Israel silent after assassination of key Hezbollah figure in Damascus

Samir Kuntar Israel has refused comment following the death of a senior official of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, who was killed on Saturday in a missile strike in Syria. Samir Kuntar (also spelled Qantar) was a Druze who joined the Syrian-backed, Lebanese-based, Palestine Liberation Front (later Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command) at a young age. In 1979, Kuntar was jailed for an attack on an apartment block in Israel’s northern coastal town of Nahariya, which resulted in the death of four Israeli civilians and two of the attackers. However, he was freed after nearly three decades in prison in exchange for the bodies of two Israel Defense Force soldiers, who had been captured and executed by Hezbollah in 2006.

Since his high-profile release, Kuntar was believed to have risen in the ranks of Hezbollah, and to have become a major operational figure in the Lebanese militant group. In September of this year, the United States Department of State officially designated Kuntar a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. This designation, under US Executive Order 13224, denoted that Kuntar posed a significant and immediate terrorist threat to American interests. A statement issued by the US State Department at the time described Kuntar as one of Hezbollah’s “most visible and popular spokesmen”, and said he also had an operational role in the organization.

Kuntar was reportedly killed alongside eight other people when a barrage of missiles hit a residential building in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana. A statement by Hezbollah-controlled television station Al-Manar said four long-range missiles were fired by two “Israeli warplanes” that appeared to target the residential building. Based on footage aired by Al-Manar, the multi-story building appears completely destroyed. Moreover, at least one other Hezbollah senior commander, Farhan al-Shaalan, is said to have died in the strike.

Although Hezbollah officially accused “the Zionist entity” for the missile strikes, Israel has refused comment on Kuntar’s killing. When asked for a response by reporters on Sunday morning, Israeli Minister for Construction and Housing Yoav Gallant said he was happy that Kuntar was dead, but stopped short of confirming that Israel was behind the killing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 December 2015 | Permalink

ISIS bombing of Beirut is more important than Paris attacks

Bourj al-Barajneh The recent attacks by Islamic State militants in Paris continue to dominate the world’s headlines. But the double suicide blasts that struck Beirut three days earlier are far more significant for the future of the Syrian Civil War. The outpouring of grief that followed the attacks of November 15 in the French capital prompted charges of discrimination against the world’s media. The latter practically ignored the bombing of Lebanese capital Beirut on November 12, which killed 43 and injured over 200 people. The Islamic State, known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), claimed responsibility for the deadly blasts, which marked the bloodiest attack in the Lebanese capital since the end of the country’s civil war in 1990.

The contrast between the media’s treatment of the attacks in Paris and Beirut could not have been starker. The news of the double suicide blasts in Beirut hardly penetrated global headlines, with the exception of outlets like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Even the BBC, which typically pays more attention to non-Western news, relegated the incident to third place, behind a story about corruption in the international football association and the news of the killing of “Jihadi John”. There was no “safety check” app on Facebook, and no Lebanese flags were superimposed on users’ profile photos. Yet the blasts in Beirut are more significant than the attacks in Paris, for two reasons.

First, because attacking “soft targets” in Paris is far easier than attacking Beirut. Paris is a city of 2.2 million people, who are used to a life of relative security and hardly pay attention to their surroundings. The “city of light” features a café in nearly every corner, 13,000 restaurants and over 2,000 hotels; it is easy to enter and exit, and is hardly policed, even by Western standards. Beirut, on the other hand, is a tense Middle Eastern city with heavy police and military presence. The southern Beirut neighborhood of Bourj al-Barajneh, which was targeted by ISIS on November 12, is a Hezbollah stronghold, and probably one of the most tightly policed urban areas in the Eastern Mediterranean. There is little government presence there; but this does not mean that there is no security. On the contrary, Hezbollah militias and volunteers provide protection and conduct careful monitoring of nearly every street. Like its neighboring Dahieh, Bourj al-Barajneh is a world far removed from the fashionable streets of downtown Beirut, where Starbucks cafés and McDonald’s restaurants are frequented by fashionable Lebanese Christians and Western diplomats. Western intelligence has almost no presence Q Quotethere, and even the Mossad, Israel’s feared spy service, rarely ventures in the Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods.

The fact that ISIS was able to penetrate and bomb Bourj al-Barajneh is a monumental development in the ever-widening Syrian Civil War. It demonstrates the advanced planning and operational sophistication of ISIS and places the ball squarely in Hezbollah’s court. What is more, it was the second time in less than two years that ISIS bombed southern Beirut. The Shiite group has been humiliated, having been shown to lack the resources to protect its heartland from Sunni attacks. Moreover, the Lebanese group, which is almost exclusively funded by Iran, will have to respond to that provocation. For several months, the Middle East has been buzzing with rumors that Iran and Hezbollah are preparing a two-front, large-scale ground assault against ISIS forces. Do last week’s twin suicide attacks bring that possibility closer? The answer to that question may change the entire course of the Syrian Civil War. Read more of this post

Iran, Hezbollah to launch ground assault on Syria rebels, says Reuters

Syrian troopsHundreds of ground troops from Iran and Lebanon have been entering Syria in the past two weeks and are about to launch a large-scale ground attack against rebel groups, according to Reuters. The news agency quoted Lebanese sources “familiar with political and military developments in the conflict”. One source said that the Russian airstrikes in Syria, which began earlier this week, are the first phase of a large-scale military offensive against the Islamic State and other anti-government forces operating on the ground.

The Lebanese official told the news agency that hundreds of Iranian “soldiers and officers” had arrived in Syria in September. These forces “are not advisors”, said the source; rather, they have entered Syria “with equipment and weapons, specifically to participate in this battle. And they will be followed by more”, said the source, adding that some “Iraqis would also take part in the operation”, without specifying whether these would be regular troops or Iraqi Shiite militias. According to Reuters, the operation will be supported by Russian airstrikes and aims to recapture territory that is currently in the hands of various rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State.

Last week it was reported that the governments of Russia, Iraq and Iran had entered a formal intelligence-sharing agreement with Syria, in an effort to defeat the forces fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It will be staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who will be passing on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries. The announcement of the agreement came as Russia continued to reinforce its military presence in Syria by deploying troops in Latakia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 2 October 2015 | Permalink

Israel charges Swedish citizen with spying for Hezbollah

HezbollahIsraeli authorities have charged a Swedish citizen with working as an intelligence officer for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. It is believed that Hassan Khalil Hizran, 55, was born to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, from where he emigrated to Sweden many years ago. But he was arrested in Tel Aviv on July 21 while disembarking a flight at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport and was taken into custody by the Shin Bet, Israel’s counterterrorism and counterintelligence agency. A spokesman for the agency said Hizran had confessed during interrogation to being an intelligence operative for Hezbollah, a primarily Shiite organization that controls much of Lebanon’s territory. He is said to have told his interrogators that he was recruited by the group in the summer of 2009 while visiting Lebanon from Sweden with his wife and children.

Shin Bet said that Hizran had been asked by his Hezbollah handlers to gather intelligence relating to Israeli military installations and that he visited Israel several times in order to fulfil his missions. He would then return to Lebanon after visiting a third country in order to provide his Hezbollah handlers with the information he had collected while in Israel. Sources in Tel Aviv said Hizran visited Lebanon at least twice since his 2009 recruitment, specifically in 2011 and 2013. He returned to Sweden with monetary sums given to him by Hezbollah as payment for his services, which amounted to several thousand dollars, according to Shin Bet. The Israeli security agency said the Swede was helping Hezbollah identify military targets for a future war, which it interpreted as “proof that Hezbollah is preparing for the net war with Israel by compiling a target bank”.

According to the Israelis, Hizran had also been tasked by Hezbollah with recruiting Arabs with ties to Israeli Jews, but that he was either unable or unwilling to do so. However, on Sunday he was charged with three criminal counts including contacting an agent of a foreign government and communicating sensitive information. The Swedish man’s Israeli lawyer, Leah Tsemel, denied that her client was guilty of espionage and claimed that he had “refused repeated requests to inflict harm on the national security of Israel”. The Swedish and Lebanese governments have not commented on Hizran’s arrest.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 August 2015 | Permalink

Mossad allegedly behind arrest of ‘Hezbollah bomber’ in Cyprus

Larnaca police stationA team of officers from Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency were heading to Cyprus late yesterday to be briefed on the arrest of a dual Lebanese-Canadian citizen, who was found to be in possession of 67 thousand packages of ammonium nitrate. It is not yet clear whether the passports held by the 26-year-old man are genuine. Cypriot police said he used his Canadian passport to enter the Mediterranean island about a week ago. But he was arrested on Wednesday, after police found 420 boxes of ammonium nitrate in the house where he was staying. The boxes amount to nearly 2 tons of the highly flammable fertilizer. They were discovered in the basement of a house in a residential neighborhood of the city of Larnaca, on the southern coast of Cyprus.

On Monday, Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida said the Lebanese-Canadian man was arrested after Cypriot police were tipped off by the Mossad. The Kuwaiti newspaper, cited “exclusive sources from Israel” in saying that the 26-year-old is thought to be an operative of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Al-Jarida added that the man is thought to have contacted several Hezbollah operatives in recent months, and that he has even met Hezbollah’s reclusive leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Cypriot police are working on the assumption that the ammonium nitrate was going to be used to blow up the Israeli embassy on the island, or to attack Israeli tourists holidaying there. But he was stopped because the Israelis were able to monitor his phone calls to other Hezbollah operatives, said Al-Jarida.

