The 54-page U.N. report concludes that the bomb
that killed Hariri and 22 other people in Beirut was likely in a white
Mitsubishi Canter Van that closed in on the convoy of cars carrying
Hariri and his entourage before a suicide bomber detonated the powerful
While the identity of the bomber remains a mystery,
a Japanese forensic team matched 44 of 69 pieces of the van’s wreckage
to Canter parts manufactured by Mitsubishi Fuso Corp. and even
identified the specific vehicle. The chain of possession for that van
thus would seem to be a crucial lead in identifying the killers.
But on that central point, the U.N. investigation
made little headway, devoting only a few paragraphs to how the van ended
up in Beirut. On page 42, the U.N. report states that the Japanese
forensic team reported that the van was traced back to Sagamihara City,
Japan, where on Oct. 12, 2004, it was stolen.
The U.N. report contains no details about the
Japanese investigation of the theft, nor does it indicate what Japanese
police may have discovered about the identity of the thieves or how they
may have shipped the van from a suburb of Tokyo to the Middle East in
the four months before the Hariri attack.
Though the investigation of a vehicle theft may
have attracted little Japanese police attention a year ago, the van’s
apparent role in a major act of international terrorism would seem to
justify a redoubling of those efforts now.
At minimum, the U.N. investigators might have
insisted on including details such as the name of the original owner,
the circumstances surrounding the theft, and the identities of car-theft
rings in the Sagamihara area. Plus, investigators could have checked on
shipments of white Mitsubishi Canter Vans out of Japan to Middle East
Since the time frame between the reported theft and
the bombing was less than four months, Japanese authorities could have
at least narrowed down those possible shipments and Middle East customs
services might have records of imported vehicles.
Instead, the U.N. investigation concentrated on far
flimsier and more circumstantial pieces of evidence, such as phone
records showing communications between various security officials near
the route of Hariri’s trip.
In reaching its tentative conclusions fingering
Syria, the U.N. probe also relies heavily on two witnesses of uncertain
credibility who implicated Syrian security officials, although with
accounts that are partially contradictory.
For instance, the two supposed witnesses differed
on the fate of the Lebanese youth, Ahmad Abu Adass, who claimed
responsibility for the suicide bombing in a videotape released to al-Jazeera
television after the Hariri assassination.
According to that video, Hariri was slain by
Islamic militants because of his work as “the agent of the infidels” and
Abu Adass identified himself as the suicide bomber.
But the U.N. report used the supposed witnesses to
dismiss the videotape as part of a disinformation campaign to deflect
suspicion from Syria.
One witness – described in the U.N. report as “of
Syrian origin but resident in Lebanon who claims to have worked for the
Syrian intelligence services in Lebanon” – said Abu Adass “played no
role in the crime except as a decoy,” who was detained “in Syria and
forced at gunpoint to record the videotape” before being killed.
Another alleged witness, Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said
Saddik, claimed he saw Abu Adass at a camp in Zabadani, Syria, where,
Saddik said, the Mitsubishi van was filled with explosives. Saddik said
Abu Adass planned to carry out the assassination but changed his mind
and was then killed by Syrians who put his body in the vehicle carrying
One of the problems with such “witnesses” is that
they can be unreliable for a variety of reasons, including the
possibility they are paid or otherwise induced to present false stories
to help achieve a result favored by powerful political figures or
The United States – and the New York Times –
learned this lesson during the run-up to war in Iraq when Iraqi exile
groups arranged for supposed witnesses to approach U.S. officials and
journalists with information about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction,
claims that turned out to be fabricated.
(Similar questions are already being raised about
the key Hariri-case witness Saddik. Der Spiegel, the German
newsmagazine, reported that Saddik is a convicted swindler who was
caught in lies by the U.N. investigative team. Der Spiegel also reported
that the intermediary for Saddik's testimony was Syrian dissident Rifaat
al-Assad, who opposes the regime of his nephew President Bashar Assad,
and that Saddik apparently was paid for supplying his testimony. Saddik
called his brother from Paris in late summer and declared, “I've become
a millionaire,” the brother said, according to
This risk of investigators accepting questionable
testimony from dubious sources is highest when the allegations are
directed against countries or political leaders already held in disdain
– as was the case with Iraq and is now the case with Syria. With almost
everyone ready to believe the worst, few investigators or journalists
are willing to endanger their reputations and careers by demanding a high
level of proof. It's easier to go with the flow.
In the Hariri case, the chief U.N. investigator,
German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, found himself under intense
international pressure that some observers compared to the demands on
U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix in early 2003.
Unable to find Iraqi WMD but facing U.S. insistence
that the WMD was there, Blix tried to steer a middle course to avert a
head-on confrontation with the Bush administration, which nevertheless
brushed aside his muted objections and invaded Iraq in March 2003.
Similarly, the Bush administration has stepped up
its rhetorical pressure on Syria, blaming the government of Bashar Assad
for the infiltration of foreign jihadists into Iraq where they have
attacked American troops. So, any additional negative attention on Syria
would be helpful to Bush’s anti-Syrian agenda.
After the U.N. report was released on Oct. 20, Bush
immediately termed its allegations “very disturbing” and called for the
U.N. to take action against Syria.
Yet, while Syria and its freewheeling intelligence
services may remain prime suspects in the Hariri assassination, the
bitter Iraq experience might justify at least the running down of
obvious leads that could either strengthen or disprove the case, like
the mystery of the white Mitsubishi Canter Van.
Investigators might get much closer to the truth if
they could determine what happened to the van between the moment it
disappeared off the streets of a Japanese city and reappeared almost
four months later, rolling toward Rafiq Hariri’s motorcade.
The blast not only rocked Lebanese politics. It may
now give the Bush administration a new rationale for taking on another