An Assassination in Lebanon

6 MINS READDec 27, 2013 | 18:49 GMT
Security forces and firefighters at the scene of a car bomb in Beirut that killed former finance minister Mohamed Chatah and at least four others, Dec. 27.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Moderate Lebanese Sunni politician Mohamad Chatah, a highly outspoken critic of Syria and Hezbollah, was killed in a car bombing Dec. 27 in Beirut's upscale central business district. The bombing was similar to the attack that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005; in fact, it occurred just a few blocks from where Chatah's own motorcade was struck. The prevailing assumption is that Hezbollah conducted the attack as a show of force against Lebanon's Saudi-backed Future Movement, which is led by the al-Hariri family. Indeed, the sophistication of the attack does suggest the involvement of a professional organization such as Hezbollah. Either way, the Dec. 27 attack may create more problems at home for Hezbollah as the group tries to hold its ground in Syria.

An economist by trade, Chatah was a close aide of al-Hariri and at one point worked for the International Monetary Fund. He also served as Lebanon's ambassador to the United States and was known to be one of Washington's preferred partners in Lebanon. In addition, he was the finance minister and adviser to Saad al-Hariri, who became the leader of Lebanon's main Saudi-backed Sunni coalition after his father's death.

Chatah was also very active on social media networks. He regularly updated his blog, Twitter account and Facebook page with his latest commentary on Lebanese politics and the Syrian civil war. Chatah did not refrain from criticizing Hezbollah or the al Assad regime in Syria. Though not uncommon in Lebanon's charged political scene, such candor can be dangerous.

But Chatah apparently did not consider himself a likely target for assassination. When the explosion occurred, he was reportedly traveling with one of his two bodyguards to a meeting with the Saudi-backed March 14 Alliance at al-Hariri's downtown residence. Later in the day, he was scheduled for a television interview to discuss the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the investigation into the al-Hariri assassination, ahead of the trial's Jan. 16 start date.


101912 Lebanon

Chatah's attackers evidently had a sophisticated intelligence network to track his daily movements, including events that diverted from his normal routine. They were then able to use that intelligence to rapidly dispatch a device to a chokepoint between two of his appointments. The attackers were not only able to position the device but also activate it at the precise time required to take out Chatah's car. Striking a moving target requires far more precision than bombing a stationary target. Finally, the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, estimated by State Commissioner to the Military Court Judge Saqr Saqr to be around 50-60 kilograms (110-132 pounds) was large enough to take out the armored car.

This level of tradecraft points to an organization of Hezbollah's caliber. Hezbollah has a history of pulling off successful vehicle-borne improvised explosive attacks against high value targets. Wissam al-Hassan, another close al-Hariri confidant — and a former chief of security who investigated the al-Hariri assassination — was assassinated by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device in Beirut in October 2012. The killing was believed to have been orchestrated by Hezbollah.

However, there have been several attacks against Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon over the past year, including the Dec. 4 assassination of Hassan al-Laqis outside his Beirut home, the Nov. 19 Iranian Embassy bombing and car bombings on Aug. 15 and July 9. The latter three attacks took place in Beirut's southern suburbs, a stronghold of Hezbollah.

Most likely, these attacks were conducted by jihadists able to draw on resources in the Syrian civil war. They believe that if they can divert Hezbollah's attention away from Syria by creating sectarian strife in Lebanon, they can gain more ground against the al Assad regime. While those responsible for the attacks have demonstrated a capability to penetrate Hezbollah security and are able to draw on resources from Syria, they lack in the professionalism displayed in the Chatah attack.

Unclear Benefits

This raises the question of why Hezbollah would be compelled to make such a dramatic show of force now. The group has a reason to feel confident about the gains al Assad and his allies have made in Syria and by the U.S.-Iran negotiations. Hezbollah has used this confidence to push harder in political negotiations in Lebanon over the formation of the next Cabinet and over the rules that would govern the next presidential election. In addition to demanding veto power in the Cabinet, Hezbollah is also pushing to overturn the Taif Agreement, which determines the sectarian composition of Lebanon's government, so that Shiites can gain more seats in parliament. Currently Shiites are allocated 21 percent of the seats, but Hezbollah wants about 33 percent, with 33 percent left for the Maronites and the remaining 33 percent reserved for the Sunnis and the Druze. While its political opponents will resist this proposal, Hezbollah still carries enough political weight to neutralize threats comings its way, including the upcoming trial on the al-Hariri assassination.

In other words, Hezbollah can relatively easily manipulate the systemic inertia inherent in Lebanese politics. As it bargains for political insurance at home, the group arguably would be more successful by relying on Iran and its developing diplomacy with the United States than it would by drawing attention to itself for its militant capabilities. Hezbollah may figure that the Sunni militant network in Lebanon is not yet organized enough to pose a critical threat and that it can still afford to engage in such blatant intimidation tactics. However, this attack will probably only incite sectarian violence, weigh on Hezbollah's resources and temporarily undermine negotiations with the United States via Iran when it comes to Hezbollah's political and military status in Lebanon.

Syrian-Lebanese Frontier

Syrian-Lebanese Frontier

Hezbollah forces are already heavily concentrated along Syria's western border in the Qalamoun area and in Qusair to secure vital supply lines between the northern Bekaa Valley, the Alawite-controlled coast and the main Syrian highways to Homs and Damascus. The sacrifices Hezbollah has made in the Syrian civil war have generated a great deal of criticism in Lebanon from Sunnis disillusioned by the rebels' defeats from Hezbollah's own Shiite constituency, who question whether they should participate in al Assad's fight.

Thus, Hezbollah has been careful to avoid major flare-ups with its domestic sectarian rivals that would put the organization's military capabilities at risk in Syria. The attack on Chatah would undermine this agenda by further radicalizing Lebanon's Sunnis. Notably, Chatah hails from the port city of Tripoli, a jihadist breeding ground in northern Lebanon, where Alawites and Sunnis regularly engage in shootouts, further complicating Hezbollah's plans to secure northern supply routes. Chatah's assassination will likely enflame sectarian fighting underway in the north.

For its part, Hezbollah is denying its involvement in the attack, calling for a full investigation and referring to the bombing as a "heinous crime" that was part of "a series of crimes and bombings aimed at sabotaging the country, a sinful attempt to target stability and hit national unity, which only benefits the enemies of Lebanon." Many will doubt the sincerity behind this statement, but the benefits from this attack for Hezbollah are not obvious.

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