Hezbollah faces a war of spies

Following the series of assassinations of several of its leaders, Hezbollah is on high alert.

Hezbollah faces a war of spies

(Credit: Mohammad Yassine/ OLJ)

For the past few weeks, Hezbollah has faced a new challenge in the form of an intelligence war.

After the assassination of Abbas Raad, the son of Mohammad Raad, the head of the party parliamentary bloc in southern Lebanon, and Hamas’ second in command Saleh al-Arouri who was targeted in the heart of the southern suburb of Beirut, followed by a series of assassinations of military leaders within Hezbollah, the question on everyone’s mind is how Israel managed to locate such significant figures within the party.

One thing is certain: Hezbollah is deeply concerned about the extensive infiltration by agents working on behalf of Israel.

“The party leaders are alarmed by the sensitivity of the information acquired by Israel, enabling it to locate and target high-profile members of the resistance,” Hassan Qotob, a researcher and analyst, told L’Orient-Le Jour.

As has been evident, Israel has proved to be technologically superior, using new information technologies, which undoubtedly played a crucial role in pinpointing targeted individuals. This involves the interception of telephone calls, monitoring social networks, and deploying highly sophisticated drones to capture high-precision photos across all territory.

Moreover, it seems that Israel has also relied on recruited spies on the ground to enhance, validate, or coordinate the existing data.

Hezbollah has not responded to L’Orient-Le Jour’s numerous requests for comment.

A series of targets

On Nov. 22, five people, all from Hezbollah’s elite al-Radwan force, including Raad’s son, were killed in an Israeli strike.

According to a well-informed source close to Hezbollah in South Lebanon, very few people within the party were aware of the meeting that was to take place between these five members that day.

Only a few minutes had passed before the house where they had just arrived, in Beit Yahoun, was targeted by Israeli missiles.

“Before the operation, an individual, presumably Israeli, called the owners of the targeted house,” a resident from the area told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity.

The owners informed the caller that they left their home to take refuge elsewhere.

It remains unknown, however, whether they knew that Hezbollah members were using their house as a meeting place.

Meanwhile, Arouri was killed along with six others affiliated with Hezbollah and al-Jamaa al-Islamiya the day he arrived in Beirut from Qatar.

“Figures close to Hezbollah generally bypass the traditional airport procedure,” a former security official told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. “They are escorted through another gate, typically under Hezbollah’s supervision.”

According to a source with close ties to the party, only the driver who transported Arouri to Beirut’s southern suburb, a stronghold of the party, was aware of his arrival.

The assassination of another high-ranking Hezbollah official, Wissam Tawil on Jan. 8 in Kherbet Selem, takes on an even more enigmatic nature. He was killed in the detonation of an explosive device placed near the house he was staying at.

This means that an agent planted the explosives, despite Tawil having taken all necessary security precautions.

“On his way to South Lebanon, he changed cars three times to cover his tracks,” said the well-informed Hezbollah source. “But to no avail.”

Two days later, Nabegh Ahmad al-Qadiri, the leader of the Resistance Brigades in Kfar Shouba in the south, was also killed in an Israeli raid.

“He was staying with a neighbor for some time to protect himself,” the source said. “He wanted to talk to his family, whom he hadn’t seen for some time. As soon as he opened his mobile phone, he was targeted.”

The series of attacks continued with the assassination of Ali Hodroj, a Hezbollah executive responsible for coordinating with Palestinian factions. He held a doctorate in computer engineering and telecommunications from Beirut’s Saint Joseph University (USJ).

Hodroj was killed in a strike on Saturday along with Mohammed Baker Diab, who was also a computer engineer and businessman, in the southern town of Bazourieh.

According to an informed source within the party, Hodroj did not have a mobile phone with him. It was likely that Diab did not either, as both men, being technology experts, were well aware of the associated risks.

The following day, Fadi Ali Sleiman, a member of Hezbollah's protection team, was killed in an Israeli strike in the town of Kafra.

