Elaborate surveillance operation raises concerns about broader Hezbollah attacks
By Joby Warrick,
The Israeli tourists on Arkia Airlines Flight 161 from Tel Aviv could not have known it, but their arrival in Cyprus July 6 was watched closely. A pair of trained eyes counted each passenger as the group exited the plane and boarded a shuttle, headed for resorts that had also been carefully studied and mapped.
The bearded foreigner who silently tracked the Israelis had done his work well. He knew where the visitors would sleep, shop and eat. He knew how many security guards patrolled their hotel parking lots and how long it would take police to arrive from the station down the street.
But the watcher was being watched. When Cypriot police picked him up, the Hezbollah operative quickly acknowledged what he was doing, although he claimed not to know why.
“I was just collecting information about the Jews,” he told police, according to a sworn deposition. “This is what my organization is doing, everywhere in the world.”
The arrest of Hossam Yaakoub, a Lebanese-born Swedish citizen, on July 7 was all but forgotten 11 days later when a bus containing another group of vacationing Israelis was blown up in the Bulgarian resort city of Burgas . The attack, which killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver, was quickly blamed on Hezbollah.
Now, seven months after that attack, new details emerging in Yaakoub’s case are providing chilling insights into what investigators describe as a far broader effort by the Lebanon-based militant group to lay the groundwork for killing Israeli citizens and perhaps others in multiple countries.
Some details have come from Yaakoub himself, who made his first public appearance last week during his trial in Cyprus. But a much fuller account comes from legal documents summarizing the Swedish man’s statements to police during weeks of questioning last summer and obtained by The Washington Post.
The evidence echoes discoveries by investigators in Bulgaria and prosecutors in Thailand, India, Azerbaijan, Kenya and other countries hit by a wave of attempted assassinations and bombings linked to Hezbollah or its chief sponsor, Iran. U.S. officials characterize the plots as part of a shadow war directed by Iran in part to retaliate for Western efforts to derail Iran’s nuclear program. Evidence uncovered by investigators portrays a professional, well-funded effort by Hezbollah to recruit, train and position European-based operatives for what U.S. analysts describe as preparations for future terrorist operations.
While most of the attacks were thwarted or failed, the accumulated intelligence shows that Hezbollah is learning from its mistakes, employing the tactics of professional intelligence operatives to cover its tracks and expanding its threat, according to current and former U.S. officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing nature of the inquiries.
“In the beginning, they clearly emphasized speed over tradecraft,” said Matthew Levitt, a former counterterrorism official with the FBI and Treasury Department and author of the forthcoming book “Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.” An analysis of the more recent plots shows a shift in tactics, said Levitt, who said the Cyprus case in particular “underscores a very patient, careful and calculated tradecraft.”
Testimony and court documents in Cyprus also show that Hezbollah is expanding its network in Europe, recruiting European operatives, conducting surveillance and moving packages to various European cities in preparation for possible future attacks, Levitt and other analysts said.
In statements to police, Yaakoub spoke of “previous missions” that took him from Turkey into the heart of Western Europe. At one point, he said, he carried a mysterious package wrapped in newspaper. “I don’t know what it was,” he said in a statement read to the court last week.
Daniel Benjamin, who recently resigned as the State Department’s top counterterrorism official, said Hezbollah’s activity outside the Middle East has reached a level unmatched since the 1990s. Benjamin said the militant group is “not just doing one-off attacks but is right now involved in a campaign of terrorism,” in part to warn Western countries against allowing military intervention against Iran.
“Hezbollah already believes we’re in a conflict,” Benjamin told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “but they want to intimate to us how much more will be coming if the conflict sharpens.”
Scouting on Cyprus
Beginning in 2009, Yaakoub made numerous trips to Cyprus, a popular tourist destination and financial center in the eastern Mediterranean and a member of the European Union since 2004. Yaakoub told acquaintances that he was trying to establish a juice-importing business. But the dark-haired 24-year-old attracted suspicion because of his apparent fascination with the habits of Jewish visitors to the sun-drenched island.
For more than a week last summer, he crisscrossed the island, asking questions and staking out hotels and businesses catering to Jewish customers. He scoured the island for restaurants that served kosher meals.
“I was supposed to spot Israeli restaurants where Jews eat kosher,” he would explain later to investigators. “I was looking it up on the Internet and couldn’t find anything.”
