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Spy-gadget war rages between Hezbollah and IsraelNicholas Blanford Daily Star
Although not a shot has been fired across the border by Hezbollah since 2006, the covert war of espionage and technology continues uninterrupted.
(BEIRUT ) - Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s acknowledgment that three members of Hezbollah had been caught spying, two of them for the CIA, is the first time that the party has admitted in public that a Western intelligence organization has infiltrated its ranks.
The internal security of Hezbollah is known to be formidable. Israel for years has attempted to penetrate the upper ranks of the party, although unsuccessfully as far as anyone can tell. Hezbollah’s secrecy stems not only from pervasive and tireless counter-espionage and internal security departments, but also from the sense of personal security adopted by the cadres.
Newly arrived strangers in a town, village or neighborhood where Hezbollah predominates are quickly noted and their presence reported. Anyone who has spent time travelling around areas of Lebanon under Hezbollah’s control will probably at least once have been tailed by a grim-faced fighter riding an off-road motorcycle, or possibly stopped and questioned, politely but sternly, as to the purpose of one’s visit.
It was reported recently that the military attaché at the Dutch Embassy in Damascus was detained by tribesmen near Baalbek and transported to Syrian territory before he was released. According to diplomatic sources, however, the attaché was picked up by suspicious Hezbollah men when he was caught roaming around remote and sensitive areas of the northern Bekaa Valley.
Apparently, that was not the first time that the inquisitive diplomat has found his passage blocked by armed and uniformed Hezbollah fighters while driving along dirt tracks in Lebanon’s mountains.
Although the Lebanese security services and Hezbollah have rounded up dozens of Israeli-paid agents in the past two years, none of them have been card-carrying members of the party.
Marwan Faqih, the owner of a garage in Nabatieh who allegedly planted GPS tracking devices within vehicles of Hezbollah members, was potentially the closest Israel has come to penetrating the organization in recent years.
Given the difficulties of recruiting agents within the party, Israel relies heavily on technology to peer beneath Hezbollah’s veil. These technologies vary from the ubiquitous reconnaissance flights of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, to wire taps and surveillance devices incorporating long-range cameras which can transmit data via short-burst transmissions.
Hezbollah also relies not only on its ever-watchful cadres for its security, but upon the extraordinarily sophisticated signals intelligence and electronic warfare assets it currently possesses.
Much attention is paid by analysts and observers to Hezbollah’s acquisition of new weapons, such as long-range guided rockets or anti-aircraft systems. However, it is Hezbollah’s advances in communications technology that really illustrate the enormous leap the resistance has made over the past decade.
The extent of that technological advance is unclear, but it has come a long way since the days of hand-cranked field telephones connecting Hezbollah positions in Jabal Safi in the 1980s. Hints were given during the 2006 war when Hezbollah communications officers allegedly overcame the Israeli army’s frequency-hopping encrypted radios system to intercept and translate communications traffic and pass on the information to their field commanders.
When the Israelis electronically jammed the frontline areas during the war, (knocking out the cell and satellite phones of journalists) Hezbollah fighters were still able to communicate with their walkie-talkies because the party’s technicians were able to discover which frequencies were blocked and thus instruct cadres to switch to clear channels. Fighters in Bint Jbeil could even break into the encrypted radios used by Israeli soldiers to send teasing warnings, as part of an ad hoc psychological warfare campaign.
Since the war, the technology has grown even more sophisticated with both Israeli and Hezbollah technicians engaged in a daily struggle to outwit and out-maneuver each other. A similar competition of one-upmanship was fought in the 1990s over the increasingly complex and deadly roadside bomb in what Brigadier General Amos Malka, the head of Israeli military intelligence in 1998, described as a “contest of technology and a contest of brain power.”
In the early 1990s, the roadside bomb was a simple Claymore-style directional device triggered by a trip wire or remote radio control. By 1999, after Israel had developed various jamming and detection techniques, Hezbollah had developed explosively formed projectiles which were detonated by infra-red beams and hidden beneath hollow fiberglass rocks painted to match the local geology.
UNIFIL peacekeepers and observers would only learn of each new bomb-making or counter-bomb-making development when it was exposed on the battlefield.
The same holds true today. In October 2009, Hezbollah detected a tap on its fiber-optic network near Houla. A team of Hezbollah technicians walked the line, checking the buried cable every few meters while being tailed by an Israeli UAV. Eventually, they discovered in a valley near Houla a highly complex device consisting of an interceptor hooked into the fiber-optic cable, a transmitter and a battery pack.
The Israelis, realizing the device had been discovered, attempted to blow it up with booby-trapped explosives. But only the transmitter was destroyed. The explosion alerted UNIFIL and Lebanese troops – both of whom were unaware until then of the drama unfolding along the border.
When the peacekeepers and soldiers arrived to investigate, the Israelis were obliged to contact UNIFIL and warn them to stay away.
The interceptor and battery pack were successfully blown up the following day but only after the equipment had been inspected and photographed by UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army.
Similar discoveries were made by Hezbollah last December and March when Israeli surveillance devices were uncovered in the Sannine and Barouk mountains and near Naqoura.
Since early 2010, some UNIFIL battalions have been picking up rocket launch signals on their ground radars. The radars show the source of fire inside Lebanon, track the trajectory and mark the impact point in Israel. Only there were no rocket launches. UNIFIL has been unable to determine whether Hezbollah has found a way to trick radars by transmitting false launch signals or whether the fake readings are a form of Israeli interference.
Either way, although not a shot has been fired across the border by Hezbollah since 2006, the covert war of espionage and technology continues uninterrupted. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 27, 2011, on page 2.
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)
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