The Anniversary of the Assassination of Rafic Hariri and Failed International Attempts At Accountability

This week, Lebanon marks the 19th anniversary of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005. The attack was the most high-profile political murder in the country since the end of the civil war in 1989.

The killing of Hariri – by a massive 1800-kilogram car bomb that killed 23 others alongside him – sparked nationwide protests and pushed the Lebanese government and the U.N. Security Council to adopt U.N. Security Council Resolution 1757. It called for establishing a specialized international court to try those responsible for the attack: the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

In January 2024, Antonio Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, declared the closing of the STL after almost two decades of investigation and legal proceedings and an estimated expenditure of $1 billion.  Examining the results of this lengthy and expensive process while looking at Lebanon’s current political, social, and security landscape leads to grim conclusions.

Not even one of Hezbollah’s terrorists involved in the Hariri murder was arrested, the organization’s leadership was not held accountable, and its use of political violence as a tool to promote the organization’s interests continued through a string of assassinations of its rivals, while the trial was taking place in the Hague.

Taking a closer look at this failed attempt at justice is also important in the current landscape.  At present, the international community is once again aspiring to promote a change in Lebanon, which stands in contradiction to Hezbollah’s interests, namely the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. This resolution ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and called for the withdrawal of the organization’s forces from southern Lebanon.

Although the STL was a U.N. entity established by a Security Council resolution, it lacked enforcement powers in Lebanon. It was left to the weak and highly politicized Lebanese security apparatus to carry out the operational steps required. Given these dynamics, from the beginning, the STL was destined to fall short of its objectives. Its lack of independent enforcement capabilities set the table for Lebanon not implementing any judicial decisions, given Hezbollah’s penetration of the state.

Even though the nature of the STL and its limitations were known to all, Hezbollah invested in a huge effort to delegitimize its position and to sabotage the investigation. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, was highly concerned about the political implications of the exposure of the Shia organization’s responsibility in this sensitive political murder of a popular Sunni leader.  In hindsight, it is obvious that his worries were exaggerated, but it nevertheless exposed the set of tools Hezbollah used to undermine the STL.

Even before the trial opened and any formal indictments were issued, Hezbollah assassinated a Lebanese security official who worked closely with the international investigation team appointed by the United Nations to investigate the Hariri assassination.  At 31 years old, Captain Wissam Eid was a member of the Lebanese Internal Security Force (ISF).  The following chart, which was published few years after his death in 2008, was the reason he was killed.  This chart is the outcome of Eid’s meticulous intelligence work, and it shows the communication patterns used by the hit squad that followed Hariri and carried out his murder in 2005.  Based on these findings, Eid had managed to prove that it was Hezbollah who carried out the Hariri assassination.

 Chart outlining Captain Eid’s work via CBC News
Chart outlining Captain Eid’s work via CBC News

But Hezbollah was too late as by the time Eid was murdered, he had already delivered his findings and conclusions to the international investigation team, who, based on Eid’s work, filed the indictments against four Hezbollah members.

As the international investigation continued, Nasrallah initiated an open campaign to delegitimize the STL, which had the effect of incriminating Hezbollah.  In a televised speech in late 2010, Nasrallah called to boycott the U.N.-backed probe into the murder of Hariri, describing the investigation as biased against his organization.

A few months later, and days before the STL issued the indictments against Hezbollah members in January 2011, Hezbollah used its political force to bring down the Lebanese government. The trigger was Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Rafic Hariri’s son, refusing to halt cooperation with the STL.

A year later, as the cooperation between the ISF and the STL continued, Hezbollah once again targeted another ISF officer. This time, the victim was Colonel Wissan Al-Hassan, Captain Wissam Eid’s commander and one of Hezbollah’s most bitter enemies in Lebanon. Al-Hassan was killed by another highly precise car bomb attack.  The FBI team that was assisting Lebanese authorities investigating the crime was quoted as saying that the kind of explosives and the way the attack was carried out bore similarities to the original Hariri assassination in 2005.

While none of Hezbollah’s attempts to formally stop the trial succeeded, those acts sent a very clear message to its domestic opponents in Lebanon and the international community that the organization was willing to use violence to protect its members from STL’s reach.  The fact that the trial was held with the defendants in absentia and that the verdicts were never actually implemented also stemmed from the fear of further destabilizing the fragile country.

Nevertheless, Hezbollah established a very problematic precedent with the STL. Using a mixture of political maneuvers and violent acts, the organization telegraphed to politicians and civil servants across the Lebanese state institutions that confronting the illegal activities of Hezbollah may lead to severe personal consequences.  At the same time, Hezbollah made it clear to the international community that attempts to use U.N. resolutions and bodies to challenge the organization’s interests cannot be done through the Lebanese state institutions that are under its influence.

As Lebanon suffers from multiple challenges, it is Hezbollah’s ability to prevent the state institutions from functioning that thwarts any government reform plan the country needs internally or any security agreement to be reached externally, like with Israel, to halt further escalation. The anniversary of the Hariri assassination is a brutal reminder of this reality.

Dror Doron is a senior advisor at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) focusing on Hezbollah and Lebanon.  He spent nearly two decades as a senior analyst in the Office of Israel’s Prime Minister. Dror is on Twitter @DrorDoron