1. Ahmad Abu Adass
In 2005, the last year of his life, Ahmad Abu Adass was 22 and still living with his parents in Beirut, Lebanon. He was kind and liked people, his friends later told investigators, but none of them thought he was very sophisticated. The best way to describe him was simple, one said. He was generous and a little naïve. He was very weak, physically. A Sunni Muslim of Palestinian descent, Adass had become interested in religion and now spent many hours at the Arab University Mosque near his home.
It was there, after a prayer session, that a man approached him. His name was Mohammed, he said. He was born a Muslim, but his parents died when he was young, and he grew up in a Christian orphanage. Now he wanted to return to Islam, learn how to pray, marry a Muslim woman. Could Adass help him? Adass said he could, and the two men became friends.
On Jan. 15, 2005, Mohammed called Adass. He said he had a surprise for him. Would he come see? The next morning, a car pulled up in front of Adass’s home, and he got in. He told his parents he’d return soon to help them clean the carpets, as he had promised. He took nothing with him. A day later, Mohammed called Adass’s family. He told them Adass was going to Iraq and hinted that the purpose of the journey was to join the Sunni fighters there. He said Adass would not see them again.
Four weeks later, on Feb. 14, 2005, at 12:55 p.m., an explosion just in front of the St. Georges Hotel shook downtown Beirut. It destroyed a convoy of vehicles carrying Lebanon’s former and probably next prime minister, Rafik Hariri, killing him along with eight members of his entourage and 13 bystanders.
Soon after the blast, an anonymous caller claiming to represent “Nusra and Jihad Group in Greater Syria,” a previously unheard-of organization, told a reporter at the Al Jazeera affiliate in Beirut that a videotape from the suicide bomber was hanging from a tree in Riad al Solh Square, just a few blocks from the scene of the attack. If it was not picked up within 15 minutes, it would disappear. An Al Jazeera technician retrieved it, but Al Jazeera didn’t broadcast its contents immediately. At 5:04 p.m., the anonymous caller phoned again and told the reporter that he should broadcast the video right away or he “would regret it.” Shortly afterward, the tape was aired.
In the recording, a haggard Ahmad Abu Adass, dressed in black and sporting a beard and a white turban, read from a sheet of paper. In the name of Allah, he said, and to avenge the “innocent martyrs who were killed by the security forces of the infidel Saudi regime,” his group swore “to inflict just punishment upon the agent of that regime and its cheap tool in greater Syria, the sinner and holder of ill-gotten gains,” Rafik Hariri. A letter from the hitherto-unknown movement was attached to the tape. It clarified that Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, had to die because he had betrayed his fellow Sunnis, and that Adass, also a Sunni Muslim, was the bomber who killed him. Adass’s family was horrified by the confession. They didn’t believe it.
The United Nations sent a team of experts to help with the investigation. Forensic analysts from the Netherlands began to reassemble what remained of the bomber’s flatbed truck, a Mitsubishi Canter. They were able to make out its block number, 4D33-J01926, and established that the truck had been stolen in Japan, shipped to the United Arab Emirates and finally purchased, just before the attack, from a used-car dealer in Tripoli, Lebanon, a stronghold of Sunni Muslim movements, some of them identified with Al Qaeda.
Interviewed by the United Nations investigators in Tripoli, the dealer explained that two men came to his shop and, after arguing the price down by $250, paid $11,250 in $100 and $50 bills. They provided false names and phone numbers for the paperwork; it was probably not a coincidence that they picked a dealership with no security cameras. It all seemed clear: yet another suicide bombing by Sunni jihadists.
But the investigators remained puzzled, and not just by the oddity of gentle Ahmad Abu Adass suddenly deciding to commit mass murder. Experts who examined his taped confession noted that the tone and production did not match those of other Sunni jihadist tapes. They found subtle discrepancies, too, between the tape and the letter, as if someone had feared that the tape, perhaps made long before the incident, was not totally convincing and wanted to flesh out the story. Then there was the question of means. The driver of the Mitsubishi truck was evidently skilled; he had reached the Hariri motorcade with incredible precision despite heavy traffic in downtown Beirut. Adass, his family and friends all agreed, had never driven a car. He couldn’t even ride a bicycle.
Finally, there was the problem of the DNA evidence. Forensic experts collected hundreds of body parts at the site, and most were identified as belonging to Hariri, members of his entourage and other known victims. Some 100 samples were genetically compatible with one another, but not with the identified victims. The scatter pattern of those parts showed that they belonged to the person closest to the explosion. This was the suicide bomber. Investigators compared this DNA to genetic material in scrapings from Adass’s toothbrush. The results were unambiguous: Adass was not the bomber.
The United Nations team called in more experts, genetic specialists who subjected the remains to isotope analysis — a process that can determine where a person has been living, what he has been eating, the air he has been breathing. They concluded that the bomber spent the last six months of his life in combat or active military training, where his body absorbed large quantities of lead. The largest body part to be found was his nose, the shape of which led some investigators to believe that he came from Ethiopia, Somalia or Yemen. A senior investigator, who asked to remain anonymous because of concerns about his own safety, said the investigation team preserved the nose in formalin.
“I sat and looked at that nose,” the investigator told me. “I said to myself: ‘Whose nose are you? Who sent you to kill Hariri? Why did he try so hard to make the world think the suicide bomber was someone else?’ ”
2. The Tribunal
“Whose nose are you?” Answering this macabre question has since become the work of one of the most expensive, significant and controversial criminal investigations ever conducted. The United Nations established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague for pursuing the investigation, and prosecutors filed indictments in 2011 against four members of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful militant organization, and in 2013 against a fifth member. In one sense, the tribunal is necessary simply because of Hezbollah’s unique role in Lebanon and the world: Although the group is classified by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, it is also a popular political party in Lebanon, and therefore it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for Lebanon or any other single nation to provide an appropriate venue for its prosecution. But more is at stake. This is the first major international trial involving the Arab world, and one of the greatest challenges for the prosecutors and the defense lawyers alike is simply to show that justice is possible.
