A few days ago, I was accused by a German conspiracy theorist of having assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. On first glance, this is kind of funny. Yesterday, for example, the Twittersphere was joking about all the other people I might have killed: Stringer Bell, Bill, Tupac, Iranian nuclear scientists, the sheriff and the deputy, Amy Winehouse, a man in Reno (just to watch him die), etc. One friend, employing the same "logic" as this conspiracy theorist, noted that I was also "suspiciously near" the scene of dozens of bombings in Iraq in 2003 and that 338 people have been murdered since I moved back to Washington, DC in 2009. Also, this same friend noted, I have never been able to prove that I did not meet with Mohammed Atta in Prague.
Quite quickly, though, what's kind of amusing on the first glance is not at all funny. If you are a journalist or researcher working on the Arabic-speaking world, what do you think is the worst possible thing someone could do to endanger your work and your life? If you guessed "holding a press conference in Beirut to announce you are working for the Mossad or CIA," you're either correct or close to the mark. As several other scholars of the region noted in emails to me yesterday, my research in Lebanon and the broader region will almost certainly be complicated by this crank and his new pet conspiracy theory.
But at least I have a nice job in Washington, D.C. that allows me to do a lot of my work from a comfortable air-conditioned office. Spare a thought for my ex-girlfriend, who I mentioned in a New York Times op-ed a few days after the assassination and who now works as a credentialed photojournaist in the Arabic-speaking world. With no evidence whatsoever, this German "journalist" has now quite literally endangered both her life and her livelihood.
A few notes about the claims themselves, which were made on the pro-March 8th Coalition website tayyar.org as well as on Hizballah's television station, al-Manar. Unsurprisingly and aside from the basic fact that I did not assassinate the former Lebanese prime minister*, the claims are riddled with factual errors. I am not even Jewish, for example.** On all four sides of my family, I am the latest in a long line of Scottish Presbyterians who have all been in the United States since well before the American Revolution. Prior to this century, the only times we felt the need to leave the United States was to invade and defeat Germany on a few occassions, the first defeat of which was explained away by some German extremists by blaming it on a Jewish conspiracy against Germany, and the second of which ... well, you get the point. At some point, amidst the rubble and the mass murder of millions of Jews, Roma, and other minorities, most Germans and other Europeans decided blaming the ills of the world on Jewish conspiracies was not in anyone's best interest. Most Germans, it seems.***
Second, if anyone wanted to actually see my military record, they could do the responsible journalistic thing and submit a freedom of information request. There is nothing classified in my military record, and you can see for yourself exactly what I did, where I deployed, what medals I earned, etc.
Third, and along the same lines, I am a semi-public figure. I have a Wikipedia page, a publicly available biography (all of the facts of which you can check), and a publications record a mile and a half long. Do I behave, in any way, shape, or form, like a spy?
This entire experience is deeply frustrating and troubling. I am not aware of any legal recourse I have available, though the claims being made by this guy endanger both work as well as the life and work of my ex-girlfriend. (Who is a great and wonderful person despite having dated me and was never my fiancee. I am happily married, as many of you know, to a woman who will surely be cannonized at some point.) I am hardly the first American to do research on the Middle East to be accused of being a spy, but this is upsetting nonetheless.
Last fall, I was actually contacted by this conspiracy theorist. I responded in good faith to his first email but ignored his others as they grew weirder. If any of you out there, by the way, send me requests for research assistance and such out of the blue and wonder why I have never responded, you have cranks like this guy to thank. I am attaching the full text of this guy's emails to me below and, when I get to work tomorrow, will scan and publish a .pdf of these emails as well.
*I cannot believe I actually had to write this sentence. Do I also need to let you guys know I did not assassinate Imad Mughniyeh?
**Although rest assured, if I were blessed enough to be one of God's chosen people, I would be very proud of that.
***Today, Germany boasts an impressive Holocaust education program, and even in the madness of the early 20th Century, many brave Germans spoke out for the Jews and against anti-Semitism. I am not trying to tar an entire noble people with the same brush here, but I find this especially disturbing a German is peddling this nonsense when surely he should know the power of these kinds of conspiracy theories.
