Midnight Express

The gunmen who ambushed him; his friendship with Nasrallah and Khamenei; the technologies he helped to develop - The complete story behind the life and death of Hassan al-Laqqis, the senior Hezbollah commander gunned down in Beirut

It rained heavily during the night of December 3, 2013. Car traffic had nearly stopped altogether when the rented vehicle moved slowly and parked at a small parking lot along Camille Chamoun Boulevard, near the Saint Therese neighborhood in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. The driver shut down the engine and turned off the lights. From the car windows, the occupants could identify the abandoned plot on the opposite side of the road, which the natural vegetation had turned into a wild orchard extending all the way to the concrete wall surrounding the adjacent apartment complex.

Two of the occupants dismounted and slipped stealthily into the thick vegetation of the orchard under the cover of darkness. The route they will follow would lead them, within minutes, to the concrete wall, which they would climb and then jump directly into the roofed area where the residents' reserved parking spaces were located. There, they would find their target – Hassan Hawlo al-Laqqis, head of the weapon systems and technological infrastructure development organ of the Hezbollah organization.

Al-Laqqis was not only a senior commander in the Hezbollah organization. He was also a life-long personal friend of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. They had started out together as youngsters in Baalbek, where they attended religion classes delivered by Sayyid Abbas al-Musawi, who would eventually serve as the second Secretary General of Hezbollah until his elimination by Israeli forces in 1992.

In 1983, Iran established – for the first time in Lebanon – a military command near Shaath in the Beqaa Valley, headed by officers of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. One of those officers was Hossein Dehghan who now serves as Iran's Minister of Defense. Dehghan was assigned to assume responsibility on behalf of the Revolutionary Guards for the Lebanon sector following the Israeli invasion of 1982. He was also involved in the training of the first nucleus of Lebanese Islamic resistance leaders, including the young Hassan al-Laqqis, who was later sent to attend the school for command and staff officers at the Imam Hossein University (military academy) of the Revolutionary Guards.

In February 1992, the Israeli Air Force attacked a motorcade transporting al-Musawi and his party back to Sidon. Al-Musawi, his wife Shihan, his young son Hussein and five of his assistants and bodyguards were killed in the attack. Consequently, Nasrallah was appointed as Secretary General of Hezbollah.

As of that year, al-Laqqis' activity has been on record. Meanwhile, he enrolled as a student at the Engineering Faculty of the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, in addition to handling the procurement and weapon system development activities of Hezbollah. As later established, this activity would eventually be conducted by a worldwide network of Hezbollah cells.

Dehghan, who had transferred to the air and space forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, saw to it that al-Laqqis and his men receive military training in North Korea, the supplier of technologies to Iran, notably with regard to rockets, missiles and the development of UAVs. Al-Laqqis was not sent there on his own. Acting with him was Hussein Anis Ayoub, who had been assigned to establish the air arm of Hezbollah and was killed on March 4, 1996, in an exchange of fire with IDF troops in the eastern sector of Lebanon.

Since the mid-1990s, al-Laqqis was involved in the development of combat capabilities and advanced weapon systems, including the rocket and missile arsenal of Hezbollah. He was responsible for the operations where rockets and missiles were delivered from Syria. He was responsible for the development of the naval arm – boats, naval commandos and naval systems. Additionally, he was involved in the development of antitank units, the internal communication system of Hezbollah, security and monitoring systems and optical surveillance systems. He was responsible for the development of Hezbollah's subterranean bunker network in southern Lebanon (known in the IDF as "The Nature Reserves") pursuant to the pullout of the IDF in the year 2000. During the last few years of his life, al-Laqqis was also involved in the development of his organization's cyber warfare capabilities – one of the most rapidly evolving fields on the modern battlefield.

The Noose Tightens

Al-Laqqis would travel to Tehran occasionally for work visits. His acquaintances reported that he attended his first work meeting with Iran's supreme spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, along with Hassan Nasrallah and Imad Mughniyah (who was eliminated in 2008). At that meeting, Nasrallah reviewed the situation in Lebanon for the supreme leader, adding his own interpretation. Al-Laqqis reviewed the activities associated with the build-up of the force, speaking Farsi so fluently that the supreme leader asked whether he was Iranian. Smiling, al-Laqqis replied that he was Lebanese.

