The Death of Lebanon’s Intelligence Tsar

By Bilal Y. Saab – The February 14, 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will always be remembered as a seminal event that changed the course of Lebanon’s history. It expelled Syrian troops from Lebanon after occupying the country for three decades and freed Beirut from the shackles of Damascus. While the killing of Lebanese intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan last Friday is not likely to create the political tsunami that Hariri’s murder did seven years ago, it certainly has the potential to cause some powerful shocks to an already shaky Lebanese system. Specifically, Hassan’s assassination could lead to the collapse of the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the explosion of Sunni-Shiite tensions, the violent mobilization of Lebanon’s Salafists, and if things snowball, the country’s return to civil war. Nobody can speak with confidence to the direction Lebanon will go following this massive security incident but all bets are that things in Lebanon will get much worse before they get any better.

It is hard to miss the irony of Hassan’s fate. Seven years ago, he escaped death miraculously. As Hariri’s closest intelligence advisor and office manager since 1995, he was supposed to be with the former prime minister in his motorcade as it passed by the Saint George hotel, ultimately to get blown up. But he was not accompanying Hariri, later explaining to the Lebanese press that he had to take an exam on that fateful day (an alibi many in Lebanon thought was strange). This time, however, he wasn’t so lucky. Just like his former boss, he perished in a massive car bombing in Beirut that shattered his body into pieces.

Hassan was much more than the head of the information branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) Directorate. He was Lebanon’s spy master, the man who knew all the country’s secrets. Tasked with an impossible mission — protecting a heavily penetrated and deeply polarized country from domestic and foreign enemies — he performed superbly and exceeded expectations in a relatively short period of time. His death is an enormous loss to Lebanon and his absence will surely create a huge hole in an already compromised Lebanese intelligence and security apparatus. “The country is now totally exposed to all sorts of threats, he was Mr. Information,” one of his aides told me in a teary voice over the phone two days after the attack.

No career civil servant in the history of Lebanon has done more than Hassan to promote the wellbeing of the country. He inherited a dilapidated ISF Directorate from the Syrian era and singlehandedly reformed it, bringing life and a sense of purpose to a once impotent security institution. Under Hassan’s leadership, the ISF Directorate became the envy of its peers. His supervisor, ISF Director Ashraf Rifi, mentioned to me in his office not too long ago that Hassan revolutionized the craft of data collection and analysis with so few resources and so many political obstacles. Even Hassan’s fiercest critics in the Lebanese press and political scene including Al-Diyar‘s Charles Ayyoub and Al-Akhbar‘s Ibrahim Al-Amin gave him credit for his unique achievements and unparalleled dedication to his job.

Hassan was somewhat of an oddity in the Lebanese confessional system, refusing to play by its rules and often ignoring the political and security consequences of his work (an attitude that ultimately led to his death). As the Lebanese daily The Daily Star rightly put it, he “didn’t stop at the conventional red lines.” Shortly after Hariri was killed in 2005, Hassan led an investigation into his assassination, covering critical technical information that led him to strongly suspect an operational involvement by Hezbollah. His findings were extremely useful to the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), created in March 2009 to investigate and prosecute those responsible for Hariri’s murder. “Without Al-Hassan’s data, we couldn’t have done anything,” one STL investigator told me in winter 2011.

The past two years marked Hassan’s meteoric rise to prominence. In 2010, he ordered the arrest of former Lebanese Army Brigadier General and Free Patriotic Movement official Fayez Karam for spying for Israel and put him behind bars for two years before his allies secured his release. Two years later on the morning of August 9, in what must have been the boldest covert operation Hassan masterfully orchestrated in his short-lived career, he arrested former Lebanese information minister Michel Samaha, a man with close ties to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks throughout the country on direct orders from Bashar. In the not so distant past, such arrests of pro-Syrian individuals were unthinkable in Lebanon and people like Samaha were simply untouchable because of their connections to Damascus.

Hassan made no secret of his vehement opposition to the Syrian regime and his loyalty to the Hariri family, but unlike other Lebanese intelligence and security chiefs who are hired to exclusively serve the interests of their communal leaders, he never let sectarian politics dictate his work or stand in the way of his goals. And his record proves it. From 2006 to 2010, he dismantled 36 Israeli spy rings, thwarted 24 bomb plots, and broke several Salafist jihadist cells. That is not the resume of someone who is firmly locked in one political camp against the other. Indeed, whether the threat came from Israel, Syria, al Qaeda, or any other source, Hassan made no distinctions.

Hassan also never hesitated to make politically costly and unpopular calls. In May 2008, he counseled then Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora not to issue an order to shut down Hezbollah’s underground telecommunications network and fire airport security chief Walid Choucair, an ally to the Shiite group, because he knew full well the repercussions of such a decision. And he was right. As it turned out, Hezbollah reacted violently to Siniora’s directives by taking over the western part of Beirut (a move viewed as nothing less than a coup by its political rivals) and following talks in Doha forced the creation of a new government in which it secured veto powers. During Hezbollah’s seizure, it was Hassan who calmed tensions on the ground and coordinated closely with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to stop the bloodshed and extinguish the fires of Sunni-Shiite strife.

