Opinion: Mishandled analysis of 1982 Tyre attack had implications for US, France

1983 Beirut barracks bombings

BETWEEN 1982 AND 1983, 450 defense personnel and civilians from Israel, the United States and France were killed in Lebanon as a result of four consecutive terrorist attacks conducted by Hezbollah. For years, questions have been raised whether these attacks could have been prevented.

In 2000, a senior Israel Security Agency (ISA) official wrote a report on the huge explosion in the Israeli compound in Tyre, Lebanon, in 1982. Based on the available intelligence, he reached a firm conclusion: it was a suicide bombing by a Shiite terrorist inside a booby-trapped vehicle, and not a gas balloon explosion, as was officially claimed. Requests to publish the new report with the recent conclusions were denied by ISA senior officials, for reasons that remain unknown. This prompted questions and strong doubts among counterterrorism experts and the Israeli the public, about whether the initial report from 1982 was actually a serious mistake of judgement, or even a cover-up.

Twenty years later, in November 2020, an investigative article was published in Israel by Ronen Bergman, which shed light on new details indicating a high probability that the attack in Tyre was a Hezbollah terrorist attack and not a result of an explosion of gas balloons. The article stated that in 1982 Israeli authorities, especially the ISA, were not ready to admit that their intelligence missed the attack and did not stop it in time. As a result, lessons were not learned regarding the immediate need to strengthen the security of foreign compounds in Lebanon against possible threats from Hezbollah. In 1983 Hezbollah used the same modus operandi of car bombs to attack US and French forces in Beirut and later the —then new— Israeli compound of Tyre.

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News you may have missed #903

Israel Lebanon borderState-level espionage on EU a ‘very high threat’ says report. The most successful attempts of espionage at a top EU institution are state sponsored, according to an internal document produced by a subcommittee of the European Council, which is composed of heads of state or government of all European Union member-states. The restricted document presents an analysis of threats to the security of information at the General Secretariat of the Council.
Man shot after crossing into Israel, apparently to spy, returned to Lebanon. A Syrian national who was shot after he crossed the border into Israel from Lebanon last month, apparently to perform reconnaissance for Hezbollah, was sent back to Lebanon on Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces said. According to the IDF, the International Red Cross transported him back to Lebanon through the rarely used Rosh Hanikra border crossing.
As virus toll preoccupies US, rivals test limits of American power. The coronavirus may have changed almost everything, but it did not change this: global challenges to the United States spin ahead, with America’s adversaries testing the limits and seeing what gains they can make with minimal pushback. A New York Times analysis claims that COVID-19 has not created a new reality as much as it has widened divisions that existed before the pandemic. And with the United States looking inward, preoccupied by the fear of more viral waves, unemployment soaring over 20% and nationwide protests ignited by deadly police brutality, its competitors are moving to fill the vacuum, and quickly.

Mossad chief comments on policy of assassinations in rare interview

Yossi CohenYossi Cohen, the chief of the Mossad —Israel’s main external intelligence agency— said he has authorized “more than a few” assassinations during his tenure and warned that more may be on the way. Cohen, 57, who took command of the Mossad in 2016, spoke last week to Mishpacha, a magazine aimed at ultra-orthodox Jews. His comments were covered widely by Israeli media over the weekend.

Cohen was asked to respond to recent allegations made by the Iranian government that Israel worked with “Arab countries” to assassinate General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, an elite paramilitary unit in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Suleimani claimed that several individuals were arrested last month in connection with the alleged plot. He also said that Israel tried to kill him and Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah group, in 2006.

The head of the Mossad told Mishpacha that Suleimani had not “necessarily committed the mistake yet that would place him on the prestigious list of Mossad’s assassination targets”. However, “he knows very well that his assassination is not impossible” because “the infrastructure he built presents a serious challenge for Israel”, said Cohen. Regarding Nasrallah, Cohen said that the Hezbollah strongman “knows we have the option of eliminating him”. When asked why the Mossad had not exercised that option, Cohen said he preferred not to answer.

