It will be remembered as one of the closest battles to a modern day David vs. Goliath.
On the one side you had a nuclear capable and highly militarized state that, awash with the best of western military hardware combining the elements of range, speed and firepower, had been victorious in every war it fought – on occasions against the combined militaries of five enemy states.
Pitched against them was an armed non-state actor who, without recourse to an air force, satellite surveillance or even a single tank battalion, happened to be the world’s most formidable proponent of hybrid warfare.
The latter would not only score a ‘tactical’ victory by confounding the military array of the vastly superior force and rendering its war aims inoperable, but in doing so it accomplished a landmark that shall be forever written in the historical marvels of military strategy.
Yet mighty Israel’s 2006 defeat at the hands of Lebanese Hezbollah was more than a mere rude awakening for the Jewish states war strategists –- strategists whose life ritual was dedicating to preserving its fearsome deterrence.
It would generate a deadly national Israeli infatuation with furnishing their otherwise invincible defense forces with all the necessary means needed to crush the guerilla movement when the next inevitable round of conflict breaks out.
On this account, and despite the fact that Israel has feverishly pursued intelligence gathering on Hezbollah since its inception, it was quickly determined that the key to achieving this mammoth task lay in the enlargement of intelligence assets on the versatile enemy’s tactical and strategic capabilities.
Although it’s virtually impossible to place a date on the start of Israel’s increased intelligence gathering program, it would be safe to assume that it was simultaneously put into place just as the UN brokered ceasefire that ended the 2006 war took effect.
The first old school spying exposures came in the form of official Lebanese security services announcements that gradually trickled out between November 2008 and August 2010.
Acting on information secretly provided by Hezbollah, the announcements stated that security forces had broken up no fewer than 25 Israeli spy rings and charging more than 70 persons, including a colonel in Lebanese army intelligence and a retired Brigadier General then associated with Hezbollah’s main Christian allies, the Free Patriotic Movement.
Around the same time and owing to frustration at being unable to seriously infiltrate the movement, both Israel and her American ally appeared to have somewhat drastically upped the ante.
In December of 2010, again acting on a tip from Hezbollah, the Lebanese army exposed and then dismantled two sophisticated spying devices.
The devices were concealed in fake rocks on the slopes of separate mountain ranges overlooking Beirut, and designed to send ground surveillance pictures day and night of towns in the Bekaa Valley and parts of Syria.
In March 2011, a similar camouflaged device was uncovered in Southern Lebanon and whose radar transmissions allude to it sending pictures of the coastal region near the town of Tyre, a known Hezbollah stronghold.
But it was the thus far unprecedented utilization of such devices that would shock interested observers.
They were diligently built long-range spy cameras, activated by overflying surveillance planes that directly take and relay photographs in real time from the system, which in one of the cases was placed at an altitude of 1,175m and made up of two artificial boulders.
One boulder contained transmitting and receiving signals linked to a remote wireless transmission stations in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, whilst the other contained a large number of high-powered batteries and a cooling system that was designed to provide power for the linked equipment for a ‘number of years’.
There is no doubt that a thorough investigation by Hezbollah’s dedicated technicians, to this day not revealed, would have exposed their true workings.
But even in the absence of this, it wouldn’t be hard to assume from the intricate nature and positioning of the devices that they were used for the purposes of monitoring individual, traffic and suspected military activity in areas frequented by Hezbollah.
In doing this, it left open some questions that Hezbollah would have accounted for:
1. Considering the devices were planted within fake rocks, it must have been imperative for Israeli intelligence to obtain terrain samples of the area in order to manufacture them—prior to their successful concealing and planting. Who then was involved in frequenting these sites in order to make it possible? And how did they go about this undetected, considering the eventual installation that would have taken at least two hours to complete.
2. Why did Israeli intelligence pick the particular spots? Why, or how, did they suspect the routes and locations were of a particularly sensitive nature and what could they have revealed?
3. How long had the devices been in place? It could have been possible that these devices were instrumental in monitoring the movements of senior Hezbollah military cadres in the past. Is it possible that they were even involved in spotting the regular vehicle used by Hajj Imad Mugniyeh – the movement’s former military commander, who we now know frequently visited Damascus via the Bekaa Valley route prior to his 2008 assassination?
By June 2011, it initially appeared that the CIA had finally made limited inroads into recruiting low-level agents associated with the movement—only for Hezbollah’s leader to publically admit that although this was indeed the case, the two agents were exposed and eventually sent to Lebanese Police custody—without even coming near to harming the movement interests.