The tribunal’s five trial judges began hearing the case of The Prosecutor v. Ayyash, Badreddine, Merhi, Oneissi and Sabra on Jan. 16, 2014. After a full year of proceedings, they have heard and seen just a fraction of the hundreds of witnesses and thousands of exhibits the prosecutors intend to present. So far, 28 countries, including Lebanon, the United States and France, have contributed roughly half a billion dollars to fund an investigation and trial that will probably cost hundreds of millions more by the time the case is closed, most likely in two to three years. If convicted of all the charges — various acts of terror, 22 counts of murder, 231 counts of attempted murder — the defendants face life in prison in a nation to be determined by the presiding judge.
The tribunal has taken over the seven-story concrete building that once housed the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service and converted the basketball court into a courtroom. Nearby, in a large warehouse, are the exhibits, including the charred wreckage of Hariri’s car and the suicide bomber’s truck, now parked peacefully side by side. The entire compound is very large and rather drab. “It is reminiscent of courtrooms in East Germany,” Vincent Courcelle-Labrousse, one of the defense attorneys, told me, only partly in jest.
Because missiles can fly through windows, the courtroom is windowless. Even the upper gallery, from which spectators once watched basketball games, is walled off by bulletproof glass, its lower half blacked out to obscure the witness stand below. Such measures are not a sign of paranoia: Several witnesses have been threatened, and one investigator was killed.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this high-end courtroom is what’s missing: a dock for the accused. The Lebanese authorities could not — or would not — arrest the five defendants, and Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, has vowed that the United Nations will never capture them, not in a month “or even 300 years.” For this reason, the tribunal decided to hold an international trial in absentia for the first time since the Allied tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946 sentenced Hitler’s aide Martin Bormann to death. Some argue that such a trial is an empty exercise. Under international law, defendants convicted in absentia have the right to a retrial, unless the prosecutors for the authorities who do finally capture them can show that the defendants knew they were under indictment. The counterargument, of course, is that the second trial would not be possible without the work this tribunal has already done.
The trial judges — an Australian, an Italian, a Jamaican and two Lebanese — are distinguished by the red vests they wear over their gowns, which themselves have red sleeves. The Australian, David Re, is the presiding judge and a veteran of the special international tribunals for Bosnia and Herzegovina and the former Yugoslavia. Like Re, many of the other judges and lawyers involved in the case have made a career of serving in such international tribunals.
The tribunal’s budget makes it possible for lawyers to present their graphic exhibits in the clearest possible manner. During some hearings, prosecutors place impressively accurate before-and-after models of the scene of the bombing on an enormous table at the center of the room. The model makers, who spent weeks constructing them, put special emphasis on precisely reproducing the destruction, even the damage to trees. The proceedings are conducted in Arabic, English or French, and transcriptions are produced in all three languages. I have read thousands of pages of these records and found only two typos.
The process in The Hague is also likely to establish new precedents in murder convictions on the basis of circumstantial evidence. For all the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the investigation, the prosecution has produced no direct evidence, let alone secured cooperation from any of the defendants or their potential accomplices. Its case is largely based on the records of dozens of cellphones that it claims were used by the assassins, among them the five defendants.
Many of the people wounded in the blast and family members of those killed were present when the trial opened. They regarded it as a day for rejoicing, when the truth would begin to be told. Nada Abdelsater-Abusamra of Lebanon was one of the lawyers the tribunal hired to represent the interests of the victims. “For more than 40 years,” she said in court, “we have been told that we should forgive and forget and turn the page. Turn the page? Which page, Your Honors, if we haven’t read it yet? Forget? Forget what? How do you forget something that you don’t know? Forgive? Forgive who?”
3. Rafik Hariri
To understand the assassination of Rafik Hariri, you must begin decades earlier, in 1975, when a civil war originally between Maronite Christians and Palestinians threatened to tear Lebanon apart. The government asked neighboring Syria to send troops, and the Syrians, who have always seen Lebanon as part of greater Syria, were happy to oblige. The troops stayed, and soon Hafez al-Assad, the president of Syria, was installing his own puppet politicians in positions of power.
The struggle eventually swept up Christians, Druse, Palestinian refugees, Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims — a five-way war of constantly shifting allegiances — and left at least 120,000 people dead, with hundreds of thousands more wounded or homeless. More than a million Lebanese fled the country, even as Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia and especially Syria made it hostage to their own regional agendas. As the war progressed, the Syrians switched their own allegiances however they saw fit, as long as they could continue running the country. Syrian businessmen took advantage of Lebanon’s more advanced financial infrastructure, entering under protection of their armed forces, and the Syrian Army became involved in the growing Lebanese drug trade.
In 1982, Israel began an invasion across its northern border, seeking to root out elements of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Israeli military wreaked destruction all the way up to Beirut and forced the P.L.O. out of Lebanon. It also defeated the Syrian Army and particularly the Air Force wherever it engaged them. Realizing he couldn’t win a conventional war against the Israelis, Assad, an Alawite Muslim, took a different and somewhat surprising tack: He withdrew his opposition to a plan, proposed by clerics loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, to establish a Shiite political party in Lebanon. The new organization was supposed to provide Lebanon’s Shiite minority with an alternative to the Christian-Sunni governments that had discriminated against them, and also provide Lebanon with a well-funded educational, religious, social and (especially) military organization. The organization, which was a resounding success, called itself the Party of God — in Arabic, Hezbollah. Assad hoped that the Shiite guerrilla force would maul the Israeli Army, which still occupied a “security zone” in southern Lebanon. It did, and Israel’s response was to assassinate the secretary general of Hezbollah, Sheikh Abbas Musawi, in February 1992.
Musawi was succeeded by a capable young cleric, Hassan Nasrallah, and Nasrallah in turn appointed Imad Mughniyeh to run Hezbollah’s military wing. Mughniyeh was a kind of genius of terrorism. He made suicide bombing a strategic weapon, and he was a master of guerrilla tactics, blitz attacks and radio-controlled explosive devices. He also had a gift for propaganda: It was Hezbollah that first started recording its own attacks and broadcasting the results. Mughniyeh is widely believed to be the architect of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing that killed 241 American servicemen, 58 French servicemen and six civilians and led to the withdrawal of the United States Marines in 1984. In 2000, with just a small militia under his command, he succeeded in forcing the Israeli Army, the strongest military force in the Middle East, to withdraw from southern Lebanon.
Assad died that same year, and his son, Bashar al-Assad, took over as president of Syria. He noted well how the partnership of Nasrallah and Mughniyeh had succeeded where the entire Arab world, including his own father, had failed, and he made Syria’s link with Hezbollah — and its patrons in Tehran — the central component of his security doctrine. (Assad’s wager on Hezbollah paid off in 2013, when Nasrallah sent forces that bolstered the Syrian government against its own rebels.)
But inside Lebanon, Israel’s withdrawal in 2000 began to raise hopes that Syria, too, might soon depart. To the consternation of Hezbollah leaders and many Syria-backed politicians, an anti-Syria coalition began to form, drawing together Christian, Druse and Sunni Muslim figures. The most prominent politician in this group was Rafik Hariri.
Hariri was born to a poor Sunni family in southern Lebanon in 1944 and quickly rose to great wealth. After securing a degree in business administration from Arab University in Beirut in 1965, he moved to Saudi Arabia, where he demonstrated a virtuoso talent for completing huge projects — mosques, palaces, shopping malls — efficiently and on time. He became a favorite of the royal family and in the early 1980s moved back to Lebanon a well-connected billionaire. In 1992, he ran for prime minister and won, on a platform of liberalizing the Lebanese economy; after serving until 1998, he ran again two years later and took office from 2000 to 2004.
As prime minister, Hariri did not directly confront Hezbollah or the Syrians, but conflict simmered nonetheless. The Syrian Army continued to occupy Lebanon from the north, and Hezbollah’s battles with Israel to the south did little to help most of the Lebanese people. Hariri’s wealth and popularity — not to mention his influence as the owner of a growing portfolio of Lebanese and French newspapers and television and radio stations — gave him a reputation far beyond Lebanon. He wanted to make Beirut the financial capital of the Middle East, as it had once been, and Lebanon a liberal, Western-oriented country. Assad sought to maintain the status quo, with Syria in control of Lebanon and Hezbollah its most powerful military force.
In the end, Assad prevailed — if not on the larger question of Syria’s presence in Lebanon, then at least on whether it would be him or Hariri who would determine the outcome. The struggle for control found its object in a dispute about the fate of Emile Lahoud, the president of Lebanon since 1998, who was about to end his final term in office. The role of the president was largely ceremonial, but Lahoud, a Christian, had long backed Syrian involvement in Lebanon, and Assad decided it was important to keep him in place, a move that would require amending Lebanon’s constitution. Hariri was firmly opposed to the amendment, and the Syrians were also convinced that he and Walid Jumblatt, a Druse opposition leader, were acting behind the scenes to help the United Nations Security Council pass Resolution 1559, calling upon Hezbollah to disarm and Syria to withdraw from Lebanon.
On Aug. 26, 2004, Assad summoned Hariri to his presidential palace in Damascus to deliver an ultimatum. Lahoud must remain in office, Assad said, even if the United States and France didn’t like it. Hariri objected, but Assad cut him short. “It will be Lahoud,” he said. If Hariri or Jumblatt tried to stop him, another person present at the meeting told the tribunal, he would break Lebanon over their heads. Then he repeated the threat. “I will break Lebanon over your head and over Walid Jumblatt’s head,” he said. “So you had better return to Beirut and arrange the matter on that basis.” (Assad has since denied threatening Hariri’s safety in any way.)
Hariri returned to Beirut — one of his bodyguards would later tell the United Nations investigators that the prime minister was so shocked by the encounter that his nose began to bleed — and drove immediately to Jumblatt’s home. Assad’s father had almost certainly ordered the death of Jumblatt’s father, the Lebanese opposition leader Kamal Jumblatt, in 1977, and he was also most likely behind the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Christian president-elect of Lebanon, in 1982. Hariri and Jumblatt had little reason to doubt that Assad would do the same to them. The risk only increased on Sept. 2, when the Security Council passed Resolution 1559; the Syrians suspected, not without justification, that Hariri was involved.
Hariri was losing the parliamentary vote on the Lahoud amendment in any case, and several Syria-backed ministers threatened to resign, taking the government down with them, unless Hariri himself stepped down. In early September, shortly before a ceremony in which he received a prize from the United Nations for rebuilding Lebanon, Hariri announced his resignation. He left office on Oct. 20, 2004, and immediately turned his attention to the regional elections scheduled to take place in six months. A new government, his advisers told him, would almost certainly put him back in the prime minister’s office.
