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Hezbollah goes old-school to counter Israel’s modern surveillance methods

Coded messages, landline phones, and pagers: following the killing of senior commanders in targeted Israeli airstrikes, the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah, has been using some low-tech strategies to try to evade its foe’s sophisticated surveillance technology, informed sources said.

The sides have been trading fire since Hezbollah’s Palestinian ally in the Gaza Strip, Hamas, attacked Israel in October last year, triggering the ongoing war. While the fighting on Lebanon’s southern border has remained relatively contained, stepped-up attacks in recent weeks have intensified concern that it could spiral into a full-scale war.

Tens of thousands of people have fled both sides of the border. Israeli strikes have killed more than 330 Hezbollah fighters and around 90 civilians in Lebanon.

Israel says attacks from Lebanon have killed 21 soldiers and 10 civilians.

As domestic pressure builds in Israel over Hezbollah’s barrages, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) has highlighted its ability to hit the group’s operatives across the border.

Electronic surveillance technology plays a vital role in these strikes. The IDF has said it has security cameras and remote sensing systems trained on areas where Hezbollah operates, and it regularly sends surveillance drones over the border to spy on its adversary.

Israel’s electronic eavesdropping is also widely regarded as among the world’s most sophisticated.

Hezbollah has learned from its losses and adapted its tactics in response, six sources familiar with the group’s operations said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.

Cell phones, which can be used to track a user’s location, have been banned from the battlefield in favour of more old-fashioned communication means, including pagers and couriers who deliver verbal messages in person, two of the sources said.

Hezbollah has also been using a private, fixed-line telecommunications network dating back to the early 2000s, three sources said.

Code words

In case conversations are overheard, code words are used for weapons and meeting sites, according to another source familiar with the group’s logistics. These are updated nearly daily and delivered to units via couriers, the source said. “We’re facing a battle in which information and technology are essential parts,” said Qassem Kassir, a Lebanese analyst close to Hezbollah. “But when you face certain technological advances, you need to go back to the old methods… whatever method allows you to circumvent the technology.”

Hezbollah’s media office said it had no comment on the sources’ assertions.

Security experts say some low-tech countermeasures can be quite effective against high-tech spying. One of the ways that al-Qaeda’s late leader, Osama bin Laden, evaded capture for nearly a decade was by disconnecting from the Internet and phone services, and using couriers instead.

“The simple act of using a VPN (virtual private network), or better yet, not using a cell phone at all, can make it much harder to find and fix a target,” said Emily Harding, a former CIA analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.

Hezbollah and Lebanese security officials believe Israel has also been tapping local informants as it zeroes in on targets.

Lebanon’s economic crisis and rivalries between political factions have created opportunities for Israeli recruiters, but not all informants realise who they are speaking with, three sources said.

On November 22, a woman from south Lebanon received a call on her cell phone from a person claiming to be a local official, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the incident. Speaking in flawless Arabic, the caller asked whether the family was home, the sources said. No, the woman replied, explaining they had travelled to eastern Lebanon. Minutes later, a missile slammed into the woman’s home in the village of Beit Yahoun, killing five Hezbollah fighters including Abbas Raad, the son of a senior Hezbollah lawmaker and a Radwan member, the sources said.

Hezbollah believes Israel had tracked the fighters to the location and placed the call to confirm whether there were civilians present before launching the strike, they said without disclosing further details.

Within weeks, Hezbollah was publicly warning supporters via the affiliated Al-Nour radio station not to trust cold callers claiming to be local officials or aid workers, saying Israelis were impersonating them to identify houses being used by Hezbollah.

Hezbollah also suspected that Israel was targeting its fighters by tracking their cell phones and monitoring video feeds from security cameras installed on buildings in border communities, two sources familiar with the group’s thinking and a Lebanese intelligence official said.

On December 28, Hezbollah urged southern residents in a statement distributed via its Telegram channel to disconnect any security cameras they own from the Internet.

By early February, another directive had been issued to Hezbollah’s fighters: no mobile phones anywhere near the battlefield. “Today, if anyone is found with their phone on the front, he is kicked out of Hezbollah,” said a senior Lebanese source familiar with the group’s operations.

Even in Beirut, senior Hezbollah politicians avoid bringing phones with them to meetings, two other sources said.

Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based security consultant who has written a history of Hezbollah, said the group’s “awareness and wariness” of security breaches was at an all-time high. “Hezbollah has had to tighten up its security far more than it needed to do in earlier conflicts,” he said. However, Israel retains a technological advantage, Mr. Blanford said.

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