Incidentally in December of the same year, Hezbollah hit something of a jackpot by capturing 10 CIA agents and in the process exposing (with animations) the entire CIA unit, from the lead case officer in the American Embassy to his subordinates down, that had once again attempted to infiltrate the movement.
Countering the supersonic eyes and ears
Spy drones and other aerial reconnaissance vehicles intermittently flying over Lebanon were always considered an ace for Israeli intelligence—since they did so unopposed and at an altitude that made them incapable of being shot down.
They roamed the skies of Lebanon, equipped with a wealth of sensors that included image intensifiers, radars, infrared imaging for low light conditions and even color-coded television cameras to beam back real-time imagery of ground activities.
As a result, it allowed the drones controllers to scout for precise data on certain geographical locations, map out routes, make distance calculations to and from sensitive sites and even become capable of monitoring the routines of targeted persons and vehicles in the dead of the night.
Yet as Israel’s expertise in this field grew, together with their ability to deploy even more advanced drones, Hezbollah, albeit with Iranian electronic assistance, was increasingly making significant strides into countering them.
Although the Lebanese movement has previously admitted to snooping on still photos and video feed taken from Israeli drones as far back as 1997, and which culminated into the ambushing of elite Israeli soldiers, in the aftermath of the 2006 war its capabilities had reached new heights.
For instance, in October 2011 the mysterious disappearance, which to this day has still not been revealed, of a regular Israeli drone over south Lebanon is widely believed to be the work of Hezbollah.
Although there’s been no repeat of the above incident since, its clear that Hezbollah could only have done this by hacking into the drones GPS guidance system, jamming or altering its path and thus rendering it to either malfunction or capture.
This is in addition to previous Hezbollah admissions in the past that they’ve been successful at deciphering the drones encrypted satellite transmission codes that connect them to their pilots and sensor operators.
It’s incidents like this that lead many Israeli experts to readily fear that Hezbollah, unbeknown to them, might be successfully logging flights, and gleaning data from the advanced Shoval (Heron) reconnaissance drones that fly over Lebanon at an altitude of 40,000 feet.
The drones, which can stay airborne for an average of 36 hours, carry up to 1000 kilograms worth of sensors and special surveillance equipment as well as being capable of refueling in mid-air; are championed as the country’s most vital conduit for the surveying of ground observations relating to Hezbollah’s battlefield, armament-storage and strategic combat dispositions.
If not having an eye on commandeering them to a safe landing and capture anytime soon, its certain that Hezbollah has, or is on the verge of, making a stinging breakthrough in counter-drone technology.
But as if this was not enough, Hezbollah is now believed to be capable of monitoring the stealth flights of what are rumored to be Israeli versions of the U.S. Navy’s EP-3E reconnaissance planes operating over Lebanese airspace.
The planes, equipped with ultra-sensitive receivers and high-gain dish antennas, can intercept a broad range of electronic emissions and environmental conversations deep within a targeted territory and which can then be amplified to recognize and disseminate individual voices.
The results of these intercepts are then extrapolated to provide real-time intelligence that is eventually relayed to adroit spymasters based on the 3rd floor of a nondescript building perched on a small hill in the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv—the headquarters of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.
In line with being allies, another helping hand is widely believed to be coming via the United Kingdom’s remote RAF Troodos signals station based at the Troodos mountain range in Cyprus—which is believed to be providing Israeli intelligence with a broad range of mobile and internet communication data related to persons connected to Hezbollah.
This communication system has particular value in the eyes of Israel, for it was the very system which culled millions of mobile phone calls made in Lebanon and teased out five covert and open networks of cell phones ‘allegedly’ used by conspirators to coordinate the 2005 assassination of late premier Rafic Hariri and presented it for the benefit of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).
Even as Israel’s increasingly sophisticated aerial surveillance and eavesdropping was well underway, Hezbollah caused panic in concerned circles when Israeli jets shot down the first of two Iranian-manufactured Hezbollah drones that would at different periods fly deep into Israeli air space and in close proximity to sensitive military locations.
In July 2012, and with the western-backed war in the Syrian Arab Republic in full swing, Israel’s surreptitious measures aimed at wire-tapping into Hezbollah’s revered private fiber-optic cable matrix in Southern Lebanon were once again frustrated.
Hezbollah technicians would not only discover that Israeli agents had audaciously planted three unknown spying devices—but that they each came implanted with booby-traps that could be exploded upon suspected exposure.
One such device contained 20 boxes and batteries and was linked via an 80m cable to transmission equipment pointing towards Israeli military posts.
However, it was subsequently destroyed as a result of signals sent from an Israeli plane hovering over the location at the time.
