Stranger than fiction
Lebanon's Israeli spy scandal took another turn this week with the charging of a prominent figure in a party allied to Hizbullah. Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut
In a week in which Hassan Nasrallah turned up the heat on the Tribunal issue, the snowballing spy scandal also reached a new level with the shock arrest of Fayez Karam, a senior official in Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a mainly Christian party that is a key domestic ally of Hizbullah. Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr charged Karam with collaborating with Israel on 10 August. Israeli spies can face the death penalty.
The retired Lebanese army officer held several top military positions in the army in the late 1990s, including that of counter-espionage chief. Lebanese media speculation has focused on how much information the senior FPM official would have been privy to; in particular, whether he would have known times and locations of Aoun's meetings with Hassan Nasrallah. FPM politicians called for Lebanese to await the outcome of the investigation, and were not immediately available for comment after the charge was issued.
Lebanese army and security services have detained about 150 alleged Israeli spies over the past two years. The sweep that has shocked Lebanon and raised questions over whether Israel's apparently extensive penetration of the country's security services and telecommunications system could have implications for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague to try suspects in the killing of Rafik Hariri. Early tribunal reports to the UN Security Council that indicated Syrian involvement in the killing drew mainly on mobile phone data, though later reports were worded more carefully and dropped the detailed discussion of leads.
Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said in July that he had information from Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri that 'rogue elements' of his armed Shia party, an ally of Syria, would be indicted in the killing of Hariri and 22 others on Beirut's seafront in 2005. In that speech, as well as his landmark address on 9 August, Nasrallah made the case that Israel's control over Lebanese telecommunications rendered any evidence based on such data invalid.
He also presented what he described as intercepted Israeli surveillance footage scanning Hariri's routes and the site of his assassination in the period leading up to the killing (the images were undated) and videotaped confessions by some of those arrested for spying for Israel.
As well as Karam, the alleged collaborators have included six employees from the Alfa and Ogero mobile phone companies, high-ranking army and security forces personnel and car dealers reported to have sold vehicles equipped with Israeli tracking devices to Hizbullah officials. Analysts say a telecoms and information war between Lebanon and Israel has emerged to the surface.
"I think the number of spies will rise much higher than the current 150 people," Riad Bahsoun, a Beirut-based telecommunications expert, told the Weekly. Six employees from Alfa and Ogero had been detained, he said, but other detained suspects included telecoms specialists in the security services.
He said two of the arrested Alfa employees had access to base stations, radio hubs that manage communications traffic. "That, for an intelligence service like Mossad, would be a great advantage," he said.
"With access to a base station they could create, forge or change information and assist an external party to access the station to do those things," Bahsoun said. SIM-card cloning, simulating the voice of a subscriber and sending messages and making calls without a subscriber's knowledge would be among potential uses, he said.
Omar Nashabe, a criminologist and the justice editor for pro-parliamentary opposition newspaper Al-Akhbar, agreed. "These were not just spies, they were operatives. They could change data, for example make it look as though a call took place without the sender knowing."
But both experts emphasised that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, established last year, could not legally present a case based purely on telecommunications data, for the precise reason that it could be tampered with.
"Such files cannot be used as material evidence to indict or declare a suspect unless supported by other sources of evidence," Bahsoun said. "And [STL Prosecutor Daniel] Bellemare made this very clear in a professional way in his last report to the UN Security Council."
Spies working for Israel (and indeed, many other countries) were known to be operating extensively in Lebanon during the 1975-1990 civil war. Some of Lebanon's Christian Maronite forces were also openly allied to the Jewish state in their shared hostility towards the Palestinian presence in Lebanon.
Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000 and was maintained with the help of a local proxy, the South Lebanon Army, provided further opportunities for Israel to recruit local agents. Nasrallah said several of those whose testimony he cited, and in some cases played tapes of, had helped groups of Israelis to enter and leave Lebanese territory.
Bahsoun said that with the July War in 2006, Lebanon's Israeli spies may have lost control of their usual means of communicating with their Israeli handlers and started to take more risks.
A turning point came in May 2008, when the Western- backed government headed by Fouad Al-Seniora clamped down on Hizbullah's communications network. "It indicated that they needed more information about Hizbullah," Nashabe said. "Hizbullah relies on wire communications. If they were stopped and they were forced to use wireless, it would be easier to know more about Hizbullah's leaders and to track them."
Hizbullah responded ruthlessly, seizing parts of western Beirut and other areas close to the government and Hariri's Future Movement with the help of its allies. The Doha agreement that brought calm to Lebanon the following month also brought in the national unity government that had long been Hizbullah's key domestic political demand. These arrests may highlight the reasons why.
Army intelligence and the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces, the latter widely viewed as close to Hariri, have shifted their focus to technical work "rather than that which is politically guided", Bahsoun said. "They've put more people in counter-espionage and they are cooperating more closely with Hizbullah."
Although the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces have carried out the arrests to widespread acclaim, many analysts believe Hizbullah's formidable technical and intelligence capabilities, of which Nasrallah's presentation was seen as a dramatic reminder, are a key factor in the wave of successes.
The UN tribunal has not issued any indictments, or confirmed the reports on suspecting Hizbullah. Whether or not prosecutors decide to explore Israel's penetration of Lebanese security and telecoms, let alone Nasrallah's broader accusations, with the wave of arrests expected to continue, the Hizbullah secretary-general's arguments will fall on increasingly receptive ears in Lebanon and the region.
"Nobody with any sense of logic denies the fact that Israel is trying to destroy Hizbullah," Nashabe said. "Logically, then, they will try anything. Yet not once, as far as we know, has anyone from the tribunal been sent to Israel."