4. The Assassination
Hariri lived and worked in a sprawling, nine-story compound, Quraitem Palace, and around 10 a.m. on Feb. 14, 2005, he alerted his bodyguards that he would soon be leaving for an appointment. He liked to drive himself, even when he was prime minister, but while in office he traveled with 50 guards from the Internal Security Forces. Now he had just four I.S.F. guards, supplemented by his own private security team, led by Yahya al Arab, known commonly as Abu Tareq, who had been at Hariri’s side since 1975, wearing dark sunglasses and a stern expression. The guards all carried handguns and wore radio earphones connected by a private network under Abu Tareq’s supervision. In their cars were automatic rifles, a radio-signal jammer (to counter attacks by remote-controlled devices) and, according to one source, rocket-propelled grenades and missile launchers.
At 10:41 a.m., Hariri’s motorcade set out for Nejmeh Palace, Lebanon’s Parliament building. It arrived about 13 minutes later, and Hariri spent the next hour talking with several members of Parliament, including his sister, Bahia Hariri. In news photographs taken at the time, he appears to be calm and happy. At 11:56 a.m., Hariri returned to his convoy, and his bodyguards began entering their vehicles, awaiting the order from Abu Tareq to return home.
At that same moment, several cellphone calls were made from the vicinity of the Parliament building to another group of phones about a mile northwest. Shortly after these calls, security cameras in the President Suleiman Franjieh Tunnel, in roughly the same area, recorded the Mitsubishi Canter flatbed truck moving north, toward the St. Georges Hotel. The truck was carrying two tons of a military explosive called RDX — enough to create the blast equivalent of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
As he moved to step into his car, though, Hariri paused. Abu Tareq had told him that Najib Friji, the United Nations spokesman in Beirut, was meeting some reporters at Place de l’Etoile, a cafe just across the street. Hariri decided not to drive away just yet. Instead, he walked briskly to the cafe. Abu Tareq notified the bodyguards by radio of the delay. Another series of mysterious cellphone calls took place, and the driver of the Mitsubishi truck made a right turn after leaving the tunnel and parked. Hariri spent 45 minutes in the cafe, chatting with Friji and the reporters, as well as a few passers-by. The cellphones remained silent, and the truck remained parked, waiting.
Hariri had a guest with him, Basil Fuleihan, a Christian, who had served as Lebanon’s minister of economy and trade. At Hariri’s request, Fuleihan had cut short a ski vacation in Switzerland to consult on some economic matters. He had made two separate flight reservations for his return to Switzerland — one for Sunday, the day before the attack, and one for the day after it. He chose the second date because he wanted to take part in a parliamentary debate.
Finally, Hariri left the cafe and returned to his car. Fuleihan took the passenger seat. Hariri opened his door and waved and smiled to the small crowd that had gathered. In a photograph of this moment, the last ever taken of Hariri alive, a reflection of Parliament’s clock tower is visible in the bright, clean window of the Mercedes. Like sleuths in an implausible detective novel, the investigators turned the image around and saw the exact time of departure for Hariri’s last convoy: 10 minutes before 1 p.m.
Hariri’s motorcade was made up of six vehicles. The I.S.F. guards took the lead in a black Toyota Land Cruiser, followed immediately by private security guards in a black Mercedes-Benz S500. Then came Hariri, at the wheel of his own S600 (with Fuleihan), and then two more S500s with more private security guards. Bringing up the rear was a dark blue Chevrolet Suburban that had been refitted as an ambulance. Abu Tareq, in the fourth car, radioed ahead to the I.S.F. team the route he wanted to take. The other drivers knew to follow only their lead.
When the convoy set off, the cellphone chatter picked up again, and the Mitsubishi truck pulled back into traffic. The security camera at the exit to the President Suleiman Franjieh Tunnel captured the truck again as it drove toward the St. Georges Hotel. The time was 12:51 p.m. Another security camera, this one on the HSBC Bank building, also captured the Mitsubishi, now moving very slowly, much slower than the other traffic.
The truck approached the St. Georges Hotel, passing in front of yet another security camera. A second after the Mitsubishi left the area covered by the camera, Hariri’s motorcade came into view. The six vehicles were traveling fast, approaching 45 miles per hour, in accordance with security protocols. The cars flew by, each about 20 feet apart. Then the motorcade also exited the range of the cameras.
At 12:55 p.m., as the motorcade approached the canyon between the St. Georges Hotel and the Byblos building under construction across the street, the first car overtook the Mitsubishi. The bomber had probably been told to detonate next to the third car, the one Hariri was driving. He missed it by a split second, though, and instead the Mitsubishi exploded just as the fourth vehicle began to pass.
In one moment, the canyon became an inferno. The blast created a huge crater and, all around it, a confusion of flames, smoke, dust, blazing vehicles, dead and dying people, body parts and, from the shattered buildings, hundreds of thousands of glass splinters. People watching a live telecast of Parliament saw the lectern shudder and the speaker cringe in fear. It was clear that this was not an earthquake, and when a second blast did not come, the legislators knew it was not a sonic boom from Israeli jets, which always fly in pairs. A Parliament member was heard shouting, in Arabic, “Bomb!”
Abu Tareq, who was in the fourth car, the one closest to the blast, took the full force of the explosion; 38 scraps of flesh were all that investigators could find of his remains. That car and what was left of its occupants were hurled into the lower floors of the Byblos building. The driver, Mohammed Darwish, had both of his arms and both of his legs blown off. Those who remained trapped in their seats in other cars met a hardly better fate. Video footage shows the flames consuming them, with the white of their skulls appearing as the flesh of their scalps melted.
Hariri was blown out of his car and almost certainly died immediately. Hariri’s bodyguards used to kiss his hand as a token of their loyalty to him. “When I went back,” one of the guards later explained to the tribunal, “I saw him on the ground, and I was able to identify him through his wedding ring.”
