Lebanon Pulse

Former Lebanese Minister Added to US Terror List

Article Summary
Former Lebanese minister and member of parliament Michel Samaha was recently included on a US list of terrorists. Jean Aziz looks at the motives behind such a move nearly four months after Samaha’s arrest.

Suddenly, and without any justification in terms of timing, the United States announced that it has included former Lebanese minister and member of parliament Michel Samaha on its list of terrorists and has frozen any balance he might have in any operational bank on American soil. A statement issued by the American Treasury Department in this regard asserted that it now considered Samaha an “international terrorist” and accused him of destabilizing the situation in Lebanon.

However, this step did not go unnoticed in Lebanon and stirred a series of questions. As is the case of everything in this country — which is vertically and violently divided between the two sides in the conflict, the government and the opposition — very controversial judgments and readings about the background and motives of this American measure appeared.

What triggered this controversy was the secret behind the timing of including Samaha on the global list of terrorism adopted by Washington, knowing that the former minister and MP had been arrested by the Lebanese authorities on Aug. 9. The arrest came after the intelligence branch of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) (which is close to Hariri’s movement that opposes the current government in Beirut) revealed that it was in possession of videotapes showing Samaha using his car to move explosives, which he presumably transferred from Syria to Lebanon through a border passageway between the two countries.

However, the American step made those in Beirut wonder why Washington realized now specifically that Samaha should be considered an “international terrorist.” On one hand, if the issue were related to his arrest, the American Treasury Department should have taken this measure approximately 130 days ago. On the other hand, if it were related to proving the charges against a suspect, as per American laws, and issuing a ratified judicial verdict against him, the American authorities should have waited longer to include him on this list, since Samaha is still being held as a suspect under Lebanese law. Because no indictment has been issued against him by the concerned investigative judge dealing with the case, Samaha hasn’t become a defendant yet. Consequently, he hasn’t been condemned yet and hasn’t even reached court.

Based on the above data, why did the US choose this timing to consider Samaha a “terrorist”?

The opponents of the current government in Beirut — who themselves are the supporters of the armed Syrian opposition — have their own interpretation of this step. They say that the issue is primarily related to the required American behavior in Obama’s second mandate regarding the Syrian affair and those involved, from Iran to Lebanon. In this context, this party believes that Washington, despite its seeming forbearance and examination of the data on which it will base its decisions, immediately drew the red lines of the current political game, thus setting the margins of what is accepted and what is not in this political setting. These red lines include four main points set by Washington in the past few days: nuclear weapons in Iran, chemical weapons in Syria, the regime in Turkey and stability in Lebanon.

As for the first point, it was broadcast by several media sources. Notably, Gen. Jamil Sayyid quoted Samaha as saying this on Al-Mayadin TV, on Aug. 10, 2012.

Since America’s politics toward Tehran are known, stable and accumulative, the warnings sent by Washington to Bashar al-Assad’s regime regarding the use of nontraditional weapons in the current conflict in Syria constituted the second red line. Meanwhile, the Patriot missiles deployed by NATO on the Turkish-Syrian border constituted the third line related to Turkish security. The decision to list Samaha as a terrorist constituted an American message to Lebanon regarding its stability. This was the fourth red line. The issuance of this message now necessitated ignoring any considerations regarding the timing of the judicial file or its legal mechanisms.

On the other hand, supporters of the current Lebanese government presented a contradictory interpretation concerning the ulterior motives and timing of the American step. They claimed that the diplomatic and political conflict, and even the intelligence and security one, between some departments in Washington and Samaha goes far back. It is a complicated and ramified conflict, especially in light of the presumed close coordination between Samaha and French intelligence. This is what Francois Hollande himself confirmed during his visit to Beirut on Nov. 4, noting that this coordination remained until he reached the Elysée.

The supporters in Beirut just wanted to remind everyone that the American administration had issued in June 2007 a decision forbidding Samaha from entering its territories under the pretext of “his current or possible implication in the destabilization of the Lebanese government” and “his sponsorship for terrorism or his attempts to retighten the Syrian grip on Lebanon,” thus “jeopardizing American interests.”

However, this step also was not based on a ratified judicial reason. Yet, the supporters are relying on these precedents to ground their belief that there is obviously something Samaha owns that Washington fears. Moreover, they mentioned in this framework that the former Lebanese minister and MP had reiterated on TV channels that he possesses sufficient evidence to drag some international — specifically American — officials to court. He was referring here to his accusation of these officials being implicated in the matter of false witnesses in the assassination of late PM Rafiq Hariri, which is being investigated by the UN Security Council’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Samaha had also stated repeatedly that he would reveal the evidence as soon as the international trial, scheduled for next March, began. Furthermore, the supporters also recalled that Samaha had mentioned — following the assassination of security officials affiliated with Assad regime in a bombing of their headquarters in Damascus on July 18 — that a Western intelligence agency had asked the Lebanese president to call the Syrian president and offer him his condolences on the death of his brother-in-law in the bombing. Meanwhile, the intelligence agency was recording the phone call between the presidents for intelligence reasons.

In addition to what was unveiled after Samaha’s arrest, it was said that Samaha had always recorded all his phone calls and some of his meetings and talks with his acquaintances. These recordings, as well as Samaha’s personal archive, are now in the possession of the security branch of the ISF, whose chief, Wissam al-Hassan, was assassinated in a bombing that targeted him in Beirut on Oct. 19. Consequently, the supporters did not rule out the possibility that some figures in Washington had become informed of Samaha’s secrets and data through some Lebanese security officials close to him, and listed him as terrorist to silence him and put him away.

Which of the two interpretations is correct? It’s a matter of time, as we await Samaha’s appearance before court and his revelation of what he possesses. Many await this trial with deep curiosity.

Found in: war on terrorism, war

Jean Aziz is a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a contributor for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese television station. He teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon. On Twitter: @JeanAziz1


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