In November 2011, the international media reported that Hizb Allah (also transliterated as Hezbollah) uncovered a CIA-orchestrated network that had infiltrated the organization. The alleged spies had been collecting information concerning the group’s operational capabilities and strategies, with the objective of sharing such information with U.S. and Israeli intelligence. The incident marked just the latest chapter in Hizb Allah’s post-2006 counterintelligence war.[1]

This article revisits Hizb Allah’s approach to counterintelligence in the post-2006 years, describing the group’s alleged uncovering of internal double agents and external informants, while also analyzing the implications of this trend.

Preparations for the “Next War”: The Counterintelligence Dimension
Hizb Allah’s emphasis on counterintelligence and the group’s borderline obsession with respect to potential foreign “spies” must be understood in the broader context of the group’s preparation for the “next round” of hostilities with Israel.

Since the end of the war in 2006, Hizb Allah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has made no mystery of his plans for the next war, specifying that the group has shifted its strategic focus from ending the “Israeli occupation” to a broader agenda that includes deterring future aggression as well as preventing interference from any country perceived as “hostile.” Nasrallah has expressed this more ambitious posture on numerous occasions by asserting that the group’s new doctrine would be centered around the concept of strategic parity and proportional retaliation. Thus, he reminded Israel that the new power equation would be “Tel Aviv for Beirut, and Ben Gurion International Airport for Beirut International Airport.”[2] Nasrallah emphasized this concept of strategic parity also in mid-February 2011 by stating that in the course of the next round of confrontation with Israel, Hizb Allah would respond to territorial invasion by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) with territorial invasion of its own—by sending Hizb Allah units to occupy the Galilee region.[3] These declarations exaggerate Hizb Allah’s capabilities, but they are significant because they reveal both the group’s renewed self-perception of power as well as its growing capabilities as a “hybrid army.”[4] In turn, this concept refers to the fact that during the 2006 war some of the tactics employed by Hizb Allah were better suited to a regular army than to a guerrilla group.[5] Although the group continued to rely on traditional non-conventional tactics, it also adopted conventional military tactics, including defending and holding ground to both protect its rocket launching sites and prevent an Israeli reoccupation of Lebanon.[6]

Similarly, as another new trend of the post-2006 years, Hizb Allah has become increasingly more ambitious in setting its goals for the next stage of military confrontation with Israel, openly referring to achieving a “decisive victory” against Israel during the “next war,” a claim that both sets the bar higher for Hizb Allah and raises the domestic as well as regional stakes in the next conflict.[7] In addition, this also suggests that Hizb Allah would use all of its capabilities to engage in an all-out war with Israel, trying to shift the theater of confrontation as much as possible into Israel proper and focusing even more on targeting Israeli civilians.

In this context, it is not surprising to observe that since 2006 Hizb Allah has actively engaged in rearming and regrouping, as well as in replenishing its stockpile of missiles, rockets and small-arms,[8] while working on strengthening its military apparatus based on the lessons learned from the 2006 war.[9] In addition, Hizb Allah has focused on improving both its intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities. Regarding the former task, the group has attempted to improve knowledge of its main enemy, also through recruiting informants and attempting to establish spy rings within Israel.[10] With respect to counterintelligence, Hizb Allah has emphasized both the importance of preventing infiltration and leaks of information from within the organization, as well as the priority of further investing in its separate Iranian-sponsored fiber optic communications network—seeking to prevent the infiltration and disruption of its own communications system. In turn, these decisions were spurred by the fact that in 2006 Israel seemed to know more about the group’s network than the organization was comfortable admitting.

To conduct counterintelligence, the group has relied specifically on an ad hoc secretive body created in the early 2000s to perform the role of internal watchdog, prevent infiltration, and enforce organizational security: the Counterintelligence Unit (Amn al-Muddad).[11] Relying on both signals intelligence through its sophisticated electronic apparatus, courtesy of Iran, as well as human intelligence, the group’s efforts to pursue alleged double agents and prevent internal infiltration has taken a renewed, more aggressive, and increasingly public dimension in the post-2006 years. The peak of this trend was the November 2011 public exposure of an alleged “CIA spy ring” and the admission of internal infiltration into the organization.

