Was Mossad behind massacre of British family in French Alps?
Great torrents swept through the hilltop layby where the three adults were trapped in their burgundy-coloured BMW station wagon and massacred in a hail of expertly-directed gunfire, washing away any lingering traces of blood from the leaves and twigs on the ground.
To anyone outside the French police, it always appeared that the murder scene was re-opened to the public with incautious haste. Yet it still seems odd that, barely five weeks since the atrocity occurred, the embers and beer-cans left by mawkish sightseers are the only reminders of a crime that sent shock-waves through Europe.
It has left friends and neighbours in the affluent village of Claygate, near Kingston upon Thames, fearing they might never know why this outwardly contented, and universally popular, British-Iraqi family were slaughtered.
‘It seems the police are just as bemused as we are,’ Julian Stedman, Mr al-Hilli’s accountant and neighbour, told me this week, after detectives finally got round to interviewing him a few days earlier. ‘I don’t know what’s going on, and the Surrey police certainly don’t, though it seems to have been left in their hands, predominantly. I haven’t seen anything from the French authorities; it seems they’ve given up, more or less.’
Together with a team of Mail reporters, however, I have spent the past week probing the mystery — talking to people who knew the al-Hillis, and the French cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, 45, who was shot dead alongside them, seemingly because he saw too much — and uncovered some compelling clues.
Mr Maillaud thinks the truth probably lies in Britain, and he has identified the three most plausible theories, each of which holds that 50-year-old Mr al-Hilli was the primary target.
One centres on an alleged feud said to have been simmering between him and his older brother, Zaid, 53, over the terms of the will left by their father, Kadhim, who died last year aged 91. Zaid, however, is not considered a suspect by the police.
The second concerns Saad’s employment as a design engineer sometimes working on potentially sensitive projects (for the past year, he had been contracted to a Surrey-based satellite company).
The third possibility is he fell foul of someone, perhaps over a business deal, in his native Iraq.
Mr Maillaud has said the ‘familial lead’ is no more deserving of interest than Saad’s job or the fact his family came from Iraq. But it doesn’t take a skilled investigator to tell us there are many more conceivable motives.
The murders might have stemmed from a random robbery or kidnap attempt, for example (though that hardly seems likely, given the chilling precision with which the victims were dispatched), or the family might have stumbled on something.
Theory 1: The feud
First, though, let’s examine the supposed fraternal feud.
Once a wealthy gypsum factory owner and privileged member of the Iraqi elite, family patriarch Kadhim al-Hilli fled to Britain in the early Seventies to escape Saddam Hussein’s purge of prominent Shia Muslims.
Though his business was reputedly sequestered, he salvaged a sizeable chunk of his fortune and settled with his wife, Fahisa, and their two teenage sons, in Pimlico, West London, later moving 20 miles south to the more tranquil Claygate.
According to Gary Aked, who became one of Saad’s closest friends in the early Nineties when they worked together as young engineers, the brothers were very different characters.
Zaid, a trained accountant, was ‘serious and more solitary’, and ‘into making money’; Saad was ‘an outgoing, laugh-a-minute’ type who could turn his hand to any task and loved making things for the sake of it.
In 1992, when he was in his 30s, Zaid married a nurse named Geraldine O’Reilly and had two children. Saad remained a stay-at-home bachelor until nine years ago, however. Then, profoundly saddened by the death of his mother, he went to work in Dubai, where he fell for Iqbal, an attractive Iraqi working as a dental nurse.
After a whirlwind courtship, they returned to marry at a Surrey register office, had their daughters, and settled in the Claygate house. Meanwhile, the brothers’ widowed father Kadhim moved to the Costa del Sol to live out his days in warmer climes.
It was soon after he died, in August last year, that the brothers fell out, according to several people close to the family — though this week a French police source told the Mail that Zaid ‘still completely denies any conflict with Saad’.
As yet, we do not know the contents of the will. Assuming Kadhim adhered to cultural tradition, however, he would have instructed his estate — which may have been worth £4 million and included the Claygate house, his apartment near Malaga, and property in Iraq — to be divided equally between the brothers, with a portion going to charity.
If that is the case, Zaid might conceivably have asked Saad to sell his prized, mock-Tudor home, where he had lived since the mid-Eighties and raised his family, and share the profits.
And who would have blamed him? There was no mortgage on the house, and its value has multiplied, so this would certainly have made hard financial sense.
It might also be the reason he kept an illegal Taser gun hidden in the house, though Mr Stedman believes he bought it on eBay for protection on a trip to Iraq, where he returned in 2010 to view the family’s estate.
Whatever the truth, I have uncovered new information that appears to highlight the deep enmity between the brothers.
It was to be found at the vast, multi-faith Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking, Surrey, where Mr al-Hilli’s parents are buried and the three murder victims will be laid to rest together any day now, in a plot already staked out beside his father.
When the mourners file into the jasmine-scented graveyard they may wonder why, while most of the other tombs are elaborate, those of wealthy Kadhim and his wife do not have even simple headstones. Until a few days ago, when cemetery workers were told to scrawl their names on scraps of paper nailed to wooden stakes, their graves remained anonymous.
Why had they been treated with such indignity? Quite simply, I am told by a well-placed source, the brothers couldn’t agree on who should pay for the memorial stones, which can be bought for as little as £300.
I have repeatedly tried to contact Zaid for comment on all of these matters, but he has been unavailable.
Nor do Saad al-Hilli’s grieving in-laws appear to believe he was in any way involved — for last Sunday, Iqbal’s brother, Dr Ahmed Al-Saffar, accompanied Zaid on a visit to the Imam Khoei Islamic Centre in Queens Park, North-West London, to discuss the funeral prayer ceremony.
Theory 2: Sensitive information
What, then, of the other two central police theories: that Mr al-Hilli might have been passing secret information gleaned from companies he worked for to some malign regime or terror group; or been embroiled in some nefarious business activity?
Merely examining his CV suggests they can’t be ruled out, for his engineering acumen — much of it self-taught — has taken him into sensitive establishments, including the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory nuclear research department in Oxfordshire, where he reportedly worked in the Eighties.
If we accept the wisdom of expert colleagues, however, he was a never more than a small cog in any wheel, and information to which he was privy could be found on the internet.
‘He worked on Airbus, radiation equipment to kill cancer, and lately on satellite systems; but as far as I know he never worked on any top-secret projects,’ says Gary Aked, who spent four years at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston.
Mr al-Hilli took him to the study, showed him a bank of four desk-top computers, plus a laptop, and told him how he used them to air his stridently anti-Israeli views in Arab chatrooms.
"Saad was a very passionate guy and this was something that concerned him,’ he says. "He thought the Jews were taking over America and the world, and tried to get me interested in a book about the atrocities committed by the United States on Arabs.’
After 9/11, he recalls, his views became still more extreme. In one breath he would say it was ‘pay-back time’; in the next he would venture that Israel had blown up the Twin Towers to provoke the U.S. into waging war on the Arab world.
The new theory: Mossad and the nukes
All of which brings us to the theory advanced by a respected Middle East security analyst, who declined to be named. He believes the al-Hillis and the French cyclist could have been conspirators in a plot to supply nuclear material to Iran — and been eliminated by state-sponsored Israeli assassins.
At first blush, this may sound the stuff of conspiracy theorists and spy thriller writers. But one commentator who thinks it is plausible is Roger Howard, author of several authoritative books on Middle Eastern affairs, the next of which will examine a chilling assassination programme carried out on European soil by the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad.
Mollier was not merely a keen mountain bike rider. He held a senior post with Cezus, a company based in the nearby small town of Ugine and owned by Areva, the giant multi-national that leads the way in the research and development of nuclear power.
A spokesman told us he had been employed for many years as a senior production manager specialising in nuclear fuel cladding made from zirconium — one of the metals Iran wishes to amass for its feared nuclear programme.
‘Iran is unable to produce certain key materials and metals that are critical to its nuclear and ballistic missiles programmes,’ says Mark Fitzpatrick, of the ISS defence think-tank. ‘Export controls and sanctions have made it difficult to procure them, but Iranian agents are trying to exploit black-market niches — and access to advanced research and development work on speciality metals will help advance Iranian [nuclear] capabilities.’
Sylvain Mollier undoubtedly enjoyed such access, and given his professional contacts, Mr al-Hilli would surely have known where to find him. The Iraqi Shia Muslim would also have been aware of the Frenchman’s potential value to a cash-rich Middle Eastern power — though, as Roger Howard says, given the hatred he vented towards Israel in those chatrooms, money may not have been his motive.
Just supposing al-Hilli’s hastily-arranged family holiday was a cover for a meeting with Mollier, the reason why he had stashed up to £1 million in a secret bank account, 40 miles away in Geneva, would begin to make sense.
And such is the sophistication of Mossad’s intelligence, it is highly likely the tryst would have come to their attention of the agency, which has a track record for murdering perceived Israeli state enemies, among them Canadian scientist Gerald Bull, gunned down outside his Brussels flat in 1990 after developing the Supergun for Iraq.
Howard says targeting women and children has never been Mossad’s style, and it strains belief they would risk repercussions were they proved to have wiped out an entire family.
But he contends: ‘It is possible something went badly wrong, forcing them to make a snap decision between abandoning the operation and killing innocent bystanders.’
The author also asks an interesting question: is this suggestion any more far-fetched than the notion that the paths of two men, of similar professional backgrounds — one capable of supplying high-level nuclear secrets, the other sympathetic to a regime keen to acquire them — should cross by sheer chance, at the precise moment when the assassin struck?
Whether or not the truth behind this terrible mystery is stranger than fiction, the fear is that the French and English investigators will never unlock the answer.
But the Annecy massacre cannot be left unsolved for ever — if only because two orphaned girls will need to know one day what really happened on that mountain road.
Additional reporting: Tim Stewart in London and Peter Allen in Annecy