5. Wissam Eid
Two investigations began almost immediately. A preliminary United Nations team started what ultimately became the tribunal, and Wissam Eid, a police captain who studied computer engineering before enlisting in the I.S.F., led the local investigation. The United Nations spent many millions of dollars investigating the crime, and the whole world pondered a case with almost unimaginable consequences for the region. But it was Eid who asked the question that ultimately broke open the case: Why not look at cellphone records?
At the time, law-enforcement agencies worldwide were far less sophisticated than they are today about what can be derived from cellphone use. Some criminal elements were aware that an intelligence service might be able to listen in on calls, but few if any had thought about the value of metadata, the seemingly innocuous information about when and where a call is made or even just a phone’s location at a given moment. (You can call a cellphone and get an answer within seconds because cellphones, when they are on, constantly check in with whatever cell tower is nearest.)
At Eid’s request, a judge ordered Lebanon’s two cellphone companies, Alfa and MTC Touch, to produce records of calls and text messages in Lebanon in the four months before the bombing. Eid then studied the records in secret for months. He focused on the phone records of Hariri and his entourage, looking at whom they called, where they went, whom they met and when. He also followed where Adass, the supposed suicide bomber, spent time before he disappeared. He looked at all the calls that took place along the route taken by Hariri’s entourage on the day of the assassination. Always he looked for cause and effect. How did one call lead to the next? “He was brilliant, just brilliant,” the senior U.N. investigator told me. “He himself, on his own, developed a simple but amazingly efficient program to set about mining this massive bank of data.”
The simple algorithm quickly revealed a peculiar pattern. In October 2004, just after Hariri resigned, a certain cluster of cellphones began following him and his now-reduced motorcade wherever they went. These phones stayed close day and night, until the day of the bombing — when nearly all 63 phones in the group immediately went dark and never worked again.
Eid spent a year coaxing patterns out of the data. Then he began to present a series of secret reports to his superiors and, eventually, to the U.N. team. He was certain that a large and well-trained team of operatives had used a network of cellphones to carry out the assassination. Eid also reported a preliminary — and dangerous — conclusion. He had evidence linking the phone network to senior members of Hezbollah. These suspicions were strengthened when he got a call from a senior Hezbollah operative, who had somehow learned of his investigation. According to a report years later by CBC News, the operative confirmed that some of the phones did belong to members of Hezbollah, but he claimed that they were using them to investigate an Israeli conspiracy.
Undeterred, Eid pressed on. On Sept. 5, 2006, a roadside bomb exploded near a two-car motorcade carrying Eid’s commander, Lt. Col. Samir Shehadeh, and his entourage through southern Lebanon. Shehadeh survived, but the blast killed four of his bodyguards. (Shehadeh later resettled in Quebec.) Eid himself began receiving death threats. He continued his work, tracking one phone to the next, making new connections. He asked his brother to videotape him at work, and he also made a backup copy of his work and the unprocessed records.
The U.N. team, by contrast, had made little progress. In October 2005, just eight months after the attack, Detlev Mehlis, the German investigator the U.N. sent to oversee the case, issued a hurried report based primarily on the testimony of two witnesses, who claimed to have been present when a group of Lebanese generals planned the attack in conjunction with Syrian intelligence officers. The Lebanese authorities arrested the generals, who emphatically denied any involvement; soon the case began to fall apart. As months, then years, went by, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. State Department and eventually the United Nations itself called on Lebanon to release the generals, which it did only many years later, when one witness recanted his testimony on a television news program.
In late 2007, the U.N. team finally turned to the phone records. At first it ignored Eid’s preliminary work, which had been somewhere in its files since 2006. Instead, according to the report by CBC News, the U.N. team independently hired a British data firm to analyze phone data and — like Eid before them — quickly discovered an obvious pattern. A cluster of phones trailed Hariri for months before his death, then went dark after the attack.
Eid had gone much further, though, making several logical leaps that allowed him to begin building out an entire command structure. The U.N. team finally turned its attention to his work — “Who is this guy?” is how one unnamed U.N. investigator would later characterize his reaction to CBC News — and invited him to meet in January 2008. The meeting was productive, so they met again the following week. The next day, Jan. 25, 2008, as Eid and his bodyguard were driving on a freeway in East Lebanon, a car bomb exploded, killing him, the bodyguard and two other people who happened to be out driving that day. Eid was only 31.
Soon after, the Lebanese authorities announced that they were unable to take any further part in the investigation, and they transferred all of the material in their hands, two truckloads, to the U.N. team.
6. The Phones
The investigators now turned their full attention to the cellphone records. Building on Eid’s work, they determined that the assassins worked in groups, each with a leader and each adhering to specific procedures. Everyone in the group called the leader, and he called everyone in the group, but the lower-level operatives never called one another.
The investigators gave each group a color. The green group consisted of 18 Alfa phones, purchased with fake identification from two shops in South Beirut in July and August 2004. The purpose of the fake IDs was not to defraud Alfa out of payment; every month from September 2004 to May 2005, someone went to an Alfa office and paid all 18 bills in cash, without leaving any clue to his identity. The total phone bill for the green network, including activation fees, was $7,375 — a prodigious amount, considering that 15 of the green group’s 18 phones went almost entirely unused.
The first spike in call activity occurred in September 2004, immediately after Hariri announced his resignation. The investigators contend that the green group was at the center of the conspiracy. The phone number 3140023 belonged to the top leader, and the numbers 3159300 and 3150071 belonged to his two deputies. (He called them and they called him, but with those phones, they never called each other.) The two deputies carried phones belonging to other groups, through which they passed on instructions to the other participants in the operation. When a member of one group would call a group leader, the group leader would often follow up by switching to a green phone and calling the supreme leader, who was nearly always in South Beirut, where Hezbollah keeps its headquarters.