And this brings us to the year 2013, critical because of Hezbollah’s increasing involvement in the Syrian conflict, Al-Qaeda car bombings and missile attacks on its constituent areas in Lebanon and the threat of military strikes in Syria by the United States.
In August, Israel tried setting another benchmark by sending a team of elite troops on a midnight reconnaissance mission—breaching some 400 meters into Lebanese territory in the process—before her soldiers sustained injuries resulting from twin explosions detonated by Hezbollah guerillas that were lying in wait.
Although their mission was designed to monitor a hillside locality that the thermal imaging devices of one of its overhead drones had signaled was emitting unusual heat residue, the planners of the fiasco have since been puzzled by Hezbollah’s ability to both accurately predict the timing and place of the incursion and, to set up the ambush without ever being noticed by Israel’s giant intelligence apparatus.
It’s widely suspected that Hezbollah is most probably in possession of certain types of sophisticated long-range parabolic microphones, complete with attached accessories that offer nighttime vision.
The microphones dishes would probably be designed to amplify sounds and whose built-in monocular would allow Hezbollah’s operators to stakeout from safe distances whilst being able to monitor suspicious Israeli movements on both sides of the border undetected.
Interestingly, Israel’s crack signals intelligence unit, which has permanent bases along the Lebanese/Israeli border and deploys acoustic as well as seismic ground sensors round-the-clock and can detect everything from the sounds of engines to animals prowling; failed to pick up movements in the targeted area on and around the days leading up to the ambush.
This is aside from taking cognizance of the fact that both the Lebanese army as well as UN battalions stationed on the border, failed to detect both the Israeli incursion as well as the Hezbollah response.
Yet despite the apparent setbacks, Israel appears as determined as ever to sink to any depth in the quest for building an ever-larger data bank on its Lebanese adversary.
Last month, the website stop910, which purports to be “an association of western intelligence organizations established to fight terror” (although it’s unequivocally a front for Israeli intelligence) recently posted never-seen-before pictures of Hajj Mustafa Badr al-Din.
He is the shadowy figure considered by Israel and its allies to be Hezbollah’s top military commander—and incidentally one of now five suspects indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Al-Hariri.
The website sells itself on the narrative that “a considerable sum of money is promised to anyone who sends us information that contributes to our effort”.
In other words, anyone who collaborates with them for exchanging information on suspects pictured or mentioned (some of whom are individuals high on Israel’s infamous targeted killing list), be it in the form of phone numbers or residential details and sightings; will be duly compensated whilst remaining anonymous.
But to those who are familiar with such measures, it only solidifies the likely origins of those who control the workings of the site and the highest levels of official clearance it would need to release it to the public, not to mention the ability to produce such sensitive pictures and acute physical descriptions on sensitive individuals in the first place.
At the same time, Hezbollah, true to its reputation of being the most sophisticated non-state military and intelligence apparatus in the world, was busy rubbing its hands with glee when they became recipients of what they claim is Israel’s latest reconnaissance endeavors.
Earlier this month, the movement had in its possession a clearly marked Israeli Eagle, which authorities in Israel’s Tel-Aviv University claimed was on mere flying tests.
The problem was that upon inspection, the eagle’s leg bracelet was found fitted with an acute transmission device—rendering Israeli claims (in Hezbollah’s eyes) to a cesspool of continued lies.
In spite of the unprecedented levels of spying and counter-spying that’s taken place between the two eternal foes, the ongoing activities of both are unlikely to abate anytime soon.
Israel will continue to try and make up for the fundamental error it made with its 2006 war on Lebanon: Picking the pace of a fight with a weaker enemy, albeit upon provocation—only to be dealt the most humiliating defeat in its history.
Its casual airstrikes in Syria to prevent what it says are the imminent transfers of ‘game-changing’ weapons to Hezbollah, is the most striking evidence to the levels it will go to halt the movements continued rearmament program—knowing full well it could potentially trigger a wider conflict.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Hezbollah battled-hardened fighters and intelligence agents continue to watch over the border intently, devouring every piece of intelligence on its mighty enemy that it gets hold off—whilst itching for another crack at humiliating it.
Only in the last few days, its highlighted Israel’s latest spying stations that reportedly allow it to detect everything from vibrations and waves and could even breach phone cables over the Lebanese border.
As each side battles to stay one step ahead of the other, vividly aware that this pre-war intelligence will largely determine who will scramble for the exits in the event of another war first; one can confidently assume that pomp and pageantry at perceived spying successes will duly be delayed for a little while longer.