December 18, 2010

Israeli espionage devices in Lebanon - I'm shocked!

Israeli communications monitoring device discovered in Lebanon

Lebanese security officials have discovered more Israeli clandestine monitoring and "espionage devices" in the country, and have complained to the United Nations. This is comical on several levels. First, the fact that Israel is conducting intelligence collection operations in Lebanon should come as no surprise to anyone. Lebanon is home to one of Israel's most serious threat organizations, Hizballah, so of course the Israelis are collecting information on it.

Second, complaining to the United Nations about another country's intelligence operations is laughable. One only need look at the other United Nations' efforts in Lebanon, such as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). UNIFIL has been "interim" since 1978; thirty two years has a sense of permanence. It would be one thing if the force was actually effective, but its presence has not prevented repeated wars between Israel and various groups in Lebanon.

Israeli monitoring devices are not a new phenomenon. Israeli military intelligence has been placing them in Lebanon, as well as Syria, for decades. When I served as the air attaché at the American embassy in Damascus, it was not uncommon for us to hear of Israeli monitoring devices being discovered. Normally, when the devices are discovered or are tampered with, they detonate, either by a triggering mechanism on the device, or are detonated remotely via an electronic signal.

Over the last month, the Lebanese have revealed the discovery (some by Hizballah) of at least four devices, two near the southern city of Tyre (Sur), and one on Mount Sanin and one on Mount Baruq. The location of these monitoring and observation makes sense to any intelligence officer.

Tyre is a major city in the heart of the area controlled by Hizballah (and theoretically under UNIFIL supervision) and only 10 miles north of the border with Israel. The Israelis consider this to be Hizballah's primary area of operations. Most of the rocket attacks on northern Israel in the 2006 war were launched from this area. Mount Sanin and Mount Baruq are among the highest points in the mountains that run north and south on the western edge of the Biqa' Valley, another Hizballah stronghold.

Most of the tactical communications systems used by Hizballah employ line-of-sight radio waves. To intercept these communications and exploit them for intelligence requires either airborne platforms or devices placed on high terrain. Mount Sanin and Mount Baruq would serve nicely, especially when combined with permanent monitoring stations located in Israel along the Lebanese border.

There is another likely purpose for these devices. Israeli military intelligence and Mossad both operate human intelligence networks in Lebanon; these assets have access to essential information. The problem is getting the information from the assets to the case officers in Israel. These devices may also provide clandestine communications capabilities for these assets.

The Israelis will continue to use these devices, planting them when and where they can. Until the threat from Hizballah is neutralized, they really have no choice.