In regards to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, Cohen admitted that the Mossad has been behind a string of assassinations of Hamas officials around the world in recent years. “If there is one target that we eliminate without hesitation, it is Hamas officials abroad. [These range] from local agents to those who manage acquisitions of weapons pointed towards Israel”, said Cohen. He added that there had been “more than a few assassinations” in recent years, but not all were admitted to by Hamas. “The enemy has changed tactics. It is not quick to attribute assassination to us, for its own reasons”, said the Mossad chief.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 October 2019 | Permalink

Iran has clandestine missile factories in Lebanon, claims Israel’s ex-spy chief

Amos YadlinThe government of Iran is smuggling parts for ballistic missiles to Lebanon, where they are secretly assembled in clandestine factories operated by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, according to Israel’s former spy chief. For several months now, the international news agency Reuters has been claiming that Tehran has transported short-range ballistic missiles to secret bases controlled by pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Iran’s move was aimed at “deterring attacks on [Iran’s] interests in the Middle East and to give it the means to it reginal foes”, said Reuters, citing “Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources”. Both Iran and Iraq denied the Reuters report.

In September, another report, citing “Western intelligence sources”, said that Iran had begun smuggling parts of short-range ballistic missiles to Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon, using commercial flights. The report pointed to at least two flights that are suspected by Western intelligence agencies of having illegally transported precision weapon parts to Lebanon. Both flights were operated by Qeshm Fars Air, a company believed to be used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Members of the IRGC, arguably the most loyal branch of the Iranian military, are selected on the basis of their ideological commitment to the defense of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The two flights identified in the report departed from commercial and military airports in Tehran and landed in Lebanon after taking “uncharacteristic flight paths” through Syria, said Western intelligence sources.

On Sunday, Israel’s highest-circulation newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, carried an interview with the former director of the Jewish state’s Military Intelligence Directorate, Major General (ret.) Amos Yadlin. Yadlin, who also served as Israel’s military attaché in Washington, said that Iran used to hide ballistic missile parts in Syria, hoping to establish de facto missile bases there. However, Tehran’s plan suffered a major setback last May, said Yadlin, when Israel’s air force destroyed approximately 50 targets inside Syria, including —according to Yadlin— Iranian missile factories. Since then, he said, Tehran has been relocating its missile factories to Lebanon, believing that Israel will not attack its neighbor to the north. But Yadlin, who is a known supporter of left-of-center parties in Israel, and a proponent of the two-state solution to the Palestinian problem, argued that Israel should consider attacking Iran’s military factories in Lebanon. The Jewish state faces two choices, said Yadlin: “to strike [Lebanon], not necessarily by air”, or to allow Hezbollah to acquire precision missiles. “Israel will not accept this change”, he added.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 October 2018 | Permalink

Czech spy agency says it neutralized Hezbollah cyberespionage network

Czech Security Information ServiceOfficials in the Czech Republic have announced that the country’s spy agency headed an operation in several countries, aimed at neutralizing a cyberespionage network operated by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Early last week, the Security Information Service (BIS), the primary domestic national intelligence agency of the Czech Republic, issued a short statement saying that it “played a big part in helping to identify and disconnect Hezbollah servers in the Czech Republic, other EU member states and the US”. But it did not elaborate. On Tuesday, however, ZDNet’s Zero Day security blog published more information from the Czechs about the BIS operation.

According to the BIS, its cyber security force discovered a number of servers located on Czech soil, which were “almost certainly” used by Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that controls large swathes of territory in Lebanon. The servers were allegedly used in a wide-range cyberespionage operation that began in 2017 by a group of Hezbollah hackers based in Lebanon. It was there, said the BIS, where the command-and-control facilities of the operation were located. The servers located on Czech soil were used to download phone apps that contained malicious software. The hackers targeted individual phone users located mainly in the Middle East, according to the BIS, but other targets were in eastern and central Europe. It is believed that the majority of targets were Israeli citizens. Invariably, targeted individuals were approached online, mostly through fake Facebook profiles. Most of the targets were men, and the fake Facebook profiles featured pictures of attractive young women. After initial messages were exchanged via Facebook, the targets were convinced to download phone applications that would allow them to continue communicating with the ‘women’. These applications would install spyware on their phones, thus allowing Hezbollah hackers to capture the content of messages and calls made on the phones. The latter could also be used as eavesdropping devices.