But to his opponents, it almost didn’t matter that Hassan was a consummate professional and a true patriot, and it seemed to make no difference what he did or did not do. Because of the unforgiving nature of Lebanon’s sectarian and divisive politics, he was always perceived and treated by his political adversaries — primarily Hezbollah — as a major security operator in the March 14 coalition. In fact, he was viewed as its ultimate guardian, which made him a prime target. That Hassan was close to the Hariris and Saudi Arabia obviously did not help erase this perception. Throughout his career, he established cooperative relations with Arab and Western intelligence services but developed an especially good rapport with Saudi Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Riyadh’s spy chief and architect of its national security strategy and foreign policy toward Iran and Syria. Bandar relied on no other person or institution in Lebanon but Hassan for sensitive information and analytical reports. “Riyadh has just lost its eyes in Beirut,” one Qatari diplomat told me over the phone hours after news that Hassan’s assassination was confirmed.

It is almost pointless to ask who killed Hassan. Most Lebanese are convinced that the Syrian government eliminated him because he supported the Syrian opposition, chased down Assad’s cronies in Lebanon, and knew too much about the string of assassinations of anti-Syrian Lebanese individuals that have rocked Lebanon since 2005. That this accusation and others before it may never be proven is irrelevant at this point (the closest to a smoking gun was held by Hassan himself, which might explain why his enemies wanted him dead). The more relevant questions are what political consequences this heinous crime will usher and whether Lebanon will completely lose its delicate balance.

Much will depend on the reaction of the leadership of the March 14 coalition and more importantly their regional allies, including Saudi Arabia. There have been strong condemnations, protests across the country, clashes in Tripoli, anger in the streets of Beirut, and even attempts to storm the governmental palace, but things could have been much worse, and behind this relative restraint on the part of Lebanon’s Sunni community are arguably Riyadh’s own rational calculations for Lebanon. In short, Saudi Arabia has no interest in starting an open war with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which will most likely lead to a widespread Sunni-Shiite conflict, an outcome that will benefit the Syrian regime. The kingdom is hurt by the loss of a crucial ally in Hassan, but it will most likely bite the bullet (as it did with the killing of Hariri) and focus on working with its regional allies to take on the Syrian regime by continuing to sponsor elements in the Syrian opposition.

Saudi Arabia’s wishes and interests notwithstanding, there is an X-factor in Lebanon that could turn things upside down and alter Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy designs, and that is the popular Sunni sentiment in the country, led today by a furious Salafist community. Hariri’s presence outside Lebanon for personal safety reasons has created a leadership void in Sunni politics over the years which the Salafists have tried to fill, with more successes than failures. While still disorganized, small, and lacking heavy arms, the Salafists, especially their more radical and militant figures that have links to al Qaeda, can stir the pot by igniting confrontations with Hezbollah. To compensate for their military weaknesses, they can form alliances with Syrian rebels operating in Lebanon. The goal would not be to disarm Hezbollah but to provoke the Shiite group enough to react militarily and cause an armed clash that might push regional players including Saudi Arabia to intervene. This would be an ambitious feat, but one that outraged Salafists who see this struggle as an existential one might pursue nonetheless.

To stop this snowballing effect and any attempts by the Lebanese Sunni street to force its hand, Saudi Arabia will urge Lebanese Prime Minister Mikati to step down (Mikati has already expressed his intent to do so but President Michel Suleiman asked him to postpone his decision to prevent total political collapse and deal with immediate security needs on the ground). Other regional and international powers that have a vested interest in preventing further chaos in the region and keeping Lebanon in one piece including Qatar, Turkey, the United States, and even Iran will most likely come up with a negotiated arrangement that creates a relatively neutral government in Beirut until parliamentary elections in 2013. Iran will probably not object to this proposal simply because it does not cause major harm to Hezbollah. Indeed, so long as the next government is not totally anti-Syrian, Hezbollah can live with a technocratic government for the next few months. Furthermore, Hezbollah has every interest in containing Sunni wrath in the streets and in avoiding conflict with a community that has been on the rise in the region since the start of the Arab uprisings, and one way to do that is by agreeing to bring the Sunnis back to government. While it will not be easy to find a “neither March 14 nor Hezbollah” prime ministerial candidate in such heated and polarized political times (ironically Mikati was supposed to be that person), one likely contender is Tamam Salam, a former parliamentarian and minister of culture who hails from an old Lebanese political family that produced his father, Saeb Salam, a politician who served six times as prime minister between 1952 and 1973.

So long as Syria is burning, there will always be a risk that civil war will return to Lebanon. Yet civil war requires that at least two sides have the manpower, will, money, and arms to fight. Hezbollah has all those things, but Lebanon’s Sunnis have little of each, unless they form alliances with other groups and decide to take on the Shiite party. Their regional sponsors also have no appetite in starting a war they cannot finish and might open the gates of hell in the entire Middle East. Because of the mess in Syria and the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, the situation in the region is extremely combustible. Cooler heads will most likely prevail in Riyadh and instruct their allies in Beirut to remain calm. The Saudi (and Qatari) focus shall remain on Syria, the real prize whose fate will change the entire security architecture of the Middle East. Lebanon will be asked to keep absorbing hits until the chips fall in Syria. But how much more Lebanon can take without completely breaking is anybody’s guess.

This article first appeared in Foreign Policy on October 22, 2012 and is being re-posted here.