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May 9, 2008 | 22:52 GMT

16 mins read

Lebanon: Hezbollah's Communication Network

The Lebanese government has decided to dismantle Shiite militant group Hezbollah's communications network — the very thing that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called the group's most important weapon. Not only did the government's decision spark protests and violence, but the network — which spans Beirut and reaches through the Bekaa Valley to the area along the Israeli-Lebanese border — could prove difficult to take down.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared May 8 that the Shiite militant group's communications network is its most important weapon, and that the government's decision to target the network was tantamount to a declaration of war. As Nasrallah spoke, Beirut was swarming with Hezbollah supporters flashing victory signs, waving flags, burning tires, blockading roads and attacking rival government forces with everything from rocks to mortar fire. Nasrallah was referring to a decision made by members of the Western-backed Lebanese government's Cabinet two days earlier. After eight hours of deliberation, the Cabinet announced to the public that Hezbollah's communications network was illegal and represented an attack on the country's sovereignty. The government crossed a red line when it decided to go after Hezbollah's communications network. In Hezbollah's view, its communications technology is just as essential for the group's survival as its missiles. With the help of Iranian electronic engineers, the group has built an expansive network that stretches across Beirut and through the Bekaa Valley to the south along the Israel-Lebanon border. Indeed, during the 2006 summer conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, Hezbollah was effective in preventing Israeli electronic warfare (EW) units from jamming its networks south of the Litani River and even reportedly had the assets in place to jam parts of Israel's radar and communications systems. The Lebanese government is very aware of what it means to single out Hezbollah's communication network. However, the government faces a daunting task in attempting to dismantle the Shiite group's communications network. This analysis explores the intricacies of Hezbollah's communications technologies, the EW tactics the group and its opponents face and the sheer difficulty of taking the system apart.

Hezbollah's Tactical Communications Network

Land Lines/Hard Lines

Of the telecommunications networks available to Hezbollah, land line systems are among the simplest and cheapest to construct. Primarily, land line networks are constructed using either copper wires or fiber optic cable, the former being very vulnerable to EW practices (such as tapping and jamming) and the latter almost immune. Copper wiring, the core material in traditional wiring applications, acts as an electrical conductor and transmits information via electrical signals. This design, however, allows anyone who discovers the cable to easily open it, splice in a connection and intercept communications taking place across the line. But this vulnerability has not dissuaded Hezbollah from using it, at least in part, within their greater communications network. In fact, in addition to using the current national land line systems, Hezbollah has for several years constructed its own network of copper land lines and cables. Much of the organization's network was laid alongside national phone companies' and communications firms' cables and wires, in an effort to take advantage of existing infrastructure and ensure a degree of security for the network itself. The remaining portions that were not built in proximity to the national networks extend throughout the country, connecting disparate offices and outposts to the centralized network. However, this portion of the land line system should not be viewed as a primary communication tool due to its vulnerabilities; it is best considered a secondary or emergency communication system. The other type of land line communication network is constructed out of fiber optic cables and, because of the cables' properties and operating principles, quickly is becoming one of the kinds of networks Hezbollah uses most frequently. Unlike copper and other types of cables, fiber optic cables are not vulnerable to electromagnetic interference; some have even claimed that it is impossible to tap a fiber optic cable and intercept data, but this is only partially true. The basis for this claim is rooted in the underlying design of the cables and technology, which transmit data via pulses of light rather than electrically. This renders them immune to electromagnetic interference, and that alone is of considerable benefit. However, their real worth is that they can be incredibly difficult to tap into. There are two possible procedures to choose from to attempt to tap a fiber optic cable. The first of these is locating a coupling point between two strands of cable. Once the strands are detached, a signal interceptor can be inserted and data potentially can be captured. The second method relies upon physically severing the cable, inserting the interceptor, and reattaching the two ends. Regardless of which method is employed, a sharp drop in optical power transmission will occur. In a robust network the cables' data stream would be rerouted automatically, but will still draw attention. Furthermore, when an interceptor is inserted, it has to absorb or divert some of that light in order to obtain the data being sent. This ultimately causes a noticeable decrease in optical power. If these two events take place in sequence, network technicians can be almost certain that someone has deliberately tampered with the cable. And even if the intruders were able to avoid detection, there is the issue of being able to decrypt the data stream and sort out relevant information, which is difficult even if the amount of data is fairly limited. Though the process is difficult, many organizations and governments — including the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan — are known to have successfully intercepted data or engaged in cyber attacks through hijacked fiber optic cable connections. Although limited thus far, Hezbollah has also been able to engage in fiber optic cable tapping, enabling data interception and the hijacking of Internet and communication connections. All this being said, however, fiber optics will continue to be one of the most secure forms of communication.

Mobile and Satellite Phone Networks

Within Hezbollah's communication infrastructure, the use of mobile phones is highly prevalent. Used for everything from battlefield communication to general organizational communication, the mobile phone is critical to Hezbollah's ability to function efficiently. Mobile phones and other wireless communication devices are very vulnerable to EW operations, even more so than land lines. Mobile phones function as full-duplex devices, simultaneously using two frequencies for wireless communication within a network. One of these is used to send voice and data from the user while the other receives; both must pass through a network tower. All that is required to cut off most mobile phones and systems is an active frequency jammer that floods the airwaves with a single frequency or a wide range of frequencies, cutting off access to the tower. Single-frequency jamming works for many mobile phones; once the phone loses one of its frequencies, it automatically drops the other one. Newer and more advanced models, however, often use multiple frequencies, and denying them access requires wide ranges of frequencies to be blocked simultaneously. While the principles behind the jamming process are relatively simple, they are far more difficult to implement in large-scale military and counterterrorism operations. During the 2006 summer conflict with Hezbollah, the Israeli military deployed jammers into southern Lebanon in an attempt to disrupt Hezbollah members' mobile phone communications. However, even the most powerful jammers can only flood a small range. In a combat theater like southern Lebanon, Israel would have needed hundreds of jammers to saturate the entire electromagnetic spectrum enough to actually block Hezbollah's communication. Israel could only deploy jammers around high-value assets and selected areas due to the size and terrain of the area. After recognizing Israel's inability to block its mobile phone networks during the 2006 summer conflict, Hezbollah made a strategic decision to expand its own independent mobile phone network to enhance its operational security. The decision was made not only because Hezbollah's communications went uninterrupted during the 2006 conflict while the group used the national phone networks and their own mobile networks but because Hezbollah also anticipates a future war with Israel. The Israeli military knows how important mobile communications are to Hezbollah's operations and likely will attack Lebanon's cellular towers in order to cut off the group's access in a rematch with the Shiite militant group. If this should happen, having a secondary mobile phone network to rely upon would be crucial to Hezbollah. Should both of these networks fail, Hezbollah also operates several satellite phones to ensure reliable communications in all contingencies. The phones themselves are often reserved for high-ranking personnel or members performing critical tasks. Even if there were significant numbers of the phones in operation within a combat environment, their use would still be limited. Satellite phones primarily use two types of satellites: geosynchronous and low Earth orbit (LEO). While both of these types offer users satellite uplinks in almost every corner of the globe, each has fundamental limitations. Geosynchronous satellites, which operate at an average altitude of 22,000 miles, allow for constant uplink access to a limited geographic range. The uplink itself, however, often suffers from significant travel time for voice calls and data transfers. In a future military conflict, the lack of real-time communications could significantly impede Hezbollah's operations. LEO satellites overcome this issue by operating at altitudes ranging from 400-700 miles. Though real-time communication is possible, satellites are usually only in range at certain intervals in their orbits. With large satellite networks, LEO phones can often have considerable amounts of dedicated service times, but the process of constantly switching between satellites is a significant drawback.

Internet Networks

Though mobile phone networks are used most frequently by Hezbollah, the group also relies heavily on the Internet for secure communication. While today the Internet is often associated with insecurity and vulnerability for its many users, it is in fact one of the most secure forms of communication. Of particular use are secure, free e-mail accounts. Within the field of electronic and cyberwarfare, intercepting an e-mail is not a particularly difficult task so long as the computer or device which accesses it can be reliably identified. Once this is done, it can be intercepted by a wide range of programs, including keylogger programs, which have the ability to copy the keys that are pressed on a computer to pick up things like passwords, log-ins and other information. But without pinpointing the target computer or device, cyberwarfare technicians would have to rely on picking up messages directly off a cable and deal with the sheer volume of information that comes along with it. This would require vast amounts of data farming, as tens of thousands of e-mails across a number of different networks would be collected every day. Not only is this impractical for intelligence gathering, but the information gleaned from it is often dubious without knowledge of the source of the information. Under these circumstances, Hezbollah fully uses e-mail for a wide range of organizational activities, from basic communication to tactical planning. Not only does it not have to be too concerned about its messages being intercepted, but if members feel that their accounts or messages might have been hacked, they can simply change the account or the device which accesses the account. During the construction of its cellular phone networks, Hezbollah not only made the networks capable of supporting e-mail and Short Message Service (SMS) messages, but designed the networks to handle e-mail and SMS as the primary communication methods. In addition to using e-mail and electronic messages, Hezbollah's hacker corps has long been known to hijack servers and Web sites to meet the organization's needs. These electronic resources, once hijacked, often serve as centralized communication nodes for members to relay valuable information on things like recruiting, tactical planning and fund-raising. In the process of hijacking these resources the hackers will often make a note of not disrupting the services the resources offer so that it is less likely that their activities will be discovered. That being the case, few of the hackers' activities have been noticed or disrupted, which allows for a highly reliable and secure external communication mode. While these two methods serve as the primary communication uses of the Internet for Hezbollah, there are still many other services the group employs, albeit to a lesser extent. Among these are instant messaging applications and voice over internet protocol (VoIP) programs. Although Hezbollah uses these capabilities less frequently, instant messaging and VoIP are likely to eventually become backup communication media or be integrated directly into Hezbollah's primary communication networks. VoIP is the most likely to be given greater priority due to the large numbers of fiber optic cable networks Hezbollah has. Once VoIP services are paired with these cables, Hezbollah would possess an extremely resilient communication medium that would be largely immune to standard EW disruption or interception.