According to BIS Director Michal Koudelka, the spy agency “played a significant role in identifying and uncovering the hackers’ system. We identified the victims and traced the attack to its source facilities. Hacker servers have been shut down”, he said. Koudelka added that some of the servers used by Hezbollah were located in other European Union countries and in the United States. These were shut down following a joint cyber operation by BIS and “partners”, said Koudelka, though he did not identify them.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 October 2018 | Permalink

Key Hezbollah financier arrested in Brazil after years on the run

Assad Ahmad BarakatBrazilian police have announced the arrest of Assad Ahmad Barakat, a Lebanese national who is believed to be one of the most prolific international financiers for the Shiite group Hezbollah. Barakat was born in Lebanon but fled to Paraguay in the mid-1980s in the midst of Lebanon’s brutal civil war. He began an import-export business and eventually acquired Paraguayan citizenship. He gradually built a small business empire in Paraguay, which included engineering and construction, as well as transportation firms. Throughout that time, however, Barakat maintained strong connections with Hezbollah, the paramilitary group that has a strong following among Lebanon’s large Shiite Muslim community.

By the mid-1990s, Barakat was one of Hezbollah’s most active representatives in the Americas and operated as the Shiite group’s head of paramilitary and fundraising activities in South America. It is believed that he used his Paraguayan passport to travel to Iran and Lebanon for meetings with Hezbollah’s leadership at least once a year. In 2001, following pressure from the United States, Paraguay charged Barakat in absentia with money-laundering. He was eventually caught in Brazil in 2002 and extradited to Paraguay, where he was tried and sentenced to six years in prison. Upon his release in 2008, Barakat returned to his role as Hezbollah’s fundraiser. Using fake passports, he traveled frequently to Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and other Latin American countries, despite having been described by the US government as “one of the most prominent and influential members of the [Hezbollah] terrorist organization”. He was wanted in Paraguay for identity theft and in Argentina for laundering in excess of $10 million in casinos in the north of the country.

Last Friday, the Brazilian Federal Police announced that Barakat had been arrested in the city of Foz do Iguaçu, which is adjacent to the Paraguayan and Argentinian borders. The city of 250,000 is the largest urban center of the so-called Tri-Border tropical region, known for its tropical climate, spectacular mountain views and casinos. Aside from being a year-round tourism center, the area is a known as a hotbed of money-laundering, forged currency smuggling and drug-trafficking activity. It is now known whether Barakat will face charges in Brazil or whether he will be extradited to Paraguay or Argentina.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 September 2018 | Permalink

Alleged Israeli spying device concealed inside fake rock found in Lebanon

Cyprus, Israel, Syria, LebanonA sophisticated spying device disguised as a rock, which was allegedly planted by Israeli intelligence, was found by Lebanese Army troops on a hill located a few miles from the Lebanese-Israeli border. The discovery was reported early on Saturday by several Lebanese news websites, including Al-Mayadeen and Al-Manar, which are closely affiliated with Hezbollah. Al-Manar said that the spy device had been found in the outskirts of Kfarchouba, a predominantly Shiite Lebanese village, located in Arkoub, 100 miles southeast of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut. Kfarchouba’s location is extremely strategic, as the village overlooks northern Israel on the south and the Golan Heights on the east. It has been bombed by Israel several dimes between the 1970s and today, and is remains heavily militarized.

