No officer in the Directorate General of Internal Security Forces (ISF), not even General Director Ashraf Rifi himself, knew that Lebanon's internal intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan was in Lebanon until the news of his assassination — in the massive blast that took place in Ashrafiyeh — was announced yesterday [Oct.19].
As-Safir learned that the ISF Directorate was engaged in a media and security cover-up, as it had spread the news that Rifi and Hassan were at the head of delegation visiting Berlin to meet with Jörg Ziercke, president of the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany.
Three days ago, the official news, which was circulated by the ISF Directorate, said that the visit would last "a few days." However, the meeting had already been held in advance and Rifi arrived to Beirut at dawn yesterday [Oct.19], without Hassan. According to a security source, "Hassan was still under security protection, that would last for almost one week, before he would be able — to a certain extent — to move safely."
When the blast took place, Rifi believed that Hassan was in France. However, Hassan had arrived in Lebanon yesterday at 7 p.m. Hassan returned to Beirut from his family's home in France after having been in Berlin, while the security agreement with Rifi specified that Hassan was to remain outside of Lebanon for one week.
"However, security gaps happen in all security agencies around the world," Rifi told As-Safir. He added, "Hassan was not identified by his body, as it was unrecognizable. He was identified by a part of his gun, his rifle and his bodyguard's cell phone. Yet his wristwatch was the ultimate proof."
"Initial data, which is not 100% accurate, suggests that the car bomb used between 60 and 70 kg of TNT," he added.
According to a security source, Hassan was leaving his secret house in Ashrafiyeh, traveling to his office in a Honda Accord, accompanied by Ahmed Sehyoun. It must be noted that Hassan's security travels remain secret — even Rifi does not know the details of his trips.
"I never ask him about it. He is a security mastermind, and managing his convoys is a personal matter," Rifi added.
Rifi was keen not to make any political accusations. "As head of a security institution concerned with the security of all citizens, of all sects and political affiliations, I will not allow myself to make any political accusations."
However, Rifi noted that security and political assumptions do exist, according to the following order:
"First and foremost, the assassination could be a response to the arrest of Michel Samaha. Secondly, it is possible there is a third party trying to foment sedition and deprive the country of its security. Thirdly, the assassination could be a response to the fact that Hassan was able to uncover all Israeli spy networks. Finally, the assassination could be a response to the fact that Hassan was able to detect any terrorist network.
"All of these assumptions sound plausible, but we must now look for tangible proof that will allow us to identify the perpetrator and the reasons behind the crime. We cannot unravel all of the details of the crime on the first day, especially given that we are witnessing an open conflict," Rifi said.
When he spoke of Hassan, Rifi said: "He was a strategic mastermind in security. His death is a loss to the ISF and to the country. However, his death will not deter us from moving forward in our duty, whatever the sacrifices."
Tragedy in the street
The eyes of a traumatized child were searching for a lady in her forties, standing at the corner of the street, looking left and right until she saw a young man from the civil-defense directorate carrying the little boy out of the way of the five buildings, crumbling due the explosion. The lady ran past the barriers, pushing herself between photographers and security officers, screaming: "This is my son, this is my son."
Behind the mother stood an old lady, hugging a man covered with dust, patting his shoulders, kissing and stroking his face. It was 4 p.m. An hour after the explosion, the main road branching off from Sassine Square was devoid of its inhabitants.
The residents of the street were wounded and transported to hospital. People were horrified by the bloodshed, and a feeling of apprehension invaded them: "What is happening to us? What's going on, and why us?" The residents of Ashrafiyeh rushed to check on their neighbors, but did not find anyone.
At this time, the news of Hassan’s assassination had not yet spread. Even media correspondents were stressing that no political or security convoy was targeted. This was until Reuters announced the news, nearly three hours after the explosion.
Even before news of the assassination was announced, a fear of the future was already forming a vicious circle. The people of the region were "afraid of going out of their homes in Ashrafiyeh," as they believed that "this explosion was the beginning of a series of political messages, and we are the victims. The situation in Syria has started spilling into Lebanon."
But once the news of the assassination became widespread, the fears of the Lebanese were confirmed: The nightmare of political assassinations is back. Horror and fear of dead bodies and explosions will once again prevail everywhere in the country.
A young volunteer in the civil-defense directorate was sitting down to rest a little. "Thank God the car was not parked between the five buildings, otherwise no one would have come out alive," he said.
A man in his seventies was running past the civil defense’s young members, looking for his granddaughter. When he saw me carrying her, he approached me in tears and asked to carry her and hold her. The scene was terrifying, with men and women running frantically looking for their children. Men were screaming haphazardly. Yet, thank God, there are no ruins, and no missing people.
Gradually, politicians started to flock to the location of the tragedy, each one of them talking about the incident's "political message." Before the news of the assassination spread, MPs, ministers and officers were all in the street, expressing their sympathy to the victims' families. Some made statements about the future and asked: "What did these people do wrong? Why are they being used as a mailbox to deliver these messages?"
Yesterday's crime, even before the assassination of Hassan was confirmed, was a bad omen that Lebanon has entered a dark tunnel.