with a fluffier beard than the last time he was seen by them. Eleven days of stress would do that.
2-Akbar corrects his account to say that it was “Jamil” who had picked them up from Damascus in the Skoda vehicle around January 26th or 27th, 2005. This is called a ‘memory re-loop’ which is very hard to do if one is concocting a story off the top of one’s head.
3-The tape was left with Sheikh Rashid in Aleppo, which would make sense since Abu Ades and his handlers would not carry the tape with them as they were being smuggled across the border. Imagine them getting caught by the authorities and the tape being seized at the time ahead of the assassination, and then the whole conspiracy would have unraveled. No, the cell that held on to the tape and brought it to Lebanon and then delivered it to Aljazeera would have to be separate from Abu Ades & Co.
But the most interesting parts of the Akbar’s first account are all the things that could, in theory, be possibly authenticated or disputed:
1-Akbar gives a very detailed blow-by-blow account of the surveillance that both he and “Jamil” did on February 3, 2005 (after 1 PM) and on February 10, 2005 around and in front of the St. George Hotel area and Hariri’s office. Technically, there should be surveillance footage and cell phone geographical positioning that would correlate these movements if Akbar is telling the truth. Furthermore, Akbar makes it clear that they did not leave Syria with any baggage, and that the only clothing that was purchased when they got to Beirut was underwear, so it is possible to identify Akbar by what he is wearing. He wouldn’t have needed a wardrobe since these were the only times he left the Dahia apartment.
2-During the taping, Akbar claims that he stood to the right of the camera while Khalid Taha stood to the left. Since Abu Ades knew Khalid Taha intimately and trusted him, his body language directed to the left of the camera would indicate a point from which he may have drawn encouragement and guidance.
3-The truck was purchased in Tripoli (north of Beirut) on February 5, 2005 according to Akbar and taken to the Ain al-Helwah camp adjacent to Sidon (south of Beirut) to be outfitted with explosives, and then returned to Beirut on February 9, 2005. There may be traffic surveillance footage that could verify these movements.
4-Akbar claims that ten detonators were used when wiring-up the car bomb, and this is something that the forensic experts may be able to determine.
AKBAR’S SECOND ACCOUNT
This is where everything changes: Akbar claims that his role was limited to the two months he spent with the logistics and monitoring team in Lebanon prior to January 2005 and that he had no interaction whatsoever with Ahmed Abu Ades. He also claims that the suicide bomber was a Saudi working under the alias Abu Muqatil al-Asadi, who was sent by “Abu Hajer” who is later identified as Abdel-Aziz al-Migrin. But by the time of the Hariri assassination, al-Migrin had been dead for eight months. What is going on? Akbar doesn’t tell us when Abu Muqatil was sent by Migrin. Why doesn’t the interrogator push him on this point? Akbar also says that the person who outfitted the truck with explosives in Ain al-Helwah was someone using the alias “Abu Ubayda”.
By comparison to the first story Akbar gave, the details revolving around the second account are very scant. It is almost as if the account was ‘expunged’ from the record or the interrogation was done by some other entity. This line of thinking would correspond to what a source had told me in late January 2006, which I wrote about on this blog on February 5, 2006: ‘Attempted Cover-Up of Al-Qaeda Role in Hariri Murder?’
A team from Saudi intelligence may have met with Akbar at this point and taken his statement:
I have a source who is allegedly speaking to someone with direct knowledge of the investigation, and this is what I was told last week:
-Khalid Medhat Taha managed to escape (…or was helped to escape) from the dragnet. He is currently believed to be hiding in the ‘Ain Al-Hilwa Camp (for Palestinian refugees) on the outskirts of Sidon.
-A Saudi national and a Palestinian refugee were among those detained. In their first affidavit, they described how the vehicle (did not specify model) that was used in the Hariri assassination was fitted with explosives and stored in the ‘Ain Al-Hilwa Camp.
-The detainees are being held by the Interior Ministry (pro-Hariri), while Military Intelligence (thought to be pro-Lahoud) has not been allowed to interrogate them. The UN inquiry team into the Hariri assassination, currently headed by Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz (took over from Detlev Mehlis on Jan. 24), has asked for access to this group but are being stonewalled.
-A team from the Saudi intelligence service arrived in Beirut and spoke to the Saudi and Palestinian detainees. They managed to extract the names of five priority security targets operating in Saudi Arabia. It has been suggested that the initial information about the truck bomb was expunged from the record after this meeting, leading to speculation about some sort of deal. [This is where my source overlaps the Addiyar information, but I was very hesitant to write about all of this since this speculation concerning a bargain with the detainees does not seem realistic.]
