The United Nations Special Tribunal has indicted four senior Hezbollah members for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is raging against the West, Israel and SPIEGEL. The indictments come at a time of financial woes for Hezbollah, but also one in which the Shiite group has massively increased its power.
Hassan Nasrallah is a stern man, as
uncompromising toward others as he is toward himself. While giving an
inspirational speech to his troops in 1997, the Hezbollah leader was handed a
slip of paper. His son Hadi had just been killed in a gun battle with the
Israelis. Nasrallah carried on as if nothing had happened, indicating that
there would be time enough for mourning later. For the secretary general of the
radical Shiite "Party of God," everything has a higher purpose. His
mandate is "resistance" against Israel and the political reshaping of
Lebanon -- under his ideological leadership, of course.
Triumph and loss have rarely coincided as
closely in the life of Nasrallah, 50, as they have in recent days. He was
instrumental in bringing the new government in Beirut into office a few weeks
ago. But on the Thursday before last, a United Nations special tribunal
indicted some of his closest associates on murder charges. Nasrallah, who is
highly popular in the Arab world, maintains excellent relations with Syria and
Iran and is secretly in talks with Turkey and France, will now play a key role.
Whether and how he performs that role will be critical to shaping the future of
the entire Middle East.
In a television address to the people,
Nasrallah called the four Hezbollah members indicted by the UN Special Tribunal
for Lebanon (STL), which is based near The Hague, "brothers with an
honorable past." The accused would not be extradited, he said, "not
in 30 days, and not in 30 years," and he warned that he would "cut off
the hand" of anyone who tried. He called the tribunal an
"American-Israeli conspiracy" that aimed to reignite the civil war in
The crime that took place at 12:56 p.m. on Feb.
14, 2005, Valentine's Day, was a monstrous one. A giant bomb exploded in front
of the Hotel St. Georges in Beirut just as the motorcade of former Prime
Minister Rafiq Hariri was driving by. In addition to the former prime minister,
nicknamed "Mister Lebanon," 20 people, including bodyguards and
passersby, died in the inferno. The incident rocked the Arab world. Why did
Hariri have to die? Who committed the crime, and who were the backers?
At the request of the Lebanese government, the
United Nations would soon tackle the case. An ad hoc criminal court was created
in 2007, the first in UN history to address a terrorist crime. Beirut agreed to
pay a portion of the costs of the international body. Saad Hariri, 41, who
considered the investigation of his father's murder to be above all political
considerations, was especially committed to the STL.
The tribunal was periodically in the news.
Detlev Mehlis, its German chief investigator, had four pro-Syrian Lebanese
generals arrested, but they had to be released again after witnesses proved to
be less than credible. However, the suspicion that Damascus could have been
involved in the Hariri assassination has not been set aside to this day.
An 'Historic Moment'
In May 2009 SPIEGEL, citing sources close to
the tribunal, published
a detailed report on the possible motives for the assassination. The
report identified Hezbollah commanders Mustafa Badr al-Din and Hajj Salim Ayash
as the presumed suspects. At the time, Nasrallah threatened to sue the author
of the story and the magazine. Now Al-Akhbar, a newspaper with ties
to Nasrallah, is even calling the STL indictment "a SPIEGEL
Nasrallah knows what is at stake for him. Saad
Hariri called the arrest warrants an "historic moment" and a
"turning point in the history of fighting organized political crime in
Lebanon." The parliamentary group consisting of his Future Party and its
allies is almost as strong as Hezbollah. And although Nasrallah can rely on
most members of the government, not all are his allies. Referring to the four
Hezbollah members indicted by the STL, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said:
"We will find their addresses, raid (their houses) and arrest them."
Under international law, the Lebanese
government has no choice but to extradite the men. UN Resolution 1757 requires
it to cooperate fully with the tribunal and, in the event of noncompliance,
includes the possibility of sanctions once the case has been turned over to the
That point has not been reached yet. For now,
Beirut has "30 business days after the delivery of the indictment" to
submit a report on its efforts to serve the arrest warrants. If this does not
lead to an arrest, as is expected, the STL will display wanted posters
worldwide, particularly in Lebanon. This would be followed by a trial in
absentia. After past missteps, the tribunal is taking pains to ensure that the
process is handled fairly.
'Great Confidence' in Lebanese Prosecutors
Daniel Bellemare, the chief prosecutor in The
Hague, counters Nasrallah's charges that the STL is a "corrupt and
biased" institution with the assurance that the STL will seriously review
information from Hezbollah's leader relating to possible Israeli involvement in
the crime. Bellemare has also told SPIEGEL that he has "great
confidence" in the Lebanese criminal prosecutors, and that he is even
willing to travel to Beirut and meet with Nasrallah.
