Hezb'allah: Rise of a Non-State Spying Machine

Recent reports that have trickled out of Lebanon have been somewhat alarming for those trying to infiltrate what the U.S. State Department calls "the most technically capable terrorist group in the world."

Over the last fortnight, the Iran-backed Hezb'allah movement has dealt a severe blow to both Israeli and American covert spying networks in Lebanon, which are designed to furnish them with vital security information about the militant group in a time when the region is passing through a very tense phase.

Although the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon, in line with official protocol, has denied accusations that Hezb'allah has indeed managed to unravel a huge network of CIA spies, it's now being conceded by experts and American officials alike that the militant group has managed to capture about a dozen agents in a sophisticated sting operation.

Ever since June this year, when the movement publicly announced that it had arrested two of its own members for spying on the CIA's behalf, Hezb'allah's enigmatic internal security chief, Wafic Safa, instructed his staff to redouble efforts to ruthlessly hound out any other potential rings that were operating against the movement.

Under his direct command, the so-called "spy combat unit" of Hezb'allah's feared internal security apparatus embarked on a methodical hunt for Lebanese spies, as well as traitors within the movements ranks, using state-of-the-art technologies kindly supplied by none other than Iran's elite revolutionary guard corps (IRGC).

It has now come to light that one of these devices allowed cell phone data to be analyzed in a way that singled out anomalies -- snippets of information dissected to identify cell phone patterns in specific locations, the frequency of numbers they call, their rate of usage, and crucially, when they were being used solely for very short burst periods.  This was in addition to being able to discern whether the phones were prepaid or otherwise, and even an analysis of a cell phone company's GPS tracking data. 

This type of link analysis meant that it was only a matter of time before Hezb'allah's counterintelligence could confidently connect the dots that made up the matrix of the spying network.  But an apparent CIA operational folly did not help, either. 

It has emerged that the CIA case officers, the very people who recruit and run the spies, were using the same codeword "pizza" as a signal for when they wished to meet with some of their subjects at the pre-arranged rendezvous -- which happened to be a Pizza Hut in Achrafieh, a predominantly Christian-inhabited area of Beirut.

In turn, Hezb'allah security teams were instructed to simply lie in wait.  The minute the specific target was about to enter the premises, up to four smartly dressed men would bundle him into the back of a waiting SUV and drive of to an unknown location.  In similar fashion, each and every member of the network was eventually picked up, and only then did their handlers back at the embassy realise what had happened.

As for Israel, no stranger to spying in Lebanon, its latest bad run has come in the form of the deadly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that it sends over Lebanese skies on a daily basis.  Only this Friday, Hezb'allah boasted that it had once again foiled an attempt by its archenemy to spy on its telecom network via a specialized device which, once it was exposed, forced Israel to detonate it through a signal sent from the UAV.

This is just another episode in the long line of anti-UAV operations that this militant movement has undertaken.  Over the last few months, it has shown that it's capable of intercepting the UAV video feeds as far back as 1996, even showing on a video link how it helped to ambush Israeli commandos on a mission in 1997.

But intercepting the video feed may be only a small measure of what it can now do.  The recent mysterious disappearance of a UAV over South Lebanon from U.N. radar is the most telling sign.  If there is any truth to the reports that Hezb'allah was indeed behind it, it alludes to the militant movement securing a way to electronically jam and disable the data link between the UAV and its ground controller by way of interference with the guidance systems.

It doesn't help to quash the speculation when both Israel and Hezb'allah have remained hush-hush in the aftermath, no wreckage has been found, no claims of malfunction have been reported, and no UAV flights have been recorded since. 

The rise of this non-state actor's surveillance ability cannot be analyzed separate from its overall security concerns vis-à-vis Israel, the organization's raison d'être.  The movement rests upon the quality of its intelligence in order to present a credible military challenge to its adversary, for it cannot match the vast quality and quantity of Israel's superior arms and survive as a viable organization.  The only hope is to drastically bridge the gap in the means for acquiring human and technological intelligence that is designed to give it maximum know-how of enemy plans in advance.

But the ever-increasing capabilities of Hezb'allah, a politico-religious movement with a sub-state militia that operates independently from the Lebanese state, are sending alarm bells ringing in both Western and Western-friendly regional capitals.  Not only does Hezb'allah now boast the largest and most powerful military force in the country, but it has missile and rocket stocks that match those of many countries and a sophisticated intelligence branch with hundreds of spies around the world.

If that were not enough, Hezb'allah also has de facto control over Lebanon's security apparatus, which allows it to become wired into the country's most sensitive electronic databases.  This has made it capable of easily monitoring almost every electronic transaction in the country, from financial, internet, and telecom communications to the entry and exit of individuals from the state.

If anything, the remarkable technological means that Hezb'allah has recently employed for use in counterespionage is a worrying reminder of the sad and ineffective state of Lebanese affairs.  That its authority has virtually been supplanted by Hezb'allah seems to be of no concern; if anything the state's long silence on such matters is a tacit acceptance of what has been a long-established reality: that when it comes to matters of counterintelligence and national security, Hezb'allah practically is the state.

Mohammad I. Aslam is a Ph.D. candidate in political science, Department of Middle-East & Mediterranean Studies, King's College London, and editor, Montreal Review (Middle-East & North Africa).

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