BEIRUT — The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning a campaign of bombings that will target Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs as well as other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria, Lebanese officials said Monday.
The unusual warning – U.S. government officials are barred from directly contacting Hezbollah, which the U.S. has designated an international terrorist organization – was passed from the CIA’s Beirut station chief to several Lebanese security and intelligence officials in a meeting late last week with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah, Lebanese officials said.
Hezbollah officials acknowledged the warning and took steps to tighten security in the southern suburbs that are known locally as Dahiya.
“Yes, a warning came from the CIA,” said a Hezbollah internal security commander who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. “They passed us this information through the mukhabarat (military intelligence), but we had our own information about the bombs.”
One Lebanese official who was at the meeting said the CIA warning included evidence that was “very convincing and scary” because it was so specific. The evidence included phone intercepts and very detailed information on a number of cells operating along Lebanon’s border with Syria, as well as inside Beirut itself.
“They had transcripts of calls made from known al Qaida people in Lebanon to people in the Gulf that included detailed information about the attacks, including the amounts of explosives that had been smuggled into Lebanon,” said one Lebanese intelligence official who is barred from speaking openly to reporters. “We have already begun to make arrests.”
The official said Lebanese officials had monitored a series of militant phone calls but had not been able to listen to the calls’ content because it was encrypted. The United States, however, was able to listen to the calls, he said.
“America might hate the NSA right now, but they were able to actually hear the calls and warn us what was said,” the official said.
A security contractor familiar with the capabilities of the Lebanese intelligence services said it was likely that the targets had used voice-over-Internet software that the Lebanese services lack the equipment and expertise to decrypt but that poses few problems for the Americans.
“Lebanon lacks the expertise and the technology for that,” said the contractor, who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of his work. “But once the call left Lebanon for the Gulf, the NSA would have automatically been tracking it.”
It was not clear which country was being indicated by references to the Gulf. Al Qaida is active in many Persian Gulf nations, which include Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.
The CIA warning included information that at least three cells had smuggled military-grade explosives by the ton into Lebanon for a pair of huge truck bomb attacks targeting Beirut’s heavily Shiite southern suburbs, where Hezbollah has numerous offices and maintains a heavy security presence. A third cell of suicide bombers was planning to target an unspecified list of Hezbollah and Lebanese officials, as well as diplomats from nations, including Russia, that have been strong supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces are fighting a civil war to remain in power.
A diplomat in Beirut confirmed that various embassies had received similar warnings from their nations’ intelligence services as well as from Lebanese officials over the weekend.
The U.S. Embassy declined to comment or to allow the CIA station chief for Lebanon to be interviewed. A CIA official in the United States said the agency would have no comment. Conveying such a warning to the Lebanese government when civilian lives might be at risk would be a normal procedure, people familiar with CIA procedures said.
Some details of the alleged plot also were reported in Lebanese media on Monday, including specific details about the CIA’s meeting and the threats against Hezbollah’s southern Beirut stronghold.
Two other Lebanese officials – one with the internal security forces and the other with the military’s intelligence bureau – confirmed an ongoing operation to target and stop al Qaida operatives in Lebanon from conducting bombing attacks in support of the Syrian rebels.
Without confirming or denying the CIA’s role in supplying the information, both officials pointed to a raid over the weekend by the Lebanese armed forces in the city of Aarsal, a key haven for Syrian rebels and a hotbed of anti-Hezbollah sentiment in Lebanon.
On Saturday, the Lebanese army captured a “number of men from a number of different Arab nations, including the Gulf,” in possession of military-grade explosives, including some set to be used in suicide operations, according to Lebanon’s National News Agency.
The CIA warning came just a few days after a much smaller bomb wounded dozens of people in a Shiite area in Beirut that was previously thought to be secure. Hezbollah clearly was taking no chances Monday.
An unusually large number of Lebanese army units could be seen conducting patrols and manning checkpoints on the outskirts of Dahiya. Inside the neighborhood, Hezbollah internal security forces were conducting overt security patrols and detaining suspicious people.
“You do not want to be a Syrian walking around this neighborhood right now,” said Ali, a local resident who did not want to be completely identified talking about Hezbollah and the CIA.
“I was in a restaurant owned by my cousin tonight and there were two Syrian guys in there eating,” he said. “They were gone before we finished. Hezbollah came and took them for questioning.”
Residents of the area said they were taken aback by reports that the CIA had warned Hezbollah of a planned attack.
“We all think that the (Syrian rebels) are al Qaida and backed by the CIA and Israel,” said Abu Ibrahim, a 53-year-old day laborer from Haret Hriek, which hosts Hezbollah’s main complex of offices and homes for officials. “So why would they help us? Maybe they’re realizing how crazy their friends in Syria are.”
The Hezbollah commander said he thought the warning was more pragmatic.
“The Americans are starting to realize how bad their friends in Syria are, so they’re trying to get out of this mistake,” he said. “They also think that if a bomb goes off in Dahiya, we will blame America and target Americans in Lebanon. That will never happen, but they’re scared of this monster they created.”’
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero