Double murder in Beirut

On Monday, May 21, the son and heir of ultra éradical Palestinian militant Ahmad Jibril was killed in a car bombing in Beirut, hours before the discovery of the decomposed body of Ramzi Irani, a follower of the banned Lebanese Forces movement who had been missing for almost a fortnight. The first murder concerned a prominent pro-Syrian activist, and the second a man known for his anti-Syrian activity. The hypothesis that the two murders might be linked was contemplated with fear and quite comprehensibly neglected in the Lebanese media. The question that sounded more urgent was: who wanted to shake the frail security in Lebanon?

1) Facts concerning Jibril:

Palestinian Liberation Popular Front Secretary General’s son, Jihad Ahmad Jibril, was assassinated Monday 21 May in a car explosion. A 2 kg TNT booby trap was placed under his seat in the white Peugeot 505 he was driving. It exploded at 11:45a.m, as soon as he turned the ignition key.

Jihad, 38, was residing in Beirut as he was pursuing his law studies at the Lebanese University. But he was not an ordinary student since he was leading at the same time another kind of life, as he was the head of operations in Lebanon for the group: the popular Front for the liberation of Palestine-General Command (i.e. PFLP-GC). The PLO faction is on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations and in recent years has focused its efforts on attacking Israel from bases in Lebanon. The small Syrian-based group has opposed the Oslo process and rejected peace with Israel on its grounds. It is said that hostility has prevailed over Ahmad Jibril and Yasir Arafat’s relationship for about two decades.

As commander for military operations Jihad was also member of the Popular Front’s executive committee leadership. He had attended the Libyan military academy from 1981 to 1983 and had the rank of a lieutenant colonel. He was married and father of two sons, 10-year-old Ahmad and 6 year-old Ali. But apparently, this is not the first incident that occurred to him. In 1997, he was badly wounded in an explosion during an exercise in the Bekaa valley, and in 2000 he escaped assassination attempt when his car came under fire near a PFLP-GC base south of Beirut.

1-2) Claims and background:

Israel has been roundly blamed for the assassination. Yet, according to some security sources and observers Jibril’s death might be the result of a feud between rival Palestinian factions, most of which are represented in Lebanon, from Hamas to the Islamic Jihad and Yasir Arafat’s Fatah. [1]

“Mossad managed this time to assassinate my son after having tried in vain four times to do it”, Ahmad Jibril told reporters at his headquarters in Damascus. He told Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television that his son Jihad had been supervising the training and arming of radical Islamic Palestinian group Hamas, which was almost unthinkable some years ago for a radical Marxist movement such as PFLP-GC!

Maybe it would not be useless to recall that the PFLP-GC was one of three far-left Palestinian nationalist groups that formed after the Six Day War of 1967 and pioneered guerilla strategies in the early 1970s. The two others are George Habash’s PFLP (i.e. Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), and Nayef Hawatme’s DFLP (i.e. Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine). As a matter of fact, Ahmad Jibril who was one of the PFLP’s earliest leaders broke away in 1968 to form the PFLP “General Command”. The new group initially declared that its focus would be military, not political.

Once key players in Palestinian politics, these secular, Marxist fronts lost influence with the demise of their Soviet backers, their rejection of the 1990s Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the rise of Islamist groups- especially Hamas- that supplanted them as the main Palestinian opposition to Arafat.

They remained sidelined as Arafat established the Palestinian authority.

 The PFLP-GC maintains headquarters in Damascus. It has joined a series of anti-Arafat rebellions, and though it had been a secular Marxist-Leninist organization, it changed completely of rhetoric and started using a religious one after accepting assistance from Iran in the late 1980s. Unlike the two other groups, the PFLP-GC has not reconciled with Arafat. In the mid 1990s, Jibril reportedly threatened to assassinate Arafat for pursuing a political settlement with Israel.

In May 2001, Israeli forces intercepted a shipment of Katyusha rockets and anti-aircraft missiles being sent by the PFLP-GC to the Gaza strip; Ahmad Jibril claimed it one of many such shipments.

