Saturday, November 25, 2006

Brian Whitaker in the Guardian/ A smoking gun

A smoking gun

Brian Whitaker

November 24, 2006 05:30 PM

Amid all the comment on the assassination of Lebanese industry minister Pierre Gemayel, one very obvious fact seems to have escaped everyone's attention: the fact that he was shot. I'm not sure how significant this may be but we ought, at least, to consider it.

Look at the pattern. Serge Brammertz, the Belgian prosecutor appointed by the UN to investigate the killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri has also been looking into 14 other attacks which are probably related and have been widely blamed on Syria or its agents. Brammertz has now added the killing of Pierre Gemayel to his list, making 16 cases in total.

Spot the odd one out. Gemayel's killing was the only one that involved a gun. All the other attacks used explosives. In a report to the UN on June 10, Brammertz explained why, in his view, the first 15 cases were connected: there was linkage by motive and linkage by modus operandi.

Looking at the political background, it seems very likely that Gemayel's murder had a similar motive to all the rest. We can't be certain of that at present, however, because the Gemayel family, over the years, have made plenty of other enemies besides the Syrians.

The modus operandi is much more problematic. Gemayel was followed, his car was rammed, then he and his bodyguard were shot at close range, apparently with silenced guns. The killer, or killers, then vanished. In most countries we would assume it was a professional hit job.

It is reasonable to deduce from this that the attackers were not Syrians themselves but local people who knew the lie of the land and were confident of melting away once the job was done. This, of course, does not rule out a Syrian connection. But if Gemayel's assassination was linked to the other attacks and/or commissioned from Damascus, how can we explain the different modus operandi?

One possibility is that it was treated as an urgent job. Bombings and booby-trapped cars take a lot of planning and preparation. A shooting is quicker and simpler to organise. The risk of being caught in the act may be higher, but that can be dealt with by farming it out to a criminal gang (and presumably taking care to conceal the ultimate paymaster in the event that it goes wrong).

Another possibility is that the ongoing UN investigation prompted a change of methods. The original team responsible for earlier attacks may well have been shut down and dispersed as Brammertz follows their trail. The most recent progress report from Brammertz, last September, was generally dismissed as a damp squib - mainly because it did not contain any new or sensational revelations. But what his report did reveal was the painstaking nature of the investigation and its vast scale, including the analysis of millions of mobile phone calls.

On reading the report, anyone involved in the earlier attacks might easily have concluded they were too complex for safety, giving far too many clues away in the planning stages. A straightforward shooting (almost impossible in the case of a highly protected figure like Hariri but practicable in the case of Gemayel) might therefore be a wiser option. The conclusions that can be drawn are rather limited, but I think they are the following.

First, although the killing of Gemayel did not fit the usual pattern, that is not sufficient reason in itself to rule out a Syrian connection.

Second, we should not, at the same time, assume a Syrian connection, either. The different modus operandi means, at the very least, that other possibilities must be thoroughly explored by the UN investigators.

Finally, remember the Oklahoma bombing in 1995 which some instantly blamed on Islamists - though they turned out to have no part in it. If Syria is blamed prematurely for killing Gemayel but later cleared, you can bet your bottom dollar that Damascus will exploit it ruthlessly to cast doubt on the 15 other cases where the evidence, so far, is considerably more persuasive.


Blogger Askinstoo said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Solomon2 said...

My memory of the Okla bombing is that Arab and Muslim states condemned it when it was clear that Islamists had not committed the act. Why they felt the need to condemn it - this was a domestic incident - was a puzzle.

The natural implication, then, was that if it had been carried out by an Islamist organization, the bombing would not have been condemned. There is a big jump from that speculation to saying, "some instantly blamed [the bombing] on Islamists".

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