ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Cancel

How Hezbollah Trained an Operative to Spy on Israeli Tourists

Sophisticated lessons in spycraft, explosives and arms detailed in a Cyprus court case that is forcing the European Union to consider designating the Lebanese-based group as a terrorist organization.

.

Hossam Yaakoub, right, a Lebanese-Swedish operative, is escorted by police as he arrives at the court in Limassol on March 21, 2013. (Yiannis Kourtoglou/AFP/Getty Images)

A rare inside look at Hezbollah during a recent terror trial in Cyprus portrayed a militant group with the prowess of an intelligence service: meticulous overseas reconnaissance, Western operatives with elaborate covers, training at secret bases where recruits and instructors wear masks for maximum security.

And the conviction last month of a confessed Hezbollah operative for doing terrorist surveillance of Israeli tourists has heated up a debate that continues to divide the West: Whether the European Union, like the United States and Israel, should designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

In a report to be published by a West Point think tank next week, a former U.S. counterterror official argues that the Cyprus case and an attack on Israelis in Bulgaria last year show that Hezbollah has returned to aggressive operations on European soil. Western counterterror agencies largely share that analysis, which has spurred a proposal by Britain for the European Union to designate Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization.

“In Cyprus you have a case that underwent full judicial scrutiny, and a conviction in a European court,” said Matthew Levitt, the report’s author, a former top Treasury Department intelligence official who is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You have all this evidence. You have a European Hezbollah operative who was also doing courier work across Europe. What else do they need?”

Decisions in the 27-nation European Union move slowly through a bureaucratic labyrinth, especially on diplomatically sensitive questions. But the current debate departs from traditional European reluctance to confront a militant group that is a powerhouse in the government and on the streets of Lebanon.

In Paris, Berlin and other capitals, the terrorist activity and Hezbollah’s military support for the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war have challenged a strategy of maintaining cordial relations with Hezbollah to prevent retaliation and preserve diplomatic leverage.

“It has been and will be the most serious discussion on Hezbollah they’ve had,” said a U.S. counterterror official who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. “Stability in Lebanon has been one of the main European arguments for not designating Hezbollah. But when they see what Hezbollah is doing Syria, which is exacerbating instability there and creating spillover into Lebanon, causing instability there as well, it changes this perspective.”

On July 18 last year, the bombing of an airport bus carrying Israeli tourists at the Bulgarian beach resort of Burgas killed six people. Investigators said they identified two alleged Hezbollah operatives as suspects, although little evidence has been made public.

The court verdict in Cyprus carries more weight in the legalistic European Union. There are also parallels between the Burgas bombing and the surveillance and potential targets described by Hossam Yaakoub, the Lebanese-Swedish operative whom police in Cyprus arrested days before the attack in Bulgaria. His statements are extraordinary because of the wealth of detailed revelations about the inner workings of Hezbollah.

“The case provides unique insights into how (Hezbollah) recruits and trains new operatives,” Levitt writes in a case study of the Cyprus trial that will appear Monday in the CTC Sentinel, a publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point.

The military think tank provided ProPublica with an advance copy of the article, “Hizb Allah Resurrected: the Party of God Returns to Tradecraft.” ProPublica separately obtained the 26 pages of depositions that Yaakoub, 24, gave Cypriot police.

During the past decade, arrests, raids and infiltration by spy agencies have produced a great deal of information about the operations, training camps and leadership of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In contrast, Hezbollah remains a secretive, disciplined militant group with worldwide reach and a vast war chest. Iran, a close ally, provides arms, funds, training and strategic direction. Hezbollah’s paramilitary operations, social welfare work and political power have won a formidable reputation in the Arab world and beyond. It is a militant group that increasingly resembles a state entity.

“I believe in the armed struggle of Hezbollah until the liberation of Lebanon,” Yaakoub told his interrogators, according to the Cypriot police depositions. “Hezbollah is the political party, which supports the people of Lebanon and fights for the rights of our country … Although I believe in the armed struggle for the liberation of Lebanon from Israel, I am not in favor of the terrorist attacks against innocent people. For me, war and terrorism are two different things.”

