‘They’re always here’: Israel's network of operatives in Lebanon

A series of Israeli assassinations on Lebanese territory has revived memories of civil war-era espionage

Israel is believed to have assassinated senior Hezbollah commander Wissam Tawil in a drone strike in southern Lebanon using information from a local source. AP Photo
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Many alleged that Abu Rish, the notorious homeless vagrant who was part of war-torn west Beirut’s urban landscape in the early 1980s, was an Israeli spy.

At the time, the western half of Lebanon’s capital was home to a cosmopolitan array of residents and was controlled by various leftist and pro-Palestinian factions. Beyond occasionally buying him a coffee or sharing a greeting, residents of the west – including political activists and militia leaders – paid no attention to him.

All the while, Abu Rish sat, watched and listened to their conversations.

He disappeared for some time after Israel invaded Lebanon and besieged Beirut in 1982. It is said that when Abu Rish returned, he was in an Israeli officer’s uniform.

They shot him multiple times in the shoulders and legs. A clear sign that they wanted information
Brig Gen Hisham Jaber on the killing of Hezbollah-linked financier Mohammad Srour

According to military expert and retired Brig Gen Hisham Jaber, who specialises in counter-intelligence, there are many such espionage stories in Lebanon’s history, particularly during the civil war from 1975-1990.

“But it didn’t end when the war ended,” said Brig Gen Jaber, who heads the Middle East Studies Centre in Beirut. "They’re always here — both undercover Israeli operatives and local agents who collaborate with them.”

Since October 8, when cross-border bombings began between the Israeli army and Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah, Israel has carried out numerous assassinations of Hezbollah figures and affiliates.

“Their numbers increase in times of war. Historically, Lebanon has always been exposed to foreign, and especially Israeli, espionage,” Brig Gen Jaber said.

Brazen assassinations

The assassination of money exchanger Mohammad Srour in early April – who was sanctioned by the US in 2019 for his affiliation with Hezbollah and for providing financial support to Hamas – was a reminder of the country’s vulnerability to espionage.

The investigation into Mr Srour’s killing reveals evidence of sophisticated planning and surveillance, Lebanon's Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi told AP last week.

“Lebanese security agencies have suspicion or accusations that [Israeli spy agency] Mossad was behind this operation,” he said.

Mr Mawlawi's conclusion was corroborated by a Lebanese security official and another source with close ties to Lebanon’s security establishment who both spoke to The National.

The 57-year-old was lured to the town of Beit Meri under the pretext of delivering money to a woman. Mr Srour’s nephew accompanied him on the first delivery, inadvertently foiling the agents.

The nephew later told security agencies that the woman had a Baalbeki accent, which implied the operation was aided by local agents collaborating with Israeli operatives, the security official told The National.

When Mr Srour returned to deliver once again to the woman, he was alone, allowing for his abduction and transportation to a secondary location.

Mr Srour was still handcuffed when his body, which showed signs of torture, was eventually found in a villa.

“They shot him multiple times in the shoulders and legs,” retired Brig Gen Jaber said. “A clear sign that they wanted information.”

The villa where Mr Srour’s body was found had been rented out for a year in advance, for $48,000. The pistols and tools used to kill Mr Srour had been cleaned of fingerprints and left behind. Thousands of dollars were found scattered around his body – indicating there was no financial motive for his death.

“It was most likely an Israeli operative who conducted the torture,” Brig Gen Jaber said. “It takes training and precision to do what they did and then clean it up without leaving a trace. Even if Israel recruited local collaborators to help with this operation, the [locals] wouldn’t have been the ones to torture him.”

The National reached out to a representative of Israel's security agencies about Lebanon's allegations over Mr Srour's killing but received no response. Israel rarely comments on its intelligence operations.

But the initial conclusions from the investigation beg the question: Given that under Lebanese law Israeli citizens are forbidden from entering the country, how would Mossad agents enter?

“All it takes is someone with a foreign passport,” a security official with intimate knowledge of intelligence gathering told The National. “This is how someone in the Mossad can enter through the airport.”

Such was the case with Erika Chambers, a Mossad operative who was one of the people behind the 1979 assassination of Ali Hassan Salameh, a high-ranking official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Mr Salameh was a founding member of Black September, the militant group responsible for orchestrating the attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, sending Israel on a vengeance spree.

