Hariri and al-Qaeda? Really?
I don’t have a dog in the fight about who killed Rafiq Hariri, but I don’t find the case for the Syrians being behind it is airtight.
I worked for Monday Morning Co. in the late 1970s in Beirut as a journalist/translator and the Syrian secret police used sometimes to pull my articles in the most heavy-handed manner. Although the Syrians came into Lebanon on the pretext of establishing order, they appear to have mainly played various factions off against one another in a cynical way that harmed the subsequent development of Lebanon. So if I am completely honest about my own biases and life-experiences, I am deeply critical of the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
But the question of who killed Hariri is highly significant and it is important not to let our prejudices affect our judgment. The judgment has been made by the political opposition in Lebanon for local reasons, but it seems likely that a majority of Lebanese thinks someone beside Syria was responsible (not all Sunnis, Maronites and Druze have adopted the Syria theory, and Zogby showed that 70 percent of Shiites– who are some 40 percent of the population– have not.)
To the state of the case so far: 1) It seems likely that Hariri was killed by a powerful car bomb that pulled alongside his vehicle. 2) It seems likely that he was assassinated by a Palestinian radical Muslim fundamentalist named Ahmed Tayseer Abu Adas, even if someone else was driving the car. Mixing planners and “muscle” is an al-Qaeda modus operandi. 3) If Abu Adas was behind it, he made his motivation clear. He was striking at what he considered a major agent of Saudi influence in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia has been a consistent target of radical jihadis for the past three years. Initially they attacked sites associated with the training of bodyguards for the royal family or other Saudi targets. This strategy produced a popular backlash against them. Al-Qaeda has some political support in some regions of Saudi Arabia, and it should be remembered that Islamists did well in the recent municipal elections, so al-Qaeda there is sensitive to public opinion.
Therefore, during the past year the jihadis in Saudia have shifted to attacking Saudi Arabia’s conduits to the outside world. The shift in the strategy of Saudi al-Qaeda was noted in the Washington Post.
The US consulate in Jidda was targeted, along with foreign workers in the kingdom. Saleh al-Awfi, the current al-Qaeda leader in Saudia, has stressed internationalization and called for Saudi volunteers to fight in Iraq, e.g.
Moreover, there seems to be a Lebanon element in the latter strategy. Although I am careful about depending on Debka, this report is suggestive in our context.
It links Lebanese radical fundamentalists, their recruits at the Ain Helweh Palestinian refugee camp, and a bombing of the Muhaya Quarter of Riyadh, targeting Lebanese residents there.
Since Saudi targets have hardened up, for such groups to turn to what they consider Saudi clients elsewhere in the region makes perfect sense.
As for Hariri, Greg Lamotte of VOA noted his long career in Saudi Arabia and his close ties to the royal family, writing: “During the 1980s, Mr. Hariri acted as a personal emissary to Lebanon for Saudi King Fahd.”
Some have pointed out that “al-Qaeda” disclaimed responsibility for the Hariri assassination. But al-Qaeda is not a top-down organization, especially now. Some al-Qaeda-linked web site disclaimed responsibility. Besides, al-Qaeda did not claim responsibility. Abu Adas’s small Jihadi group did. Their claim of being an al-Qaeda franchise may be an informal one. Finally, al-Qaeda routinely disclaims credit for its operations, and Bin Laden initially denied involvement in 9/11!
The Syrian secret police had means, motive and opportunity, and must be put on the suspect list.
But from a Gulf perspective, and from the perspective of the recent history of transnational jihadi terrorism, a radical anti-Saudi hit on Hariri is perfectly plausible and also cannot simply be dismissed. It should be remembered that 9/11 initially struck many in Washington as so weird and illogical that they assumed Iraq was the real culprit. Transnational terrorism has its own logic, and its targets can strike outsiders as oddly decontextualized. From within the movement, however, Hariri may have looked like a Saudi cat’s paw, and hitting him a way to reduce Saudi influence in Greater Syria. The point is gradually to isolate the Saudi royal family, weaken them, and then finish them off. It is a crackpot plan, and it would be doubly tragic if Hariri was the victim of this kind of thinking. It is too early to know for sure, and better to reserve judgment.