He Plotted Terror Against His Own Government

How a former Lebanese politician was caught on tape trying to blow up his country on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—and still got away with it.

01.28.16 5:01 AM ET

BEIRUT — Rarely does a criminal case fall into a judge’s lap as open-and-shut as Michel Samaha’s.

Yanked out of his bed by Lebanese police in a dawn raid on Aug. 9, 2012, within one day the four-time cabinet minister had confessed to conspiring with Syrian officials, up to and including President Bashar al-Assad himself, to blow up Sunni Muslim Lebanese politicians, religious figures, and bystanders at Ramadan fast-breaking gatherings. Thanks to a series of videos leaked to the media, a flabbergasted nation could watch with their own eyes as Samaha, a veteran politician and household name, produced bags of explosives, timers, and detonators from his car, and spoke casually of plans to murder an MP, members of the MP’s family, and senior clerics (“let them be buried”), with express indifference to additional civilian casualties (“whoever departs along the way, departs!”). There seemed no conceivable way out of a severe punishment, and at his formal indictment in February 2013, the judge sought the death penalty.

And yet, on the 14th of this month, Samaha walked out of Lebanon’s Rayhanieh prison and returned to his family home in Beirut an almost-free man, released on $100,000 bail. Despite the gravity of the charges brought against him in 2013—plotting to carry out “terrorist acts” using explosive devices; planning assassinations of political and religious figures; instigating sectarian conflict; and forming an armed group—he was sentenced to just four and a half years’ imprisonment in May 2015, in a decision legal observers said reeked of Syrian influence over the judiciary. An appeal is underway at the court of cassation, but, since a “jail year” is only nine months in Lebanon, Samaha has already fully served his sentence in the three years and five months since his incarceration. Unless the appeals court changes the verdict, the U.S.-sanctioned Specially Designated Global Terrorist is out for good.

This has caused rather an outrage in Lebanon, and not just for the obvious reasons. To many Lebanese, Samaha’s arrest held almost unique political, even emotional significance. For one thing, he was far weightier a catch than his second-rate ministerial and onetime parliamentary career bespoke. In a country with no shortage of dependable Syrian allies (the kind word for them), Samaha was a cohort of rare caliber. Part of a Christian splinter group that broke away from the anti-Syrian Phalangists to embrace Damascus in 1985, Samaha came to be an intimate confidant of both President Hafez al-Assad and his son and successor, Bashar. Valued especially for his Western connections, he was credited with helping arrange the latter’s state visit in 2008 to attend Bastille Day festivities in Paris as the esteemed guest of President Sarkozy. The story goes that even after Lebanon’s own presidential entourage turned up the same week in Paris, Samaha remained with the Syrian delegation.

Compounding the magnitude of his arrest was the law of public life in Lebanon, which holds that those who displease the Assads appreciably reduce their chances of dying a natural death. This long-observed statistical phenomenon, dating back at least to the 1977 assassination of leftist leader Kamal Jumblatt, was particularly noticeable in the run-up to and aftermath of the Syrian army’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005—itself prompted by the enormous car bomb on Valentine’s Day of that year which obliterated the prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, along with 21 others. From 2004 to the present day, at least 11 high-profile foes of Damascus have perished by the same or similar means, while four survived assassination attempts with grave wounds. Among the victims was Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, head of the very police unit that busted Samaha, slain by a car bomb outside what he thought was a safe house two months after Samaha’s arrest. Though few were ever in doubt as to who stood behind this gruesome liquidation campaign, evidence of incontestable concreteness could never quite be procured. The capture, in flagrante, of so symbolic a personage as Samaha—seen telling the police informant, on camera: “There are [only] two people who know [about the plan]—Ali [Mamluk, director of Syria’s National Security Bureau] and the president”—looked, for a moment, like it might change that.

Instead, his release has only brought home how very little has changed in the last decade. MP Marwan Hamade was the first of the batch to be targeted in 2004, when a Mercedes exploded as he drove past it just off Beirut’s iconic corniche. That only one of the three in the car—police escort Sergeant Ghazi Bou Karoum—lost his life was considered a lucky escape. As Nicholas Blanford documents in his book, Killing Mr. Lebanon, the 65-year-old Hamade broke all of his ribs as well as his foot, needed 450 stitches in his head, suffered brain hemorrhages and burns, and took the best part of a year to recover. As he recounted in 2014 while testifying at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), established in The Hague to investigate Hariri’s assassination, Syria’s military intelligence chief in Lebanon Rustom Ghazaleh hastily ordered the police investigation into Hamade’s case closed on the grounds that responsibility had to lie either with Israel or Hamade himself.

Speaking to The Daily Beast about Samaha’s release, Hamade said it only reaffirmed his gratitude for being included among the auxiliary cases falling under the STL’s mandate, even if no indictment has yet been issued in The Hague.

“I said to myself, ‘Well, we did well to fight to get a special tribunal on Lebanon, because even if it’s a slow-paced operation, at least we’re not under the pressure of local interests and Hezbollah or the Syrians’ […] at least I know the judges sitting in The Hague are not under the pressure of those sitting in [Lebanon].”

Unfortunately for most such victims and their relatives, however, only two other cases have thus far been deemed by the STL to meet its jurisdiction criteria. The assassination of Mohammed Chatah, an International Monetary Fund economist who later served as U.S. ambassador and minister of finance, on Dec. 27, 2013, was one of the majority that do not. Though, as so often, Lebanese authorities have failed to identify any possible culprits, Chatah’s links to the anti-Syrian “March 14” political coalition led most in the general public to suspect the usuals. When The Daily Beast asked Chatah’s son, 31-year-old tech entrepreneur Omar, how he had received Samaha’s release, he described it as “a punch in the gut.”

“The diligence with which [Brig. Gen. Hassan, the late mastermind of the Samaha bust] went about catching Samaha, with audio and video recordings, was unparalleled in the history of Lebanon,” said Chatah. “Hassan and the people around him in the [police] worked tirelessly to do this the right way, and despite the overwhelming evidence and clear security threat he poses, the judge released him on bail. That capriciousness of injustice is scary, when you consider how it has permeated our institutions and government.”

At the same time, Chatah echoed the feelings of impotence and despair expressed by countless Lebanese in private conversations, recalling that while he admired the young demonstrators protesting outside Samaha’s residence and elsewhere in the country since his release, a sense of futility stopped him from joining them.

“I feel helpless. When we demonstrate, nobody listens. When we applaud responsible people for conducting thorough investigations and lawful arrests, they are killed. When we put our faith in the judges and courts, they show total disregard for the law. I am beyond disappointed; it’s like we have come to expect this capriciousness. It’s the banality of injustice. We are so jaded as a country that when a murderer is so obviously caught red-handed, it just slides by.”

Above all, Chatah described Samaha’s release as the loss of perhaps the last chance to obtain some modicum of justice for the long series of unpunished bombings, from that of Hamade through Hariri to “my father, and many others in between.”

“[The arrest of Samaha] was important because it was done through thorough investigations, through public institutions, and best of all it was preempted; no one had to die.” said Chatah. “Personally, if justice, institutional justice, can be meted out for just one of the people assassinated, just once, I will feel a little better. I will sleep a little bit better at night.”

Adding to the bitter taste for many is Hezbollah, who is normally excellent at keeping a grudge but has pronounced it high time to put the episode to bed and, essentially, asked what the fuss was about anyway. “There was no longer any legal justification for [Samaha’s] detention to continue,” said MP Muhammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc. Those objecting to his release were mere rabble-rousers, guilty of “petulance” and “maliciousness.” Raad’s remarks were ridiculed by TV satirist Nadim Koteich, who, with a mock shrug, mimicked: “Four years is enough, what did the guy do? Moved explosives from Syria, commissioned by a foreign state, to blow them up in his country, and kill people? What’s the issue?” (Koteich had to change his filming location after receiving death threats in 2014—readers may, perhaps, perceive an emerging pattern.)

Yet beyond Hezbollah alone is the broader realization that, rather than the days of Assad’s hold over Lebanon fading into the past—as so many had hoped in 2005, and then again in 2011—they are, if anything, looming ever larger in the future. Looking beyond Lebanon’s frontiers, which is where most of Beirut’s vital politics are decided, those Lebanese aspiring for a genuinely sovereign and independent nation have fewer reasons than ever for optimism. That the Iran Deal is likely to strengthen Hezbollah is a fact admitted even by its chief architect and defender, President Obama. Thanks to Iranian and, now, Russian intervention to support Assad militarily, as well as a gradual but unmistakable American abandonment of its Assad-must-go policy, the autocrat that Secretary of State John Kerry once compared to Hitler hasn’t looked so comfortably seated in half a decade. Those reading the winds have already started to act: Last Monday, one of Lebanon’s last anti-Assad hawks, Samir Geagea, stunned supporters and critics alike by officially endorsing his mortal foe of three decades, Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun, for president.

This needn’t mean Lebanon is wholly lost to Syrian hegemony all over again. For one thing, various powerbrokers, including the country’s main Sunni party, are rigidly aligned against Aoun’s candidacy. It does mean, however, that when Samaha told reporters in his living room upon his release that he plans now to continue his prior “political work and activity,” there is no obvious reason for anyone not to take his words with the absolute and utmost seriousness.