Hariri assassination; your articles_4
November 12, 2010 4:17 AM
Dear Mr. Exum,
I want to mention you and XXX in my next
book. Your presence at the Hariri crime scene is remarkable and raises
questions. I like to repeat my question: Have you been asked by UN investigators
and how did you respond?
Von: juergen_ck [mailto:email@example.com]
Gesendet: Freitag, 5. November 2010 11:46
An: 'Andrew Exum'
Betreff: Hariri assassination; your articles_3
Dear Mr. Exum,
I have one last question: Have you been questioned by the
United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission or the
Special Tribunal for Lebanon regarding your observations prior and after the
Hariri assassination, the kind of disaster tourism you executed and your motive
to visit the crime scene and so on?
Von: juergen_ck [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Gesendet: Dienstag, 2. November 2010 11:51
An: 'Andrew Exum'
Betreff: Hariri assassination; your articles_2
thank you very much for your quick reply.
Yes, I know Fisk and his article with his unforgettable
impressions. He’s living a few hundreds meter from the blast scene and
therefore he was one of the first there. Unlike you he describes the tragic
situation very vividly. This is not meant to be an accusation. Apparently you have
all seen through the eyes of a military. I would indeed do so, I'm a
But let me make some other remarks.
You wrote: “As a former soldier, I couldn't help but marvel
for a moment at the audacity of the attack and the meticulous planning
involved. The Corniche at this point takes a sharp turn, forcing cars to slow.
The men who placed the bomb surely knew this. In addition, the building across
from the St. George was also under construction and uninhabited, so any
collateral damage to civilians would have been minimal. Further down the
Corniche, the road is wider and would have been choked with pedestrians. Whoever
planned this attack had been calculating as well as ruthless.”
I do not share your opinion on any kind of intended
prevention of collateral damage to civilians: At the end 21 people died and
about 220 persons were wounded!
You wrote: “The crater it left in the middle of the Corniche
was at least three meters deep and 20 wide, astonishing given all the asphalt
and rock it had to blast through.”
Indeed, Beirut was built on a rocky promontory. And the
crime scene behind the Rocky-coast-Line between Ain al Mrayseh and Zaytuneh is
located in a cove with rocky underground. Now let’s go back to bomb. OK, we are
not experts but as former officers we should know a little bit about
explosions. The bomb produces primarily heat. The bomb itself and the material
in their environment evaporate. It creates abruptly a (relatively) small area
with very hot and high pressured gas. All around is just a vacuum, so the gas
expands, and that is the pressure wave. But a more complex problem is the
behavior of the pressure wave of any explosion under reflection. An explosion
near a flat hard surface (rocky basement of the coast) leads to a strengthening
of the pressure wave. The relationship between the reflected shock wave and the
incident shock wave is called the reflection coefficient. And don’t forget the
reflection from the buildings around the crime scene. The explosion was
calculated to do maximal damage. That’s my opinion.
Remember Fisk; he wrote: “The blast had sent another car,
perhaps one of Hariri's, soaring through the air into the third floor of the
empty hotel's annex, where it was still burning fiercely.”
It was a powerful explosion that shot a car from a weight of
about one ton to a height of 6 to 7 meters. Did you see the car? I can find
neither any photo nor another source.
Best and thanks
Von: Andrew Exum [mailto:]
Gesendet: Montag, 1. November 2010 16:20
Betreff: FW: To Mr. Andrew Exum: Hariri assassination; your
Answers below. IN CAPS.
Sent: Monday, November 01, 2010 10:53 AM
To: Andrew Exum
Cc: CNAS Information
Subject: FW: To Mr. Andrew Exum: Hariri assassination; your
Sent: Monday, November 01, 2010 8:31 AM
To: ; CNAS Information
Subject: To Mr. Andrew Exum: Hariri assassination; your
Dear Mr. Andrew Exum,
my name is Jürgen Cain Külbel, I’m a German author and
former criminalist. I’m just writing my second book about the Hariri
assassination and the assassination series in Lebanon from 2005 to 2008.
