February 23, 2009

Special Abu Muqawama Interview: Mitchell Prothero

Last week's incredible news that an Israeli agent had infiltrated Hizballah and had been turned over to the Lebanese authorities sent shockwaves through the Levant and the small group of journalists and academics who study Hizballah's military activities. One of the journalists I trust the most, Mitch Prothero, has been based in Lebanon for the past several years and has also reported extensively from Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Iraq. Mitch has spent more time with the U.S. Army in Iraq than I have. Like, years more. And along with our mutual friend Nick Blanford, Mitch has studied and written more on Hizballah's military activities than any other journalist in the English language. His excellent report for The National (UAE) on this recent intelligence coup for the Israelis prompted me to send along a few more questions on behalf of the readership.

1. Damn. Hizballah really got caught with their pants down here. Give us some perspective. How rare and significant is this?

This is pretty bad from their point of view. South Lebanon has long been filled with Israeli agents, but to have a guy who had been vetted pretty extensively -- an official Hizballah cadre member tasked with acquiring cars for the military wing -- turn out to be collaborating for more than four years in this manner is a sharp stick to the eye. As one Hizb-supporter told me, the other recently-caught Israeli agents were part of 'them,' meaning Sunni or Christian rivals ... This guy was, in their words, "one of us." That can't be good for morale in a group used to being pretty successful at counter-intel. One official described this as the worst infiltration of the group anyone has heard of.
2. In security services, when a mole is discovered, among the first things done is a damage assessment. How badly, in your opinion, has Hizballah been hurt? How badly are they exposed?
Hizballah has had since mid-January, we're told, to assess their level of exposure by the operation, so the lag between everyone else finding out was probably put to good use. But what I am hearing is that so many vehicles were tracked for so long that it's assumed that any significant meeting place, operational area, safe house, or bunker is probably compromised to some degree. Lebanese authorities sympathetic to the group say they've had to abandon more than a few key facilities.

The big question looking backward -- considering the tracking seems to have happen over a four-plus year period -- is how much did this operation hurt them in 2006 when Israel seemed to have an uncanny ability to hit apartment buildings used on some level by Hizballah. A lot of those mysterious explosions where people asked 'why this building?' seem less random in light of this.

But looking forward, we know that Hizballah was forced to move the majority of its fixed positions back behind the Litani river after the 2006 war, to stay out of the way of UNFIL troops. So if the vehicles used by commanders were being tracked by the Israelis, then it must be assumed that a significant amount of their response to 2006 has been compromised. Probably time to build some new bunkers and command/control facilities: all critical ingredients to how Hezbollah fights. More than most militant groups, Hizballah relies on a very effective and modern communications, command and supply infrastructure that could well have been exposed. So it's not only the fighters having a bad week, but the logistics guys as well. But with what appears to be most, if not all, key Hizballah vehicles tracked by the Israelis, you do have to ask how come there weren't more targeted assassinations. One source implied Nasrallah's vehicle fleet itself could have been tagged. But Lebanese sources explain that most of the vehicles appear to have just had tracking devices, not eavesdropping gear that might tell them exactly who was inside the car at any given time. Some intell sources suggest the GPS data is far easier to mask coming out of the car than streaming audio, so maybe they could watch the trucks move with little idea who was driving. that could be a small consolation to the Hizballah members this week.

3. Hizballah can't enjoy having their dirty laundry waved in public like this. Have you gotten any flack for your reporting either from contacts within Hizballah or the Lebanese security services?
Well, we'll see if they invite me to stay in the long-dormant "Terry Anderson" suite. But jokes aside, this is not the same group from the 1980s. They have a professional press operation that will be more than happy to point out errors or other aspects of the story that annoy them. But usually they stay dead-quiet on intell-type stories, just like any professional agency. Plus, it's not like the Israelis don't know how many trucks were tapped and for how long, so it's not really hurting Hizballah that much in terms of tradecraft.

I will say that a Hizballah member once warned me that, in light of how I cover the group, that I need to take extra care to get things right. He explained that if the story is accurate, even if it pisses them off somewhat, then it's generally ok. But errors are often seen as indications that a journalist might be part of a propaganda operation to hurt the group. So while all reporters should be very careful, I really sweat the details on stories like these.

4. What is the word on the street concerning possible retaliation for Imad Mughniyeh? Are you surprised it's been a year with no response?
Hizballah members are insistent there will be a response. They also claim to have evidence that it was an Israeli operation with help from some 'Arabic-speaking traitors' which we all take to mean Syrian intell guys. But they're are not the brain-dead mopes with uncontrollable blood-lust that some people describe. When Hizballah pursues an operation, they consider all of the possible outcomes and possibilities. We saw this with Nasrallah's apology to his people for the 2006 war for underestimating the Israeli reaction.