On Oct. 20, 2004, the day Hariri left office and his security detail was significantly reduced, the blue group went into operation. It originally worked according to the same rules as the green group, but its active membership increased from three phones to 15, with seven connected to Alfa and eight to MTC Touch. All of the blue phones were prepaid. Some were acquired as early as 2003 and had seen little or no use. The people who bought them also gave false identification, and again money seemed to be in plentiful supply. The minutes that expired each month went largely unused, but the phones were loaded again and again. When the blue group went dark, the phones still had unused minutes worth $4,287.
The prosecutors say the blue group followed Hariri’s movements. On the morning of Oct. 20, its members were already deployed around Quraitem Palace. At 10:30 a.m., Hariri set out toward Parliament and then to the presidential palace, where Lahoud was waiting to receive his resignation. The cell towers picked up the blue group’s members moving with him and calling their chief. From then on, the blue phones trailed Hariri nearly everywhere — to Parliament, to meetings with political leaders, to long lunches at the Saint-Georges Yacht Club & Marina. When Hariri was at his home, so were they. When he flew abroad, they moved with him to the airport and then stopped operating until he returned, when they would pick up the trail again.
Eventually, the yellow group was added, and its 13 members seemed to share surveillance duties with the blue group. When Hariri was with his family at a vacation home in Faqra at the end of December 2004, the villa was under constant surveillance by both the blue group and the yellow group, with calls going from their chiefs to South Beirut and vice versa. From the way the yellow phones moved, their users appeared to be studying Hariri’s habitual movements and possible sites for an attack. Whoever planned this attack had budgeted time for careful research.
On Jan. 25, two members of the blue group traveled outside their usual orbit, to the Al Beddawi district of Tripoli. From another of their rare Tripoli excursions, they would have known that a Mitsubishi Canter flatbed truck had been for sale there since late December. Now they entered the dealership to negotiate with the salesman. After a few minutes, one of them called his leader in Beirut, possibly to get approval for the purchase price, and then the deal was done.
It was the purple group, the prosecution says, that handled the cover operation. They located Ahmed Abu Adass, lured him into going to see the “surprise” that “Mohammed” promised him, made him deliver the suicide bomber’s speech before the video camera and then, quite possibly, killed him and disposed of the body. When these happenings are mapped by time and place, they coincide perfectly with the movements of the purple group.
Just days before the assassination, someone bought the prepaid phone card that was used to call Al Jazeera, as well as Reuters, from four public phones, one of which was near the tree where the Adass tape was left, taking responsibility in the name of the ephemeral Nusra and Jihad Group in Greater Syria. The location of the purple cellphones coincides with the location of the public phones at the time the calls were made.
The last cellphone group to go into action was the red group. These phones, investigators believe, belonged to the inner circle of the Hariri surveillance team in the days before the attack — and to the actual suicide bomber.
The assassins may not have known that someone like Eid, with his unusual skills, or the international investigating team, with its extraordinary resources, would eventually uncover their movements in the months before the attack, but they did appear to behave as if they thought someone was liable to check cellphone traffic near the St. Georges Hotel on the day of the attack.
In this case, too, just as with their choice of truck, the assassins made an effort to point the investigators toward the Sunni region around Tripoli. The eight phones belonging to the red group were all acquired there, prepaid, between late December 2004 and early January 2005. They were activated at the same time, also in Tripoli, on Jan. 4, and the owners began talking to one another 10 days later, when surveillance activity on Hariri was increasing throughout the network. On Feb. 2, 12 days before the attack, the minutes on the phones expired. Someone picked them up in Beirut and traveled the 50 miles to Tripoli, activating them there — where the cellphone tower recorded their location — before returning them to their users in Beirut. Unlike all the other cellphones involved in the operation, the red phones were never used in Shiite-dominated South Beirut or even taken there when switched on.
From the time the red group’s phones were activated, its members took a lead role in trailing Hariri, who himself seldom traveled in South Beirut. Scrutinizing the telephone activity, the U.N. investigators found that the network’s pattern on Feb. 8, a week before the actual attack, was identical to that of Feb. 14 — aside, of course, from the explosion itself. Hariri traveled exactly the same route on that day. “We believe that either they had a test run or there was a close call and they just couldn’t get him,” the senior investigator said.
The red-phone activity peaked on the day of the bombing, and it was concentrated along the route Hariri took to the Parliament building and the St. Georges Hotel. The prosecution says the suicide bomber’s phone number was 3127946. When the Mitsubishi exploded, the phone went dead, and the entire red group fell silent forever.
7. Sami Issa
The prosecution contends that in addition to the “operational” phones, the assassins also used several private mobile and landline phones. As the senior investigator told me, they could see that a given assassin had an “operational phone in his front pants pocket” and “in the back pocket a phone that he used to call his girlfriends.”
Drawing on Eid’s work, the United Nations investigators compared the areas where the relevant operational phones were used to the areas where the private phones were used, looking for patterns that would allow them to connect the operational phones to real people with real histories. Prosecutors say that many men were involved in the conspiracy, but through this method they have been able to positively identify five of them — the defendants.
One is Hassan Habib Merhi, born in Beirut in 1965. Prosecutors can find no bank accounts in his name, and they know he has paid cash even for his children’s school and university tuition. Merhi joined Hezbollah in 1986, and in 2003 he was appointed commander of Hezbollah’s special forces in Lebanon, which would place him among the top commanders of the Hariri operation. Israeli intelligence officials say he was behind the abduction of two Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006, which set off the 34-day war in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah.
