The 'Information Branch' After al-Hassan’s Assassination

The Lebanese “Information branch” continues as as a powerful intelligence and military agency after the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan, writes Jaafar Attar.

al-monitor A poster placed by anti-government protesters shows images of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and intelligence officer Wissam al-Hassan, who were both assassinated, on barbed wire securing the area in front of the government palace in downtown Beirut, Oct. 22, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Jamal Saidi.

Topics covered

syrian-lebanese relations, security, mossad, hezbollah

Dec 10, 2012

There is a brigadier general in one of the security agencies who is famous for repeating the following sentence to his acquaintances: “I cannot talk in detail over the mobile phone because Wissam al-Hassan eavesdrops on us on a daily basis.”

The “us” in this case is the security agency to which he belongs.

“Our officers’ phones are wiretapped by the Information Branch, while we are barred from doing the same.”

A veteran officer at the Information Branch [of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF)] scoffed at the claim and said, “That’s a nice reputation to have.”

But, whether this claim is true or not, the branch has been shrouded in mystery since 2005, and its officers accused of harboring all manner of internal and external political affiliations.

Questioning of the Information Branch’s conduct is not limited to competing security agencies. All of the March 8 coalition’s supporters are convinced that the branch is a security agency born to the Hariri family and its main purpose is to serve the interests of the March 14 coalition.

Other agencies’ officers even claim to have “proof” that the branch is nothing but a political, security faction whose role has gone beyond the internal to the regional and international even.

The Information Branch was embroiled recently in the arrest of [former minister] Michel Samaha, and some security and political information pointed to Hassan’s involvement in the Syrian conflict between the regime and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The main question on every officer’s mind in the branch currently revolves around the following supposition: “If Hassan was assassinated for reasons related to the situation in Syria, then the branch is not in danger because there exists no shred of evidence that any of its officers are involved [in the Syrian crisis]. But if the goal of the assassination was to slowly tear the branch apart, then all of its officers are at risk.”

Despite that, officials at the branch maintain that the security apparatus established by Hassan remains functional even after his assassination, because it was never tied to a person but rather to an institution. Today, more than 40 days after Hassan’s assassination, some questions are being raised about the fate of the Information Branch following the appointment of Col. Imad Othman as head of the branch.

The following is an attempt to answer some of those questions, by some of the senior officers at the branch.

The Information Branch is composed of 2,300 officers and enlisted men and women. The apparatus, which was formed by the Director General of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, came together between 1993 and 1997, and was “a nucleus more than a security branch” according to a security source who has followed the branch’s progress since its inception.

In 2005, the branch was composed of seven officers and 120 enlisted men and women, all belonging to one particular religious sect, until Hassan became its commander and worked with Rifi to restructure it to include members of all sects.

The last names of the branch’s current officer corps points to sectarian diversity, and the second in command currently after Othman is Col. Said Fawaz (a Shiite), who enjoyed Hassan’s complete trust.

The security source also said that all the ISF — not just the Information Branch — were shunned by Christians, “until the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon following Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. For during any recruitment drives held before then, 1,000 Muslims would apply and only 100 Christians at the most. But after the Syrian withdrawal, 4,000 Christians applied in 2006 alone!”

One day [deceased] Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir asked Rifi: “Are the motives behind the enlistment of Christians in the ISF economic?” To which Rifi replied: “The country has seen many economic crises before, and we had never seen similar turnouts. The reasons today have more to do with nationalism.”

According to the source, this is the first time in history that 40% of ISF members are Christians and 60% Muslim. Rifi’s plan calls for the ratio to become equal between the two.

While the ISF’s popularity among Christians rose unintentionally , the Information Branch’s diversity happened on purpose, while taking into account professional competence. Despite that fact, the branch was constantly accused of being an apparatus that belonged to one specific sect and implemented the political agendas of internal and foreign factions.

According to officers at the branch the accusations are due to several factors, most notably: That the branch gained its stellar reputation after Hassan took command.

