By Sharmine Narwani
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), the UN Security Council-initiated investigation into the February 14, 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, formally unveiled its indictment of four alleged Hezbollah “supporters” last week.
There was nothing new in this document. Almost all details had been leaked to various media outlets at separate intervals since 2009.
But it is a compelling read nonetheless. There is no longer any need for conjecture, supposition or doubt – the heart of the case against the accused is now spelled out in black and white.
A Case Built Entirely on Telecommunications Data
The Tribunal’s case appears to be built on a simple premise: the “co-location” of cellular phones – traceable to the accused four – that coincide heavily with Hariri’s whereabouts and crucial parts of the murder plot in the six weeks prior to his death.
Using Call Data Records (CDRs) – which track incoming and outgoing calls, time, date, duration, and importantly, the location from which calls are made (identifiable by the nearby “cell towers” that carry a mobile phone call) – the STL identified a covert network of mobile phones called the “Red Network” used in the planning of the assassination.
The Tribunal reveals that CDR analysis links the Red Network to four other colour-coded cell phone networks, some of which are non-covert, i.e. the Personal Mobile Phones (PMPs) of the indictees. In short, what this means is that the suspected covert phone networks (Red, Blue and Green) were very frequently making calls from the same areas as the personal mobile phones of the four accused men.
Indeed, the intricate details and frequency of the various phone call-overlaps between the covert Hariri-tracking networks and the personal phones of the indictees make this appear to be a slam-dunk case. How could any of this be coincidence? In the two hours before the assassination, there were 33 calls along Hariri’s route within the Red Network alone, co-located with the PMPs of the suspects.
Not So Fast…
But there isn’t a literate soul in Lebanon who does not know that the country’s telecommunications networks are highly infiltrated – whether by competing domestic political operatives or by foreign entities. For its part, the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah – with which the indictees are allegedly affiliated – has spent much of the past year explaining in painstaking detail the hazards of relying on telecom data that is readily penetrable by the state’s enemies.
This narrative has been backed by Lebanese officials, convicted “spies” and outed employees of telecom companies.
But how does this impact the STL’s meticulous circumstantial case?
On the one hand, Hezbollah supporters may very well have assassinated Rafiq Hariri – whether through direct orders from the resistance group’s leadership or in conjunction with other individuals or governments.
On the other hand, the telecommunication analysis provided by the Tribunal could instead represent an intricately planned and executed effort to frame Hezbollah.
It could go something like this:
Assume for a moment that there was in fact a genuine Hezbollah surveillance operation to track the whereabouts of Hariri. This, in itself, is not unusual by Lebanese standards – it is widely assumed in the Middle East that political camps engage in this kind of monitoring activities of key figures. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah last summer even televised intercepted Israeli video footage tracking Hariri’s various routes to and from Beirut in the time period leading up to his death. No biggie, right?
Caveat: In this scenario, the Hezbollah operatives use their personal mobile phones during their surveillance ops. They have no covert phones as suggested by the Tribunal’s colour-coded networks theory. In fact, the colour-coded networks and their history of phone calls don’t even really exist – they have been entirely fabricated and then cleverly co-located with the Hezbollah PMPs by an unknown entity that hacked into cell tower data logs.
Or assume instead that the assassination plot is entirely accurate as outlined by the STL. There were indeed colour-coded covert networks led by the Red Network to carry out the dirty deed – only no Hezbollah operatives were involved.
Caveat: In this scenario, an unknown entity has simply co-located targeted Hezbollah-supporter PMPs with the colour-coded Networks to make it seem as though there is a connection with these individuals. (more…)