The Public Counterintelligence Campaign
Hizb Allah’s alleged uncovering of a CIA spy ring in 2011 was frequently portrayed in the international press as a groundbreaking and exceptional event. It would be incorrect, however, to describe it as a “one-time” exceptional occurrence. Instead, this “CIA scandal” should be read as part of Hizb Allah’s aggressive campaign to publicize its targeting of alleged “spies and informants” operating within Lebanon. In turn, this campaign—which has been important in the aftermath of the July 2006 war—picked up momentum in 2009. From April 2009 until today, in fact, Lebanese authorities in cooperation with Hizb Allah claim to have arrested more than 100 individuals on suspicion of collaborating with foreign intelligence agencies (the CIA and the Mossad).[12] Those arrested have included “fake” Hizb Allah sympathizers and donors, businessmen, politicians, telecommunications workers, as well as internal and military security personnel. Although Lebanon has always worried about the issue of “foreign spies,” such cases were few between the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 and the 2006 war.[13]

One of the first such cases occurred in the immediate aftermath of the July 2006 war, when an inspector of Sûreté Générale (Lebanon’s “General Security” intelligence agency) was detained under suspicion of collaborating with Israeli intelligence.[14] This episode was followed by the arrests of brothers Yusef and Ali Jarrah from the eastern Bekaa region, under suspicion of having been in contact with Israeli intelligence since the 1980s.[15] Pre-July 2006, such cases were sparse.

Subsequently, the pace of the investigations picked up in the winter of 2009, when an employee of Middle East Airlines—also suspected of spying for Israel—went missing, while a suspected agent from Southern Lebanon was detained by Lebanese authorities.[16] The case of Marwan Faqih, the owner of a garage near Nabatiyah in south Lebanon, was particularly interesting since the suspected “spy” had over the decades developed a close connection with Hizb Allah, and had therefore been granted some degree of access to the organization. In turn, this represented the first—albeit not yet substantial—blow to the group’s reputation of total unity and cohesion and to its alleged “invulnerability” to infiltration. Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of the Faqih case, reports in the Arab press asserted that Hizb Allah had been forced to relocate some of its weapons and rockets out of arms caches deemed as compromised.[17]

The spring of 2009 was similarly eventful for Hizb Allah, which—again cooperating with Lebanese intelligence—helped uncover three alleged “spy rings” active in the general security apparatus, raising a public debate within Lebanon (at times bordering paranoia) over the extent of the so-called “infiltration.”[18]

The next main event in the “spies chronology” was the arrest of Charbel Qazzi, a technician in Alfa, one of the two local mobile phone companies, again on the suspicion of collaborating with Israel.[19] In turn, this event was important for Hizb Allah because it helped the group boost its campaign to tarnish the reputation of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, tasked with investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Indeed, Hizb Allah used the arrest of the Alfa technician to question the tribunal’s reliance on phone records acquired through Alfa during the course of the investigations.[20] If Alfa had been “infiltrated,” then the records offered by the company were not valid, claimed Hizb Allah, thus using the arrest as a means to instill doubt over the credibility of the special tribunal’s evidence.

Following the Alfa investigation, Lebanon’s focus on finding “foreign agents” did not decline. In December 2010, Lebanon again claimed to have found Israeli “spying devices” within its territory, leading both to the arrests of suspected “collaborators” as well as to Lebanon filing a complaint at the UN Security Council.[21]

Despite the domestic relevance of these episodes, the real event that truly changed the narrative over the issue was the June 2011 report over the direct infiltration of “agents” within the ranks of Hizb Allah proper. In June, Hizb Allah directly revealed that it had found a spy cell operating within its own ranks, and that the suspected spies included more than five Hizb Allah members.[22] In the words of Nasrallah, these alleged spies had been recruited by the CIA, a claim promptly denied by U.S. officials in Beirut, and their work would have benefited the United States and Israel,[23] an argument central to Hizb Allah’s ongoing anti-American propaganda.

These reports contributed to questions over Hizb Allah’s reputation in terms of its unity and cohesion, as for the first time the group admitted to being infiltrated. In this context, when in September 2011 new reports in the Arab press stated that Hizb Allah had uncovered five additional suspected “Israeli” spies operating within its own ranks, the Shi`a organization was quick to dismiss the reports as “fabrications,” likely to mitigate the perception that there had been a repeated security breach.[24] In November 2011, however, the group took the opposite stand and openly announced that it had foiled another internal infiltration, unmasking Hizb Allah members who had been allegedly serving as CIA informants, an announcement again denied by U.S. official authorities in Lebanon, but confirmed unofficially from within the ranks of the local staff.[25]

In turn, the announcement created an unprecedented internal debate within Lebanon, leading the government to summon the U.S. ambassador in Beirut Maura Connelly to question her over the incident.[26]

Significance and Implications
Although open source intelligence is not sufficient to reach a definitive conclusion regarding the actual extent and impact of the so-called “spy files,” the fact that the debate over the existence of such networks has been widely reported in the Lebanese media is a significant fact worth analyzing.

In this context, a consideration is that in disclosing such information, Hizb Allah is carefully balancing between its mutually exclusive need to boost its reputation by promoting its alleged achievements, its desire to employ the “spy” tool to improve its campaign against the United States (and the U.S. presence in Lebanon), and its equally important organizational need to preserve its reputation of unity, cohesion, and strength.

First, the renewed effort to publicize the achievements of the counterintelligence war is part of Hizb Allah’s psychological campaign to project power and discredit the intelligence apparatus of its main enemies. In other words, Hizb Allah’s direct benefit in making the “spy” issue public is to get “bragging rights.” In the words of Hassan Fadlallah during a post-CIA scandal press conference, the operation “reveals the size of the achievement that was made by the resistance through its persistent work to protect national security and fight the US and Israeli espionage.”[27] Deputy Kamil al-Rafei of Hizb Allah’s parliamentary bloc similarly stated that the November 2011 operation was the result of a very well-planned strategy, adding that in the future the party would re-double its efforts in stopping future infiltration.[28]

Second, from the viewpoint of a Hizb Allah member, the CIA agents were indeed spying for Israel, showing that the country was not able to collect information directly and that it had to rely on the Americans to get much needed intelligence on Nasrallah’s organization. This was not the first time Hizb Allah had argued that the American presence in Lebanon was a hostile one, and that the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was a “Trojan horse” to spy on Lebanon on behalf of Israel.[29] In turn, this point is particularly important as it allows Hizb Allah to simultaneously promote its self-proclaimed role as “national defender,” while also questioning the country’s alliance with the United States. By denouncing the alleged spy ring as a “flagrant assault on Lebanon’s sovereignty by U.S. intelligence,”[30] both Amal and Hizb Allah were questioning the strategic relevance of Lebanon’s alliance with the United States, criticizing the March 14 political opposition’s pro-Western stance.

Third, although it is promoting the alleged achievements of the “resistance,” it is treading a thin line by openly addressing the issue of infiltration. Indeed, although the group wants to promote its counterintelligence capabilities, it also wants to preserve its reputation of cohesion and unity, and to downplay the level of internal defection. In fact, since the aftermath of the 2006 war, the group’s reputation for invulnerability has taken a series of important hits: first, with the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyyeh in Damascus, and then with the repeated reports of internal infiltration, first revealed in June 2011. At the time, Nasrallah’s revelations were quite explosive, going against his earlier claims that Hizb Allah was immune to infiltration, and somewhat tarnishing the group’s “aura.”[31] In fact, before June 2011 all the previous arrests of spies within Lebanon did not directly involve people from within the ranks of the organization.  This is not to say that such cases had not existed before, but rather that the organization had previously chosen to keep them secret. To counter the perception of internal weakness stemming from the alleged internal breaches, Hizb Allah has worked to downplay their size, minimizing the number and rank of officials involved, and also arguing that in many cases the alleged “spies” were not in fact directly affiliated with Nasrallah’s group.

At the same time, news reports from the Arab world have focused on grasping the consequences of exposing the alleged spy rings. Accordingly, Hizb Allah—known to take internal security seriously—has undertaken an in-depth investigation of its rank-and-file to prevent further cases of collaborators and double agents, leading to the removal of some high-level officials over their alleged inefficiency in preventing infiltration, while openly tackling the previously unmentioned issue of internal corruption.[32] While it is impossible to conduct a precise assessment of the actual extent of the infiltration and the related measures undertaken by the group, it remains clear that the uncovering of the security breaches represented an important event in Hizb Allah’s recent history, one that will make it focus even more on the counterintelligence war and on preparations for the “next war.”

Since 2006, Hizb Allah has stepped up its counterintelligence war. Hizb Allah has been using the recent “CIA scandals” to reinforce its anti-American position and to once more question the strategic value of the Lebanese alliance with the United States, arguing that the CIA was operating as a spying proxy for Israel’s Mossad and that, in light of this event, the Lebanese government should review its foreign policy relationships.

In addition to this “positive” function, however, the revelations of the alleged infiltration of Hizb Allah have also had a second, negative outcome for the organization: they have contributed to tarnishing the group’s aura of invulnerability and its myth of total internal cohesion. Even though Hizb Allah has attempted to diminish the impact of the internal breaches by downplaying their size and magnitude, it is fair to assess that the revelations have been damaging.

Even so, the disclosure of the alleged uncovering of both Israeli and American agents over the past few years sends Israel a powerful reminder of the effectiveness and determination of Hizb Allah, as well as its renewed focus on counterintelligence. In turn, it is likely that, in the next round of hostilities between Israel and Hizb Allah, this front will play an increasingly important role.

Benedetta Berti is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the coauthor of Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

[1] In 2006, Israel and Hizb Allah fought a war in southern Lebanon that ended in stalemate.

[2] Bassem Mroue, “Nasrallah Warns Of Attack On Tel Aviv,” Associated Press, July 28, 2009; “Nasrallah: If You Strike Hariri Airport, We Will Strike Ben Gurion Airport,” Lebanese National News Agency, February 16, 2010. Nasrallah said, “I say to the Israelis, not only if you hit the Suburb will we hit Tel Aviv, but also if you hit Martyr Rafik al-Hariri’s Airport in Beirut, we will hit the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. If you hit our ports, we will hit yours. If you hit our oil refineries, we will hit yours. If you bomb our factories, we will bomb yours and if you bomb our power plants, we will bomb yours.”

[3] Dominic Evans, “Hizb Allah Chief Threatens To Seize Control Of Galilee,” National Post, February 17, 2011.

[4] Ralph Peters, “Lessons from Lebanon: The New Model Terrorist Army,” Armed Forces Journal International 144:3 (2006).

[5] Stephen Biddle and Jeffrey A. Friedman, “The 2006 Lebanon Campaign and The Future Of Warfare: Implications For Army And Defense Policy,” Strategic Studies Institute, September 2008.

[6] Secretary General Nasrallah explained this strategic shift in the aftermath of the 2006 war. He said that Hizb Allah went from being a popular resistance force to adopting “an unparalleled new school of warfare that functions as a combination of a regular army and guerrilla fighters.” See Amal Saad-Ghorayeb,  “The Hizbollah Project: Last War, Next War,”, August 13, 2009.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Richard Beeston and Nicholas Blanford, ‘‘Hizballah Stockpiles 40,000 Rockets Near Israel Border,’’ The Times, August 5, 2009.

[9] Among these lessons, most prominent is the need to improve the group’s vulnerability to airstrikes, to work on the accuracy of rockets, to increase, diversify, disperse, and better protect its arsenal, as well as to invest in more conventional training and to focus on holding terrain better, especially in non-urban areas. See also “Drums of War: Israel and the ‘Resistance Axis,’” International Crisis Group, August 2, 2010; Jeffrey White, “If War Comes,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 2010; Bilal Y. Saab and Nicholas Blanford, “The Next War: How Another Conflict between Hizballah and Israel Could Look and How Both Sides are Preparing for It,” Brookings Institution, August 2011.

[10] Amir Kulick, “Israeli Arabs and Hizbollah’s Covert War Against Israel,” Institute for National Security Studies, September 10, 2009.

[11] “Hizbollah: Rebel Without A Cause?” International Crisis Group, July 30, 2003.

[12] “Israeli Spy Suspect Arrested in Beirut,” al-Manar, April 6, 2011; “Swoop on ‘CIA Spies’ Sets Back Hezbollah,” United Press International, June 27, 2011; “American Spies Ousted, CIA Suffers in Lebanon,” Washington Post, November 21, 2011.

[13] Between 2000 and 2006, the main spy cases included the discovery of an alleged 12-person spy ring in March 2001, the uncovering of a three-person alleged spy ring in February 2002, and the indictment of four individuals in 2004. For details, see “Lebanon: Security Source Says ‘Israeli Spies’ Monitored Palestinian Centres,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 9, 2001; “Lebanese Intelligence Arrests Three Alleged Spies for Israel,” Tele-Liban, February 26, 2002; Zeina Karam, “Lebanon Indicts Five as Israeli Spies,” Jerusalem Post, June 17, 2004.

[14] Ali al-Musawi, “An Inspector in General Security Apprehended for Spying on Hezbollah,” al-Manar, February 28, 2007.

[15] “Lebanon Prosecutor Seeks Execution of Israel Spies,” BBC Monitoring Middle East, March 17, 2009.

[16] Nicholas Blanford, “War of the Spies as Enemies Prepare for Next Confrontation,” The Times, February 23, 2009.

[17] “Lebanese Hezbollah Moves Weapons, Investigates Members after Leaks,” al-Arabiya, March 24, 2009.

[18] Batul Wahbah, “Hezbollah, ISF Cooperating to Nab Israeli Spy Cells,” al-Manar, April 17, 2009; “Lebanese Authorities Said to Have Arrested Two Members of ‘Zionist Spy Network,’” al-Manar, April 25, 2009; “Three More Spy Suspects Arrested in Lebanon,” al-Manar, June 3, 2009.

[19] Ibrahim al-Amin, “Arrest of Lebanese Employee Suspected of Being an Israeli Agent,” Asharq al-Awsat, July 29, 2010.

[20] “Lebanese Figures React to Hizbollah Leader’s Speech on Tribunal, Spies,” Lebanese National News Agency, July 17, 2010.

[21] “Beirut Files Complaint to UN Against ‘Israeli Spy Devices.’ Lebanese Media say Equipment is Not New and May Have Been Planted with Help from ‘Collaborators,’” Jerusalem Post, December 19, 2010; “Report: New Espionage Devices Dismantled, Suspected Spies Arrested,” al-Manar, December 28, 2010.

[22] Sa’d Elias, “What is Behind the Report Over Arrest of Infiltrated Hezbollah Group?” al-Quds al-Arabi, June 23, 2011; “Shock Inside of Hezbollah Over Quantitative and Quality Israeli Infiltration of its Ranks,” al-Rai al-Aam, June 26, 2011.

[23] “Swoop on ‘CIA Spies’ Sets Back Hezbollah,” United Press International, June 27, 2011; “Lebanon: Hezbollah says it Captured C.I.A. Spies,” Associated Press, June 24, 2011.

[24] “Information on Uncovering of Five Israeli Spies Inside Hezbollah,” Asharq al-Awsat, September 23, 2011; “Hezbollah Denies Reports About Arrest of New ‘Spies,’” al-Manar, September 23, 2011.

[25] “American Spies Ousted, CIA Suffers in Lebanon,” Washington Post, November 21, 2011.

[26] “Lebanon to Summon U.S. Envoy Over ‘CIA Operatives,’” al-Arabiya, November 24, 2011.

[27] “News Conference by Hezbollah MP Hasan Fadlallah on CIA,” al-Manar, November 23, 2011.

[28] Paula Astih, “Deputy of Hezbollah Told Asharq al-Awsat: The Discovery of the CIA Agents was not a Coincidence Fluke, but a Deliberate Process,” Asharq al-Awsat, November 23, 2011.

[29] Already in June 2011, Nasrallah had stated: “when the Israeli enemy failed to infiltrate Hezbollah, it turned to the most powerful intelligence agency [a reference to the CIA].” See “Hezbollah Arrests 4 Israeli Agents Whilst Fifth Escapes – Sources,” Asharq Al-Awsat, September 23, 2011.

[30] “Hezbollah, Amal Urge Authorities to Counter Espionage by CIA,” The Daily Star, November 25, 2011.

[31] Sa’d Elias, “What is Behind the Report Over Arrest of Infiltrated Hezbollah Group?” Al-Quds al-Arabi, June 30, 2011.

[32] “The Trials of the Corrupt and the Silent Liquidations Within the Party,” As-Seyassah, November 23, 2011.

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