Look, the group certainly wants war with Israel but they have a complicated -- and hardly unified -- view internally on the best timing. One major issue is internal politics -- Hizballah has to keep its people happy. While the peeps were stoic in the face of 2006's destruction, many in the group say that while they want a fight, they know they can't been seen as starting it or else the people of the south might really hate them. "I'm sorry" only works once when you're talking about a million displaced people and lots of homes flattened.

There have been several reports of attempts by Hizballah to retaliate already, but we really can't get many specifics. One rumor that has seen some factual backing was an attempt at an Israeli target in Baku. This would make some sense: no matter how much natural gas they're sitting on, having solid diplomatic relationships with both Israel and Iran makes Azerbaijan a natural arena for an operation. The rumors about Europe, while maybe true, make a little bit less sense. A serious strike on an Israeli or Jewish target in Europe would draw an awful lot of heat on the Shiite Diaspora that Hizballah relies on worldwide for operations, intell and fundraising.

5. How excited were you to read of Maj. W. Thomas Smith Jr.'s triumphant return to the Hizballah beat last week? What have you learned, as a professional journalist, from his efforts? Are you and Nick intimidated? And what do you think the "W" stands for?
I still want to know how he made Major. Maybe he's on the Sanchez-track in the reserves. The 'W' clearly stands for 'Walter,' as in 'Mitty.' And let me be the second to credit him with the following scoops (he vigorously credits himself for them): Iran funds Hizballah. Syria helps Hizballah get weapons. Hizballah doesn't like Israel. The Lebanese Army, while nice, doesn't exactly have the stuff (in any way) to take on Hizballah. And, a personal fav: Hizballah used acid bombs to destroy the chassis of dissident cleric's family cars. The group I cover prefers more tried and true methods, like traditional bombs, or even shooting people in the face. But hell, you can't top 'Acid Bomb' as a key word.

But to be serious: Major Junior, please come back. It's safe for you here. Honestly, your reporting was so factually lame, I doubt anyone in the group even knows your name. In fact, I've got $20 that no member of the military wing has ever heard of you. They're too busy with that 'acid bomb' program to see you coming.

I'd ask Nick, but it's his turn to be a hostage. Hizballah imprisons one of us at all times to make sure the other does a decent job reporting. So we swap. I'll be going in later in the week -- while he pursues the acid bomb angle. Don't screw up, habibi. Last time, they water-boarded me for his coverage of Nasrallah's speech. Nick botches part of the translation, and I end up puking water for an hour. But hey, at least I have a job.

6. What did you make of the story that had Beirut UFC champion Christopher Hitchens meeting with independent Shia. Do you think Hassan Nasrallah is now worried about votes?
I love most of Christopher Hitchen's work, except on Iraq. He's right on paper about the morality of taking action to help the oppressed. But a lot of my friends died -- not to mention tens of thousands of people I didn't know -- so his buddies in Kurdistan could expel Arabs from their homes and have their own state. Do the Kurds deserve their own land? Sure. Was it worth the price in blood, treasure and international reputation? Let's just say that showing too much certainty that it was might be seen in poor taste in light of the epic brutality and incompetence on both sides.

But it was great to hear about how Saddam had to go because he ran his country like a mafia family for his own needs, followed by the a call to support the courageous members of Lebanon's March 14th movement. Samir Geagea, Walid Joumblatt and Amin Gemeyal have been beacons of light, hope and liberal democratic values every since they 'burst' upon the Lebanese political scene in the 1970s. Hitch seems pretty comfortable with supporting democrats who consider throat-slitting to be a legit vote suppression effort.

7. You're a longtime Gemmayze resident. What are your top five bars on the east side of Beirut?
1) Torino. It's too cramped. Too smokey, but it's home.
2) Next door at Godot is always a nice move if there's no seats at Torino, but the Phalangist bartenders are a wealth of information of how stupid Syrians are.
3) Buy a bottle of whiskey, and take it to the Alfa Taxi office. Have a seat and listen to the insane mix of former Christian gunmen discuss politics. Drink every time someone says something racist. Drink when asked if America is planning to invade. Drink twice if the questioner makes it sound like a good idea. Drink three times if America is offered Tripoli in return.
4) Mayass, an Armenian restaurant. But even as a bar, it's just lovely. Great spicy food, lovely dark bar and always the chance someone will order Turkish coffee for a bit of wackiness.
5) The roof of the Albergo Hotel. Yes, it's too posh. Yes, Ghaith [Abdul Ahad] refuses to speak Arabic near it for fear they'll hear his Iraqi accent and call the cops. But the view and service offer a glimpse of how classy old Beirut must have been before the middle class and aristocrats were chased off by the civil war and replaced by the craven offspring of warlords. Innocence might be the first casualty of war, but it's closely followed by the death of good taste.
8. Oh man! I've had some crazy conversations with those Alfa Taxi guys! Okay, last question. True or false: Beirut has lost all its joie de vivre since Exum left.
True. But luckily Russia offered to include some along with the 10 mig-29s they claim they're sending to the Lebanese air force as a gift.

Russia is deploying East Tennesseans to Lebanon?! Now that would alter Israel's qualitative military edge!