BEIRUT — A mysterious website offering financial rewards for information about alleged members of Hezbollahs international operations wing has become a major topic of conversation in intelligence circles around the Middle East, with operatives wondering who is behind the effort.
The site, which appeared without fanfare in recent weeks, claims to be the work of an alliance of Western intelligence agencies. But two Western security officials familiar with the project said it is likely an Israeli operation to gather data on one of the worlds most secretive organizations.
Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim movement that is the most powerful Lebanese political group, has long been the focus of Israeli and Western intelligence agencies and has been accused in a long string of terrorist incidents, including the bombing 30 years ago Wednesday of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the bombing in Bulgaria last year of a bus loaded with Israeli tourists.
The site, which can be found at www.stop910.com, says its mission is to bring attention to Hezbollahs so-called Unit 910, which the site accuses of being Hezbollahs international operations unit tasked with conducting intelligence gathering and performing operations around the world.
The site contains photographs of dozens of alleged operatives along with requests for readers to submit any information on the men, who range from suspects already known to authorities to dozens of apparently unidentified Hezbollah members. In many cases, the site shows a picture and no further information and offers rewards for phone numbers, real names and even home addresses of the men.
We call upon you to assist in our activity, whose purpose is to end Hezbollah-perpetrated terror in Lebanon and abroad, the site explains. We ask that you send us any and all details that you have to help in this effort, especially information on the true identity of the people in the photos displayed on this site.
A supposedly secure link for delivering that information and arranging payment information is included next to each photo.
Although it purports to be a multi-country effort at battling the Lebanese Shiite group, two Western intelligence officials familiar with both the site and Hezbollahs international operations said that the site is maintained by Israeli intelligence services.
Ive seen it and wondered why they lied, said one official based in Beirut. The official, who works for a European intelligence service, focuses primarily on Hezbollah and agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Its an Israeli project, similar to the efforts theyve done in the past to try to get information on the fate of missing soldiers and pilots in Lebanon, he said. Thats why the site is blocked by most Lebanese Internet providers, its literally showing the pictures of dozens of men and asking those who might know them to collaborate with the Israelis in exchange for money.
Many Lebanese Internet service providers block the site, although virtual private networks and other location hiding programs appear to be able to counter the block.
Another intelligence official based in Europe expressed dismay at many of the details the site reveals. He agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.
I cant believe this thing, he said. It actually contains a significant amount of raw intelligence that would be literally illegal for American or European services to release to the public without the highest level of clearance.
He added, Now anyone can go online and get an idea of how much information we or the Israelis have on some of these guys. We have his picture but no names. Another guy, we have his fake name and a picture. We have another guys name and picture, but need his phone number. And theres dozens of these names. Im sure some guys just became aware that the Israelis have their photos. But maybe theyll relax because the site admits they dont know their name.
This is not how we do tradecraft in the West, I think its very foolish, he added.
As one of Lebanons largest political parties and this tiny countrys strongest military force, Hezbollahs activities in south Lebanon and in recent months, Syria have long been public as the group often operates as a semi-conventional military force. But the Iranian-backed and -funded organization also has been dogged by allegations from Israel, the United States and a slew of other nations of operating a broad and deeply secretive intelligence and fundraising organization throughout the world that has been accused in numerous deadly attacks. The website makes specific accusations about how that part of the group runs.
The sites opening section names Mustafa Bader el-Din as the head of Hezbollahs security apparatus, which is responsible for international activities, and show a series of what it claims are previously unreleased photos of the mysterious figure who has been rumored for 30 years to hold key posts in the group and its immediate predecessors.
Bader el-Din is a dominant figure in Hezbollah, the site says, calling him one of the closest associates to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It also accuses him of having close connections with the leadership of Irans Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and is heavily involved in Hezbollahs decision-making process across the board, but especially when it comes to its terror policy at home and abroad.
The site notes that el-Din was indicted by an international tribunal for the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The tribunal based in The Hague, Netherlands, has been unable to convince Lebanese authorities to arrest el-Din, who lives in southern Beirut under tight security but more or less openly.
Bader el-Din has long been considered a critical operative in Hezbollahs operations and worked directly with his brother-in-law, Imad Mugniyeh, who had the same job before he was assassinated in a Damascus car bombing in 2008.
The site also offers photos of several of people it says are connected to a series of bombings or assassinations of Israeli diplomats around the world over the last three years.
The photos on the website as well as the general description of Bader el-Dins activities and history as an operative linked to a slew of incidents were confirmed as authentic by both a Western security source in Beirut and by a family member from Beiruts southern suburbs.
The American government claims el-Din participated in the planning of the 1983 truck bombings of American Marines and French paratroopers in Beirut that killed more than 300 people.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero