Three days before his murder, Gen. Wissam al-Hassantold me in a telephone interview from France that his contacts with the Syrian opposition put him “under a big light for Hezbollah” and made it “complicated for me to move” because he was a potential target.
The Lebanese intelligence chief’s comments have the haunting quality of words from the other side of the grave, following his death Oct. 19 in a car-bomb attack in Beirut. He knew he would be in danger back in Lebanon because he had challenged the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But he went home anyway because it was his duty, and also his passion.
For Western readers, the victims of such terrorist attacks are often little more than cardboard cutouts. The assassinations are so regular and brutal that it’s easy to overlook what unusual and talented people the victims were. This was certainly the case with Hassan. His title was head of the information branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, but that bland moniker masked the reality that he was the most powerful Sunni intelligence officer in Lebanon, a man the U.S. government had come to regard as a pivotal player in the region.
Arab intelligence chiefs often cultivate a panache and swagger that are part of the mukhabarat’s culture of intimidation. They are addressed by Ottoman honorifics, such as “Pasha” in Jordan or “Effendim” in Egypt. The cruel deeds done by many of these spymasters flowed from their elite, untouchable status.
Hassan was different, certainly in his demeanor. He was overweight, with a friendly but placid face. In a crowded room, he would have been the last person you would have taken for a storied intelligence operative. In that respect, he was an Arab version of John le Carre’s celebrated spymaster, George Smiley. Hassan was the quintessential gray man, who operated in a Lebanon where black-and-white moral choices had vanished long ago, if they ever existed.
Hassan was unusual in another way, which was his willingness to talk with the press. I met him when he came to Washington in late August to visit U.S. officials. His comments were off the record, but after his death, the person who arranged the interview said I could use the material.
Hassan made several points: The first was that he hoped to keep Lebanon out of the Syrian war by sealing the border so that it wouldn’t be a supply conduit for the rebels, as Turkey has become. The second was to check the power of the Shiite militia Hezbollah, by making sure it didn’t turn its guns on other Lebanese.
The other theme of that August conversation was the tricky task of supporting the Syrian opposition. Hassan had been talking to U.S. officials about ways to encourage the Free Syrian Army and, at the same time, check the growth of al-Qaeda extremists. Hassan was very focused on the anti-jihadist challenge. He listed a series of operations where the Free Syrian Army forces had battled extremists, in several instances killing them outright.
“The Syrian people are not ready to adopt extremism,” he insisted. The United States didn’t have to supply the rebels with weapons, he said, but “the U.S. has to be at the border,” working with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey to train the rebels and help them with command and control.
After I traveled to Syria myself in early October, I sought Hassan’s view. He phoned me on Oct. 16 from France. The key in Syria was to create a unified command structure for the Free Syrian Army, Hassan insisted. “Every dollar and every single bullet has to go through the higher command.”
Hassan closed the conversation with an admonition. The United States shouldn’t imagine that it was getting into a “gray war” in Syria, he said. “This is a real war. . . . You have to do it 24 hours a day.”
As I look at photographs of the rubble on the street in the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood where Hassan was killed, I think he may have underestimated the power of Hezbollah and other Lebanese allies of Syria. In the days before he returned home, he was openly attacked in print by a pro-Syrian Beirut newspaper called Al Diyar — which he knew was a warning. And he was right: This is a real war, one that jumped the border into Lebanon and killed a man who may have been the Syrian opposition’s best advocate in the Arab world.