A three-judge panel in Cyprus nonetheless found that Yaakoub was preparing the terrain to attack Israeli tourists and other Jews on the island as part of Hezbollah’s holy war. The Cypriot police presumably received a tip about him from Israeli intelligence, Levitt said, and followed him as he documented and photographed flights arriving from Israel, buses transporting Israeli tourists, kosher restaurants and other potential targets.

Step-by-Step Training

After his arrest last July 7, Yaakoub reacted with the practiced cool of a well-trained operative, according to the depositions. He denied everything. He explained that he was traveling with a Swedish passport because his family had moved to Sweden six months after he was born and he had lived there until he was 14. He described himself as a Beirut-based trader in souvenirs, clothes and other merchandise. He backed up his story with company documents and names of local clients.

As police confronted him with detailed evidence, however, his resistance began to crumble. During an interrogation that began after midnight a week after his arrest, he admitted the truth: “I am an active member of the Hezbollah for about four years now. I was recruited by a Lebanese called Reda in 2007… He told me that he needed me for the secret mission of Hezbollah … my secret mission would be surveillance and undercover activities.”

Yaakoub fits a classic profile, according to Levitt and other experts. Hezbollah takes advantage of the global Lebanese diaspora to recruit operatives with Western passports. Bulgarian authorities, for instance, are seeking two Lebanese suspects who traveled with authentic Australian and Canadian passports — and fake U.S. driver licenses — in the airport bus bombing last year.

Canadians, Swedes and Colombians of Lebanese descent have allegedly taken part in past plots. And Yaakoub told police he trained in Lebanon alongside a fighter who spoke English with an American accent, according to the deposition.

The training began with five to seven months of lessons in tradecraft in Beirut from an instructor named Yousef. He taught the recruit about cover stories and clandestine operations, sending him at one point to deliver an envelope to a man in Istanbul. Next came military training with pistols, rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and C-4 explosives at secret camps in south Lebanon. The sessions were designed for maximum operational security.

“They took me from different spots in Beirut, using closed vans so I could not see,” Yaakoub said, according to the deposition. “Each training group consisted of 10-13 people. Both the trainees and instructors wore hoods, so they could not recognize each other. We had individual tents and exercises were performed in a separate place. It was forbidden to see each other.”

Soon Hezbollah chiefs sent Yaakoub on courier missions to the French city of Lyon and to Amsterdam, where he thought he recognized the voice of his contact as one of his masked classmates from Beirut. The deployment of Yaakoub in Europe coincides with a dangerous strategic shift by Hezbollah, experts say.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Hezbollah and Iran conducted bombings, kidnappings and hijackings on Israeli, American and European targets from Argentina to Lebanon to France, inflicting hundreds of casualties. In the early 2000s, the group curtailed operations outside the Middle East theater, focusing on its struggle with Israel.

In 2010, however, leaders of Hezbollah and Iran launched an aggressive new terror campaign. They wanted to retaliate against Israel for the assassinations of Hezbollah warlord Imad Mughniyeh in 2008 and of Iranian nuclear scientists in subsequent years, according to Western counterterror officials.

“Even before the Burgas attack, we were growing concerned about what Hezbollah is doing around the world,” the U.S. counterterror official said. “They are plotting in a way we hadn’t seen since the 1990s. There is certainly a feeling that Iran and Hezbollah have ramped up their networks.”

Reactivating Terror Wing

Iran and Hezbollah decided on a new offensive in which the Quds Force, the external operations wing of Iran’s intelligence service, would hit hard targets such as Israeli and Saudi diplomats, according to Levitt’s article. Hezbollah, meanwhile, would focus on Israeli tourists and other soft targets, Levitt asserts, citing information from U.S., Israeli and European security agencies.

As a result, Hezbollah revamped the Islamic Jihad Organization, its international terrorist wing, according to Levitt.