Additional STL indictments are not out of the
question, possibly against Syrian intelligence or military officials who may
have "inspired" the Hariri assassination. However, Syrian President
Bashar Assad is not formally required to provide information to the UN
tribunal. Besides, now that the uprising in his country has Assad with his back
to the wall, the Hariri case is not exactly one of his most pressing problems.
The turmoil in neighboring Syria and the
worldwide condemnation of Assad's brutality is bad news for Hezbollah. Damascus
is traditionally a strong supporter of Hezbollah. No one knows whether a new
regime in Syria would continue to allow weapons for Hezbollah to be brought
across the Chouf Mountains.
That would leave the Shiite theocracy Iran as
Hezbollah's partner and principal financial backer. Tehran is firmly committed
to Hezbollah, which it sees as its most important bridgehead to the Arab world.
It is possible that the two main suspects in the Hariri attack have already
gone to Iran, which would be familiar territory for them. They were trained
there and have been working closely for years with their Iranian contact, Qasim
Sulaimani, a general in the Revolutionary Guard.
An Embarrassment for Hezbollah
Hezbollah intelligence chief Badr al-Din, 50,
is believed to be the organizer of the assassination. He is a member of
Hezbollah's governing body, the Shura Council, and he was reportedly involved
in terrorist attacks in South America against Jewish targets and in Kuwait,
where he was arrested and sentenced to death. In the confusion surrounding the
Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990, he managed to escape from prison and, with
the help of the Iranian embassy in Kuwait, returned to Lebanon.
The suspected leader of the attack was Salim
Ayash, 47, the head of a secret military "special unit for
operatives" within Hezbollah. The two other suspects are not considered to
be as important, and some in Beirut speculate that they may already have been
As strong as Tehran's support for Hezbollah is,
there are currently considerable problems with financing. Contrary to Israel's
consistent claims, militant Shiite Hezbollah does not have access to a constant
flow of cash.
In recent months, Hezbollah has become involved
in disastrous investments, losing almost €1 billion ($1.4 billion). The
Iranians, who are now feeling the brunt of the UN sanctions imposed as a result
of their nuclear activities, have made it clear that they cannot provide
Hezbollah with additional funding at this time. This is embarrassing for
Hezbollah, whose image in Lebanon depends in large part on its generous social
services. It is now falling behind in the rebuilding of homes it had promised
to Hezbollah's Shiite followers after the destructive 2006 bomb attacks. Israel
began massive bombing strikes in
Lebanon that year after Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers in a
Western intelligence agencies believe that they
have identified a new Hezbollah income source: the drug trade. Iranian weapons
shipments to the Lebanese were reportedly "enriched" with large quantities
of heroin and cocaine. The drugs were then allegedly shipped to their final
destination, Western Europe, through the Turkish Cypriot port of Famagusta. The
Iranian representative of the Revolutionary Guard in Beirut, Hassan Mahdavi,
allegedly mentioned, in a telephone conversation, a "drug tsunami"
that could flush millions into Hezbollah's coffers.
Nasrallah is unlikely to approve of such
activities. He has always fought the "drug scourge," even cooperating
on the issue with the hated Hariri government in 2010. He is now trying to
perform a balancing act that cannot possibly go well -- between being a
statesman and a supporter of terrorists, and between opposing civil war and
possibly profiting from one. He wants to be part of the democratic process, and
yet he insists that he is above the law.
Hezbollah Emerges as Dominant Political Forces
After Nasrallah had managed to destroy former
Prime Minister Saad Hariri's pro-Western alliance at the beginning of the year
by convincing some of Hariri's supporters to defect to his camp, the new prime
minister, Najib Mikati, 55, was finally able to present his new cabinet in
mid-June. Mikati, a wealthy Sunni businessman, is considered a moderate and has
also included representatives of Christian groups in his team. Nevertheless,
Hezbollah dominates the cabinet.
For the first time the movement, whose militia
is more powerful than the regular Lebanese army, has also established itself as
the dominant political force. Although Hariri calls it a "coup,"
Hezbollah formally adhered to the democratic rules of engagement. Nasrallah,
for his part, portrays himself as a peacemaker. He says that by no means does
he intend to play off the Shiites, who make up an estimated 40 percent of the
population, against the Sunnis or the Maronites. And he insists that Lebanon,
with its fragile religious makeup, should be a unified, democratic country. But
he also wants it to serve as a front line against "the Zionist
The Mikati government narrowly won a
parliamentary confidence vote on Thursday. The prime minister promises to
cooperate with the tribunal "in principle, provided it is not detrimental
to our national interest." To be on the safe side, the government has
already indicated that the Lebanese authorities have issued warrants for the
arrest of thousands of people. Unfortunately, despite all official efforts,
those individuals are not to be found.