About two months before the assassination, al-Laqqis made his last visit to Tehran during which he met with supreme leader Ali Khamenei. No one knows what they talked about or what the purpose of his visit was, but in those days two events associated with his activities took place in Iran.

The first event was a conference of the Hezbollah Cyber organization – an organization established in order to coordinate the activities of parties operating in cyberspace, provide them with training on cyber warfare and organize various activities on the Internet. The second event – on September 27, 2013, the ground forces of the Revolutionary Guards unveiled the Iranian UAV Yassir – a new tactical UAV developed by the local industry. The Iranians claimed that their UAV was developed through "reverse engineering" based on the US ScanEagle UAV, allegedly intercepted intact over the Persian Gulf on December 5, 2012. The Iranian UAV, launched from a mobile launcher, can reach a cruising speed of up to 150 km/h along a preprogrammed or operator-controlled GPS-guided route. The UAV in its Iranian version is fitted with an electro-optical or infrared surveillance camera mounted in a transparent canopy and a high-resolution radar, jointly used for visual intelligence and reconnaissance missions in all weather conditions. About a month after al-Laqqis' visit, the UAV with the unique wings was observed in operational activity over the suburbs of Damascus. During the same month, defense sources claimed in an interview to Lebanese newspaper Al-Joumhouria that Hezbollah was preventing the smuggling of car bombs through the border with Syria by employing a UAV capable of collecting real-time intelligence even under conditions of darkness.

This capability undoubtedly causes concern in Israel, too, as it may be used by Hezbollah to collect intelligence along the border with Israel and on the Golan Heights. These concerns became more acute recently when an operational night activity by an IDF element in the northern sector failed after the troopers had triggered an IEOD. The details and conclusions of this incident have not been fully clarified yet, but in August 2010, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah presented a video that proved that his organization had succeeded in intercepting the transmissions of Israeli UAVs, thereby revealing the preparations for the operation of the IDF Naval Commandos on the night of September 4-5, 1997. This operation ended in the "Shayetet Disaster" – one of the most serious blows in the history of the IDF Naval Commandos, in which 12 troopers were killed after entering an extensively booby-trapped orchard near the Lebanese coastal town of Ansariya. Hezbollah gave credit for this success to the activity of Hassan al-Laqqis.

In October 2012, an Iranian MUAV assembled in Lebanon and designated Ayoub (in honor of the founder of Hezbollah's air arm, Hussein Anis Ayoub) succeeded in embarrassing Israel when it flew, during the morning hours, along Israel's coastline from Sidon all the way to the Gaza Strip. Subsequently, it entered Israel through the Strip and probably managed to photograph some sensitive installations before it was shot down by IAF fighters.

"Eventually They Will Find Us and Hit Us"

During the last year of his life, al-Laqqis travelled from his home in Baalbek to his apartment in southern Beirut driving an olive Jeep Cherokee belonging to the vehicle pool of the Hezbollah security force. Apparently, this helped him go through the organization's roadblocks between the Beqaa Valley and Beirut every Sunday and on weekends. However, unlike the security vehicles that did not carry any license plates, this vehicle carried a license plate with the number 258251.

During the days he spent in Beirut, al-Laqqis made an effort of covering the few kilometers between his apartment and his office in Haret Hreik using taxis and public transport. The license plate on his Jeep will probably be his downfall on Tuesday, December 3, 2013.

Among the issues on the agenda in those days were issues associated with the Iranian defense aid, the conduct of combat operations in Syria and the Iranian delegation (which included forensics specialists) that had arrived in Lebanon in order to investigate the double car bomb attack two weeks earlier against the Iranian Embassy in the Bir Hassan neighborhood of Beirut.

Al-Laqqis, who was fluent in Farsi, was often chosen to accompany visiting Iranian VIPs, and probably did the same on this occasion. One of those visits took place in October 2010 when Iranian author and researcher Daoud Abedi Hamid, serving as the CEO of the foundation for the commemoration of the intelligence and security legacy of the Revolutionary Guards, visited Beirut while writing the biography of Hassan Nasrallah. During this visit, Hamid visited Hassan al-Laqqis' house in Baalbek and recorded (through voice recordings and photographs) conversations they had conducted on the popular resistance and the war against Israel.