2) Facts concerning Irani:

About seven hours after the killing of Jihad Jibril, the decomposed body of Ramzi Irani was found in Beirut’s Caracas neighborhood, some two weeks after the pro-Lebanese Forces engineer disappeared. Police discovered the body, swollen and covered with black grime, around 6.30 p.m. in the trunk of a late-model car after an unidentified individual reported a strong odor coming from the car parked across from the Tahiti Tower. According to some sources, the car was registered in Irani’s name but it remained unclear how long the vehicle had been in the area.

Ramzi Albert Irani, 36, married and father of two children: Yasmina and Jed, was working for the Lebanese bureau of the French oil company Total-Fina-Elf. He was reported missing on May 8, a day after he failed to return to his Achrafieh home from his workplace in Hamra. Sources close to the Lebanese Forces Party reported that on May 7 at 4.30p.m. he was kidnapped in the middle of the busy Hamra Street in Beirut and disappeared since without leaving a trace. He was on his way home to celebrate the birthday of his 5 years old daughter with his family.

Ramzi was the youngest of a family of three children. His older brother Nabil is a surgeon; the youngest child, Nayla, studied literature, then beauty care, working as a beautician. Ramzi was a civil engineer. “We used to live in Africa”, says his mother, “but we came back to Lebanon because we wanted the children to study here. Ramzi went to kindergarten at the Sisters of Ibrin School, then went to primary school at the Collége de la Salle, Clémenceau before enrolling at the Fréres School at Mont-la-Salle. “Because of the war, we preferred to send him to study in France, where he did higher maths, physics and other sciences. He used to come home for vacations. He decided to come back and stay for good. He was very much attached to his family here”. His mother recalled that he completed his degree in physics, then went on to study civil engineering at the Lebanese University. He then traveled to Kuwait, afterwards working for the French oil company Total for 10 years. His work took him all over Lebanon, where among other things he supervised the building of gas stations. This never gave him any problems, his mother recalls.

Ramzi Irani was well known as the representative of the Lebanese Forces Students’ organisation in the Lebanese University of Beirut. He has been very active over the past decade in many student activities and graduated as an engineer. He became very active in the Engineer’s Union in Lebanon where he was instrumental in defeating the Regime and Hizbullah’s candidates in the last union electionsé

That was not the first incident that occurred to him, though. According to some sources, on October 17, 2000, the government arrested Ramzi and ” he was released a few days later with broken ribs”. [2]

2-2) Claims and background:

The Lebanese Forces Party blamed the Lebanese Intelligence service for the kidnapping of Ramzi Irani. In a letter dispatched to foreign chancelleries and media, prior to the discovery of the murder, we read for instance:

“Whilst, despite great objections, the Intelligence Services in Lebanon were always boasting about Security and Civil Peace justifying their military practices as necessary and indispensable to maintain order even at the price of denying essential Freedoms and Human Rights, this new practice of faceless kidnapping coupled with an official position of total unawareness of the victim’s fate opens once again the painful chapters of war and conflict within Lebanon. With the presence of Syrian Intelligence Services, Hezbollah, and many Lebanese Intelligence Services, the apparent acts of innocence and “good will” portrayed by the Regime and the Judiciary are very hard to swallow and we find ourselves today lacking in our Security whilst at the same time suffering military dictatorship…

We are extremely worried that the fate of Mr. Irani would be similar to the fate of Mr. Boutros Khawand who was abducted in very similar conditions and disappeared 10 years ago. (Accounts from released prisoners from Syrian jails confirm that Mr. Khawand was imprisoned in Syria after being kidnapped by Hezbollah!)”

It is not hard to understand this point of view when we know some facts. For example:

 According to the Lebanese magazine Monday Morning, in the months before Irani’s disappearance, men came several times to ask his concierge about him. Ramzi ended up calling the Lebanese state intelligence services to inform them about these people, giving them the number of the car they used (supplied by the concierge) and asked whether it was they who were keeping him under surveillance. The reply was negative. They promised to follow up the affair.