Reports from Lebanon said that a Lebanese Army patrol found the device hidden inside a fake rock, which had been placed on a hill outside Kfarchouba. The device had been placed in direct view of a major Lebanese military outpost, known as Rawisat. As soon as the device was detected, the patrol reportedly called in the Lebanese Army’s intelligence corps for support. Technical experts soon examined the discovery and determined that it contained a sophisticated thermographic camera. Also known as infrared or thermal imaging cameras, thermographic cameras capture images using infrared radiation, instead of using visible light, as is the case with commonly used cameras. This allows them to capture relatively clear images in the darkness, and are thus used for military operations that require night vision. Some Lebanese websites published photographs showing parts of the alleged spy device, which appear to bear writing in Hebrew.

This is not the first time that alleged Israeli spy devices have been found in southern Lebanon. In September of 2014, one person was killed when a mysterious device found near the Lebanese village of Adloun suddenly exploded as Hezbollah troops were examining it. It was later suggested that the device had been attached by Israeli troops to the Hezbollah-owned telecommunications network that spans southern Lebanon. Hezbollah said that the device had been remotely detonated by an Israeli drone in order to prevent it from being reverse-engineered. Two other devices found by a Lebanese Army patrol in the same region in October of 2009 suddenly exploded, as Lebanese security personnel were approaching. A Lebanese Army official said on Sunday that the device found in Kfarchouba will be dismantled by Lebanese Army engineers.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 September 2017 | Permalink

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: https://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.

CIA had central role in Hezbollah official’s killing, say sources

Imad MughniyahBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The United States, not Israel, as previously thought, led an assassination operation that targeted a senior member of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in 2008, according to two separate reports that came out last week. Imad Mughniyah was among the founders of Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that today controls large parts of Lebanon. At the time of his assassination, Mughniyah headed the Hezbollah’s security apparatus and some claim he was the organization’s second-in-command. He was killed on the evening of February 12, 2008, when a car laden with explosives blew up at a central parking lot in Syrian capital Damascus, where he had been living in secret. The Shiite group blamed Israel for his killing. But two reports that aired this week, one in The Washington Post and the other in Newsweek, cited unnamed former government officials in the US in claiming that the operation was in fact led by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Washington Post’s Adam Goldman and Ellen Nakashima said the CIA was assisted in the operation by its Israeli counterpart, the Mossad, while Newsweek’s Jeff Stein wrote that the effort was personally approved by then-US President George Bush and was closely supervised by then-CIA Director Michael Hayden.

According to the reports, the Mossad uncovered Mughniyah’s whereabouts in 2007 and alerted the CIA, suggesting a joint operation to kill the Hezbollah strongman. Soon after President Bush approved the strike, officers in the CIA’s Near East Division planned the logistics of the operation, which involved building a complex bomb, smuggling it into Syria and placing it inside the spare tire of a locally-purchased vehicle. The bomb was allegedly designed by technicians from the CIA’s Directorate of Science & Technology, who carried out dozens of tests at a CIA facility in Harvey Point, North Carolina.

The operation was allegedly coordinated from a CIA safe house located near Mughniyah’s apartment in the Syrian capital. On the evening February 12, a team of Mossad and CIA operatives employed facial-recognition technology to identify their target as he was walking out of a local restaurant. When Mughniyah approached the explosives-laden SUV, the bomb was remotely detonated, decapitating him and blasting his torso through a nearby window (note: Goldman and Nakashima claim that the bomb was remotely detonated by Mossad officers located in Tel Aviv; Stein suggests the blast was triggered by a CIA officer who had been placed in charge of the remote-control mechanism).

The reports describe the operation as “one of the most high-risk covert actions” undertaken by the CIA in recent years, because it targeted a high-profile individual in a country with which the US was not officially at war. Additionally, the method used —a car bomb— is particularly controversial, as it is typically a method of operation preferred by organized criminals and terrorist organizations.

The US has not acknowledged participation in Mughniyah’s assassination, and the CIA declined to comment when contacted by The Washington Post on Friday. Mark Regev, spokesman for the office of the Israeli prime minister, said simply that Tel Aviv had “nothing to add at this time”.