In other words, it began to shine thanks to the most prominent strong man with direct allegiances to the Hariri family, amid very difficult political circumstances. Politically accusing Syria of being involved in Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination also raised the level of suspicion about the branch’s conduct, as did the arrest and incarceration of the four officers by the branch.

In response, another officer said that the branch did not arrest the four officers, but that it merely took part in the arrest following the issuance of a decision to do so by the [United Nations International Independent Investigation Committee] (into Hariri’s assassination).

Both officers agreed though that the most dangerous accusation leveled against their branch, which elevated it to the rank of enemy in the minds of a wide swath of Lebanese, occurred immediately following the July 2006 war [with Israel] when an official of a prominent political party said that one of the [Lebanese] security agencies had been monitoring Hezbollah’s movements during the war.

But one of the officers rebutted by saying that Hassan received a telephone call at the beginning of the July war, and was heard loudly telling his interlocutor: “It would have been better if you had not commented!”

The other person on the line was Saad Hariri, and Hassan was angrily admonishing his stance concerning the kidnaping by Hezbollah of the two Israeli soldiers, and his infamous comment about a [Hezbollah] “adventure.”

The branch’s officers find it unnecessary to defend and justify anything, as one of them said: “Hezbollah knows well what Hassan did for them during the July war. Furthermore, why would we provide the Israeli enemy with information about Hezbollah on one hand, and expose Israel’s most important spies [in Lebanon] on the other?”

A strategic mindset

The branch’s senior officers all agree that Hassan established the branch’s strategic mindset, which does not rely on a single individual, but on collective teamwork. When Hassan travelled, the branch’s activities did not stop, and resulted in the same caliber of work as under Hassan’s supervision.

The officers in question also said that prior to Hassan assuming command, the branch’s responsibilities were limited to small cases and specific fields. But after Hariri’s assassination, the number of crimes and assassinations rose dramatically, and Israeli spy networks and fundamentalist organizations began to spread.

After Hassan took the helm in 2006, he concentrated on improving the competence of officers by sending them for training abroad. Their experience was further bolstered by them investigating crimes and pursuing the perpetrators, whether in kidnaping, murder or other cases.

Although Hassan had instilled an institutional mentality that relied on strategy, and his officers did not feel his absence when performing their daily tasks, his loss was nevertheless a shock to them at first. Furthermore, some officers feel that the branch has lost the relations that Hassan had internally and internationally, which they benefited from through the high level training seminars they attended.

The branch’s tasks are divided among the following subsections: military security, national security, investigations (handled by 14 detectives), services and operations, protection and intervention, monitoring and tracking, and the technical section. There are also sub-branches in each province.

When officers in other security agencies are asked about the secret behind the Information Branch’s “superiority” in investigating some crimes, and the speed at which it uncovers their circumstances, they reply that the branch possesses sophisticated equipment that other agencies lack. In response, the security source replied that “we do not possess anything, not even a single screw that they don’t have. And they know that very well”.

One of the Information Branch’s officers said that they possessed the same software used by other security agencies: the i2, which analyzes information about car movements, communications and personal information. They also use the “locater”, which tracks an individual’s location using that individual’s mobile phone. He said that they also employed wiretaps on fixed phone lines.

The branch’s budget accounts for approximately one third of the ISF’s budget (sometimes two thirds even), equaling around 883 million Lebanese Pounds [$589,000] per month. But the security source had some qualms about why the cabinet raised the secret appropriations of security agencies, by a factor exceeding 600% for one agency, but did not raise the ISFs’ budget.

The officers again agreed that Hassan had instilled a collective “esprit de corps” between the Information Branch’s different sections, and freed them from the bureaucratic doldrums that prevailed inside most security agencies and government institutions.

The Mossad farce

One of the Information Branch’s officers asked: “When did we solely target a certain sect?” bolstering his question with the fact that the branch had arrested Sheikh Mohammed H. last year and accused him of dealing with the Israeli enemy. This is in addition to the arrest of the “group of 13” affiliated with al-Qaeda. “Aren’t al-Qaeda’s members all Sunni?”