The Scale of Hezbollah's Communication Networks

The early version of Hezbollah's internal telecommunications network was comparatively small in scale. The earliest portions were centralized in Beirut and branched off to critical nodes and facilities within the organization's hierarchy. This included standard copper wiring, a primitive and experimental mobile phone network, limited radio use and some Internet/electronic networks. In recent years, much of these early networks have been supplanted by more advanced and expansive versions, which have enhanced Hezbollah's operational security and efficiency. The copper wire-based communication and Internet networks were among the first of the networks to be displaced. Fiber optic cables, with their numerous benefits — including high data stream capacity and EW defenses — make an ideal communication medium for the organization and are undoubtedly the most prolific type within the organization. Almost every facility and building — including Hezbollah's headquarters, television and radio stations, military compounds and most recently the group's mobile rocket launch facilities — is wired within this network. This newest addition not only enables secure e-mail, instant messaging and other useful applications, but also the remote control of rocket facilities without risking personnel or possibly losing communication. Much of the network is concentrated in Beirut, but it now effectively covers the entire southern, western and eastern portions of Lebanon and can be easily expanded to connect new facilities or nodes to the greater network. More recently, new work has begun to push the network far into Lebanon's northern regions so that communications can be conducted anywhere in the country. Mobile phone networks have experienced a similar expansion, although the organization also continues to use public mobile phone networks. The earliest experimental networks were based in Beirut, but soon after technical hurdles were overcome the network quickly expanded into southern Lebanon. This region was chosen first to support operations against Israel and years later proved instrumental in Hezbollah's fight against the Israeli military in 2006. Today the network provides almost complete coverage in western and eastern Lebanon, and there is evidence of limited service in the north.

The Challenge of Dismantling Hezbollah's Communication Network

Though the Lebanese government has threatened to dismantle Hezbollah's communication networks, a number of obstacles stand in the way. The biggest complication is that the scale and layout of the network is largely unknown except to a small number of the organization's officials and technicians, so many of the networks quite simply cannot be disassembled. As discussed earlier, several different communication networks are used simultaneously to support the needs of the greater organization. Each of these networks presents its own challenges, and dismantling them will be extraordinarily difficult. The most basic (yet critical) of the networks are those composed of land lines, such as copper or fiber optic cable, which were laid down alongside or within existing bundles or were spliced into national networks. With so much of Hezbollah's systems in close proximity or tied into national networks, any attempts to remove Hezbollah's network will undoubtedly cause significant disruption to the national network, driving up the economic cost nationwide of going after Hezbollah. As for the components that were installed independent of the national networks, the principal issue is not of removal, but rather of simply locating components. This is far easier said than done. Trying to locate a single cable or cluster of cables without a detailed map is extremely difficult. Detection methods, such as metal detecting, are often time consuming and costly in terms of resources and manpower and often do not yield results. For fiber optic cables this method does not work at all. Most often, communication nodes must be captured or identified so that their land lines can be traced. No matter how good the detection systems are, many of these cables will not be discovered without insider knowledge. Unlike landline systems, wireless communication networks — such as those that support mobile phone networks — are simpler to locate. Much of this is because of their distinct physical presences and the fact that they are emitting carrier signals, which are easily traced and intercepted. Jamming is another option, but doing this often proves difficult even for nations with substantial resources and technical expertise. In the Lebanese government's case, the only option is to attempt to locate the emitter stations and communication nodes and shut them down. Hezbollah communication officials could go mobile with many of these systems, since the technological principles are simple, but mobility would also compromise reliability. A rapidly shifting mobile or wireless network will inherently leave gaps in the communication network and disrupt Hezbollah's activities. But the group is well-prepared to switch over to national networks if their local networks were seriously threatened. Locating and disassembling the networks is only part of the equation. While the government can certainly attempt to pursue this policy, it must also consider the distinct possibility that Hezbollah will simply replace the portions that are lost. Such interference will certainly complicate matters for Hezbollah, but they likely will be able to replace connections faster than the government can locate and terminate them. Most of the networks Hezbollah uses, such as mobile phone networks, the Internet and others, are all available for public use. Should Hezbollah's private networks be cut off, Hezbollah would simply have to increase its usage of these networks to retain its current capacities. Since many of these networks offer anonymity to their users due to their nature or the quantity of users, it is possible that Hezbollah's communications could become even harder to intercept, further frustrating the Lebanese government and Hezbollah's foreign rivals.

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