The attack likely missed its intended target, initially aimed at a high-ranking commander, AFP reported quoting a security official. The said commander was in the car behind the one that was hit, along with three other individuals, stated the source, who requested anonymity.

Reactivated contacts?

All these instances illustrate that, despite the precautions taken, targets can be located almost instantly, presumably with the assistance of an informant on the spot who is believed to be closely associated with those killed.

According to a security source quoted by AFP, three Lebanese individuals suspected of espionage were recently apprehended. One of them is alleged to have scanned the WiFi networks of homes in the southern suburb of Beirut. Another agent was arrested near Ain al-Tineh, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's place of residence.

According to local media reports, the suspect was taking photographs on the premises on behalf of a foreign company.

“During the occupation of the south, the Israelis recruited several agents from among the area’s residents,” said Ali al-Amin, a political analyst critical of Hezbollah. “Now, years later, they have probably been able to reactivate these contacts or recruit new individuals.”

In January 2022, 17 espionage networks operating on behalf of Israel were dismantled in Lebanon. A total of 21 individuals were arrested, as confirmed by a judicial source who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.

The source revealed that the arrested individuals were responsible for gathering information on military and security sites affiliated with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, the southern suburbs of Beirut, and the Bekaa.

Additionally, the networks targeted “political party leaders” and senior government officials.

The operators of these espionage networks took advantage of the difficult living and social conditions faced by the Lebanese people, who are undergoing a severe economic crisis. “These challenging circumstances facilitated recruitment for these missions,” according to the source. Notably, one of the suspects is reported to be a Hezbollah member.

Hezbollah refused to hand him over to the Lebanese justice system, according to the same well-informed source.

Between April 2009 and 2014, Lebanese authorities detained over 100 individuals accused of spying for Israel, with the majority being employees of the Army or telecommunications services.

In recent weeks, Israel has employed the technique of directly contacting residents of southern Lebanon from local numbers, reminiscent of tactics used during the July 2006 war.

The collaborator, often speaking with a Lebanese accent, assumes the role of a member of the local police or the General Security, before seeking information on specific individuals or locations.

At times, the impersonator may feign conducting a census, distributing aid, or claiming to work for public institutions.

“Why should we be surprised? Israel has been collecting data and information on Lebanon and its residents for years,” said Gen. Bassem Yassine, a retired Army officer. “They have eyes on the ground and in the air, closely monitoring every movement in the arena of combat.”

‘Keep it secret’

In a statement published a few days ago, Hezbollah asked residents of border villages not to answer questions from unknown Lebanese numbers.

“The enemy is exploiting this information to ascertain the presence of our brother fighters in homes it intends to target,” the party warned.

Israel has also hacked into private surveillance cameras outside homes and businesses in border villages, according to Hezbollah. The party asked residents to turn them off to “blind the enemy.”

The party issued general directives warning residents not to film any more of the fighting, to refrain from posting photos or videos on social media networks, or giving out any information whatsoever about the movements of combatants.

“Keep it secret because their blood is your responsibility,” a party statement read.

“Hezbollah is not adept in these types of battles, which increasingly rely on intelligence and advanced technology,” said Gen. Khaled Hamadeh, a former army officer. “It is more accustomed to guerrilla warfare involving ambushes and mounted operations against military vehicles, whereas today it finds itself engaged in open ground combat.”

Some also attribute a lax attitude on the part of Hezbollah to “the feeling of omnipotence experienced by the group after the victory achieved in Syria,” as Gen. Yassine pointed out.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

For the past few weeks, Hezbollah has faced a new challenge in the form of an intelligence war.After the assassination of Abbas Raad, the son of Mohammad Raad, the head of the party parliamentary bloc in southern Lebanon, and Hamas’ second in command Saleh al-Arouri who was targeted in the heart of the southern suburb of Beirut, followed by a series of assassinations of military leaders within...