According to the officer, Sheikh Mohammed H. was affiliated with the March 14 coalition, and received funding from Saudi Arabia. The branch suspected the sheikh of misdeeds because he received telephone calls from mobile numbers known to belong to the Israeli Mossad. However, the branch could only ascertain that the sheikh received suspicious calls, without knowing their content.

Therefore, the branch forwarded the sheikh’s file to a local party, in the hope that the latter would be able to amass more intelligence leading to better evidence. But, according to the officer, the party handed the file over to another official security agency. As a result, the sheikh never admitted to dealing with Israel and received a sentence of only five years in jail.

The officer added: “Why would we have arrested the sheikh had we truly been affiliated with the March 14 coalition, knowing well that the sheikh had strong ties to many March 14 figures?”

Accusations aimed at the branch do not stop with the Mossad spy rings, the importance of which many belittle to the point of accusing the branch of getting its information about the spies from the Mossad itself. Some officers in other agencies consider that the Information Branch’s arrest of Michel Samaha was nothing more than an orchestrated conspiracy.

In the Samaha case, the infamous story would have the informant Milad Kfoury luring Samaha to attend meetings between them and Kfoury telling Samaha of the bomb plot at Hassan’s behest. But the Information Branch’s officers retorted by saying: “If that were the case, why would Kfoury ask Samaha three times why they had chosen him? With Samaha answering: ‘Trust, trust.’”

From afar, and for an instant, there might seem to be some credence to the hypothesis that the branch arrested the Mossad spies to serve some hidden, nefarious agenda. But further analysis of the events leading to the arrests proves otherwise.

M.S. are the initials of an officer who had marginal responsibilities at the branch until his commanding officer asked Hassan to give him more time and responsibilities.

Hassan asked: “What does he want to do?” And the answer came: “The young man wants to target the Mossad’s spy rings.”

The Information Branch had not arrested any Israeli spies before then, although the late Maj. Wissam Eid had uncovered the infamous “Marwaheen Network” through its use of suspicious mobile phone numbers. This network later turned out to be used by the Israelis to recruit spies.

M.S. succeeded in uncovering Adib al-Alam and his wife, who formed the lone network after 38 other spies were arrested. These arrests were possible through the use of a “master key”: the foreign intelligence services’ telephone numbers.

The Information Branch officer said that the intelligence telephone network that Eid uncovered was the key that led to the arrest of all the spies by the branch and all other security agencies.

“There was one door, and we held in our hands hundreds of keys that we had to try to unlock that door,” as he put it.

The key was in the method; the technique used to uncover the spies. For there turned out to be Romanian, British, French and other numbers that were used to call hundreds of people. So instead of wasting an inordinate amount of time to summon all those who were called in a similar fashion as the Alams were, a uniform criterion was adopted.

The criterion was that everyone who received a call would be summoned, provided that the call duration exceeded one minute. The callers identified themselves as belonging to an Israeli Peace Association. Any call that lasted less than 30 seconds would be interpreted as meaning that the recipient of the call refused to cooperate with the association. All other calls would raise suspicion. 

The [Israeli] operators, having recruited the spies, would ask them to buy a new mobile phone line and a separate phone which would be used to communicate with them. The recruit would then send an SMS message to the foreign number, and the spy’s number would then be designated as an intelligence number.

According to the officer, the Israeli method was of exceedingly poor quality when compared to espionage norms, indicating a flagrant disregard by the Mossad for the Lebanese security agencies’ capabilities.

The second step in communicating with the spy was to agree to meet in person and begin conducting actual missions after having been trained. Once the meeting concluded, the recruited spy would be transported from the country where the meeting with his handlers occurred — such as Romania, for example — to occupied Palestine. He would not be issued an [Israeli] entry visa.

When asked about the most dangerous spy they caught, some of the branch’s officers replied: Nasser Nader. Nader confessed to being involved in the assassination of Ghaleb Awali, a high ranking Hezbollah official.

His task was to transport Israelis from the Khaldeh shore to Beirut’s southern suburbs, and signal them the moment Awali left his house to go to his car. One of the branch’s officers was baffled by a question to which he still had no answer: “Why hasn’t Nader been tried yet?”

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Jaafar Attar