Security and Defense: Spying trouble

If reports are true, the apprehension of cells working in Lebanon is one of Israel's greatest blunders.

Lebanon Israel spies 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Lebanon Israel spies 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The equipment shown to reporters by a masked Lebanese security officer was not all that fancy - hardly the stuff of James Bond movies: an Internet router, several laptops, a few cameras and a red Igloo water cooler (with an advanced electronic mapping system hidden inside), encryption devices, a can of motor oil hiding mini tapes, forged identification papers, a car battery charger used to store and transmit data, and USB flash drives containing detailed maps of Lebanon. Some of these, according to police, showed bridges and military outposts that were hit by the IAF during the 2006 war with Hizbullah. The equipment, according to Arab media reports that have surfaced in recent weeks, belongs to a group of several dozen Lebanese citizens who were arrested for spying on Hizbullah for Israel. Since the arrests began late last year, the Lebanese Internal Security Force (ISF) claims to have dismantled at least 10 spy rings, and arrested close to 40 people. As it has always done in response to media reports of its espionage activities, Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement. And though reports on Israeli spies surface every so often - with Iran claiming regularly to have uncovered a Mossad cell - the reports now emerging from Lebanon are of such magnitude that, if accurate, they constitute one of the greatest intelligence blunders in the country's recent history. The value of intelligence vis-à-vis Hizbullah cannot be underestimated, particularly due to the Iranian-backed Shi'ite group's extensive use of civilian infrastructure to hide its military operations. On the first night of the Second Lebanon War, for example, IAF jets bombed more than 90 targets - many of them homes - containing the long-range, Iranian-made Zelzal and Fajr missiles. The operation, considered one of the few successes of the war, was made possible by intelligence collected over a number of years. THE ARRESTS in question began in November, when the Lebanese media announced the ISF had arrested Ali Jarrah from the town of Maraj in the Bekaa Valley. Sophisticated photographic equipment and GPS devices allegedly had been discovered in his car, and he was accused of playing a role in the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbullah's notorious military commander, in February 2008. According to Lebanese security sources, Jarrah admitted in his interrogation to being a veteran Mossad spy, who had been recruited in 1983. According to a New York Times report earlier this year, Jarrah confessed to having traveled frequently to Syria and southern Lebanon, where he photographed roads and convoys that were believed to be used to transport weapons. Also according to the report, he told interrogators that he spoke with his Israeli handlers via satellite phone, and on a rare occasion - under the pretext of a business trip - flew to Europe, where he received an Israeli passport, then continued on to Israel to be debriefed at length. In January, the ISF claimed to have cracked another cell, this one led by Marwan Fakih, the owner of a car dealership and garage in Nabatiyeh. According to Lebanese security, Fakih installed tracking devices and eavesdropping equipment in cars he serviced that belonged to Hizbullah operatives. If the allegations are true, and he was indeed working for Israel, it is possible that the devices he installed allowed Israeli intelligence to locate and identify secret Hizbullah installations. In April, the ISF announced that it had captured a retired Lebanese general, Adib Alam, who allegedly headed a 12-man Israeli spy network. It said Alam, along with his wife, received thousands of dollars for information on Syrian and Lebanese military and civilian sites, some of which were bombed during the Second Lebanon War. Lebanese security sources said that Alam had undergone training in Israel to learn how to operate the spy equipment and communications devices that were seized during a raid on his home. Lebanese detectives reportedly decoded four messages, one in which Alam expressed fears that he would be exposed. Hizbullah deputy secretary-general Naim Qassem called Alam's arrest a major achievement for security forces. "Preliminary information indicates he had been working as a spy for Israel for more than 25 years, and retired from his position in national security eight years ago," Qassem was quoted as saying. It is since Alam's arrest, say Lebanese security officials, that they and Hizbullah have succeeded in all the additional arrests. One of these was Ziad Homsi, deputy mayor of Saadnayel in the Bekaa Valley, who was allegedly ordered by his handlers to get close to Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. According to news reports, Homsi renewed communication with old contacts from the Lebanese opposition movements, and asked one of them to pass on a message to Nasrallah that "he was absolutely committed to the resistance option," and was ready to become a martyr for the cause. Homsi told his interrogators he was asked by Israeli intelligence officials to request an appointment with Nasrallah, and then to report back to them once a time and a place for the meeting was set. This led to media speculation that Israel had been planning to assassinate Nasrallah. In an interview with Agence France Presse this week, ISF chief Gen. Ashraf Rifi said that a "technological secret" assisted Lebanese security forces in uncovering the different cells. Israel, he said, would seduce the spies with beautiful women and trips abroad. "They would pay them handsomely, say $5,000 to $7,000, for their first mission. After that, Israel would drop the price significantly, as it had these people hooked, and would threaten to expose them unless they cooperated," he was quoted as saying. INTELLIGENCE IS obtained in three ways: from human agents (HUMINT); from electronic eavesdropping and signals (SIGINT); and from surveillance equipment, such as satellites (VISINT). All are important, and each has advantages and disadvantages. Human agents can go places that listening devices and satellites cannot. In addition, electronic signals can always be intercepted, decoded and traced back to their source. If the reports are true, then, the discovery of 10 spy rings in Lebanon is of great significance, especially if the discovery of one led to the exposure of another. When a spy is recruited, he usually has contact with no one other than his recruiter, and will never learn the identities of other spies. This way, if captured, he cannot reveal information on others. "When dealing with spy rings, one of the most important elements is compartmentalization," explained a former intelligence officer, stressing that he was not familiar with the current events in Lebanon. "If the downfall of one cell led to the downfall of another, the compartmentalization was not kept here." DESPITE THIS supposed setback, according to foreign reports, Israel has had some significant intelligence achievements since the 2006 war. The first was the September 2007 bombing of a nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria. Then came the assassination of Mughniyeh in a meticulously-planned car bombing in the heart of Damascus; the assassination of Syrian Gen. Muhammad Suleiman, who was involved in the nuclear project by a sniper; and the successful bombing of a Hamas weapons convoy deep in the Sudanese desert, during Operation Cast Lead in January. Hizbullah, some reports have claimed, decided to increase its counterintelligence efforts following the Second Lebanon War, particularly after the assassination of Mughniyeh, one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. There is also the possibility that Hizbullah is purposely making these arrests just weeks before the Lebanese parliamentary elections. Some analysts believe it is doing this to increase public support by creating a major security crisis in Lebanon, and showing that only it is capable of confronting that crisis. Predictions here are that Hizbullah will solidify its power base following the June 7 elections, and establish the next ruling coalition. If Hizbullah wins, Israel believes it will install "acceptable faces" in the cabinet when forming the government. But at the same time, it is concerned that Hizbullah will install a defense minister affiliated with the group who will support the participation of the Lebanese Armed Forces in a future conflict, in contrast to the Second Lebanon War, when the LAF stayed out. Whether or not this is the case, the discovery of a spy ring is part of the ongoing espionage game that is far from over for either Israel or Hizbullah.