JAN. 5, 2015
Hezbollah Appears to Acknowledge a Spy at the Top
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The admission from Hezbollah's deputy chief was startling. The group, he said over the weekend, is "battling espionage within its ranks" and has uncovered "some major infiltrations."
To analysts and even some Hezbollah loyalists, the remarks were immediately taken as confirmation of long-swirling reports that a senior operative had been caught spying for Israel, disrupting a series of assassination plots abroad.
The accounts in the Lebanese and Arab news media, relying on unnamed sources, identify the mole as Mohammad Shawraba, the man charged with exacting revenge for Israel's assassination of a top operative, Imad Mughniyeh,  in 2008. They say Mr. Shawraba fed information to Israel that foiled five planned retaliation attempts.
The Hezbollah official, Naim Qassem, who is often called upon to handle difficult issues, made no mention of the specific allegations. In his remarks on Al-Nour, a Hezbollah-affiliated radio station, he added that Hezbollah, Lebanon's most powerful militant organization and political party, was able to contain any damage from espionage.
This is not the first time that Hezbollah has admitted to spies within its ranks. But this breach, if confirmed, comes at a time when the party has grown from a tight, exclusive cell focused on fighting Israel to a much larger operation that has significantly expanded its mission, sending thousands of its Shiite fighters to Syria to prevent the overthrow of its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, by Sunni insurgents.
That, in turn, has angered Lebanese Sunnis, who call Hezbollah's involvement in Syria an abuse of the national consensus that supports the group's keeping an independent militia only for fighting Israel, known here as resistance.
Another complication of the Syria operation, with its heavy demands on logistics and manpower, is that it could have disrupted top officials' focus on deterring Israeli espionage, said Randa Slim, a Lebanese analyst of Hezbollah affiliated with the Middle East Institute in Washington. The supposed breach, she added, is a blow that "goes right straight to their resistance brand."
Mr. Qassem's reference to infiltration was "the first indirect confirmation, the first attempt by the party at controlling the narrative," Ms. Slim said. "The spin is that we are like any other organization, we have our problems, and as Hezbollah grows, as it becomes influential, there will be more and more attempts at infiltration, but things are under control."
A Hezbollah spokesman said Sunday night that the party would have no comment on the spying allegations. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is set to deliver one of his frequent speeches on Friday.
Mr. Qassem said that while Hezbollah aimed for "purity," it was made up of human beings who can make mistakes. Analysts said the timing of his remarks, and his frequent role in reassuring constituents, appeared to lend some credence to the reports. Several Hezbollah loyalists spoke of the breach as an established fact after hearing the remarks.
Israeli officials, who rarely speak publicly on espionage matters, did not respond to a request for comment. Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser, also refused to comment beyond saying that he was familiar with Mr. Shawraba and joking that his family should not expect him to come home soon.
But the emergence of reports about the supposed mole, and Mr. Qassem's seeming confirmation, suggest that Hezbollah has been working assiduously to launch attacks in response to Mr. Mughniyeh's death -- and that the absence of a major strike on Israel since then is not for lack of trying, as Ms. Slim put it, "but because the guy in charge of these plots is a spy."
They could also serve as a warning to Israel that Hezbollah has purged its ranks and is ready to resume efforts to avenge Mr. Mughniyeh's death. These are likely to be aimed at high-level targets that Hezbollah would consider proportional in importance to Mr. Mughniyeh, Ms. Slim said, and if successful could lead to a new war between Hezbollah and Israel, ending the wary cease-fire that has persisted since 2006.
A Hezbollah fighter and party member in the Bekaa Valley town of Baalbek said the infiltration "won't affect the whole party" but would have a strong effect on the areas in which Mr. Shawraba worked. Those were described in various accounts as heading Hezbollah's activities outside Lebanon and running the security detail for Mr. Nasrallah.
"The party now has to change everything about his post," the fighter said. "It's very normal to catch collaborators."
Talal al-Atrissi, a Lebanese analyst close to Hezbollah, called the breach "a loss but not a substantial loss" for the party. "The party works in tiny circles, not big circles," he said. "Even party members don't know each other."
Still, Lebanese and Arab news reports have given details of what they say are numerous consequences of the infiltration, as well as how Mr. Shawraba, said to be 42 and from the southern Lebanon town of Nabatiya, was caught.
Mr. Shawraba was captured a month ago after a seven-month investigation and is now being tried, along with four accomplices, in a Hezbollah court, according to Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper.  Some reports implicated him in the death of Mr. Mughniyeh himself, and others said he leaked information to Israel that led to the assassination of Hassan al-Laqees, another senior commander who was gunned down in Beirut in 2013.
The Daily Star said Hezbollah began to suspect a mole when Bulgarian authorities fingered two Hezbollah operatives in a bombing that killed Israeli tourists in the Bulgarian tourist town of Burgas in 2012. The newspaper said their identities were passed to the Bulgarians by Israel, which learned them from Mr. Shawraba.
A Jerusalem-based newspaper, Al Manar, said Hezbollah narrowed down the tasks of Mr. Shawraba's unit and revealed him by feeding him false information as a test. It said Mr. Shawraba told his handlers of weapons shipments for Hezbollah at a location in Damascus; Israeli warplanes soon bombed the location. Israel has struck several targets in Syria during the war there, aiming at Hezbollah arms.
Hezbollah has previously acknowledged several spies, including two who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, and a trusted car dealer who fitted Hezbollah vehicles with GPS trackers used by the Israelis.
In 2011, one of the original members of Hezbollah, Mohammad Slim, known as Abu Abed, defected to Israel, which lifted him over the border with a piece of construction equipment, The Daily Star reported. Hezbollah later denied that he had been a party member.
Jodi Rudoren and Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut.