October 31, 2012
The Beirut car bombing that killed Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the intelligence branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces' (ISF), on October 19, robbed Saudi Arabia's General Intelligence Directorate and its chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, of their principal ally in the eastern Mediterranean. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, the first car bombing in Beirut in four years.Hassan was close to former Lebanese prime minister and current opposition leader Saad Hariri, who was quick to blame Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime for the bombing."We accuse Bashar al-Assad of murdering Hassan, a guarantor of security in Lebanon," Hariri told local television on Friday.
In Beirut Blast, U.S. Loses a Top Ally
By JAY SOLOMON
WASHINGTON—The assassination of Lebanon's security chief a week ago robbed the U.S. and Europe of one of its closest allies in monitoring and countering the regional activities of Lebanon's Hezbollah, as well as its backers in Syria and Iran, said U.S. and Arab officials.
Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan headed intelligence-gathering for Lebanon's police force, the Internal Security Forces, which was among Beirut's primary recipients of U.S. financial aid since mass protests forced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remove his troops from the country in 2005.
Lebanese mourners pay respects to Gen. Hassan (portraits on the left) and his bodyguard Ahmed Sahyuni (right portrait) on Friday in Beirut.
Because of Gen. Hassan's ties to the West, Arab and Western officials said they believed last Friday's car bombing in central Beirut—which killed the security chief and seven others—was a warning from Syria and Iran. Its aim, these people say, was to warn anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon and the West not to work for the overthrow of Mr. Assad's regime in Damascus.
Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia and political party, have all denied any role in the killing.
"This is a big blow for the Americans because of Hassan's role inside Lebanon," said a senior Arab diplomat. "He was the top intelligence chief and interlocutor."
U.S. and Arab officials said they believe there are close similarities in the motives and tactics used to kill both Gen. Hassan and Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who died in a 2005 car bombing in Beirut. Both men had strong ties to the West and vigorously opposed Syrian influence in Lebanon.
In late August, according to Arab diplomats, Gen. Hassan visited Washington, where he held extensive discussions with the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, David Petraeus, and other senior Obama administration officials.
The two spy chiefs discussed Syria's efforts to destabilize Lebanon using Hezbollah and pro-Damascus politicians, these officials said. They also discussed Hezbollah's efforts to bolster Mr. Assad's security forces inside Syria, by sending in military advisers and fighters. Hezbollah has denied acting inside Syria.
A senior U.S. official praised Gen. Hassan as "a significant figure" but stressed that U.S. intelligence ties to Lebanon go beyond one person. "It would be wrong to overestimate the damage to the U.S. from this one attack," the official said. The killing comes at a critical time for Lebanon, said another U.S. official. "Sectarian tensions are heating up, but calm heads could still prevail," this official said. "His killing doesn't have to be a trigger for even more violence."
Gen. Hassan also maintained close ties to French intelligence. He kept his family in Paris, due to security threats, and had returned to Beirut from France only hours before his death, according to Lebanese officials.
Obama administration officials said the ISF was one of the few Lebanese institutions to emerge after Syria's 2005 military withdrawal that wasn't controlled or significantly influenced by the Shiite Hezbollah. Power in Lebanon's political system is shared by its three main religious faiths. Gen. Hassan, like many other ISF leaders, was a Sunni Muslim who was close to the pro-Western Hariri family.
Following the Syrian military's exit, Gen. Hassan established the Information Branch inside the ISF. It became the Lebanese government's most powerful internal-security and intelligence agency, according U.S. and Arab officials. Hezbollah controls its own intelligence service and military apparatus outside Beirut's control.
This office cooperated closely with the United Nations tribunal that has investigated the murder of Mr. Hariri. Early U.N. reports implicated senior Syrian officials, and last year a U.N. court in The Hague indicted four Hezbollah members. Damascus and Hezbollah deny any role in the 2005 bombing.
The Information Branch has also rolled up a number of alleged Israeli spy rings operating inside Lebanon in recent years. And in August, the ISF arrested a senior Lebanese politician for purportedly conspiring with the Assad regime to conduct an assassination campaign against anti-Syrian activists in Beirut. The politician, Michel Samaha, has denied these charges.
The State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement has provided the ISF with more than $130 million in funding since 2006 in a bid to strengthen Lebanon's security forces.
The U.S. has specifically worked with the ISF to deploy Lebanese security officials in areas traditionally dominated by Hezbollah in south Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. Washington also praised the ISF for its role in putting down a 2008 uprising by Islamic radicals in a northern Lebanon refugee camp, which the U.S. believed was supported by Syria.
Gen. Hassan's death comes as Washington is intensifying its intelligence operations inside Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, due to fear that the violence inside Syria could set off a broader regional conflict. The Obama administration worries that Mr. Assad's vast chemical-weapons stockpile could go loose due to the unrest in his country.
The U.S. and its allies are also intensifying their efforts to counter Iran's and Hezbollah's alleged regional terrorist activities. The U.S. and Israel have accused Tehran and the militant group of orchestrating a July bombing in Bulgaria that killed seven people, mainly Israeli tourists. The Iranians and Hezbollah deny involvement.
—Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.
Write to Jay Solomon at email@example.com
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