Mystery in Hezbollah Operative’s Life and Death
By Anne Barnard, NY Times, January 3, 2014
BEIRUT, Lebanon—As a little girl, Noor did not know exactly what her father, Hassane Laqees, did for Hezbollah, but even then, she knew she might lose him early. During his long absences, she recalled recently, she would gaze at a photo of him lying asleep and imagine that she was seeing his corpse.
Last month, Mr. Laqees was gunned down in a southern Beirut parking garage by unknown assassins, and Noor, now 28 and an English literature teacher, learned along with the rest of the country who he was: Hezbollah’s master technician and logistics expert, eulogized by its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as a beloved friend and one of the group’s “bright minds.”
Mr. Laqees joined Hezbollah at its founding in the 1980s as a 19-year-old with a penchant for technology, and he helped build an arsenal more sophisticated than those of many national armies, transforming the Shiite militia into a force that successfully challenged Israel in battle. He helped set up systems of surveillance drones and independent telecommunications, and he used secret bases inside Syria to store the long-range, sophisticated missiles that analysts say are now being funneled into Lebanon.
Israel’s Mossad spy agency put Mr. Laqees on a hit list years ago, identifying him as one of the five men it most wanted dead. From 2008 to 2011, four perished in cloak-and-dagger style. A car bomb in Damascus, Syria’s capital, killed Hezbollah’s military leader, Imad Mughniyeh. A sniper shot a Syrian general on a beach in Tartus. A Hamas official was strangled in a hotel room in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, by assassins who, in an embarrassment for Mossad, were photographed by elevator cameras. And an Iranian general was killed in an explosion at a Tehran missile depot.
Mr. Laqees was the last on that list to die.
Lebanese and Israeli analysts say that Israel, working through proxies, is the most likely suspect. Yet as Hezbollah shifted course over the past two years, sending its forces into Syria to support the government, its ally, against an armed uprising joined by foreign jihadists, Mr. Laqees earned new enemies. Even among some Shiites there were whispers of disapproval and concerns that the group had aggravated sectarian tensions and opened them up to retaliation.
So Mr. Laqees’s assassination has become a political whodunit infused with all the complexity of a convulsing region’s tangled and shifting alliances and enmities. Saudi intelligence officers, Lebanese Sunni militants, fighters from Al Qaeda, Syrian insurgents—all have been floated as possible killers. Analysts say that because of the secrecy of Mr. Laqees’s work and the professional nature of the killing, an intelligence service was probably involved.
Mr. Laqees was known as a generous, modest man nicknamed Hajj Hassane who ran an electronics shop called Digicon.
"It’s not only the party who was sad for him," said one relative who is not a member, "but all of Baalbek."
People knew he was connected to Hezbollah, but never suspected his importance; he never traveled with bodyguards. One acquaintance said that recently he seemed more cautious, declining to visit when strangers were present.
Mr. Laqees was known for educating his daughters and “spoiling them more than the boys,” a relative said. His eldest, Noor, was part of a group of young female teachers at a Hezbollah school who sometimes questioned, among themselves, the costs of the Syria mission that had killed so many young men, a relative of one teacher said, emphasizing that he did not know Noor’s views.
At a condolence ceremony, Noor, an open-faced, poised woman, glowed with pride in her father. His death was a great loss, she said, recalling how her son, his favorite grandchild, used to rush into his arms on his visits. But, she said, she supported his commitment.
Asked if Syria had anything to do with his death, she said, “Hajj Hassane had only one enemy: Israel.”