Jocelyne Irani (Ramzi’s widow) affirms that on the day her husband disappeared, a car was parked in front of their house and the concierge heard someone saying: “It’s five o’clock and he still hasn’t come back?” The same magazine noted that Irani lived in Bellevue, not far from the American embassy in Awkar, therefore in an area of high surveillance where a person is required to pass two checkpoints of the Lebanese Army before arriving at the Irani home. How was it, then, that cars belonging to persons unknown were able to pass through the checkpoints and park in front of the Irani home and question the concierge without raising suspicion? [3]

3) Questions and assumptions:

It is noteworthy that both murdered men had similarities connecting them despite the ideological gap. They were both in their middle thirties, married, and well settled in life each one with two children. This kind of comparison was perhaps valueless as long as they were alive, since nobody would try to play at the game of comparing the incomparable. But in the light of the tragic events that occurred to them both, did anybody  try to find out whatever might link the two murders?

Let’s imagine the “unimaginable”. If someone wanted, for some reason, to pick up two similar figures from two opposite camps in Lebanon, would Ramzi and Jihad fit in or not?

Nonetheless, despite there was a hint that the murders were connected, emphasized by a clear claim emanating from the “Movement of Lebanese Nationalists”- as we will see- the Lebanese media sounded uneasy about this subject.

Maybe is it too little to say that this double murder é even if the perpetrator is not the same person- has seethed the Lebanese media to an unprecedented degree, since the years of the car-bombings during the civil war. The press generally backed away from speculating who might have killed Ramzi Irani. There is however an admission that Israel could not be involved in his assassination, although many parties pointed to the Mossad as the probable instigator of Jibril’s murder. For several observers, it is Lebanon’s security that is at stake. Some of them linked the murder of Jibril to the murder on January 24 of Elie Hobeika.

This is a headache for the Lebanese State Prosecutor Adnan Addoum who confirmed that a man had been arrested in connection with Irani’s disappearance.

Irani’s car has already been checked for fingerprints and DNA tests had been conducted, he said. But the most interesting declaration he made suggests something quite puzzling.

He said he believed the car was taken to the place it was found while security personnel were busy with Jibril’s murder, which rocked the capital on the morning. “It was at that time that the car was brought out from the place where it was hidden and disposed of to get rid of it and the body in it,” Addoum said. The “security committee will meet every day” until a breakthrough is achieved. [4]

How would any objective observer refrain from filling the unsaid of this declaration with some questions such as: Why did they bring the car from its hidden place at that very moment, not before? Was it a simple coincidence? Or did they mean to attract the attention to this crime, a few hours after the blast that killed Jibril? And if there was no link, then how to explain the statement faxed to AFP in Nicosia, emanating from a previously unknown group, ” the Movement of Lebanese Nationalists”, claiming late Monday the killing of Jibril whom it accused of operating on Lebanese soil under Syria’s orders? The statement said:  “One of our units has liquidated Jihad Jibril by detonating his car as he was going out of his secret hideout”! [5]

Thus, if Jibril’s murder was not perpetrated by the Israelis, as assumed, and if this Lebanese secret faction, obviously anti-Syrian (which was also the tide Ramzi Irani was embracing), has actually committed it, was it a political revenge against the Syrian presence, or more precisely a revenge against a precise act, such as for example the kidnapping and the killing of Ramzi Irani? Which leads us to another hypothesis: The murder of Irani was discovered and known well before his car was being brought to the vicinity of Tahiti Tower! And those who were the first to discover it were also those who murdered Jibril, then got Irani’s car out from its hidden place!

Indeed this is just an assumption. And such as, it neither justifies the first murder nor the second while trying to find an explanation to them. That does not mean either that Jihad Jibril has necessarily personally masterminded the kidnapping and the assassination of Ramzi Irani. But the fact that he could be actually a mere scapegoat, in a broader game between some Lebanese factions and Syria, cannot be easily dismissed. The same thing could be said also about Ramzi Irani, who was not really “high” in his party’s hierarchy. But it seems that he was the “ideal victim” in a game that obviously outmaneuvered him. Let’s notice however that his case (coupled with that of Jibril) has since the discovery of the corpse, mobilized the Lebanese Cabinet. The President of the Republic himself expressed his concern.

