The man who knew too much

New information suggests Lebanese actor and journalist Ziad Itani may have been framed for espionage.
Sunday 11/03/2018
Lebanese writer and actor Ziad Itani performing on stage in the capital Beirut. (AFP)
Lebanese writer and actor Ziad Itani performing on stage in the capital Beirut. (AFP)

Even before Beirut established its reputation as a capital for Western hostage taking, this small Mediterranean city was a scene for spies and their spymasters playing the Cold War’s greatest game. In the 1960s, Beirut was home to the famous British spy and Soviet double agent Harold “Kim” Philly, who used the various bars and hotels to recruit and collect information before defecting to Moscow.

Over the years many spies, some of them Lebanese, were exposed and their subsequent stories seem more the stuff of John le Carre than historical fact. It’s also true that, like all works of fiction, many of them were fabricated to either serve or discredit their principals. Now another equally bizarre story joins their ranks, that of the Lebanese actor and journalist Ziad Itani.

Itani was arrested last November and accused of spying for the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. However, information has come to light that he was framed by the former head of the Lebanese cyber-crime unit, Lieutenant-Colonel Suzanne al-Hajj.

The new revelations indicated Hajj instructed a hacker known to her unit to infiltrate Itani’s personal computer and social media accounts and plant evidence establishing a faux relationship between him and an appropriately sultry Swedish-Israeli handler.

From the moment of his arrest by the General Directorate of State Security (GDSS), Itani was branded a collaborator, his infamy growing as details of the investigation into his supposed activities were leaked to a variety of media outlets, including his alleged confession.

Many were quick to condemn Itani but a few dared to challenge the prosecutor’s elaborate narrative. One of those was journalist Fidaa Itani (no relation), who questioned the actor’s crime and published counter reports, which claimed that Ziad Itani was a victim of an elaborate scheme orchestrated by Hajj.

Fidaa Itani accused Hajj of fabricating the charges against the actor in revenge for a screen shot he had taken of one of Hajj’s Twitter posts perceived as insulting to Saudi women. Ziad Itani passed the screenshot to a news website, leading to Hajj losing her post as head of the cyber-crime unit.

However, for the journalist, the implications of the case reach beyond the immediate and reflect the sinister role played by the media throughout the affair. Fidaa Itani said that “from the moment Ziad was arrested many of the media outlets leaked the investigation without ever doubting any of its content. Thus, it was not really the fault of the public but rather the (Lebanon’s) decrepit media outlets.”

Fidaa Itani claimed the security agency, through collaborating with the media, established a credible fiction in which Itani the actor was cast as a cunning and dangerous spy and, more importantly, “spun a story of a tall blonde female Israeli agent who seduced Ziad, turning this into a virtual sex show, which unfortunately the public seemed to like.”

Many have presumed the actor had fallen foul of the power struggle between the GDSS, which is loyal to the Maronite President Michel Aoun, and the intelligence branch of the Sunni-leaning Internal Security Force (ISF). In reality, the case reaches beyond the internal rivalries of Lebanon’s security forces and speaks to the president’s resurgent Maronite faction’s ambition to reclaim its hold over the state, a hold that has been challenged by the Sunnis for the past two decades.

Underlying the immediate political and security context of the case are the concerns many assumed had been dead and buried since the Syrian occupation of 1990-2005. During that time, anyone who thought of even straying from the Syrian line would find themselves accused of any number of supposed crimes, ranging from corruption to the more serious and fatal charge of collaboration with Israel.

Even after the Syrian exodus of 2005, the power of the accusation of Israeli collaboration lingered and continued to be used to subdue any intellectual who dared challenge Hezbollah’s narrative of resistance.

Lokman Slim, an independent political activist and an outspoken critic of Hezbollah, said having the accusation of “spying for Israel or the West hurled at them is both unimaginative yet very sinister and effective.”

Rather than merely looking at the case of Ziad Itani, Slim said there should be an examination of the accusation itself, which remains an especially potent “form of blackmail used to subjugate the entire Lebanese population, including those who are currently in power.”

With the looming parliamentary election, Ziad Itani, who belongs to one of the biggest Sunni families in Beirut, was lucky to benefit from the intervention of Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri. While the actor and journalist might soon find himself released from jail, his tacky and fabricated spy tale will live on, an enduring reminder that Lebanon remains a police state that only sporadically masquerades as a struggling democracy.