Plot Thickens in Grisly French Alps Murders

New evidence suggests that Saad Al-Hilli and his family were killed over Saddam Hussein’s fortune.

Justin Tallis, AFP / Getty Images

Just as police investigating the shocking quadruple murder in the French Alps were honing in on a solid lead, new information has added yet another layer of intrigue and mystery to the case. The central question: who was the intended target in the grisly killings?

On Sept. 5, Saad Al-Hilli, 50, his wife, Iqbal, 47, and her mother, Suhaila Al-Allaf, 74, were found dead in their idling BMW. The body of Sylvain Mollier, 45, a French bicyclist, was also found outside the car. Police discovered the family's 7-year-old daughter, Zainab, alive outside the car, with severe injuries to the head and a gunshot wound to the shoulder. Her 4-year-old sister, Zeena, who was unharmed, was found hiding underneath her mother’s corpse in the back seat.

On Saturday, citing German intelligence officials, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that Saad Al-Hilli's late father, Kadhim, had once served as a conduit to help smuggle Saddam Hussein’s fortune out of Iraq.

Detectives launched the investigation on the assumption that Saad Al-Hilli—the patriarch of the Iraqi-British family— was the intended target of the murder, and that his family and Mollier were collateral damage. Indeed, rumors have swirled that Saad’s father had fled Iraq with €1 million after falling out with the Baath Party, and that Saad and his brother, Kaid, were fighting over their father's estate—a narrative that seemed to fit nicely into an assassin's plot.

Saad Al-Hilli's questionable actions, which included the spontaneous French vacation just when his daughters were set to start school, and a side trip to Geneva to check on his secret Swiss bank account, provided plenty of grist for the mill. Neighbors in Surrey where the family lived described the Al-Hilli family as loving and serene, but revelations that Saad Al-Hilli changed the locks just before leaving for France, kept an illegal Taser gun in the house, and had an online alter ego in which he ranted on anti-Semitic websites caused some concern that he may have feared for his life.

The Le Monde report seems to argue that the money the Al-Hilli sons were allegedly squabbling over was actually Saddam Hussein’s and not their father’s. Saad Al-Hilli gained access to a Swiss bank account after his father died last year in Spain, and investigators wonder if he may have been gunned down upon his return from Geneva, just an hour’s drive from where the murders took place. According to the Le Monde report, the Al-Hillis could have other accounts in France and Switzerland, which were used to hide the late Iraqi dictator’s money. German authorities have provided their French and British counterparts with the links between the Al-Hilli family and Saddam Hussein’s fortune.

This new information threw a wrench in the investigation as last week an analysis of blood droplets on the soles of the victims' feet seemed to indicate that Mollier was shot first outside the car in the presence of Saad Al-Hilli and young Zainab. The elder Al-Hilli then presumably scrambled into the car and locked the doors, throwing the vehicle into a frenzied reverse and getting stuck in a muddy bank, before the assassin shot him and his wife and mother-in-law through the closed window.

When investigators determined that Mollier was the first man killed, they began considering that he may have been the assassin's actual target. The theory is plausible as the bicyclist has his own curious past: he worked as a plant supervisor at Crezus, a company that supplies equipment to nuclear-power plants. He specialized in research and development in zirconium products, and allegedly had distant ties to Iran.

While the theory that Iraqi treasure was the motive adds considerable intrigue to the investigation, Eric Maillaud, the French prosecutor in charge of the case, told reporters that he had never heard of the link to Hussein. Last month he confirmed that the Swiss bank account in question had been inactive since Kadhim’s death, meaning that even if Saad Al-Hilli had visited the bank just hours before his fatal end, he did not withdraw any cash—at least not from that account. In other words, exactly who the assassin was targeting is still no more clear than it was the day the bodies were found.