Lebanon Pulse

Burgas Is the Latest Chapter In US-Hezbollah 'Spy Wars'

Article Summary
Hezbollah has recently been implicated in last summer’s Burgas bombing, a step that Jean Aziz describes as another installment in the "spy wars" between the Lebanese Shiite group and Washington.

Circles close to Hezbollah in Beirut have confirmed that for nearly two years the party has expected something against it, such as the recent accusation that it was responsible for the Bulgaria bombing. The intelligence war between this Shiite organization and the West has a long record. Yet ever since Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gave a public speech in Beirut in June 2011, it has become an uncontrolled battle and a new strike is imminent, according to those in Beirut.

Ever since Hezbollah was established in Lebanon in the early 1980s, and became an active military force in the mid-1990s, the group's primary security and intelligence struggle has been with Israel. Its only intelligence confrontations with Washington were secondary or indirect. Things, however, seem to have changed in the past two years. This has resulted in new, public rounds in the "spy wars" between American security services and the southern suburbs of Beirut — Hezbollah's stronghold. Thus, those close to Hezbollah say that the accusation regarding the group's responsibility in the Bulgaria bombing came in the following context:

On June 24, 2011, just a few days after Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati formed his government in Beirut, Nasrallah surprised his supporters in a televised speech in which he spoke openly for the first time about the fact that U.S. intelligence agents had penetrated his organization. He declared, "Months ago and within the responsible follow-up of the anti-spying apparatus in Hezbollah, it was revealed that there are two separate cases that are in contact with U.S. intelligence officers who work as diplomats in the U.S. Embassy in Beirut." The next morning the embassy rushed to refute the claims, describing them as "empty allegations that we have heard repeatedly." However, it seemed to all that the war between Langley and Beirut's southern suburbs had truly flared up.

The next episode was not long in coming. On Nov. 22 of the same year, the Los Angeles Times published a detailed report regarding what was considered a blow to Hezbollah from CIA agents in Beirut. The U.S. newspaper said: "The CIA was forced to curtail its spying in Lebanon, where U.S. operatives and their agents collect crucial intelligence on Syria, terrorist groups and other targets, after the arrests of several CIA informants in Beirut this year." It also quoted "a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, given the confidential nature of his statements." He said, "Operations were ended at the Beirut station because of a compromise that led to the detection of about 12 informants working for the CIA."

According to the source, Hezbollah was able to ascertain the identity of the persons who were providing information to the CIA.

Despite others' hesitations to do so, the U.S. official told the newspaper that "Hezbollah is a very complex enemy; it is a group with formidable perseverance and is a strong player in politics. Moreover, the organization is integrated in terms of military and intelligence. It is very strong and its abilities should not be underestimated."

Then confirmations of this strike rolled in. The next day, the U.S. network ABC published a detailed report on 12 agents discovered by Hezbollah who had been recruited to work for the CIA. It described what happened as "a setback of significant proportions in efforts to track the activities of the Iranian nuclear program and the intentions of Hezbollah against Israel." The report also quoted an official in the U.S. administration who commented on this, saying, "We must give credit to the efforts of Iran and Hezbollah to detect Israeli and American networks operating in Lebanon." In the meantime, in Beirut a complete list of names was published of those from the diplomatic corps at the U.S. Embassy said to be working as intelligence agents. They also published their phone numbers and details regarding the methods they used and the public places where they met their recruits. It was like a James Bond film, depicted as "reality TV" on the streets of Beirut.

Since that moment, sources close to Hezbollah said that the group has been expecting a full-on intelligence war against it; not only from Tel Aviv, but also from Washington. However, no one expected that the entire world would become an arena for such a confrontation. Yet one thing led to another:

A few weeks later, on Jan. 17, 2012, an indictment was issued in Bangkok against a Lebanese citizen, saying that he was a suspected of trying to plan an attack in the Thai capital. A few days later, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok issued warnings of a possible terrorist attack.

