Beirut Blast 'Kills Intelligence Official Wissam al-Hassan'

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World. A massive car bomb exploded in the center of Beirut today. At least eight people were killed and many more wounded. Among the dead is Lebanon's top intelligence chief, Wissam al-Hassan. Ben Gilbert is news editor of Al-Monitor. He's on the line with us from Beirut. Where did this happen, Ben, and just describe the scene.

Ben Gilbert: The explosion happened in the heart of the Christian neighborhood of Beirut called Ashrafieh, near Sassine Square. It's a neighborhood of eight- and nine-story buildings. This car bomb was on a tiny residential street behind the square. The street was completely devastated. It was a big bomb to assassinate one person, and it really caused a lot of damage in this area.

Werman: You said a big bomb to assassinate one person. That person would be Wissam al-Hassan, but is it certain that he was targeted and assassinated?

Gilbert: It would seem like quite a stroke of bad luck on his part and terrible coincidence if this was a random bombing that was meant to scare people or send some kind of a message and just happened to kill the top intelligence official in Lebanon. It's pretty clear, Lebanon went through a series of assassinations between 2004 and 2008 that killed people just like him, including one of his deputies, a guy named Wissam Eid, who was killed in January 2008.

Werman: It's also notable that Wissam al-Hassan was also allied with Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, who was assassinated in a similar car bombing a number of years ago.

Gilbert: Exactly. Wissam al-Hassan, the intelligence chief who was killed today was his chief of protocol, chief of security, was the former prime minister's chief of security. And he's been credited with having developed and improved the investigation techniques that led to the indictment of four Hezbollah members in that assassination of his former boss, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Werman: What's notable about today's event is that this car bombing comes as Lebanon is being drawn more and more into Syria's civil war. Is there speculation that today's bombing is somehow connected to Syria?

Gilbert: Lebanon and Syria are so closely related and interconnected. As you know, Marco, the Syrians were blamed for killing Hariri. The Sunni community in Lebanon of which Wissam al-Hassan is a part of and Rafik Hariri was the leader of, they still blamed Syria for the assassination. The Sunni community here is also aligned and actively supporting the Syrian resistance against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. Then you have the guys who were indicted in Rafik Hariri's assassination. They are Hezbollah members. Hezbollah is allied with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and there are accusations that say that Hezbollah fighters are even assisting the Syrian regime against the opposition in Syria.

Werman: The largely Sunni opposition, yeah.

Gilbert: The Sunni opposition, exactly. So it's very hard to draw that line, where does Lebanon begin and Syria end.

Werman: Ben, I'm looking at a Reuters dispatch that says Lebanese Sunni Muslims are taking to the streets burning tires across the country in protest against the killing of Wissam al-Hassan. Where is all this headed?

Gilbert: Perhaps in the future people will look back on this as the day when the Syrian conflict came to downtown Beirut. That's to be foreseen in the future, but it could appear that way at the moment.

Werman: Ben Gilbert with al-Monitor in Beirut. Good to speak with you, Ben. Thanks.

Gilbert: Thank you, Marco.