Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lebanon's intelligence war

    Thursday, December 15, 2011   No comments

by Nour Samaha

Beirut, Lebanon - The confirmation by officials in the United States of the exposure of their CIA informants in Lebanon has caused a flurry of excitement in both the local and international media in recent days, adding yet another chapter to intelligence activities on Lebanese soil. 

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah revealed in a press conference in June 2011 that the Lebanese Shia resistance movement had discovered and arrested at least two of its members, whom Nasrallah said were working for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Although the US embassy denied the story at the time, unnamed US government officials recanted and confirmed the arrests last week. Media reports claim that the intelligence agency has gone so far as to shut down its Beirut bureau after it was compromised by Hezbollah's announcement.

The intelligence war playing out in Lebanon is nothing new, however. For decades now, intelligence agencies have been infiltrating the country, with up to 70 suspected spies arrested by the Lebanese authorities in 2009 and 2010 alone.

Cash payments for telecoms data

One of Lebanon's most vulnerable infiltration targets has been its telecommunications network. In 2010, Charbel Qazzi and Tarek Rabaa, both telecom engineers with Alfa (one of Lebanon's two mobile network operators), were arrested within weeks of each other and charged with spying for Israel.

Qazzi, a senior technician at the time, had access to all the passwords necessary to access the mobile network computer systems, both remotely and onsite, which he confessed to handing over to the Israelis. He said he was first contacted by Mossad in the 1990s, when he snuck across the border to consult with an Israeli doctor over a medical case concerning a relative of his.

He was charged with "entering enemy territory, collaborating with Israel, and providing it with information".

According to media reports quoting security officials, Rabaa, a transmission engineer for Alfa, was first contacted by the Israeli intelligence services when they posed as an international recruitment company in 2001. Following an "interview" in Cyprus, they asked him to complete a "case study" on the telecom network. A few months later in 2002, they contacted Rabaa again and asked him to perform a polygraph test, which he apparently failed. They re-established contact again in 2005, and conducted a series of meetings with him in countries all over the world, including Thailand, France, Denmark, Turkey and the Czech Republic, until Rabaa was arrested in 2010.

In these meetings he was given cash payments ranging from $2,000 to $20,000, depending on the information he gave them. This included a map of the Lebanese mobile network backbone, the names of every employee at the company, and a study of the network in the southern part of the country, which borders Israel.

"With knowledge of the network backbone, they know the geographical location of the nodes in the network and the type of equipment used. They would know where to orient their monitoring equipment, break the encryption codes, and eavesdrop on the network," Marwan Taher, a computer engineer, told Al Jazeera.

In one meeting held in Turkey in 2009, news agency reports claim Rabaa told his handlers that Alfa was in talks with a Chinese company to procure equipment to use in expanding the network in Lebanon's south. His handlers stressed upon him the need to maintain the current supplier of telecom equipment, a European company, as it would be more difficult to compromise the Chinese equipment than the European one. Rabaa was one of the major players who convinced Alfa to stay with the European company.

"He was gathering everything you could ever imagine about the Lebanese cellular network," Hassan Illeik, a journalist with the Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, who has been closely following the issue of Israeli infiltration, told Al Jazeera. "The location of all the antennas, all of the information on the base transceiver stations (BTS), all of the passwords he could access, all the information about the new technology being installed in the cell networks and the maps for the Lebanese mobile networks backbone."

Rabaa continues to maintain that while he knew he was working for an intelligence agency, he insisted he was working for NATO. His family claims that Rabaa was forced to confess under torture.

"The Lebanese intelligence services know the ways in which the Americans, NATO, the French, Danish, whichever intelligence agencies work in Lebanon, and when they want to meet their spies, they do so in Lebanon," said Illeik. "They don't go to Thailand to meet their spies. The Israelis always ask their spies to go abroad, like Cyprus, Italy, Czech Republic, Turkey, to hold meetings."

Charbel Nahhas, former minister of telecoms, said in a press conference at the time that "this was the most dangerous espionage act in Lebanese history".

"Qazzi and Rabaa are not the only guys working in telecoms and 'allegedly' working for Israelis," said Illeik. "These are only two of a much bigger pool."

Others include a retired general and his wife who worked for the Israelis between 1994 and 2009, and whose house was a treasure trove of spying devices and gadgets. He confessed to providing Israel with a number of newly-purchased Lebanese SIM cards (to then redistribute in Lebanon), among other sensitive information.

Then there was the software engineer who, up until his arrest four months ago worked in the private sector with a number of banks, and had helped set up the DSL network in Lebanon. Like Rabaa, he claims he was contacted by an "international recruitment company" and asked to complete a "case study" before partaking in numerous meetings between 2002 and 2006.

"The Israelis don't think the Lebanese are intelligent enough to discover their infiltration," said Illeik. "You can see this in their rhetoric. When they get caught they think it's because of their failure, not because of their enemy's sophistication."


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