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Beirut blast: intelligence cleaning or a new civil war?

The explosion that rocked the Ashrafieh Christian sector of Beirut on October 19, 2012
The explosion that rocked the Ashrafieh Christian sector of Beirut on October 19, 2012
REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban

Beirut, today, was on a rendezvous with a blast from the past. A car bomb exploded in the Ashrafieh Christian sector of the city, killing 8 civilians and wounding 72; it had for its main target Wissam Al-Hassan, a senior officer of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces and head of its controversial “Information Branch”. Al-Hassan’s security lineage can be traced to the Syrian-Lebanese intelligence regime that controlled Lebanon up until 2005. Mr. Al-Hassan’s name first came to light as the security liaison between the late Rafiq Hariri (Assad’s arch-ally and PM of Lebanon at the time of the Syrian occupation) and Syrian intelligence officers Ghazi Kanaan and Rustom Ghazali in charge of the country’s affairs at the time. As the head of Hariri’s personal security team, Al-Hassan’s absence from the security detail on the day of Hariri’s assassination led the UN investigators to scrutinize him as a possible suspect in the murder of the Sunni leader, considering his alibi as "weak and inconsistent...”

During his tenure at the helm of the information branch, Al-Hassan was credited with uncovering a number of Israeli spy rings working to undermine security in Lebanon. An appointee of Saad Hariri (Rafiq Hariri’s son), he was often blamed by Hariri’s opponents for exploiting his security post to serve the political ambition of his master. When the latter declared his opposition to the Assad regime following the uprising in Syria, Al-Hassan seems to have followed suit and shifted alliances. He was in charge of the arrest and ongoing investigation against former Lebanese Information Minister and Assad’s advisor Michel Samaha, accused of plotting to plant explosives in Lebanon at the behest of the Syrian government.

Following news of Al-Hassan assassination today, neo-anti-Assad nationalists and a number of Sunni groups in Lebanon were quick to claim Al-Hassan as their own and a fallen national hero. The so-called “March 14” politicians jumped at the chance of leveling yet another accusation at Syria and Hezbollah; something they have grown accustomed to do with every assassination in Lebanon. In recent past, the Hariri clan even labeled these accusations as “political” since they lacked any basis in fact; but served well to rally the electorate emotionally behind Saad Hariri and his allies.

The theories behind Al-Hassan assassination are wide-ranging. Was he truly the devoted national hero who sole-handedly tracked the enemies of Lebanon - Israeli and Syrian - arrested them and protected the “Cedar Revolution”, only to fall on his sword? Or was he the "hero for hire" lured to serve a new master to the dismay of an old one? A former agent of Syrian intelligence, who arrested Israeli spies, goes on to arrest Assad’s main man in Lebanon! Or did he fail to alert the US and Israel about Hezbollah’s drone? Many recall the Wikileaks documents revealing how the former Defense Minister of Lebanon - the infamous Elias El-Murr - was coordinating the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, with the US ambassador! Or lastly, was Al-Hassan just another pawn of the intelligence world, whose validity has expired and whose elimination is simply a coded message between superpowers?

Whatever the reason may be, his assassination is an unfolding tragedy that spells an impending disaster to Lebanon and its fragile sectarian peace. On a political note, the explosion targeted innocent Christians and a prominent Sunni figure, giving the “March 14” Sunni-Christian allies the blood-welding needed to leverage their political campaign and to secure gains in the upcoming parliamentary elections in the Spring of 2013 against the Shiite-Aoun alliance. Some of them are already exploiting the incident to demand the resignation of PM Miqati. On a more dangerous note, the incident gave radical Islamists and extremist groups, intent on commandeering the Lebanese Sunni community, an opportunity to mobilize on the ground in Tripoli, Sidon and some neighborhoods in Beirut chanting anti-Shiite slogans and calling for an open war with Shiite Hezbollah.

The prudent course would be to demand an investigation that brings to justice the real culprits. However, if history is any lesson and knowing how complex the intelligence world is, it is unlikely that an investigation will yield a significant outcome satisfactory to the enraged Sunni street, in the reasonably near future. So unless cool heads prevail, the country may be headed towards a new civil war.