By Marc Abizeid
In its testimony on the first day of the highly politicized trial, a team of prosecutors said it had pieced together an intricate picture of the events surrounding the murder based on cellphone metadata that leaves no doubt over the identities of the perpetrators.
“The attackers used an extraordinary quantity of high-grade explosives, far more than was required to kill their main target,” chief prosecutor Norman Farrell told the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).
“Clearly their aim was not to ensure that their target was killed, but to send a terrifying message and to cause panic among the population of Beirut and Lebanon,” he told the court in a suburb of The Hague.
Hezbollah has vehemently denied any involvement in the February 14 explosion that killed 22 people including Hariri. It accuses the STL of being a US-Israeli project designed to discredit the group.
Hours after the explosion, Al Jazeera aired a video of a man identified as Ahmed Abu Adas claiming responsibility for the suicide attack on behalf an unknown jihadist group.
But the prosecution on Thursday argued that Abu Adas, a young Lebanese man living at the time with his family in Beirut, had been coerced by the Hezbollah suspects into taking credit for the explosion to throw off investigators.
Ferrell said a Mitsubishi pickup truck driven by a suicide bomber contained between 2.5 – 3 tons of explosives.
He added that the perpetrators had access to “high grade military material,” and meticulously planned the attack for months.
“The nature of the building damage” suggests that the size of the bomb was between 2.5 – 3 tons of TNT-equivalent, and that it was detonated in the bed of the pickup about 80 centimeters above ground, he said.
A still image from CCTV showed to the court by the prosecution shows the Mitsubishi truck (right) allegedly carrying 2.5 – 3 tons of explosives shortly before the attack on February 14, 2005.
Suspects Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi, and Assad Sabra are being tried in absentia. A fifth man, Hassan Habib Merhi, has also been indicted over the assassination and is expected to have his case merged with the that of the other four.
The prosecution’s case was largely based on an intricate set of patterns involving records of dozens of mobile phones purportedly used by the five suspects over a period of several months. The records show when calls were placed between them, their duration, and traces their movements based on signal strength to nearby towers.
The team of lawyers said it managed to identify and categorize the mobile phones in separate networks based on the application for each one. Eighteen of the phones, they said, were purchased in July and August 2004 using forged documents to conceal the identities of their users and prevent them from being traced.
Their investigation covers five phases over a four and a half month period beginning in October 2004 when Hariri, still a prime minister, began signalling that he would soon resign.
Those 18 phones began operating during the initial phase, spanning from October 1 to November 10, the prosecutors said.
Phase 2 began on November 11 when the prosecutors identified “a conspiracy to commit a terrorist act” after the suspects were said to begin tracking Hariri’s movements.
“This was the first day that two phones [belonging to two suspects] followed him as he moved from place to place,” prosecutor Graeme Cameron told the court.
Cameron noted that the suspects would follow Hariri to the airport when he planned to travel. Once his plane took off, the suspects largely stopped using the phones to communicate. When Hariri returned, cellphone activity resumed.
A map of Beirut presented by the prosecution allegedly shows the suspects of the attack following Hariri to the airport in late-2004.
Over the next several months, the suspects allegedly followed Hariri between his West Beirut palace in Koreitem, the Parliament’s downtown offices, and his villa in the mountain village of Fakra.
Hariri returned to Lebanon after a 25 day trip on December 21, 2004, signalling phase three of the conspiracy that lasted until January 13.
This phase saw the “level of surveillance of Hariri… increase dramatically,” Cameron said.
“Wherever he went or stayed in Lebanon, the phones of the co-conspirators were almost always there,” he said. It was during this period when investigators believe their suspects began looking into purchasing the Mitsubishi pickup truck involved in the attack.
It was also during this phase when Abu Adas, the man who appeared in the Al Jazeera video claiming responsibility for the attack, first came into the picture.
Abu Adas’ family told investigators that he regularly worshipped at a mosque near Beirut Arab University in Tarik al-Jdide.
There, he was reported to have been approached by a man in December 2004 who introduced himself as Mohammed, claiming to have been born to a Muslim family, but raised as a Christian in an orphanage. The prosecution deduced that “Mohammed” may have actually been Hussein Oneissi, one of the five Hezbollah suspects, based on the coordinates of his phone.
The man reportedly reached out to Abu Adas supposedly for help to discover his Muslim roots and embark on a righteous path.
Abu Adas was said to have vanished on January 16, 2005 and never heard from again with the exception of the video in which he claims responsibility for the bombing.
The trial is set to resume Friday morning. The defense is expected to present its case on Monday.