“New operatives were recruited from the elite of (Hezbollah’s) military wing for intelligence and operational training, while existing IJO operatives were moved into new positions,” the article says. “At the same time, the IJO invested in the development of capabilities and tradecraft that had withered since the 2001 decision to rein in operations.”

The past two years have brought a spate of attacks and plots. The Iranian security forces are accused in cases including the assassination of a Saudi diplomat in Pakistan, a bomb attack on an Israeli diplomat in India and a foiled plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.

Alleged Hezbollah plots have been discovered as well. In January of last year, Thai police found a warehouse full of bomb-making chemicals for an alleged plot against Israeli targets. The chief suspect in that case resembles Yaakoub: an accused Hezbollah operative with dual Lebanese and Swedish citizenship.

Meanwhile, Yaakoub did patient undercover work in Cyprus, according to his confession and evidence at his trial. Hezbollah provided expense money and a salary of $600 a month. He burnished his cover story by registering his import-export firm, looking into acquiring a warehouse, meeting with clients and, on his handler’s advice, developing a social life on the island.

Acting on instructions from Beirut, he watched Israeli tourists arrive on flights and charted their movements on airport buses and at hotels, using codes to disguise his notes and communicate with fellow operatives, according to his confession.

The surveillance takes on ominous significance in light of the Burgas attack, in which a young man with a backpack bomb blew up a bus as it picked up Israeli tourists at the airport. The attacker died in the blast. European investigators believe he was not a suicide bomber, but rather a dupe or the victim of a premature explosion. Hezbollah has denied any role in Burgas.

Yaakoub’s reconnaissance featured very specific tasks for reasons that are not yet clear. He identified Internet cafes for his handlers. He obtained three SIM cards for mobile phones. He meticulously studied an area behind a hospital, taking photos and drawing a map.

“I am not aware of the organization’s objectives on the matter, nor do I know why they sent me to this mission,” he told interrogators, according to the deposition. Despite his confessions, he refused to accept that he was involved in terrorism, declaring:

“It was just collecting information about the Jews, and that is what my organization is doing everywhere in the world.”

Reaction in Europe

The conviction of Yaakoub adds to mounting evidence of Hezbollah activity across Europe. And it creates a headache for the European Union. Most governments in Europe have a markedly different view of Hezbollah than Israel or the United States, which see it as a terrorist organization pure and simple. Only the Netherlands agrees with that assessment. Britain has designated Hezbollah’s military wing as a terror organization, but not the political leadership.

The motives of other European governments vary. Especially on the left, sectors of European political parties and public opinion tend to see Hezbollah more favorably than Americans do. They accept the view that it is a resistance movement, not a terrorist organization.

Nations such as Spain and Italy are also reluctant to confront the group because they have military peacekeeping contingents in Lebanon that are vulnerable to retaliation. In addition, key European powers such as France and Germany described their relationships with Hezbollah on pragmatic grounds.

French officials assert that if they designated Hezbollah as a terrorist group, it would cut them off diplomatically from a powerful force in Lebanon and the Middle East. Tensions between Hezbollah and Europe could further destabilize the conflict-ridden political environment in Lebanon, the argument goes.

The common wisdom has begun to change because of increasing exasperation with Hezbollah’s actions in Europe, signs of involvement in crime and corruption, and its military role in Syria, experts say. Earlier this year, British diplomats began to push their proposal that the EU label Hezbollah’s military wing a terrorist group.

This would curtail funding and political support for the group in Europe, but maintain a channel for dialogue, British officials say. U.S. officials and experts think there is no distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military leadership, but they think the proposal would be powerful and timely.

“It would send a strong message,” Levitt said.

The discussions about the proposal have intensified in the European Union in recent weeks, according to U.S. and European officials. Political and economic crises in Bulgaria and Cyprus have complicated matters, however, because those countries were taking a lead role along with Britain.

“We have been pretty active on this issue,” a senior British diplomat said. “We are keen to do it. But it is a slow process.”

