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Covert Wars: Hezbollah’s Outsmarting of the CIA

If the most important instruction of a clandestine intelligence organization is to remain anonymous, at least in terms of operational practice, then Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement recently had a field day by virtue of its almost inside-out exposure of the world’s most formidable intelligence machine: the CIA.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a televised speech on December 6, 2011 (AFP)

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a televised speech on December 6, 2011 (AFP)

The politico-religious movement, which maintains a militia/guerrilla force complete with a sophisticated intelligence arm independent of the Lebanese state, not only exposed CIA operations in its country; it practically caught dozens of its agents and officers with their pants around their ankles.

Although the events that culminated into the unraveling of the CIA activities in Lebanon initially remained shrouded in mystery, recent comments from Hezbollah officials[1] and a dedicated documentary with video animations by the movements mouthpiece Al Manar,[2] presented otherwise secretive information showing alleged meetings between CIA officers and their Lebanese informers.

The matter has become so sensitive in the US that even its major news organization CNN international refuses to disclose or discuss the reputed CIA station chief in Lebanon, whose name Hezbollah has now publicly disseminated.[3]

To gauge the complexity surrounding why Hezbollah, now in its twenty-eighth year of existence, would be rendered to a situation where it’s able to unravel grand espionage conducted by an organization which reputedly gets the lion’s share of funds allocated for National Intelligence, $53.1 billion in 2010,[4] it’s imperative to start from Beirut in the 1980s.

Following attacks by US-led Multinational Forces in Lebanon, which, although ostensibly designed to help the Lebanese authorities consolidate their control over the war-ridden country, culminated in the killing of Muslim civilians, revolutionary zealots inspired by Iran’s ayatollah Khomeini secretly vowed vengeance.

And it came at exactly 1:03 pm local time on April 18th 1983. A young Lebanese Shiite, believed to be Muhammad Hassuna, drove a green Mercedes pickup truck packed with 910 kg of explosives into the United States embassy in Beirut, killing sixty-three people, seventeen of whom were Americans. The fatalities that day also included six serving CIA officers, including the station chief, as well as his wife.

But it wasn’t so much the loss which frustrated the squadrons of CIA and FBI officers sent to investigate; rather it was their combined inability to extract a credible lead that would finger the perpetrators, which to this day has eluded them. For a start, the kamikaze attack completely consumed both the driver and the bomb’s detonator, the most crucial signatures that would lead an investigator on the trail of unraveling the attack.

Further, the best of FBI forensics were unable to even determine the composition of the explosive. The hypothesis is that the bomb makers wrapped half-filled acetylene tanks around the explosive, which not only served to enhance the brisance of the charge—the destructive fragmentation effect—but also to ensure the obliteration of the explosives along with the driver and detonator.[5]

It was clear that whoever planned this attack was shrewd and deadly; without singling out the culprits, it was impossible to overtly ensure America’s wrath on those who harmed her sons.

But with Iranian-backed Shiite militants being the lead suspects, the long arm of the CIA was extended to target them, albeit with a clumsy and disastrous consequence.

A massive 1985 car bombing designed to kill the man regarded as Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, instead ended up killing more than sixty people and wounded nearly two hundred, almost all civilians. Hezbollah cried foul, the US denied culpability, but information suggests it was the then head of the CIA who had ordered the attacks,[6] although a former National Security Advisor (NSA) has alluded to US training, but rogue operatives executing it.[7]

Either way, the culmination of those two attacks and subsequent ones has set the grounds for covert spying missions ever since, with the infiltration of each other’s respective organization becoming an intermittent priority.

The scale these covert attempts at penetration, on both sides, will remain classified for a long time. The CIA never comments on successful or failed missions as a matter of policy, whilst Hezbollah, which is quick to belittle its enemy’s failed attempts at espionage, never reveals the extent of its own direct espionage success.

The only thing we can be clear about is that stakes have been drastically altered since the tension surrounding Iran’s nuclear brinkmanship has hit world headlines in the last few years. Hezbollah, which is largely seen in the west as Iran’s most capable and dangerous proxy, has thus become a target of secretive missions designed to uncover its military apparatus and strategic capabilities—and thereby neutralize Iran’s ability to have a third strike option in the event of an Israeli or American attack on its nuclear facilities.

Israel, America’s strongest ally in the Middle-East, is no doubt petrified at the thought of a nuclear-armed Iran, a country which it spouts as regularly threatening its existence.[8] The onus it seems, has largely been put on the both the CIA and its Israeli equivalent, Mossad, to once again have a crack at breaking its 1980’s nemesis—which the US State Department now calls “the most technically capable terrorist group in the world”.[9]

In any case, apparent successes have been achieved by both sides.

In June 2011, Hezbollah’s present secretary-general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, told a live audience via video link that his movement had uncovered two CIA spies from within his own organization.[10] As much as it sent shockwaves through its predominantly Shiite constituency in the country, it did come as a surprise to many analysts that the CIA was again plotting so rigorously against Hezbollah, and even more that they had, for what appeared to be the first known time, actually succeeded in infiltrating the organization, even if only in the lower ranks.

Perhaps it explains why he so convincingly referred to the US embassy in Beirut as a “den of spies”.[11]

What seems to have transpired is this: using sophisticated telecoms analysis, Hezbollah’s ‘spy combat unit’ was able to piece together the matrix that linked the spies to their handlers (CIA case officers) back at the embassy. Not only that, the cover names for officers, rendezvous, and, most importantly, their methods – all seems to have been gratefully collected by Hezbollah’s counter-surveillance operatives.

But if the unraveling of the two spies from within Hezbollah by what is otherwise the most potent intelligence organization in the world means that somebody needs hauling over the coals back at headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the detailed public exposure of its latest folly as produced by Al Manar’s documentary, for the world to see, is likely to reverberate in the ears of every CIA operative that steps into Lebanon for years to come.

It gave a piece by piece account of the CIA set-up in Lebanon, right from the fact that the operational base is an annexed building located inside the US embassy compound in Awkar, Beirut. The current station chief has been named as Daniel Patrick Mcfeely, a 1966 born individual whose impersonation at the embassy is that of a diplomat. Even further, it recounts how he has a team of 10 officers, both men and women, who work under him to carry out intelligence work, and all of whom are diplomats.

If such detailed information was worrisome, Hezbollah goes further into the CIA’s operational structures by revealing that in addition to officers based in Beirut, other officers are sporadically sent to the country for short periods, and even gives their names, as well as their cover names—a routine carried out by all intelligence personnel in the world.

An account is then provided on their recruitment targets, modus operandi, stages of recruitment, and the potential of the spy himself in accordance with his domestic and professional capability. Hezbollah then reveals how the spies and their handlers establish operational communication, are instructed to have fortnightly meetings, and the locations of where they take place—sometimes in the front seats of the diplomatic-licensed US embassy vehicles.

Interestingly, although unable to be confirmed, the documentary revealed the apparent corruption with which CIA officers conduct business—perhaps a potential reason their sloppy actions in Lebanon were exposed in their entirety in the first place.


About the Author

Mohammad I. Aslam
Mohammad I. Aslam is a doctoral candidate in the Political Science at King’s College London and an independent politico-security analyst specializing in all forms of irregular and clandestine warfare. He's also a former editor at the Montréal review Journal. Contact him at m.aslam@freenet.de