Dangerous fallout from Hizbullah’s Israeli spy scandal
By Ed Blanche in Beirut
The reported discovery of an Israeli spy cell in the upper echelons of Hizbullah’s much-vaunted security apparatus and the betrayal of a string of operations against the Jewish state is the worst security breach the Iranian-backed movement has suffered since its iconic military commander, Imad Mughniyeh, was assassinated in Damascus on 8 February 2008.
The setback could not have come at a worse time for the Shia movement, as it is reluctantly drawn ever deeper into the civil war in neighbouring Syria to aid the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad, and faces the threat of a battle with Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State that could eclipse Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war in sectarian barbarity.
Indeed, it may well be that the exposure of the deputy head of the organisation’s external operations group as an Israeli agent is linked to the death of Mughniyeh, who until the rise of Osama bin Laden was the most wanted man on the planet, in a car bombing in one of the most heavily guarded districts of the Syrian capital.
The Lebanese media says the key figure in the Israeli spy ring, identified as Mohammad Shawraba, was seized by Hizbullah in November. He was reportedly recruited by the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, in 2007.
Shawraba and four other members of Unit 910, formed a few years ago to mastermind Hizbullah’s operations abroad, allegedly betrayed a string of five attacks planned against Israeli and Jewish targets in Peru, Cyprus, India, Thailand and Bulgaria over the last couple of years.
But Shawraba, an acolyte of Mughniyeh’s, is also suspected of involvement in the car bombing that killed Mughniyeh in one of the most heavily guarded districts of the Syrian capital.
The Israelis have never formally admitted responsibility for that bombing, but it bore all the hallmarks of the Mossad’s notorious Caesaria section, its death squad.
This latest security breach is not the first such setback Hizbullah has suffered over the last few years. At least two senior figures have defected to Israel since 2009, testimony to Mossad having developed the capability of infiltrating Hizbullah over the last decade.
Indeed, the Mossad’s penetration of Hizbullah’s security hierarchy may prove to be symptomatic of a deeper malaise within the secretive organisation that has emerged as its power and strength have multiplied over the last two decades.
“Hizbullah once had an enviable reputation for financial probity in a country where sleaze and nepotism is endemic,” observed Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based writer and author of the 2011 book “Warriors of God: Inside Hizbullah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel”.
“Yet Hizbullah’s enormous expansion in manpower, military assets and cash generation since 2006 has perhaps inevitably led to a weakening of the party’s internal control mechanisms, making it susceptible to the lure of corruption and penetration by Israeli intelligence agencies.
“In the years ahead,” Blanford surmised, “the phenomenon of corruption will pose an even greater threat to Hizbullah than Israel’s military might.”
Dozens of spies
Exactly how extensive the Mossad’s penetration of Hizbullah has been in recent years remains unclear. But Hizbullah stepped up its hunt for Israeli agents after its 2006 war with Israel and the subsequent assassination of Mughniyeh.
Since 2009, Lebanese authorities and Hizbullah’s own security apparatus claim to have arrested more than 100 Israeli agents, mostly Lebanese and Palestinians.
Some of these were clearly small fry, but they included a retired army general, Fayez Karam who headed military counter-intelligence in the 1980s. He was also closely linked to former army commander Gen. Michel Aoun, a Maronite Catholic who could become Lebanon’s next president.
There were also several serving security officials and political figures, telecommunications experts, and others tasked with monitoring Hizbullah leaders.
One, Ali Taufiq Yari, a 67-year-old antique dealer and a former member of the city council in Baalbek, deep in Hizbullah’s Bekaa Valley heartland, confessed he had spied for Israel since 1990 and receiving $600,000 for his trouble.
Al Akhbar, a Lebanese daily associated with Hizbullah, observed that Yari even tracked Hizbullah’s elusive leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, “and gave Israel its most detailed mappings of the Bekaa. He is considered one of the most important Israeli spies to have been arrested in Lebanon in recent years.”
According to Lebanese officials, Yari’s primary mission was locating Hizbullah’s command centres and its extensive fiber-optic communications network that links these centres with the party’s missile sites and is supposedly immune to Israeli penetration.
The magnitude of the case has amplified other problems with which Hizbullah is having to grapple with, primarily its involvement in the Syrian war on the side of President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime.
This has cost Hizbullah as many as 700 of its best fighters killed, and more than 1,500 wounded, since 2012. It’s also draining the organisation’s manpower and alienatingmany Lebanese Shia, Hizbullah’s core constituency.
Lebanon’s Shia have been further dismayed by the growing danger posed by jihadist militants who are now openly attacking Hizbullah’s bastions in northeast Lebanon and have even suicide-bombed its stronghold in south Beirut for the first time, threatening an all-out sectarian conflict.