In Hamid's cassette, al-Laqqis, speaking Farsi, addresses the possibility that Israel may seek to eliminate him. According to him: "In wartime situations they attack, but now they do not. Look, the present situation between us and Israel is not one that… Now we are (engaged) in a cold war with Israel. If she (Israel) so wishes, for example… someone like Sayid Hassan (Nasrallah) – if she can do it now – she will strike. Someone like Haj Imad (Mughniyah) – if she can she will attack – and she has attacked. (Someone) like me – no. She says: second echelon (functionaries) – no. These people she leaves for afterwards. OK? Now, if they can hit (attack) so that no one can understand that they were the ones who did it – they will do it (according to the verb form, the speaker leaves no doubt that the stipulation will be fulfilled. This is known in Farsi as "false stipulation" and is similar to the English "when" as opposed to "if"). But now it is well known, as this will lead to war. These things slowly and gradually lead to war. But I do not think it is unreasonable that in the near future they will kill one of the guys – that they will hit someone. We are very careful about our movements. Eventually they will find us and hit us."

During the same visit, Hassan al-Laqqis gave his Iranian visitor a business card carrying the details of the DigiCom communication company, engaged in the importation and marketing of computer systems, communication and security products, of which he was the owner. According to the details on the business card, the company had two branches – one at the al-Laqqis family commercial center in Baalbek, and the other in Bir al-Abed, adjacent to the compound where, in 2006, Nasrallah's HQ and underground bunker were located.

The time required by al-Laqqis, at the end of that evening, in order to drive from the Bir Hassan neighborhood, where most of the hospitality facilities for the Iranians visiting Beirut were located, to his apartment was no more than 10 minutes. The entrance gate to the parking lot of the apartment building remained open and his vehicle made its way toward the roofed parking space on the ground floor.

Al-Laqqis' mind was probably preoccupied with, among other things, impressions of the public appearance of his friend Hassan Nasrallah, earlier that evening, on Lebanese TV, in which he pointed an accusing finger at Saudi Arabia as the party behind the wave of attacks against prominent Hezbollah and Iranian objectives in Beirut as he shut down the engine of his vehicle, engaged the handbrake and opened the door to dismount. Suddenly – boom! His mind froze.

Four bullets, fired through the window of the passenger side door, entered al-Laqqis' skull and torso, with two bullets continuing their trajectory and impacting on the wall separating between the parking spaces with a dull thump accompanied by the noise of breaking glass. His body slumped toward the door. One of the gunmen pulled the car door wide open and completed an additional three round group, from point-blank range, into al-Laqqis' head and neck.

"I was trying to sleep and then I heard… a gun fired and a dog barking. I did not interrupt my rest, but then I heard screams coming from the parking lot, so I looked out and saw people gathering," one of the neighbors, identifying himself as Abdullah, later recounted. The caretaker, residing on the first floor, also heard breaking glass which led him to think that someone might be trying to burgle one of the luxury cars parked in the parking lot. He decided to go down and investigate.

At this point, the gunmen had no more than a minute to quickly search the vehicle and clothes al-Laqqis was wearing in order to pick up the mobile phone and briefcase and/or laptop computer he may have been carrying, then escape through the thick vegetation back to the getaway car waiting for them on the street nearby, and then head south, possibly to one of a few likely evacuation sites: an abandoned helicopter pad south of Beirut, the coastal strip, Beirut airport or a safe apartment in one of Beirut's residential neighborhoods.

Minutes later, the caretaker found al-Laqqis with his head hanging out of the door of his car. From this moment on, the chain of event is not definitely clear, but the emergency services were alerted and Hezbollah security personnel arrived on the scene as well.

Al-Laqqis was rushed in a state of clinical death to the Al Rasul Al Azam hospital, erected in 1988 by Iran and the Al-Shahid Social Association that cares for wounded Hezbollah men and the families of Hezbollah "martyrs". The hospital, located along the airport road at the outskirts of the Bourj al-Barajneh neighborhood, has state-of-the-art trauma theaters and cooperates with Iranian hospitals.

At 03:00 hours, al-Laqqis was pronounced officially dead at the hospital.

The Immediate Suspects

At least two organizations began investigating the death of Hassan al-Laqqis: the internal security department of the Lebanese Army and, quite naturally, the internal security unit of Hezbollah, headed by Wafiq Safa.