I studied your interesting articles “Blood, Smoke and Tears
in Beirut”, (NYT, 16 February 2005) and “Hope amid tragedy” (saloon.com) over
the weekend. You are something like an “eye witness” of the devastating bombing
and I’d greatly appreciate if you could kindly answer my few questions.
You wrote: “Firefighters and police officers worked to keep
back the crowd, then soldiers slowly began to pour in.”
How did you manage to escape police or soldiers and climb up
the hotel St. George although a large fire was raging inside the shell of the
THERE WAS NO LARGE FIRE. I MUST HAVE ARRIVED 10 MINUTES
AFTER THE INITIAL BLAST AND DID NOT SEE ANY SECONDARY FIRES INSIDE THE HOTEL.
THE ONLY SECONDARY EXPLOSIONS THAT I SAW CAME FROM A FEW CARS WHOSE GAS TANKS
HEATED UP AND EXPLODED.
Was the crime scene not secured at that time (you arrived
around ten minutes after the blast)?
HA. IT WAS “SECURED” IN THE LEBANESE SENSE OF THE WORD.
WHICH MEANS MY GIRLFRIEND AND I IDENTIFIED OURSELVES AS WORKING MEMBERS OF THE
PRESS AND, WITHOUT ANY ACCREDIDATION, SLIPPED THROUGH THE OUTER CORDON
ESTABLISHED BY THE POLICE AND ARMY. AT SOME POINT, A LITTLE LATER, THEY REALLY
SEALED OFF THE BLAST SITE. BUT INITIALLY, IT WAS REMARKABLY OPEN. I SAW OTHER
REPORTERS THERE, INCLUDING ROBERT FISK. AND THERE WERE ALSO WHAT LOOKED LIKE
ORDINARY LEBANESE. ANYWAY, IN THE INITIAL CONFUSION, IT WAS QUITE EASY TO GET
CLOSE. AND EVENTUALLY TARA AND I JUST CLIMBED UP INTO THE ST. GEORGE.
You wrote: “… and I climbed up the ruins of the St. George
and looked down at the crater. It was easily 25 yards wide and at least three
deep. To create a hole this size, you would have to fill a large truck or van
with high explosives, first re-enforcing the shock absorbers to accommodate all
the extra weight.
This is a very smart first analysis because the experts
argued at length about theories of aboveground or underground explosions. How
do you get the smart idea of a large truck or van with re-enforced shock
absorbers? Did you have some experiences? Did you ever see in Iraq or
Afghanistan such kinds of terror trucks or explosions?
I SERVED TWICE IN AFGHANISTAN AND ONCE IN IRAQ. AT THE TIME
OF THE BLAST, I HAD ONLY BEEN RETURNED FROM IRAQ FOR A YEAR AND FROM
AFGHANISTAN FOR JUST SIX OR SEVEN MONTHS. SO YES, I HAD A LITTLE BIT OF
EXPERIENCE WITH EXPLOSIVES AND WITH CAR BOMBS. I ALSO HAD EXPERIENCE WITH
CRATERING CHARGES. THE U.S. ARMY WOULD USE THOSE IF YOU WANTED TO CREATE A
HASTY ROADBLOCK. IT TAKES A LOT OF EXPLOSIVES! SO I KNEW, FIRST, THAT A LOT OF
EXPLOSIVES HAD TO HAVE EBEN EMPLOYED TO HAVE CREATED A CRATER THAT LARGE IN ONE
BLAST. I KNEW, SECOND, THAT ANY TRUCK OR CAR YOU LOADED UP WITH THAT MUCH
EXPLOSIVES WOULD HAVE HAD TO HAVE BEEN REINFORCED IN TERMS OF THE CAR’S SHOCKS.
Thank you very much.
Jürgen Cain Külbel