The prosecution says Merhi ran the purple group, the one in charge of the cover operation. A cell tower near Merhi’s home picked up signals from the top purple phone and one of Merhi’s personal phones for days on end, and the personal phone for which Merhi gave the number on his income-tax return also regularly accompanied a purple phone, presumably as Merhi traveled around town with both. In November 2004, Merhi, apparently by mistake, ordered some furniture for his home with the purple phone number 3572321. He signed a paper confirming that he received the furniture, but when he realized that one of the items was not what he ordered, he used the same purple phone to call the store and ask for it to be replaced. Prosecutors say that same purple phone was always in the same place as the green command-group phone that Merhi carried.
Another of the defendants is Salim Jamil Ayyash, born in Harouf, Lebanon, in 1963. Ayyash is a registered firefighter, though in 2004 he appeared to be working just two days a week. He is related to Hezbollah’s supreme military commander, Imad Mughniyeh, and is the leader of Hezbollah’s Jaber Force unit, named after the candy factory where Mughniyeh’s father once worked. (The tribunal has jurisdiction over not just the bombing, but also any related crimes, including the attacks on Wissam Eid and his commander, which, investigators say, based on cellphone data and a chemical analysis of the RDX explosives used in many of the operations, were probably carried out by the Jaber Force unit.) Ayyash, the prosecution claims, oversaw most of the preparations and was also involved in coordinating the movement of the Mitsubishi truck on the day of the attack.
Ayyash used 11 phones, two of them landlines, five for personal purposes and four for various operational groups. He, too, went everywhere with his personal and operational phones, so the cell towers always recorded them in the same places.
Hussein Hassan Oneissi, the third defendant, was born in Beirut in 1974. In the few civic records that investigators could find, he describes himself as self-employed or as the bookkeeper for his brother’s carpet store. The prosecution says he is “Mohammed,” the man who lured Adass into the conspiracy. He had first asked another man, Ahmad Libdeh, to teach him to pray, but Libdeh told him he was too busy and recommended Adass. (A main prosecution witness, Libdeh had agreed to testify in The Hague, but someone leaked his name to a Lebanese newspaper, which the tribunal could charge with obstruction of justice. It’s hard to secure witnesses if you can’t maintain their anonymity.)
The fourth defendant, Assad Hassan Sabra, was born in Beirut in 1976. He dropped out of school at age 15, served in the military, then worked as a painter and a shoe salesman, among other occupations. Prosecutors say he was also a part of the purple group under the command of Merhi.
The most important of the defendants, though, is Mustafa Amine Badreddine, born in 1961. His name appears on very few Lebanese documents, but he has nonetheless become well known to investigators. Like Ayyash, he is a cousin of Mughniyeh, and he is also married to Mughniyeh’s sister. For many years he was Mughniyeh’s most trusted associate, and he is believed to have participated in some of Hezbollah’s most spectacular operations. Badreddine was part of the Hezbollah cell that attacked the American Embassy in Kuwait in 1983, killing six. (He was captured by the Kuwaiti authorities and was serving a life sentence there when Saddam Hussein’s army invaded from the north in 1990. In the chaos that followed, Badreddine escaped to the Iranian Embassy in Kuwait City; from there, members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps conveyed him to Tehran, then back to Beirut, where he immediately resumed his regular duties.)
Most of Badreddine’s operations have involved helping local jihadist elements outside Lebanon. According to an intelligence operative in the region, Badreddine was the commander of Unit 1800, which abetted terrorist acts against Israel from and in the West Bank and Gaza, and also coordinated the activities of Unit 2800, which was responsible for promoting attacks against Sunni forces in Iraq, as well as American and British troops during the Iraq war. After the Mossad assassinated Mughniyeh in 2008, Badreddine took over most of his duties. He himself was targeted for assassination in January, when Israeli drones fired on a group of seven men in Syria, killing six, including Jihad Mughniyeh, Imad’s son, and an Iranian general. Badreddine had dropped out of the gathering at the last minute.
Crucially for investigators, Badreddine appears to have been living a second life under the name Sami Issa. Lame in his right leg, sporting sunglasses and a baseball cap, equipped with a gleaming Mercedes and personal bodyguards, Badreddine/Issa roamed the length and breadth of Lebanon. The prosecution says that Badreddine/Issa had no fewer than 13 phones at the time of Hariri’s assassination. These phones never dialed one another, and some of the people he called, including his mistresses, probably knew him only as Sami Issa. He used that name on some of the text messages he sent, as well as Sami Samino or just Samino, which is also the name of the jewelry store he ran under the Issa identity.
Keeping this all straight proved challenging. The private phones belonging to Issa, for instance, made many calls to the family of Badreddine. One of those numbers called Badreddine’s sister, Saada, no fewer than 2,056 times. On April 6, 2005, Issa received multiple messages of congratulations on his birthday — which is also Badreddine’s birthday. Likewise, Issa’s phones were used to call and receive calls from Saudi Arabia on the same days that Badreddine’s wife Fatima and their son were there. One phone even traveled to the airport on the day they left Lebanon and on the day they returned.
Two of the personal phones Issa used traveled all over Lebanon in absolute synchronicity with the green phone number 3140023, the phone belonging to the supreme leader of the Hariri assassination cell network. The personal phones were also used to make multiple calls to Hezbollah numbers.
The prosecution says that on the night before the attack, Badreddine, Ayyash and Merhi were in continual contact, presumably tying up loose ends before the operation. Badreddine also had the Issa phones with him. At roughly 2 a.m., a text message was sent to one of these, 3966663, by one of Issa’s girlfriends. He replied teasingly at 2:31 a.m.: “If you knew where I have been, you would be very upset.”