The Kuwaiti newspaper’s claims appeared to be confirmed on Monday morning, as the alleged Hezbollah operative was brought under heavy police protection to the Larnaka District Court. The authorities then promptly admitted a request by the prosecutor to conduct the proceedings behind closed doors, due to “concerns pertaining to the national security of the state”. Meanwhile, a local Cypriot newspaper, the Famagusta Gazette, said a team of Mossad officers were on their way to the island to be briefed by the police and possibly speak to the detainee. Speaking to reporters on Monday, Israel’s Minister of Defense, Moshe Yaalon, said the house in Larnaka was a “Hezbollah hideout” that served as a safe house for the Shiite group’s “international terrorism network”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 02 June 2015 | Permalink: http://intelnews.org/2015/06/02/01-1707/

Hezbollah likely behind malware that attacked Israeli servers

Malware program codeBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A report by a major Israeli computer security firm claims that “a Lebanese entity”, possibly Hezbollah, was behind a cyberespionage operation that targeted companies connected to the Israeli military. In late March, Israeli computer security experts announced they had uncovered an extensive cyberespionage operation that targeted computers in Israel, and to a lesser extent in the United States, Britain, Turkey and Canada. The cyberespionage operation, dubbed VOLATILE CEDAR by Israeli computer security experts, was allegedly launched in 2012. It employed a sophisticated malicious software, also known as malware, codenamed EXPLOSIVE. One Israeli security expert, Yaniv Balmas, said the malware was not particularly sophisticated, but it was advanced enough to perform its mission undetected for over three years.

It is worth noting that, during the period of operation, the EXPLOSIVE malware kept surreptitiously updating itself with at least four different versions, which periodically supplemented the original malware code. Additionally, once the discovery of the malware was publicized in the media, security experts recorded several incoming messages sent to the installed malware asking it to self-destruct. These clues point to a level of programming and operational sophistication that exceeds those usually found in criminal cyberattacks.

According to Israeli computer security firm CheckPoint, there is little doubt that the source of the malware was in Lebanon, while a number of programming clues point to Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah as “a major player” in the operation. In a report published this week, CheckPoint reveals that most of the Israeli targets infected with the malware belong to data-storage and communications firms that provide services to the Israel Defense Forces. According to one expert in the firm, the malware designers took great care to avoid “a frontal attack on the IDF network”, preferring instead to target private entities that are connected to the Israeli military. More specifically, the web shells used to control compromised servers after successful penetration attempts were of Iranian origin. Additionally, the initial command and control servers that handled EXPLOSIVE appear to belong to a Lebanese company.

The head of CheckPoint’s security and vulnerability research unit, Shahar Tal, told Ha’aretz newspaper: “We are not experts on international relations and do not pretend to analyze the geopolitical situation in Lebanon”. But these attacks originated from there, and were specifically designed to infiltrate “systems that are connected to the IDF”, he added.

Israelis dispute CIA was behind Hezbollah strongman’s killing

Imad MughniyahBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Sources in Israel are disputing reports from January that the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency was behind the assassination of one of Hezbollah’s most senior officials. On January 31 of this year, two US-based publications, The Washington Post and Newsweek, claimed that it was the CIA, not Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency as previously thought, who led the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyah. Mughniyah, who was among the founders of Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that today controls large parts of Lebanon, was killed when a car laden with explosives blew up at a central parking lot in Syrian capital Damascus, where he had been living in secret.

According to the reports, the Mossad alerted the CIA after uncovering Mughniyah’s whereabouts in 2007, and suggested a joint operation to kill the Hezbollah strongman. The American covert-action agency proceeded to have a bomb designed by technicians from its Science & Technology Directorate, who carried out dozens of tests at a CIA facility in North Carolina. It was, according to the Post and Newsweek reports, the very bomb that killed Mughniyah on the evening of February 12 near his home in the Syrian capital.

But Dan Raviv, the Washington-based national correspondent for CBS News, said on Sunday that Israeli intelligence insiders are disputing claims that the CIA was the leading force in the operation. In a report published on Sunday, Raviv cited “Israelis close to their country’s services” as saying that the operation against Mughniyah was “almost all blue-and-white, and just a little bit red-white-and-blue” —a direct reference to the colors in the Israeli and American flags. The CBS correspondent said Israelis had been “miffed that the Americans were taking too much credit” for the strike against Mughniyah, and were actively “speaking with Western officials and diplomats to offer corrections”.

According to Raviv, it was the Mossad and Aman (Israel’s primary military-intelligence agency) that discovered Mughniyah’s whereabouts in 2007, and proceeded to design a bomb after the US declined Israel’s invitation to help organize a joint strike. Eventually, claims Raviv, Israel’s then-Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, convinced then-US President George W. Bush to approve a strike against Mughniyah, by showing him videos of the custom-made car bomb being tested in Israel. An impressed President Bush then authorized the CIA to participate in the operation. But by that time, says Raviv, the Israelis were firmly in command of the project and remained so until its final execution. Neither the CIA nor the Mossad have commented on the allegations regarding Mughniyah’s assassination.

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