The members of the hit squad, so the initial details of the investigation revealed, had done some impressive groundwork that is typical of a state intelligence agency, which included, among other things, monitoring of al-Laqqis' daily routine, thorough planning of the access and evacuation routes to and from the killing scene, the use of rental cars and silenced firearms.

The local investigation team found several 9mm cases (left on the scene intentionally or unintentionally) with the manufacturer's serial numbers on them.

Hezbollah officials estimated that an operation of this type must have been supported by local collaborators. The party that had decided to eliminate al-Laqqis chose a convenient time to obscure its identity, as in those days, prominent symbols of the Hezbollah organization and its Iranian patrons in Beirut were attacked by Jihadist elements associated with the fighting in Syria.

According to the findings of the investigation, the actual assassination was executed by two gunmen armed with 9mm pistols fitted with silencers. This fact was supported by physical evidence from the scene – notably the muddy footprints left by the assassins who had crossed the nearby orchard during that winter night.

The findings indicated that the hit squad had moved into and out of the parking lot by jumping over the wall that separates the parking lot from the adjacent orchard, which forms a buffer between the apartment complex where al-Laqqis resided and Camille Chamoun Boulevard, where the getaway vehicle waited in one of the parking lots, under the cover of darkness.

Several surveillance cameras are installed along Camille Chamoun Boulevard. Through the footage picked up by those cameras, the investigation team managed to identify the rental vehicle heading south. At the same time, the Lebanese investigators used cellular spotting of phones used in the assassination area – a similar method to the one used in the investigation of the Hariri murder.

The investigators are certain that the two gunmen were supported by a logistic detail, probably local, that had monitored the daily routine of Hassan al-Laqqis and prepared the mobility infrastructure. The primary questions that remain unanswered pertain to the identity of the perpetrators and the selection of the assassination method. Hezbollah and Iran are convinced that Israeli intelligence stands behind the planning, intelligence gathering and actual execution of the assassination, and that assistance had been provided by a third party, a state entity such as Saudi Arabia or a local organization opposing Hezbollah.

The main question is why the Israelis had decided to eliminate al-Laqqis using point-blank range gunfire rather than,   as attributed to them in previous cases, by attaching an explosive charge to his car, employing a sniper or using a lethal injection that would simulate death of natural causes. 

Former Lebanese intelligence officers interviewed by Al-Manar TV recalled assassinations and operations by Israeli agents who had "testified" that Israeli intelligence can enter and depart Lebanon "with unbelievable ease". As an example, they cited the testimony of agent Nasser Nader, who admitted that he had departed Lebanon for Israel not less than 17 times in order to meet his Israeli handlers before and after the elimination of Hezbollah leader Ghaleb Awali in July 2004 by an explosive charge installed in his car in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

The Lebanese officers also estimate that Israel used "cluster networks" of agents isolated and compartmentalized from one another. They claim that they managed to collect the entry/exit data for parties that entered Lebanon either by sea or by air on certain days, and that the data point to Israeli involvement.

The investigators estimate that the mission of locating al-Laqqis was less complicated than the mission of locating Imad Mughniyah, as al-Laqqis had resided in his Beirut apartment almost three years, despite the fact that Hezbollah internal procedures prescribe that senior officials change their place of residence once every six months. Additionally, al-Laqqis had used the same specific off-road vehicle for almost a year.

Following al-Laqqis' death, the New York Times reported that Hezbollah redeployed long-range missiles stockpiled in ammunition depots of the Syrian Army which had recently been handed over to Hezbollah management.

During the time he worked for Hezbollah, al-Laqqis was required to manage numerous technical documents, including documents associated with the training of technicians and engineers, and it is reasonable to assume that he did so using a laptop computer – but not exclusively. In some of the photographs published by Hezbollah and the family of al-Laqqis, he is depicted carrying a Rapidograph technical pen in his pocket, alongside a small pocketbook for keeping notes.

It is also reasonable to assume that al-Laqqis kept on his person a mobile phone with a list of contacts at various echelons of the Hezbollah organization in and outside Lebanon, as well as a list of senior contacts in such friendly countries as Syria, Iran and Sudan. Many parties would have loved to put their hands on this information. ž

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Photo: Reuters

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