Ultimately, we do not need even to probe a possible connection between the two murdered men. They did not need to know each other, in order to get in that tragic frame, albeit they likely did. For both of them were activists, busy with militant commotion. And at that level, all those who are more or less involved in the internal and regional struggle, either they are on the Syrian side or on the opposite, have usually some knowledge of the who’s who in the other camp, if they are not merely connected by some twisted and complicated Middle-East ways of contact, indeed without ever ceasing to be enemies.

Noteworthy is also the Israeli attitude vis-é-vis this case.  Since the first day, the Israeli officials rejected the accusation about Jibril’s murder related to them as gibberish. ” The defense minister says Israel is not connected and to stop blaming Israel”, said Yarden Vaticay, an adviser to Israeli Defense Minister  Binyamin Ben Eliezer. For his part, Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nachshon dismissed the accusations as “utter nonsense”.

This is quite an amazing position! For so far, the Israelis have not only taken pride in assassinating some prominent Palestinian activists, but they have even adopted the ” targeted killings” as a State policy under the current government of Ariel Sharon. So, why did they deny any connection with Jibril’s murder if they were really behind it? They would have been even proud to claim it, as they did with previous similar cases of murdered Palestinian militants. But that did not happen, and it is definitely improbable that the Israelis did it then backed away from fear of revenge. They simply never denied to have assassinated other Palestinian activists. Why should they make exclusion for Jibril whereas they have an occasion to exasperate the Palestinians?

The case is enough expressive of an idiosyncratic behaviour. It shows that whether Israel is guilty or not, it is easy after achieving a dirty job, to throw it on the Israelis. That does not completely rule out any Israeli involvement, to be sure, neither does it justify the Israeli crimes, whether acknowledged or not. Yet, we ought to recall that what the individuals and the little groups achieve at their level, some states may perform on a broad scale. This said, it is not amazing that Ahmad Jibril threw the responsibility of his son’s assassination on the Jordanians as well as the Israelis: ” We say it is the Israelis who carried out the assassination of Jihad, but there are local collaborators who facilitated the enemy’s task”, declared the leader of the PFLP-GC. “The Israeli enemy’s intelligence relies on US and Jordanian intelligence”, added he, ” and the three closely coordinate their activities, forming an evil trio which managed to harm us.”

Amman indeed denied any involvement, rejecting Jibril’s allegations as completely groundless. But though nobody hinted at this, the Syrian mark is quite obvious in the aforementioned declaration. Damascus has never hidden its animosity towards the Jordanian regime, particularly after it signed a peace accord with Israel. It never missed an occasion also to underline its own position as the most reasonable é anyway as more reasonable than the Jordanian- as regards the attitude vis-é-vis Israel. It is in the name of the solidarity between the Arabs é lifted to the level of moral duty- that Damascus is maintaining its military presence in Lebanon, albeit its 30.000 soldiers have never raised a little finger to fight Israel, even when the latter was occupying south Lebanoné even when several times its troops or its aircraft pushed the borders until Beirut!

And this is precisely the point wherein all the roads converge in the present situation concerning the Lebanese shaky security. Furthermore, if the two murders had to have a political signification, can we reasonably oust Syria from the picture whereas it is about Syria that the struggle is going on in Lebanon between different factions and protagonists? This is not to mean necessarily that Syria was the instigator é it is the judiciary investigation that will answer these questions, if ever it succeeds! -, but only to underline the fact that their heavily felt presence in Lebanon make of the Syrians a suspect in the eyes of many Lebanese.


[1]  The Daily Star: May 21, 2002. See also: BBC News Online: 20 May. Suspects behind Beirut bomb.

[2]  Lebanese Information Center: October 29, 2000.

[4]  The Daily Star: May 23.

[5] May 21. Lebanon in fear.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.