Wonder if the Australian bomber and the Canadian bomber that were enticed to go to Bulgaria knew their actual handlers were Mossad. (No question mark as that was a rhetorical question.) Were they on suicide missions or did they believe they were there to plant bombs.

They were instructed to mingle with passengers at the bus stop and deposit packages into the hold of the bus so the packages would make it onto the plane. Or did they commit suicide next to the bus luggage compartment and try and destroy as much luggage as possible instead of rushing onto the bus itself where the passengers were.

Bet these stooges didn’t guess that their packages could be detonated remotely by their unseen handlers. No untidy ends, all witnesses—the Australian and the Canadian—silenced. Only their driver’s licenses with “printed in Lebanon next to the Hezbollah headquarters” were left behind. Ok, that last sentence was sarcastic and unnecessary. Every sherlock out there knows that when you send someone on a clandestine mission you have your “I’m a spy for Hezbollah” sign pinned firmly to the back of your shirt.

The core problem is Israel. The world community should impose sanctions on Israel till it move backs behind the ‘67 borders.

This article is kinda funny if you think about it.

An article trying to convince it’s readers how sophisticated
and pervasive is Hezbollah - “with worldwide reach and a vast war chest”. Yet the article quotes for expertise a senior fellow at a think tank founded by none other than poverty stricken, threadbare AIPAC. Ha!

The EU is considering whether Hezbollah is a terrorist group…......durrr Europe.

Byard Pidgeon

April 27, 2013, 4 p.m.

...and just when will the EU or some other large “official” body get around to determining that the CIA, the Department of Defense and Mossad are world terrorist organizations?
It seems to me that blowing Yemeni villagers to bits isn’t qualitatively different from blowing Israeli tourists to bits.

Re. Pidgeon. Apparently, whern it’s State sponsored, it’s ok. Hezbollah simply needs a State sponsor and everything’s honky dory.

How does the US view countries that sponsor and provide material support to terrorist groups? Does Israel get a slap on the wrist for supporting and funding Jundallah and various terror cells in northern Iraq?

Now we have both Israel and the US supporting an affiliate of Al Qaeda in Syria. The US can supply them with advanced weapons and Hezbollah will take those weapons for use elsewhere. Priceless.

Poor Israel…..oh what a tangled web you weave…....

Recall that Mossad infiltrated a dozen or more operatives with stolen passports into a neutral country for the purposes of assassination and it makes this guy’s activities look like tourism.

Was very surprised that someone mentioned Jundallah, a group designated by the US as a terrorist organization - thought this episode had fallen down people’s memory hole…....The Bush administration had been greatly embarrased when it was announced on the nightly news that the Bush Administration was caught funding an al Qaeda linked terrorist group who used the funds to blow up Shia mosques and various other attacks upon civilians. It then turned out that it wasnt Bush/CIA funding Jundallah but rather Israeli agents openly spreading American dollars around and masquerading as the CIA. Mossad had wanted, in 2007, to further crater any possible improvement in relations between the US and Iran. Mossad was parading as CIA in a Sunni enclave of Iran funding Sunni attacks upon Shia.

Yep, Mossad / al Qaeda / funding terror attacks in the US’ name.

ps. Jundallah is/was particularly active in Zahedan. You may recall that city’s name recently in the news. The two Canadians alleged to have been targeting trains running between Canada and New York were alleged to have received funding from Zahedan.

Re. Jag Pop

Yes, Jundallah…zionists go all quiet when the group is mentioned. Iran caught their leader and no doubt extracted a good deal of intelligence re. Mossad methodogies before he was executed. Interesting that the 2 canadians may have come from the same area as Jundallah….a Mossad false flag op in Canada? One wonders.

My own thoughts are that Iran needs to share her expertise at hunting down Mossad katsas with Iraq and purge Iraq of their presence….I may be wrong but I have a feeling Mossad is behind the recent bombings in Iraq.