Ms Chambers entered Lebanon posing as a British charity worker. She lived in an apartment overlooking a car park used by Mr Salameh. On January 22, 1979, as Mr Salameh pulled out of the car park to attend his mother’s birthday party, Ms Chambers reportedly detonated the bomb that was planted on his car by another operative.

She disappeared without a trace soon after – much like Mr Srour’s killers.

Surveillance and recruitment

With the prospect of an all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah more likely than ever, the security official told The National that Israel had probably increased the presence of its undercover operatives in Lebanon.

He also said that Israel has taken advantage of Lebanon's economic crisis to recruit local agents.

Brig Gen Jaber agreed with the assessment.

“All of Lebanon is under surveillance by the Mossad and the Israeli army’s intelligence. And they know how to pick people who have the potential to be collaborators,” he said.

“Every human has a weak point. Money. Sex. Political affiliation or resentment. These are the main three things that Israel uses to recruit people.”

Israel’s technological superiority is also an asset that has left Lebanon’s security agencies struggling.

“Israel’s movement is now easier and faster thanks to technology,” the security official said.

“For example, they [agencies] use social media to recruit for jobs online. The person applying doesn’t know an Israeli intelligence agency is behind the screen. The Israelis start small – maybe they ask the recruit to take tourism photos for money. Then the requests get more intense, like maybe they want the recruit to gather information on a specific person, or to map roads. Before the person knows it they’ve become intelligence assets to the Israelis.”

When the strikes began along the Lebanon-Israel border in October, the Israeli army used its ability to intercept phone calls and hack into CCTV. They also used satellites and surveillance drones to triangulate the locations of Hezbollah fighters.

Brig Gen Jaber told The National that Hezbollah fighters and allies were careless with the use of phones initially.

“Not using their phones on missions might have been an obvious lesson to learn given what we know of Israel’s abilities, but hindsight is 20/20,” he said.

Hamas deputy leader Saleh Al Arouri was killed in an Israeli strike on a Hamas office in the Beirut suburb of Dahieh in January. The senior official and six others had brought their phones to the office, which also had access to a Wi-Fi network, exposing them to risk.

Lebanese officials believe Israel recruited local agents to survey the street where the office was located two weeks before Mr Arouri was killed. In December, two people were arrested on suspicion of providing information to Israel after being recruited by a digital tourism company, which a security official told The National was likely a front for an Israeli intelligence agency.

Phones as ‘spy devices’

In December, suspecting that Israel was using CCTV to find Hezbollah fighters, the Iran-allied group asked residents of south Lebanon to turn off cameras in front of their homes and businesses. Two months later, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned residents of south Lebanon of the risks associated with using mobile phones, calling them “spy devices that can be controlled”.

Hezbollah senior commander Wissam Tawil did not have a mobile phone when he was assassinated in Majdel Selm, a source close to Hezbollah and Lebanon’s intelligence agencies told The National.

Instead, the Israeli army relied on a local agent who knew Mr Tawil.

“That person was giving information to the Israelis about [Mr Tawil’s] movements and whereabouts. He planted a GPS chip on Wissam Al Tawil's car. And then, when he was in it and moving, an Israeli drone targeted it,” the source said.

“That’s it. It’s not very complicated.”

Civil war-era paranoia

On a warm April day in west Beirut's Hamra district, writer Ziad Kaj and bookstore owner Sleiman Bakhti sat and traded civil war-era spy stories.

Mr Kaj was 17 years old during Israel’s invasion. He said he often walked past Abu Rish in the streets of Ras Beirut in the years before the vagrant was discovered to be an Israeli military officer.

“Abu Rish became a lesson,” said the writer. “It reminded us that spies are everywhere.”

Laughing, Mr Bakhti replied to him with a civil war-era joke about the pervasiveness of foreign espionage in Lebanon.

“One day a guest rang the fourth floor interphone on an agent’s house in west Beirut. The guest spoke a code into the speaker: ‘The clouds are over the hills.’

“The person on the other end of the line answered: ‘You have the wrong house. You want the spy on the third floor, not the fourth floor!’”

Updated: April 25, 2024, 9:37 AM