When he was detained July 7, Yaakoub insisted he had only been looking for business contacts. But over a week-long interrogation, a different story emerged. His statements to police, contained in depositions that included his confession, notes, drawings and other artifacts, outlined his recruitment and training by Hezbollah for a series of missions. He said the ultimate objectives of his assignments were never revealed to him. He insisted he never knowingly supported a terrorist operation.
“I do not agree with terrorism,” he told police.
According to the account described in police depositions, Yaakoub was recruited by Hezbollah during business trips to Lebanon. His handlers appear to have viewed the young trader as potentially useful because he possessed a European passport and a job that justified foreign travel.
After undergoing training in Lebanon, he was dispatched on a series of low-level assignments as a courier. He delivered packages and messages to contacts in Turkey, France and the Netherlands. Yaakoub asserted that his key handler always wore a mask and insisted on strict operational security — no cellphones were allowed in meetings, and Yaakoub never knew what was in the packages he delivered.
When Yaakoub first visited Cyprus in 2009, it was clear that Hezbollah was grooming him for a long-term mission. He registered his business with the government, the first step in building what he acknowledged was an elaborate cover story to justify his time on the island.
“They wanted to have Cyprus as a base, to be able serve Hezbollah’s purposes,” he told police. “I don’t know what the purpose was.”
His workload increased in late 2011, just as the wave of terrorism efforts attributed to Hezbollah and Iran was about to peak. Yaakoub received detailed instructions to monitor charter flights bringing Israelis to Cyprus.
Arkia, a small carrier, flew directly from Tel Aviv to Larnaca International Airport. The airline sometimes altered its arrival information for security reasons, so Yaakoub spent many hours staking out the airport, recording flight information and watching passengers board special buses to the island’s resorts.
Between flights, Yaakoub carried out a long list of tasks involving surveillance and data collection. He drew maps of the areas around the resort hotels, noting security stations and the proximity of police and rescue units. He took photographs of hotel entrances and parking lots. He purchased prepaid cards for local cellphones and noted the locations of Internet cafes. He inquired about renting warehouses for what he said were unknown purposes.
In the days before Yaakoub was arrested, he scouted beach locations near Larnaca and watched the passengers of an Arkia flight spill out of their aircraft and head toward waiting shuttle buses, scribbling coded details in a small red notebook.
“I took the initiative of writing down the registration numbers of the buses,” he said.
Will the E.U. respond?
Yaakoub’s statements and other evidence are being weighed by a Cypriot judge overseeing one of the island’s most politically explosive cases in years. A verdict is expected early next month.
At issue, analysts say, is not only Yaakoub’s guilt or innocence but also the broader question of whether Cyprus and other European Union countries will take a harsher attitude toward Hezbollah. While the United States designed the organization as a terrorist group, the E.U. continues to view it as a political party.
U.S. officials said they hope evidence linking the attack in Bulgaria and Yaakoub’s plotting to Hezbollah will persuade the Europeans to move against the group and restrict its movements and fundraising.
For the Americans, time is important. Current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials said Hezbollah’s ambitions and reach have expanded in the past two years, coinciding with tougher sanctions on Iran. At least a dozen plots linked to the group or Iran have been foiled, including botched bombing attempts in India, Thailand, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kenya.
In the most notorious plot — the failed attempt in late 2011 to murder the Saudi ambassador to Washington — Iranians financed a scheme to blow up a popular Georgetown restaurant using hit men from a Mexican drug gang.
Other targets have ranged from Jewish schoolteachers to U.S. diplomats. When arrests have been made, authorities have found evidence linking the suspects either to Hezbollah or Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Western analysts have suggested a variety of motives for the attempts, ranging from intimidating Iran’s Gulf Arab rivals to exacting revenge for the assassinations of four Iranian nuclear scientists since 2010, which Iran has attributed to Israel’s Mossad intelligence service.
No attempted attacks have been reported since the bus bombing in Bulgaria, but authorities in several countries have uncovered future operations against Israeli or Western targets. Last Thursday, security officials in Nigeria announced the arrest of three men who they say received training in Iran for terrorist strikes aimed at hotels popular with Western and Israeli tourists.
“It isn’t a declared war, but it was virtually that,” said a European diplomat whose country has been closely involved in investigating the string of attempted attacks. “Iranians saw themselves under attack, and they felt compelled to respond. They don’t differentiate between different international players, because they look around the world and see one big conspiracy against them.”