Nicholas Blanford/As Hezbollah grows, corruption takes root

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As Hezbollah grows, corruption takes root
Nicholas Blanford/The Daily Star
Jan. 03, 2015

BEIRUT: The revelation that yet another spy working for Israel has been exposed inside the ranks of Hezbollah raises serious questions about the integrity of the organization at a time when it faces allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Hezbollah once had an enviable reputation for financial probity in a country where sleaze and nepotism is endemic. Yet Hezbollah’s enormous expansion in manpower, military assets and cash generation since 2006 has perhaps inevitably led to a weakening of the party’s internal control mechanisms, making it susceptible to the lure of corruption and penetration by Israeli intelligence agencies.

In the years ahead, the phenomenon of corruption will pose an even graver threat to Hezbollah than Israel’s military might.

The alleged arrest of Mohammad Shawraba, variously described as a former top official in Hezbollah’s external operations unit and Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s personal security chief, is said to have been the most serious infiltration yet of the party by Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. Shawraba reportedly offered Israel information that allowed it to thwart a number of attacks that were intended to serve as revenge of the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s former military commander.

If the allegations are confirmed – and Hezbollah has not yet denied the reports – Shawraba would be only the latest of several Hezbollah members or Shiite figures trusted by the party to have been caught spying for Israel in the past eight years. Others include Mohammad “Abu Abed” Slim, one of the original members of Hezbollah who reportedly served in the party’s counter-intelligence apparatus and was financial chief for external operations. He defected to Israel in 2011, apparently by jumping on board the bucket of an Israeli poclain excavator which lifted him over the border fence near Rmeish. Hezbollah subsequently said Slim had never been a member of the party.

In 2009, Hezbollah arrested Marwan Faqih, a car dealer from Nabatiyah who was sufficiently well trusted by the party to supply the cadres with vehicles. Hezbollah discovered that Faqih’s cars were fitted with GPS transmitting devices that tracked the movements of the vehicles. The recorded GPS tracks presumably allowed the Israelis to build up a map of secret Hezbollah facilities across Lebanon.

Then in 2012, Hussein Fahs, reportedly a top financial officer and head of Hezbollah’s communications network, was said to have fled to Israel, taking with him $5 million along with sensitive maps and documents, after Hezbollah discovered that he was involved in a massive fraud operation involving the party’s fiber-optic communications network. Fahs was an embezzler rather than an Israeli spy prior to his departure for Israel, although the distinction would have made little difference to Hezbollah, which had to assess and contain the damage caused by his defection.

Twenty years ago, however, allegations of corruption and Israel’s recruiting of Hezbollah officials were unheard of. That may in part be explained by the fact that it is only in the past decade or so that Hezbollah has fielded an effective counter-intelligence unit to track down spies within its ranks.

But then again, Hezbollah was a much smaller organization in the 1990s with tighter discipline and internal controls and a deeper sense of personal security among the cadres. At the time, Hezbollah was focused on confronting Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon which won it a swath of admirers across the sectarian divide. Politically, Hezbollah had an effective parliamentary presence and was steadily building up its support base and challenging the Amal Movement’s then leadership of the Shiite community.

Israel had few covert successes against Hezbollah in the 1990s due to the air-tight security in which the party operated. It assassinated then Hezbollah chief Sayyed Abbas Mussawi in 1992, although that operation backfired as Israel lost an embassy in Buenos Aires a month later and Mussawi was replaced by the even more effective Nasrallah. Israel was able to recruit some non-Shiite Lebanese agents in the 1990s.

Perhaps the most damaging for Hezbollah was Mahmoud Rafeh, a retired policeman from Hasbaya who, following his arrest in 2006, admitted responsibility for the 1999 road-side bomb assassination of Ali “Abu Hasan” Deeb, the head of Hezbollah’s special operations unit in south Lebanon, and the 2006 car bomb killing of Nidal and Mahmoud Majzoub, two top Islamic Jihad commanders.

Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has grown immensely in political and martial power and its army of fighters is perhaps five times larger than before 2006, representing a genuine challenge for Israel in any future war. Yet, paradoxically, its rapid expansion has also made it more vulnerable internally. In some respects, Hezbollah has become a victim of its own success, turning from the relatively small streamlined resistance group of two decades ago into a sprawling bureaucracy with looser internal controls which is dissolving its previously impermeable wall of security. Even within Shiite circles, among Hezbollah’s general support base, there is talk of how the party has lost its aura of integrity compared to before 2006.

It is telling that the resignation last week of Ghaleb Abu Zeinab from his post as Hezbollah’s liaison with the Christian community was accompanied by allegations that he was dismissed over charges of corruption. No evidence has emerged to suggest there is any truth to the claims, but the fact that the allegations were raised in the first place illustrates, perhaps, how closely the words “Hezbollah” and “corruption” have become associated in the minds of some people.

Nasrallah is believed to have worked hard to clamp down on graft and pilfering within his organization, but corruption, once it takes root, is hard to remove.

Uri Lubrani, Israel’s veteran Lebanon coordinator during the occupation years, once said Hezbollah would only be defeated when it caught the disease of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, in other words become lazy, bourgeois and corrupt. Hezbollah’s leaders have watched both the PLO in Lebanon and the Amal Movement succumb to the cancer of corruption over the decades and now face a challenge to reverse the party’s descent along the same insidious path.