It is unfortunate—and sad to see—that Pro Publica, a news site with so much potential, has succumbed to publishing a piece that manifests the MSM’s on WINEP and anonymous sources. Levitt’s biases, evident here and expressed in other venues, are neoconservative, hawkish, Israel-centric and even incline toward the Islamophobic.While not suggesting that this report he authored should have been ignored or denied any credibility, one or more experts who do not share Levitt’s neocon biases—and are willing be named!—should also have been asked for comment on the acccuracy of the assertions in Levitt’s report. Either they would have agreed with Levitt’s assessment, which would have enhanced the credibility of the piece, or they would have disagreed, offering some thoughtful balance.

Traffia, if Mexico started attacking the U.S., would you advocate in favor of giving Texas back to Mexico?  Didn’t think so.

If you are referring to Israel…well then stealing is stealing, isn’t it? Yes, the Golan Heights will eventually be returned to Syria. Yes, the West Bank (and East Jerusaleum) east of the Green Line will be part of a Palestinian State. And yes, I believe Israel is the core problem in the region.

Sanction Israel Now.

The difference is, Texas belonged to Mexico before the U.S. came along.  Israel belonged to the Jews before the Arabs came along.  You can’t steal what is really yours.  The Arabs control 97% of the “West Bank,” and have plenty of room to grow.  They have no right to east Jerusalem, which is the eternal capital of Israel.  Just because Jordan controlled it for 19 years doesn’t negate thousands of years of Jewish connection to the city.  Still, Arabs live there and control their own holy sites, so their only real objection is they are insulted by Jewish hegemony over the city.  Boo hoo.
Israel really doesn’t want to worry about all the Arabs living in Judea and Samaria, so, at some point, they’ll be cut loose (once Israel is convinced it won’t repeat the Gaza mistake, where they left and terrorists took over and starting launching thousands of terror missiles at Israeli cities such as Sderot).  Arafat could’ve had a deal during the Clinton administration, but he couldn’t pull the string.  Clinton himself says so, in case you’re getting ready to rewrite that history too.
I find it sad, that of all the times throughout time that land was conquered during war, Israel is singled out for its gains in the ‘67 war it fought for its very survival.  The Arabs shouldn’t blame Israel for having possession of Judea/Samaria; they should blame Gamal Nasser and King Hussein, among others who couldn’t just leave Israel (one thousandth the area of the Middle East) alone.  They kicked a hornets’ nest and complain that they got stung.

Re. Katz. Hasbara nonsense and lies.

If you find one lie in my response, I’ll be eager to read your factual refutation.  Until then, there is no way to know if you somehow believe 1. Texas never was part of Mexico; 2. There was never a Jewish Israel before 1948 and before Arabs lived there (or Islam even became a religion); 3. Settlements don’t occupy only 3% of the land area of the West Bank; 4. The West Bank does not have thousands of square miles of vacant land (or do you think it’s wall to wall residences?); 5. Jerusalem was never the Jewish capital; 6. The Muslim Waqf does not control all Muslim holy sites in east Jerusalem; 7. No Arabs live in east Jerusalem (not even in the “Arab quarter”); 8. Gaza is not ruled by Hamas, or Hamas is not a terror organization; 9. Terror missiles were not launched from Gaza into Israel, by the thousands, since 2007; or 10. Clinton hasn’t blamed Arafat 100% for refusing the generous Israeli peace offer.  Just because you don’t LIKE the facts doesn’t make them lies.  In the meantime, today a Palestinian stabbed to death a Jewish father of 5 and Fatah immediately called the Palestinian murderer a “hero.”  Should Israel bend over backwards to make peace with a government that glorifies murder?  Don’t hold your breath.

Sanction Israel now!

Emcohen has it about right.  This “propublica” piece does nothing but regurgitate WINEP-operative Levitt’s report.  How is the public being served by propublic simply reciting, rather than investigating, these claims?

Lots of news publications report on investigations without furthering the investigations themselves.  That’s like saying when the Chicago Tribune ran reports on the Watergate investigation, they were obligated to start their own.  What’s with the nitpicking?

Get Updates

Stay on top of what we’re working on by subscribing to our email digest.

optional