It’s hard to tell whether Issa is confessing to infidelity or to something far worse — realizing what she, a Sunni Muslim, would have thought if she knew. Either way, this text message shows that even amid the intense pressure of finalizing preparations for one of his biggest operations, Badreddine finds time to kid around with a girlfriend.
The next day, at two minutes before noon, just before the attack, Ayyash’s green phone called Badreddine’s green phone from very near the St. Georges Hotel. The call lasted 14 seconds. This was the last call on the green network. A short time after that, the prosecution claims, Badreddine made several calls to unidentified numbers, using another one of his phones. Information obtained by the tribunal’s investigators indicates that he spoke to Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s supreme military commander, possibly to get the final authorization to act. Later on that day, in a manner very uncharacteristic of Badreddine, all of his phones fell silent for two hours.
8. The Indictment
In 2009, the United Nations team decided that it couldn’t make any more progress inside Lebanon. It packed all of the evidence, including the burned remains of six vehicles, onto cargo planes and flew it to the Netherlands. The Security Council established the tribunal, and the investigation team was absorbed into the tribunal’s prosecution team.
Hezbollah remained intransigent. On Jan. 12, 2011, Hezbollah demanded that Saad Hariri, Rafik’s son and the prime minister of Lebanon at the time, rebuff the tribunal’s efforts. When he refused to hold an emergency cabinet meeting, Hezbollah’s ministers withdrew from the cabinet and the government collapsed. Lebanon was back on the brink of civil war, and experts were predicting that if indictments were issued, Hezbollah would not hold back. Several Arab leaders flew into Beirut to calm the situation. It helped, at least for the time being.
Later that month, the lead prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, filed an indictment but did not disclose the names of the accused. In June, he released four names. (Merhi would be indicted in 2013.) As the indictments were being finalized, the U.N. team sent arrest warrants to the Lebanese government. Interpol issued “Red Notice” warrants at the same time. It came as no surprise when the Lebanese authorities reported that they could not capture the suspects. Tribunal personnel criticize — sharply in off-the-record interviews and diplomatically in official documents — the government’s inability to control Hezbollah. (You can sympathize with the actual politicians charged with bringing such an organization to heel, though. Early this month, I saw the current prime minister of Lebanon, Tammam Salam, at a security conference in Munich. He told me that the work of the Hariri tribunal was “important and serious” and that his government was following it closely, but he also declined to say anything more specific.)
According to information obtained by the tribunal, sometime in 2009, when Hezbollah learned of the mounting evidence against its operatives, Hussein Mahadawi, the chief representative of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon, instructed them to lower their profiles and try even harder to vanish. The only one who didn’t comply was Badreddine, who refused to give up his luxurious lifestyle and went on using his Sami Issa identity.
For all the seeming absurdity of a murder trial in absentia, the investigation and trial have succeeded in causing substantial damage to Hezbollah. The identities of some of its leading operatives have been exposed, and those men will need to continue taking extra measures to remain in hiding. Tribunal personnel are convinced that because of their investigation, Hezbollah has already stopped using public cell networks in favor of closed ones, a move that has made their operational functions more unwieldy and complicated.
In the long term, Hezbollah’s standing inside Lebanon has been compromised by the allegations. Since its inception, the group has depicted itself as caring for the welfare of all Lebanese, not just Shiites. But now the tribunal is producing overwhelming, albeit circumstantial, evidence that Hezbollah murdered the most important politician Lebanon had ever produced, and indiscriminately slaughtered many others in the process.
Nasrallah, the group’s leader, seems to have grasped this problem, because after the indictments were issued he immediately began fighting the tribunal with all his might. Since Hezbollah’s war with Israel in 2006, Nasrallah almost never leaves his bunker in South Beirut, for fear of Israeli assassins and drones, and he makes no public appearances. On July 2, a few days after the first four suspects’ names were released, Nasrallah emerged to deliver a long speech, broadcast by his TV station, Al Manar. “The four men have been unjustly accused,” Nasrallah said. He confirmed that the defendants were indeed members of his organization, men “who have an honorable history in resisting the Israeli occupation,” and he threatened to “cut off the hand” of anyone trying to capture them. The whole tribunal, he said, was an “American-Israeli conspiracy” and full of “financial and moral corruption.” It was invalid, he said: “We reject it, and reject the invalid accusations and invalid rulings to be issued by it, and consider them an aggression against us and against our resistance fighters, and an injustice against the honor of this nation.” A Hezbollah delegate to Parliament demanded an end to Lebanon’s contribution to the cost of the tribunal in a no less menacing tone: “Otherwise the matter will be very dangerous.”
The lawyers for the defendants are more circumspect, focusing instead on the very real problem of defending clients in absentia in a case that is entirely circumstantial. “This is a moot court, like a fictional case,” said Philippe Larochelle, another member of the defense team. “We don’t have access to our clients and can’t raise an alibi. All we can do is deconstruct the prosecutor’s theory” — a theory, he said, that is based on unproved investigative techniques, including “co-location” and “link analysis.”
The tribunal has pursued its lofty goals imperfectly, and yet as I come to the end of my work on this article, after a full year of research, interviews in seven countries and the study of thousands of pages of evidence and court protocols, my reflections are dominated by thoughts about the victims, in particular Ahmad Abu Adass. He was 22 in 2005, a naïve, kindhearted young man who only wanted to help someone he thought was a friend to learn to pray. Instead, or so the evidence suggests, he fell victim to an unspeakable trap — forced to make a suicide bomber’s tape and then thrown into some pit, without a name, without a monument.