At the time, Akbar was being interrogated by the pro-Hariri ISF, and specifically by Lt. Col. Samir Shehadeh. The Hariri camp is not well served politically if the assassination of Rafiq Hariri is perceived to be the doing of Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda, especially given all the embarrassing Saudi connections in the two accounts, rather than pegging the responsibility on the Syrian regime. The Hariri camp had gone too far in their hostility to the Asad regime, way beyond the point of no-return. Al-Qaeda’s alleged responsibility would remove the international pressure on the Syrians, who in turn would be emboldened to project their power into Lebanon through their local acolytes.
There have been several instances where I believe the investigation was deliberately misled by the Hariri camp, especially during the tenure of Brammertz’s predecessor, Detlev Mehlis. At least three ‘witnesses’ turned out to be fakes, who may have been coached by the Hariri camp. So there has been a precedent to blur the facts revolving around this case, and the ISF under Shehadeh may have proceeded to do so again with Faisal Akbar’s testimony. One way they could have done that is to tell Akbar that Sheikh Rashid had not confessed to anything, and that Khalid Taha and Bilal Za’aroureh were still at large. This would explain Akbar’s retraction.
[Note: A roadside bomb nearly killed Lt. Col. Samir Shehadeh in September 2006, which targeted his security convoy near Sidon. Shehadeh has been living outside Lebanon since then, and he is under protection. But one person I spoke with recently has suggested that Shehadeh had become very paranoid, and now believes that someone in the Hariri camp was trying to kill him, or at least to buy off his silence on the Faisal Akbar testimony. This person also suggested that Shehadeh was the source of the testimony that was published by Al-Akhbar. Other media outlets in Lebanon have suggested Adnan Adhoum as the source.]
In the second account, Akbar confirms what he thinks were the likely reasons why the jihadists would kill Hariri, that were first made by Abu Ades in the tape: Hariri had signed the execution orders for several jihadists in Lebanon who were responsible for assassinating Sheikh Nizar al-Halabi, a leader of the off-shoot Ahbash Sunni sect. Hariri was also seen as someone who was very close to the Saudi royal family, so the jihadists avenged the death of al-Migrin, who was killed in a firefight with Saudi counterterrorism forces, by killing Hariri.
Due to the thinness of the second account, we can’t even figure out where Akbar watched the Abu Ades tape on Aljazeera on the afternoon of the Hariri murder: was he in Syria with Sheikh Rashid? Or were they both still in Beirut?
The interrogators challenged Akbar’s retraction of his first account by pointing out that the level of detail, especially the comprehensive knowledge of Beirut’s downtown area around the blast site, was unique. Akbar countered by saying that he’d been to Lebanon often—eight times by his count—and hence knew his way around. But Akbar seems to have spent much more time in the Ain al-Helwah Camp and in outlying suburbs of Beirut rather than the downtown area. I’ve been to Beirut several times, and I’ve crawled all over the downtown area, but I certainly won’t be able to pull the same details as Akbar managed to do—and I’ve got a great sense of orientation (…aided by maps, admittedly) to boot. But I wasn’t plotting to blow anything up! The topography of downtown Beirut may have singed itself onto Akbar’s memory specifically because he was plotting for something and thus acutely sensitized to his surroundings.
WHY DID THEY DO IT?
At first, I think they really were motivated by revenge for the reasons stated above, and that would explain the Abu Ades tape and the claim of responsibility. At the time, they would have understood that Al-Qaeda HQ (Bin Laden and Zawahiri) would have frowned at such a stunt. But one needs to understand that the Zarqawi’s brand of Al-Qaeda is very different that than of Al-Qaeda HQ—he only joined them fully in October 2004 and he kept the name until January 2006. Zarqawi’s outfit is very different in terms of origin, ambition and technique; see my papers on the topic here and here.
That is why they perpetrated the crime under a new name, Al-Nusreh wel Jihad.
Whereas, Al-Qaeda HQ may compromise and find ways of working with state-sponsors of terror such as Syria, Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, Sudan, and Saudi and Pakistani intelligence, Zarqawi was freed-up by technological advances, notably the use of ‘internet jihad’, from having to rely on regimes.
But then, as events unfolded, the conspirators saw a new opportunity arise: the possibility that the Syrian regime may collapse due to international pressure or outright regime change. The jihadists hate the Alawite Ba’athist regime in Syria, and may consider it to be a 'Perfect Enemy' should it begin to falter. So they allowed the global perception that Syria was behind the assassination to stand, because the global jihad may benefit if the international community acts on such as revelation. They may even have orchestrated the wave of later assassinations and bombings to keep stocking the fire to which Syria’s feet were being held.
