On Feb. 14 2005, a suicide bomber detonated a van laden with explosives in Beirut leaving a 30-foot crater in the ground and 22 people dead, including Rafiq al-Hariri, a former Prime Minister and leader of the Sunni Future Movement. 231 others were injured by the blast. Nearly nine years later, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a U.N. established institution setup to investigate the crime that triggered events leading to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, begins its trial. But what happened on the day itself?
Hariri was on good spirits that fateful Monday morning, describes journalist Nick Blanford in his well-researched account of events leading up to the assassination of Hariri in his book ‘Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Raﬁk Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East.’ He breakfasted early and met with around a dozen advisors and political colleagues in his Qureitem home in West Beirut, including former economy minister Basil Fleihan. The men briefly discussed the important three-day parliamentary session that was scheduled to start at 11am that morning: Lebanon’s electoral law under which the parliamentary elections would be held in May.
While Hariri’s advisory team were discussing politics, his heavy security team was doing one of their three daily bomb sweeps of Hariri’s residence, using sniffer dogs trained to detect the slightest hint of explosives. The area was clean.
At 10.35 Hariri climbed into the driver’s seat of his heavily armoured Mercedes. According to Blanford, the car was rated to the maximum B6/B7 protection level, “capable of withstanding military-grade rifle fire with armour-piercing rounds, and blasts from hand grenades.”
Those who orchestrated the assassination plot were fully aware that killing Hariri, or ‘Mr. Lebanon,’ in his vehicle required quantities of explosives unseen in Beirut since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990. Not wanting to take any chances, they opted for a van laden with explosives.
As Hariri’s six car-convoy, which included four security-filled vehicles, an ambulance, and Hariri’s own vehicle, made its way to the parliament building in central Beirut, a team of observers stationed at key points along the expected route were monitoring their journey.
According to the indictment for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was released on August 17, 2011, four men are suspected of monitoring the movements of Hariri’s convoy on Feb. 14 and in the days preceding the attack. The men - Salim Jamil Ayyash, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, and Assad Hassan Sabra – communicated with each other using recently purchased phone cards which were not used after the 14th. In October 2013, the Tribunal indicted a fifth suspect, Hassan Habib Merhi. Prosecutors say that all five of the men have links to the Shiite political and paramilitary group Hezbollah.
Infographic: Special Tribunal for Lebanon
Hariri trial:Meet the judges, prosecutors, accused
By 11 a.m., Hariri was in the Parliament, where he would stay for almost an hour. Then, shortly before 12, he walked with several bodyguards to the other side of Place de l’Etoile to a café named after the square. He would spend approximately 45 minutes there, speaking with four prominent Lebanese journalists and Najib Friji, the U.N. information Officer.
At 12.49, he entered his vehicle accompanied by former economy minister Fleihan and the six-vehicle convoy began the journey that would be, for most of the men, their last. They planned to take the coastal route back to Qureitem Palace, where Hariri had scheduled a meeting with several political allies for 1 p.m.
The watchers monitored the convoy’s movements towards Rue Minet el-Hos’n, which passes by the St. Georges Hotel, a symbol of Beirut’s pre-civil war ‘golden age’ which at that time counted kings and movie stars among its high-flying guests.
At 12:52, a Mitsubishi Canter van weighed down by a cargo area full of explosives moved very slowly towards the Hotel and parked conspicuously next to another car. The driver and soon-to-be suicide bomber watched for the approaching convoy.
At 12:55, after the first two vehicles in the convoy passed and Hariri’s vehicle was next to his, the van driver detonated the explosive.
In a split second, the bomb ripped through metal and flesh as if it were one and the same. Two-ton vehicles were lifted up in the air and their charred remains were thrown dozens of feet away, lying helplessly next to severed body parts, broken glass and crumpled cement. At the center of this apocalyptic scene was a 30-foot wide and several food deep crater.
An early count of the dead put the figure at around a dozen, who were all killed instantly. These included the suicide bomber, Hariri, several members of Hariri’s security team, and members of the public caught in the wrong place at 12.55 p.m. In the weeks and months following the blast, the figure was amended to 22, while 231 people were listed as injured.
There had been assassinations since the end of the civil war, including the 2002 killing of a Christian militia figure and former MP Elie Hobeika and an attempt on a leading Druze politician, Marwan Hamede, in 2004. But as Nicholas Blanford told Al Arabiya News in an email exchange, “Hariri’s immolation was of an entirely different calibre.”
For those in Beirut that day, Hariri’s assassination’s is etched firmly in their minds. It is one of those ‘where were you when…?’’ questions which, like 9/11/2001, is difficult to forget. The sound from the blast was heard even outside the city limits.
Ghassan Haddad, now a Dubai-based consultant, was a few hundred meters away from the blast, by Beirut’s iconic corniche (or waterfront). “I felt the reverberations of the blast in my chest,” he recalled, “as if a gust of air was pushing against my rib-cage. The noise the blast made was intense, I don’t know how to describe it.”
Blanford, the Independent’s Robert Fisk, and several other journalists initially thought the loud blast was caused by a low-level supersonic run by an Israeli jet, which was not uncommon at the time.
Infographic: Assassination of Hariri
Mourners of a frenetic scene
The blast scarred buildings in the vicinity, and caused glass to shatter up to three kilometres away. In the minutes following the explosion, dust-covered fire fighters were seen putting out the source of the deep black cloud of smoke that was shading parts of Beirut’s downtown from the sun. The scene was frenetic, with people trying to find their loved ones, journalists and the curious trying to determine what happened and who was targeted, paramedics rushing the wounded off to the nearby American University of Beirut Hospital, and security services seeking to cordon off the area.
When news spread that Hariri had been assassinated, anger among Hariri’s supporters was acute and palpable. Blanford told Al Arabiya News that “It was clear to me very quickly that the assassination was a turning point. You could see it in the faces of Sunni mourners who had gathered outside Hariri’s home in Qureitem that evening. They weren’t going to turn the other cheek to this killing. It was too brazen.”
“Of course, it was impossible on the day itself to imagine what a major turning point it would be what with the Beirut Spring, Syria’s withdrawal and the onset of political polarization here which continues more so than ever.”