A Thai official announced: "The suspect apparently has links with Hezbollah." Remarkable, while the authorities in Bangkok kept quiet regarding the details, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth published an article on Jan. 20 saying that the detainee was "Hussein Atris, 47, born in Nabatieh in southern Lebanon and married to a Swedish woman. He returned to Lebanon 10 years ago, and was [allegedly] in Thailand to help carry out bombings in retaliation for the killing of Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh." The suspect denied the charges the following day. He told the Swedish daily Aftonbladet that he does not belong to Hezbollah, and that his work is limited to trade, confirming that Israeli intelligence had been involved with his interrogation in Bangkok.

And from Thailand to Mexico, where it was announced on Sept. 10, 2012, that the authorities had arrested three men suspected of membership in Hezbollah. This included an American citizen, Rafik Mohammed Labboun, who was turned over to U.S. authorities. The Mexican authorities did not given any further details.

Moreover, The Washington Post announced on May 27, 2012, based on information provided by U.S. security officials, that "investigators working in four countries have amassed new evidence tying plans to assassinate officials and businessmen in at least seven nations to Hezbollah or operatives based inside Iran." These allegations included a plan in Azerbaijan to kill U.S. Embassy employees and their family members, as part of what sources described to the paper as "a campaign to kill foreign diplomats in at least seven countries over a span of 13 months."

It is important to note that while this war of settling scores was ongoing, even in the media, there have been other wars that are equally severe. The most prominent of these are the electronic war against Iran, the war of assassinating the country's experts, and the financial war on what could be the sources of Hezbollah's funding. In the context of the latter, those close to the Lebanese Shiite organization have witnessed a series of never-ending persecutions, judgments and actions — from Africa to America — including unprecedented restrictions imposed by Washington on the banking sector in Lebanon.

It could be an extremely significant coincidence that, a few days before the Bulgaria bombing, another "European incident" occurred. The Cypriot authorities announced on July 7, 2012 that they had arrested a Lebanese citizen named Hossam Taleb Yaacoub at Limassol. He had arrived from London on a Swedish passport and was detained on suspicion of involvement in planning an attack on Israeli tourists in Cyprus. Later, on Oct. 5, Yaacoub appeared before a court in Nicosia and pled innocent to the charges. The Cypriot media reported that Yaacoub had been arrested based on information provided by foreign intelligence services, including the Mossad.

Yet, all of this did not persuade the European Union to include Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations. Meanwhile, as the battles were raging in Syria, and there was increasing talk about Hezbollah's support for Bashar al-Assad on the one hand, and escalating U.S. and Israeli concerns about the transfer of non-conventional weapons from Damascus to Lebanon on the other, the explosion occurred in Bulgaria on July 18. Fewer than 24 hours after the attack, The New York Times quoted two U.S. officials as saying that the suicide bomber who had carried out the attack in Bulgaria was part of a cell belonging to the Lebanese Hezbollah.

The paper also quoted a third official who said that the bomber "was acting largely under the guidance" of Hezbollah. Meanwhile, George Little, a spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department, said that the attack "does bear some of the hallmarks of Hezbollah, but we're not in a position to make any final determination of who was responsible." In the meantime, the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth clearly revealed that "Israel's goal of saying there is a close relationship between the bombing in Bulgaria and the Iranian nuclear project is to send a message to the world, saying that if the world doesn't act to stop Iran, Israel will do so on its own," and that "it is very likely that in light of the Burgas bombing the date Israel will take action is quickly approaching."

According to those close to Hezbollah in Beirut, it's a new episode in the series of the war itself. Yet there are some notable paradoxes, for example, how will they link the accused Westerners with Hezbollah? How will they say that names such as Jacques Philippe Martin, Ralph William Rico and Brian Jameson (all of whom are accused of the bombing in Bulgaria) are the names of Lebanese Shiites? This is an topic that deserves attention, a little more that the assassination attempt against Israeli diplomat Shlomo Argov in London in early June 1982. This attempt was used by Begin and Sharon as a reason for invading Lebanon. This topic must be addressed before the world forgets — under the weight of the war — the incident involving Argov and its perpetrators.

Jean Aziz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Lebanon Pulse. He is a columnist at Al-Akhbar Lebanese newspaper and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese TV station. He also teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon.

Found in: us, hezbollah, bulgaria bomb

Jean Aziz is a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a contributor for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese television station. He teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon. On Twitter: @JeanAziz1


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