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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hezbollah cracked the code

Technology likely supplied by Iran allowed guerrillas to stop Israeli tank assaults

Newsday Middle East Correspondent

AITA SHAAB, Lebanon -- Hezbollah guerrillas were able to hack into Israeli radio communications during last month's battles in south Lebanon, an intelligence breakthrough that helped them thwart Israeli tank assaults, according to Hezbollah and Lebanese officials.

Using technology most likely supplied by Iran, special Hezbollah teams monitored the constantly changing radio frequencies of Israeli troops on the ground. That gave guerrillas a picture of Israeli movements, casualty reports and supply routes. It also allowed Hezbollah anti-tank units to more effectively target advancing Israeli armor, according to the officials.

"We were able to monitor Israeli communications, and we used this information to adjust our planning," said a Hezbollah commander involved in the battles, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The official refused to detail how Hezbollah was able to intercept and decipher Israeli transmissions. He acknowledged that guerrillas were not able to hack into Israeli communications around the clock.

The Israeli military refused to comment on whether its radio communications were compromised, citing security concerns. But a former Israeli general, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Hezbollah's ability to secretly hack into military transmissions had "disastrous" consequences for the Israeli offensive.

"Israel's military leaders clearly underestimated the enemy and this is just one example," he said.

Dodging the efforts

Like most modern militaries, Israeli forces use a practice known as "frequency-hopping" - rapidly switching among dozens of frequencies per second - to prevent radio messages from being jammed or intercepted. It also uses encryption devices to make it difficult for enemy forces to decipher transmissions even if they are intercepted. The Israelis mostly rely on a U.S.-designed communication system called the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System.

Hezbollah's ability to intercept and decode Israeli transmissions underscores how the Shia group had higher military capabilities than many Israeli and U.S. officials thought.

Much of Hezbollah's capability is believed to have come from its two main backers, Iran and Syria.

During 34 days of fighting, which ended Aug. 14 under a cease-fire brokered by the United Nations, Hezbollah repeatedly surprised Israel by deploying new types of missiles and battlefield tactics.

"The Israelis did not realize that they were facing a guerrilla force with the capabilities of a regular army," said a senior Lebanese security official who asked not to be identified. "Hezbollah invested a lot of resources into eavesdropping and signals interception."

Besides radio transmissions, the official said Hezbollah also monitored cell phone calls among Israeli troops. But cell phones are usually easier to intercept than military radio, and officials said Israeli forces were under strict orders not to divulge sensitive information over the phone.

Hezbollah eavesdropping teams had trained Hebrew speakers who could quickly translate intercepted Israeli transmissions and relay the information to local commanders, the Hezbollah official said. Even before the war, the group had dozens of translators working in its southern Beirut offices to monitor Israeli media and phone intercepts.

Mistakes happen

With frequency-hopping and encryption, most radio communications become very difficult to hack. But troops in the battlefield sometimes make mistakes in following secure radio procedures and can give an enemy a way to break into the frequency-hopping patterns. That might have happened during some battles between Israel and Hezbollah, according to the Lebanese official. Hezbollah teams likely also had sophisticated reconnaissance devices that could intercept radio signals even while they were frequency-hopping.

During one raid in southern Lebanon, Israeli special forces said they found a Hezbollah office equipped with jamming and eavesdropping devices. Israeli officials said the base also had detailed maps of northern Israel, lists of Israeli patrols along the border and cell phone numbers for Israeli commanders.

That raid highlighted the ongoing spy war between Hezbollah and Israel. Since Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000 - after an 18-year occupation and guerrilla war with Hezbollah - the militia has stepped up its espionage efforts against Israel. According to Israeli military officials, a special Hezbollah unit recruits Israeli Arabs and others to spy for it. The agents are assigned to obtain maps, monitor Israeli patrols, gather cell phone numbers and photograph military facilities. This information is used to draw up detailed maps and files that could be used to direct Hezbollah's rocket and missile attacks.

"After the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, each side competed to spy on the other," said Nizar Qader, a retired Lebanese army general who is now an independent military analyst. "This intelligence-gathering was essential to fighting a war ... Hezbollah appears to have collected better information than the Israelis."

After Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12, Israel launched its most intense attack since it invaded Lebanon in 1982. The offensive crippled the country's infrastructure, displaced 1 million people, cut off Lebanon from the world and killed more than 1,200 Lebanese - the majority of them civilians. Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets at Israel, killing 43 civilians. Of the 119 Israeli soldiers killed, the majority were killed by anti-tank missiles.

Hezbollah's ability to hack into Israeli communications made its arsenal of anti-tank missiles even more deadly by improving the targeting. Throughout the ground war, Hezbollah deployed well-trained anti-tank teams to transport these missiles and fire them in ways that would inflict heavy casualties on Israeli forces. The units were made up of four to six fighters who moved around mostly on foot.

The militia used four kinds of sophisticated missiles that enabled it to disable - and, in some cases, destroy - Israel's most powerful armor: Merkava tanks. The Merkava is reinforced with several tons of armor, a virtual fortress on tracks intended to ensure its crew's survival on the battlefield.

All the missiles used by Hezbollah are relatively easy to transport and can be fired by a single guerrilla or a two-person team. They all rely on armor-piercing warheads. The most prevalent of Hezbollah's anti-tank weapons is the Russian made RPG-29, a powerful variation on a standard rocket-propelled grenade. The RPG-29 has a range of 500 yards.

Using all their capabilities

Hezbollah also used three other potent anti-tank missiles, according to Israeli and Lebanese officials: the Russian-made Metis, which has a range of 1 mile and can carry high-explosive warheads; the Russian-built Kornet, which has a range of 3 miles and thermal sights for tracking the heat signatures of tanks, and the European-built MILAN (a French acronym for Anti-Tank Light Infantry Missile), which has a range of 1.2 miles, a guidance system and the ability to be fired at night.

Israeli officials say the Kornet and RPG-29 were provided to Hezbollah by Syria, which bought them from Russia in the late 1990s. Russian officials are investigating whether Syria violated an agreement that these weapons would not be transferred to a third party.

Analysts say Hezbollah used all its capabilities - eavesdropping, anti-tank missiles and guerrilla fighting skills - to maximum effect.

"The information collected by signals intercepts was being used to help direct fighters on the battlefield," Qader said. "These are tactics of a modern army."

Sonia Verma contributed to this story from Jerusalem.

Key events

July 12. Hezbollah kidnaps two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

July 13. Israel begins bombing the runways at Beirut's airport and imposes a naval blockade of Lebanon. Hezbollah rocket attacks strike the northern Israeli city of Haifa.

July 18. The United States, others step up evacuations of their citizens from Lebanon.

July 22. Israeli ground troops enter Lebanon.

Aug. 6. Hezbollah rocket attacks kill 12 Israeli soldiers and 3 others in deadliest day for Israel in nearly 4 weeks of war.

Aug. 12. The UN Security Council approves a resolution calling for a "full cessation of hostilities."

Aug. 14. Cease-fire takes effect.

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