Lebanese Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi announced on Monday that 17 spy networks working for Israel were caught throughout Lebanon recently, according to Lebanese media.
Earlier on Monday, a report by the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper stated that more than 15 Israeli spy networks with over 35 members had been caught by security forces in Lebanon in the last four weeks.
According to the report, the Information Branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces Directorate launched an operation four weeks ago to dismantle the spy networks one by one. The newspaper added that the branch is trying to keep the operation under wraps by claiming that the suspects were arrested for fraud and drug crimes.
Al-Akhbar claimed that "very sensitive" information showed that, in the past two years, Israeli intelligence has succeeded in conducting a number of "remarkable" operations in Lebanon and Syria and possibly in other locations as well.
About five weeks ago, a special officer reported to the Information Branch that he had found a sign of work for an operation, with follow-up finding a connection to Israel. The tip set off the branch's largest-ever operation against Israeli intelligence, with the case involving dozens of people suspected of supplying Israel, directly or indirectly, with or without prior knowledge, with information related to its goals.
The spies were monitoring not just Hezbollah, but also the Palestinian factions in Lebanon, including Hamas. The network had also managed to penetrate into the Information Branch itself and get very close to its leadership, according to Al-Akhbar.
Another spy from southern Lebanon breached Hezbollah, saying that he had been recruited by an organization claiming to be working for the United Nations to collect statistics, studies and polls. The spy had taken part in fighting in Syria.
The Lebanese al-Janoubia news ridiculed Hezbollah for being unable to detect the spies while the Information Branch, which has been criticized by Hezbollah in the past, was able to find the spy ring within Hezbollah.
A Syrian citizen was arrested in Damascus as part of the crackdown on the Israeli intelligence ring as well, according to Al-Akhbar. The Syrian was reportedly monitoring civilian, military and commercial sites and providing maps from within the Syrian capital, but was not aware he was working with Israel.
A number of workers in NGOs in Lebanon were also found to be part of the ring.
The report additionally claimed that the cell was linked to the explosion of a Hamas weapons depot in the Burj al-Shamali refugee camp in southern Lebanon in December.
The spies were communicated with via websites and closed chat rooms, as well as phone calls via Lebanese phone lines, according to the report. The Information Branch reportedly revealed that Israel was using a new method of operation, conducting most of its recruitment of agents through social media, with the motive of many of the agents being money due to the worsening economic crisis in Lebanon.
The agents received payments through money transfer companies with the source of the funds coming from locations in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.
The suspects came from all sects and a number of nationalities, according to the report, including Sunni, Shi'ite, Druze and Christian Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians. The networks operated throughout Lebanon.
One detainee, from Tripoli, reportedly stated that he hated Hezbollah and was "ready to do anything against the party," adding that he took the initiative to contact the Israelis. The detainee was reportedly trained to use drones and was even provided with one.
With one of the suspects in Sidon, family members claimed that the charges are "slander," saying that he was in financial distress and was too cowardly to be an agent. “My son, Tafran, is a coward who is afraid of his shadow,” his father told Al-Akhbar.
The Al-Akhbar report added that the Information Branch is expected in the coming hours to provide judicial authorities with investigation records in preparation for referring the detainees to the military court.
Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri praised the "qualitative achievement" by the Information Branch in its exposing the spy network.
In October, Turkish media reported that a Mossad network of 15 Arabs, including Palestinians, were caught by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT).