x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Israel's botched Lebanese intelligence operations

In what could be "one of its worst-ever intelligence setbacks", Israel's intelligence operations throughout Lebanon have in recent weeks been unravelling. Ironically, the breakthroughs for the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) came with Western technical assistance. The first case emerged last year. For 25 years, Ali al-Jarrah, a resident of the Bekaa Valley, led a secret life as an intelligence operative running an Israeli spy ring. In July he was arrested by Hizbollah and later handed over to the Lebanese military. In the months that have followed, Mossad's intelligence operations across the country appear to have come undone.

In what could be "one of its worst-ever intelligence setbacks", Israel's intelligence operations throughout Lebanon have in recent weeks been unravelling. Ironically, the breakthroughs for the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) came with Western technical assistance. "Israel's ability to wage another war against the militant Shia movement Hizbollah may have been compromised by an unprecedented wave of arrests of people in Lebanon alleged to have been spying for the Israelis," Jim Muir reported for BBC News. "Experts say the arrests appear to add up to a major strategic blow to Israel. "Mobile phone footage circulating in Beirut shows one of the suspected agents being slapped and insulted as he was manhandled out of his house and into the boot of a car. "Lebanese newspapers have reported that more than 40 members of more than a dozen spy networks have been detained so far in a campaign that has gathered pace over the past six weeks, and shows no sign of stopping." The first case emerged last year. For 25 years, Ali al-Jarrah, a resident of the Bekaa Valley, led a secret life as an intelligence operative running an Israeli spy ring. In July he was arrested by Hizbollah and later handed over to the Lebanese military. In the months that have followed, Mossad's intelligence operations across the country appear to have come undone. While recounting details from Mr Jarrah's career as an Israeli spy, The New York Times also noted: "One of Mr Jarrah's cousins, Ziad al-Jarrah, was among the 19 hijackers who carried out the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, though the men were 20 years apart in age and do not appear to have known each other well." In Al-Ahram Weekly, Omayma Abdel-Latif said: "the work to uncover the espionage cells started in September 2008. Most of the efforts have been conducted by the ISF, which is considered to be affiliated with majority leader Saad Al-Hariri and does not enjoy a sound reputation within opposition circles. It has been suggested that the timing of the exposure is closely tied to Lebanon's upcoming elections. The official version of events, however, tells a different story. "According to Ashraf Rifi, head of the ISF, technical assistance and training provided ISF cadres with capabilities to track spy cells and uncover them. But sources close to Hizbollah told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Western technical assistance made available to the ISF enabled it to track down spies, but that the sources of this assistance did not expect the ISF to target Israeli operatives. Rather, it wanted the ISF to focus on Syrian and resistance related activities. "Rifi said it was a technical error on the part of some Israeli operatives that led to the discovery of other networks. 'These networks operated separately so that when one is caught it could not tell about the others. A couple of weeks ago, Israeli orders were intercepted by the ISF asking agents to keep a low profile and get rid of some of the hi-tech spying machines,' Rifi said." The New York Times reported last week: "Of the 21 accused of being spies who have been arrested in the past year, 13 played an important role, General Rifi said, and the others were relatively insignificant. "One of the important ones, the general said, was Ziyad Homsi. "Mr Homsi, 61, was the deputy mayor of Saadnayel, a town in the Bekaa Valley. According to a report in the Lebanese newspaper Al Safir, which has links to Hizbollah, Mr Homsi had told interrogators he was assigned to meet Mr Nasrallah, which he apparently failed to do. Israeli monitors planned to track his movements as he went to meet the Hizbollah leader. "Mr Homsi, who was arrested on May 16, said that he had started working for Israel because he needed the money, the newspaper reported, and that he had been paid $100,000. "Many friends and relatives of those accused of being spies say they cannot believe the accusations. 'He's been a friend for more than 18 years,' Issam Rouhaymi, the mayor of Saadnayel, said about Mr Homsi. 'Nobody could believe such a thing.' "Mr Homsi was active in the Future Movement, the pro-American political party that is opposed to Hizbollah. Mr Homsi's brother said the charges had been manufactured to damage the party's chances in the elections." The National reported: "Lebanese diplomats have accused Israel of violating a UN-mandated ceasefire along their tense border after at least four instances in which they claimed Israeli military units covertly entered Lebanon to help accused spies avoid arrest by security forces. "In a letter to the UN Security Council, Lebanese officials detailed information gathered on three Israeli spy networks over the past six months and accused Israel of violating the ceasefire put into place in 2006. "These violations include not just spying but the use of Israeli military units along the border to allow accused spies to evade capture by Lebanese forces. " 'Our representative to the United Nations has accused Israel of sending military units to enter Lebanon to help these collaborators escape,' Gen Ashraf Rifi, commander of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, said in an interview." In The Guardian, Mohanad Hage Ali wrote: "Throughout the past few months, the Lebanese military intelligence and the internal security forces arrested dozens of Israeli agents in several regions, relying on a 'technical secret'. "The investigations into those disintegrating networks exposed certain features of Israel's new intelligence activities inside Lebanon. Aside from its renewed utilisation of former agents and militiamen, Israel has allegedly sought to recruit Lebanese security forces personnel, including high-ranking officers such as former police general Adib al-Alam. Another characteristic of the current espionage war lies in the use of modern technology in tracking potential targets. For instance, agents were using tiny CCTV cameras built into a cars' wing mirrors to provide crucial surveillance of certain roads. "The investigations also disclosed how Israeli intelligence officers oversaw operations inside Lebanon after arriving by sea. For instance, in the case of the Majzoob brothers' assassination, General al-Alam escorted an Israeli officer - who came by boat to Byblos - to Sidon, according to local media reports. Such direct Israeli movement was reminiscent of the assassination of three PLO leaders in central Beirut in 1973. Ehud Barak, the current Israeli defence minister, led the special force which carried out the operation in plain clothes. "One of the most startling observations was the agents' mobility, in particular those who were dubbed as 'strategic spies' for their ability to carry out tasks in both Lebanon and Syria where two recent assassinations remain unresolved: Imad Moghnieh, Hizbollah's security chief, and General Mohamad Suleiman, the Syrian president's security adviser who purportedly administered his country's support to the Lebanese organisation. "While the arrests are probably coming to a halt now, with other agents fleeing the country or freezing their activities, Israel's potential involvement in assassinations re-opened the debate about a string of mysterious bombings that has further divided Lebanon across political and religious lines since 2004."

pwoodward@thenational.ae