Michel Samaha, a former Lebanese minister who is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has reportedly confessed to helping plan a series of bomb attacks against Sunni targets in north Lebanon at the behest of the Syrian leadership.
The discovery of the reported bomb plot will have significant political repercussions if confirmed and will harden fears in Lebanon that the embattled Assad regime is seeking to export its troubles to its tiny neighbor, which is split between supporters and opponents of the Syrian president.
Also, the detention in Lebanon of an influential pro-Syrian politician is highly unusual, suggesting that the Lebanese police had compelling evidence before detaining Mr. Samaha.
“No one would have dared to arrest Samaha, neither the security agencies nor the judiciary, if the [authorities] had no evidence proving Samaha’s involvement in the charges issued against him,” Khaled Daher, a Sunni parliamentarian from north Lebanon and outspoken critic of the Assad regime, told the Kuwaiti newspaper As-Seyassah in an interview published today.
Officers from the information branch of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces raided Samaha’s home in the village of Kinshara north of Beirut early yesterday, bundling the pajama-clad former minister into a car and seizing documents, CDs, and computers and reportedly $170,000 in cash. His bodyguard, secretary, and driver were also detained for questioning, although they were released later that day.
According to Lebanese media reports, the alleged bomb plot was discovered when a man identified only by his family name, Kfouri, became an informant for the police after Samaha allegedly attempted to recruit him for the operation. According to the reports, the most damning piece of evidence against Samaha is video footage shot in secret by Kfouri in which Samaha discusses the plot.
The video allegedly shows Samaha saying “this is what Bashar wants,” a reference to the Syrian president. The video also reportedly shows Samaha saying that he received the bombs from General Ali Mamlouk, the head of the Syrian General Security Directorate.
The targets were reported to be a series of iftars, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan, that would have brought together Sunni notables in north Lebanon, an area of strong support for the Syrian opposition. One report claimed that the attacks would have coincided with a visit by the Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Beshara Rai, to north Lebanon between Aug. 13 and 18.
Although Samaha is no longer a minister nor member of parliament, he still has considerable political influence because of his close personal ties to Mr. Assad. In July 2008, when a small Lebanese delegation headed by President Michel Suleiman paid a visit to Assad at his hotel during a state visit to Paris, its members were surprised to see Samaha, a Lebanese, included in the Syrian delegation. The incident underlined Samaha’s influence with Damascus and, therefore, the significance of his arrest by the Lebanese police yesterday.
Mr. Assad was reported to have personally contacted senior Lebanese officials yesterday to demand his release.
In the first response by the powerful Shiite group Hezbollah, an ally of Samaha, Hezbollah lawmaker Mohammed Raad denounced the detention and claimed that it was a set-up.
“We have long experienced such security fabrications; some judges are connected to suspicious security services,” he said yesterday.
Wafik Safa, Hezbollah’s top security chief, reportedly visited the police headquarters where he was shown some of the evidence implicating Samaha.