WHAT IS SYRIA’S ROLE?
How did Akbar get arrested? How did he show-up on the radar screen of the Lebanese authorities?
Syria arrested Ziyad Ramadhan, a known associate of Ahmed Abu Ades in October 2005. He had been held briefly by Lebanese authorities after the Hariri assassination in connection with Abu Ades but was then released. He escaped back into Syria and went into hiding. Akbar reveals to us that Ziyad Ramadhan was a cell member, since he had an alias “Abdullah”. Ramadhan handed himself over to the Syrian authorities after they began taking his relatives as hostages in his stead. Did Ramadhan lead the Syrians to Amer Hallaq and Selim Halimeh? Did the Syrians share this information with the Lebanese authorities who went ahead and found these two, who may have led them to Akbar? We don’t know, based on the published testimonies, who got arrested first. Then again, why would the Syrians give this information to the pro-Hariri ISF and not to the Syria-friendly Lebanese Military Intelligence? Why would the Syrians risk the ISF arresting this group then fudging the interrogation?
Akbar also tells us that he, Khalid Taha and Sheikh Rashid escaped to Lebanon ahead of Syrian security sweeps in November 2005. Had the Syrians been manipulating this cell all along, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to arrest them while they were still in Syria and then parade their confessions to Brammertz and worldwide public opinion?
So the answer to the question “What is Syria’s role?” is “None”, at this point. Those who want to prove that Syria is complicit need to do one of three things: find Ahmed Abu Ades alive, or find his mortal remains. Otherwise, they need to prove that either “Jamil” or “Nabil” (“Abu al-Ghadieh”), the two most prominent Syrians in the cell, were willing agents of the Syrian intelligence service. I think that such evidence is going to be very hard to come by since it doesn’t fit what we know of Zarqawi’s style.
1-I found it interesting that Faisal Akbar connected Abu Mohammad al-Lubnani to his organization, since I mentioned such a likelihood on January 28, 2006; this would be yet another indication that this cell was closely linked to Zarqawi:
This new information on Abu Mohammad Al-Lubnani’s background, namely that he is a Kurd, offers a tantalizing probable link between ex-PSP thugs and Al-Qaeda in Lebanon. Whoever killed Hariri, and orchestrated the subsequent campaign of terror, must have had insider information on the comings and goings of the various targets. Syria and its acolytes in Lebanon would certainly be privy to such information, but Al-Qaeda wouldn’t. Unless Al-Qaeda was plugged into the Lebanese political elite somehow, either by getting the information indirectly via the Syrians (unlikely, since the whole raison d’etre of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon is to bring down the Syrian regime) or directly from a network of acquaintances who handle security for this political elite.
Those PSP Kurds turned jihadists could be the key to this secret information channel, not to mention terrorist know-how and access to explosives.
2-Faisal Akbar’s full name and biography are interesting: he is Faisal Asa’ad Hashim Hussein Akbar. This name evokes a South Asia connection (India? Pakistan?) and Faisal’s ancestors may have been part of the ethnic flotsam that ended up in the Arabian Peninsula as a result of the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca or trade, and then Arabized and became Saudi nationals. Akbar says he is from Ras Tanoura City in the Eastern Province; while the Eastern Province has a Shiite majority, Ras Tanoura is predominately Sunni and is populated by recent internal migrants from within Saudi Arabia. Akbar is yet another terrorist who was mass produced at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud University in Qasim, Saudi Arabia, where he took a degree in religious studies before leaving for Afghanistan at the age of 23.
3-One way the cell was funded was through VISA cards belonging to Saudi nationals. These individuals would put funds into their accounts, and Sheikh Rashid was authorized to withdraw cash from ATMs in Lebanon when needed.
4-Akbar claims that the Syrian regime shut down the smuggling routes of jihadists entering Iraq from Syria around early November 2005.
Ahmed Abu Ades was directly connected to Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, whose organization had the means and the motivation to assassinate former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The only person who knew for certain that Hariri was going to be assassinated before the event happened was Ahmed Abu Ades, as evidenced by the tape.
Empirically speaking, Faisal Akbar’s roller-coaster testimony does not change anything—it would be useless in court. But it changes plenty perception-wise; the overall implication of the testimony is that it places direct responsibility squarely on Zarqawi’s doorstep, or rather his tombstone.
I welcome comments pointing out other interesting features of the Akbar testimony that I may have missed, as well as those who take issue with my analysis. As for all the Lebanese and Syrians who want to see Bashar impaled, and all the Syrians and Lebanese who want to gouge out Junbulat’s eyes, this conversation is not for you: this analysis is about the jihadists and what they are up to.