It’s one thing to be embroiled in the recent media circus surrounding my reporting from Lebanon; it’s quite another to learn that in the midst of that circus – though having nothing to do with it – one of my strongest sources while I was in Lebanon, Gen. Francois Hajj, was assassinated Wednesday.
Hajj, 55, a Maronite Catholic and the director of operations for the Lebanese Army, was killed in a car-bomb attack, on the route between his home and his office at the Ministry of Defense in Beirut. It’s been reported that he “was considered a leading candidate to succeed the head of the military, Gen. Michel Suleiman [Sleiman], if Suleiman is elected president.”
Who killed Hajj? Who knows.
Some newspapers are reporting the possibility that the assassination was the work of an offshoot cell of the al-Qaeda affiliated Fatah al Islam militant group, which was wiped out almost to a man in the Battle of Nahr al-Bared.
“Another possibility,” according to the UK’s Times Online, “would be pro-Syrian militants within Lebanon, who are believed to have been behind the killings of a number of anti-Syrian politicians in the past two years.”
Hours after the Hajj killing, I asked Middle East terrorism/counterterrorism expert, Dr. Walid Phares:
“From what I understand, there were a few motivations behind his assassination:
“First, as chief of operations for the army, it was believed that killing him would demoralize the army, and hence pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian militias would be sending a message to the Lebanese army saying, ‘You can’t get close to us.’
“Second, he was considered to be the next commander of the Lebanese army.
“Third, the plan, which ultimately defeated Fatah al Islam, was engineered by Hajj.”
So who killed him?
“The Axis,” Phares tells me. “The Axis -- as referred to by the experts in Lebanon -- includes Syrian intelligence, Pasdaran (Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), Hezbollah, and the other combined Jihadist movements.”
During my time in Lebanon – September and October of this year – Hajj was one of my strongest sources. And despite my railing against the often under-reported threat of Hezbollah activities in Lebanon – as well as what I perceived to be problems within the military -- Hajj pulled some serious strings enabling me to gain greater access to elements within the defense structure from which I had been previously barred.
Granted, I had already met one-on-one with Lebanese commander-in-chief Gen. Michel Sleiman before formally being introduced to Hajj, but I did speak with Hajj over the phone, and I was made aware through very reliable sources (men who had a personal relationship with Hajj) within the Cedars Revolution movement that Hajj was reversing decisions and making things happen for me, when other generals were saying, “No. Smith has had all the access he is going to get.”
On October 4, I met with Hajj at his office at the Ministry of Defense in Beirut.
I wrote at National Review Online:
“As I entered his office — his desk covered with several huge maps of Lebanon, a couple of cell phones, and a single pack of Marlboros – Gen. Hajj was discussing something (unintelligible to me because it was in Arabic) with another general. The other general and I shook hands, he left the office, and Hajj ordered coffee for the two of us. We discussed everything from current security operations in Lebanon to the recent fighting at Nahr al-Bared. He then showed me an exclusive video tape – not seen by outsiders [he told me] – of the fighting at Bared, including some truly grisly images of killed Fatah al-Islam fighters.”
Before leaving his office, Hajj invited me to attend the burial that afternoon of more than 100 Fatah al-Islam fighters who had been killed at Nahr al Bared.
I declined the invitation because I had a meeting that same afternoon with Maj. General Achraf Rifi, the commanding general of Lebanon's Interior Security Forces (the national police).
At any rate, the assassination of Hajj (the latest in a string of political assassinations in Lebanon) simply plays -- as another terrible variable -- into the craziness of what is going on and who’s in bed with whom in Lebanon. There is also the inability of Lebanon to elect a president; the existence of the virtual state of Hezbollah (the “kingdom of Hezbollah” as some Lebanese have told me) within the so-called sovereign state of Lebanon; the manipulation of the media (both nationally and internationally) in that country; and the unchecked money, weapons, and influence of Iran and Syria.
From what I knew of Gen. Hajj – and admittedly that knowledge is limited to what I learned while there -- he was a good man. He was a “strong man,” as others have said. He was a man who wanted freedom and democracy in Lebanon. He wanted the truth told about what is actually happening in Lebanon, and what was and is too often not reported, or what is manipulated by the Axis-influenced media.
And now they have killed him.