BEIRUT: Even with high-end equipment and a robust budget, last month’s assassination of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan will be a blow to the efficient operations of the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces, according to experts.
“His absence will certainly be felt as he was a sharp and competent person,” French Le Figaro journalist and Middle East expert Georges Malbrunot told The Daily Star. “He was someone who had the know-how in terms of intelligence work and combating terrorism.”
The enigmatic Hasan, known to have had strong connections to foreign intelligence agencies, including those of the United States, France and Saudi Arabia, was killed on Oct. 19 in a car bomb attack that shattered a densely populated residential quarter in the Beirut neighborhood of Ashrafieh.
Hasan’s driver, First Sergeant Ahmad Sahyouni, and a 42-year-old bystander, Georgette Sarkissian, also died in the attack.
Despite repeated assurances by ISF head Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi that the Information Branch, the intelligence arm of the ISF, will continue in Hasan’s footsteps with the same “professionalism and patriotism,” many analysts are skeptical.
Under Hasan, the Information Branch, which was initially created as an internal affairs entity mandated to investigate allegations of misconduct against police staff, took on a larger role in fighting domestic crime and maintaining law and order.
Hasan, who served as the top bodyguard for late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, closely collaborated with United Nations investigators probing the 2005 assassination of the political and business tycoon.
The intelligence chief’s work with the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission, however, came under heavy criticism by the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition, who accused him of fabricating what they call “false witnesses” to mislead the investigation in a bid to implicate four former pro-Syrian security heads.
The four were released in 2009 without having been charged.
Yet in recent years Hasan’s Information Branch joined forces with Hezbollah, resulting in the uncovering of several Israeli spy rings.
Shortly before his death, Hasan, who was a staunch supporter of the Syrian uprising, exposed alleged plans by former pro-Syrian Minister Michel Samaha and the head of Syria’s Intelligence, Gen. Ali Mamlouk, to carry out terrorist attacks in north Lebanon as well as to assassinate religious and political figures.
The Le Figaro journalist said several groups benefited from the assassination of Hasan, who according to Malbrunot had a “wide range of adversaries,” including Syria and Israel.
Malbrunot said Hasan’s purported role in channeling weapons to Syrian rebels can be considered the biggest motive behind his assassination. “It seems he crossed a red line.”
Malbrunot also argued that Hasan’s assassination was not unlike other political killings that happened in Lebanon over the years.
“Similar to the other assassinations, Hasan’s is a joint venture between a country and an organization,” he said. “Joint ventures are a common trait of political killings in Lebanon. It’s typical in Lebanon.”
A senior intelligence source argued that security services chiefs in Lebanon fall under threat from the moment they start their duties.
“If you are a security official In Lebanon you’re under risks and you face constant threats,” the source said. “Rarely has the head of a security agency abandoned his post the ‘normal way’: they are killed, tried or exiled.”
Military expert Nizar Abdel-Qader and Elias Muhanna, analyst and author of the current affairs blog Qifa Nabki, both said that the Information Branch will likely play the role that it has played in the past but described Hasan’s assassination as a major blow.
“Hasan’s record of dealing with figures close to both major political axes was the product of a special set of skills, which along with his extensive contacts in various intelligence communities, were very important to the ISF’s work,” Muhanna added.
The intelligence source, however, said the killing of the head of a security body doesn’t necessarily lead to the paralysis or death of the institution: “In the end, the head of a security service is a coordinator who rarely works in the field. The head supervises and utilizes the resources provided to him.”
Abdel-Qader said the Information Branch will undoubtedly miss Hasan’s “imaginative and analytical” flair which, according to the military strategist, are “must-haves” for the head of an intelligence agency.
“Hasan’s long experience and his ability to predict and analyze events will surely be missed,” he said. “Without sounding pessimistic, the new management of the Information Branch will need time to acquire the level of information and initiative Hasan possessed.”
A few days after Hasan’s assassination, Col. Imad Othman was appointed the head of the Information Branch following consultations between Rifi and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel. Rifi, however, vowed that he would personally oversee the work of the Information Branch, which the Cabinet upgraded to a fully fledged department in the ISF, thus expanding its mandate to fit its current role.
The Parliament still needs to approve the Cabinet’s decision.
“The level-headedness displayed by Rifi after Hasan’s assassination is very significant and denotes that he is capable of generating morale in addition to logistical support to the bereaved personnel of the Information Branch,” Abdel-Qader said.
The intelligence source explained that the relatively high budget allotted to the Information Branch, in addition to generous grants by international organizations, enabled the security body to acquire state-of-the-art technology and equipment.
“The Information Branch owns highly developed data analyzers and they have very precise computer programs to scrutinize the information they gather,” the source said, adding that the Information Branch’s possession of such high-end equipment has sparked the ire of Israel.
The ISF is one of the security bodies that have benefited the most from grants and funding provided by the U.S. to reinforce Lebanese security agencies.
With a monthly budget of LL1.06 billion ($705,725), the ISF’s Information Branch receives the most money among Lebanese intelligence services, the source revealed. Military intelligence is allotted LL1 billion per month, while the Directorate General of General Security receives LL90 million and State Security gets LL30 million.
“The Information Branch has all the resources to continue being efficient on the one condition that these are intelligently exploited,” the source said.