Intelligence: Treating Premature Expectation


September 8, 2018: Another Israeli animal research project has run afoul of Arab paranoia. This time it was a seagull that had been found, injured, in Israel earlier in 2018. The bird received medical attention and when it was well enough to fly an Israeli researcher attached a miniature GPS locator to its leg and in April released it. These GPS locators are increasingly attached to animals (especially birds and sea creatures known to travel long distances) to discover what routes they take and how long it takes. The tagged seagull was tracked from northern Israel, across North Africa until it apparently stopped in western Libya (near Tripoli, the capital). Some Libyans had captured the bird and noted the tag and what turned out to be some tiny text in Hebrew. At this point, the bird was turned over to government officials and soon it was in the news as another clever Israeli espionage effort.

Arab media can’t resist an “Israeli espionage” story like this even though all of them have been proved false and most make no sense in the first place. The Israelis found out about the seagull incident via the Arab news media, which many Arab speaking Israelis, and Israeli intelligence people, monitor. Israeli media then reported the story and in doing that uncovered the story behind the tagged bird. The GPS device was German, a gift from a German university to Israeli bird migration researchers. Israel lies astride many bird migration routes and conducts the largest number of any bird research (and rescue) operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. That’s why losses to Arab paranoia are relatively frequent because so many migratory species can be tagged in Israel and there a lot of birds moving about the region with Israeli tags.

The Libyans eventually gave the seagull to someone who took it to Lebanon where, on August 15th, the GPS transmitter went offline. It is unknown what happened to the seagull and it is believed that Iranians or, more likely Hezbollah, got the bird and once they realized it was another legitimate animal migration incident did what Hezbollah usually does and made it all disappear. No further details were forthcoming from anyone.

Hezbollah is reluctant to openly discuss this sort of thing because they have been through this before. For example, in 2013 Hezbollah reported that they had captured an Israeli spy. The enemy agent was an eagle with a miniature tracking device attached. The device was electronic and it was attached in Israel. It was a commonly used device for tracking some types of animals, especially rare bird species, the better to understand how these animals live and how to keep them from going extinct. But in Middle Eastern nations there is a tendency to see such things as something more, especially if the markings on them are in English or Hebrew. Naturally, that means American, British and Israeli spies are involved, not scientific research into animal behavior. This sort of thing has happened frequently since the late 1990s as these tracking devices became smaller, more reliable and cheaper. It’s not always birds. In 2010 the Egyptians accused Israel of training tagged sharks to attack Arabs. Tagged vultures have been accused twice, first in 2011 in Saudi Arabia and then in 2012 in Egypt (where a stork was also accused). It’s not just the Arabs, in Turkey, a kestrel was captured and x-rayed to ensure it was not carrying Israeli espionage equipment.

Such suspicions are not completely unfounded, although inanimate objects are preferred to unpredictable and highly mobile animals. In 2012 Iran reported that security troops outside a new underground nuclear enrichment plant went to investigate a suspicious looking rock and the rock exploded. Later investigation revealed that the rock was indeed not a real rock but an electronic device that was apparently monitoring activity around the nuclear facility (that enriched uranium sufficiently for use in a bomb) and transmitting it, via satellite, back to somewhere. The rock was also rigged to self-destruct if anyone got close.

The usual suspects for such a ploy were the Americans (who have been using the fake rock thing for decades) and the Israelis (who have been caught using them quite a lot in Lebanon). As for the exploding rocks, details on stuff like that is rarely released and then usually after the item in question is retired. Some equipment of this sort does receive publicity. Such was the case with WolfPack, which first appeared in 2003. WolfPack is a 2.73 kg (six pound) sensor/jammer that is dropped into enemy territory to get information and, if needed, jam enemy communications. These were painted camouflage colors but it would be no problem to enclose the device in a container that looked like a rock.

Israel will sometimes go to great lengths to prevent these devices from being captured intact. In late 2009 some Lebanese found an Israeli electronic sensor on their side of the border. The Israelis soon became aware of this and destroyed the device from the air with a missile, or internal explosives. There are conflicting reports. But Hezbollah fighters showed up shortly thereafter and searched the area. They found another such device and blew it up. It's believed these devices were for tapping into telephone conversations. The Lebanese believe that some, or all, of these devices, were equipped with explosives, to self-destruct (or be detonated remotely from Israel) if discovered or tampered with. Since Lebanon arrested dozens of Israeli agents in 2009, with the help of Iranian intelligence operatives, Israel had apparently increased their use of electronic sensors. These detect movement, sound or electronic transmissions. Many are buried or otherwise disguised to make detection difficult. Hezbollah has become aware of these devices and offers rewards for those who find them. Thus hunting for Israeli sensors has become a popular activity along the border.

Hollywood isn't the only place where old hits are recycled. Such miniature gadgets were first developed and used in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. These early devices were just a microphone and transmitter. An aircraft overhead could pick up the transmissions, record them, and get them back to a base where the activity (trucks, troops marching, or whatever), where it occurred and the time, could be recorded. In this way operations along the carefully hidden (under the tall jungle canopy) "Ho Chi Minh" trail could be studied, plotted, and bombed. The trail, run by North Vietnam through Laos (just west of Vietnam), was vital to keeping northern troops in South Vietnam supplied.

WolfPack faced the same problem airdropped sensors in Vietnam did; the enemy will go looking for them once they realize the sensors were a danger to them. During the Vietnam War, a partial solution to this problem was to build some of the airdropped sensors so they looked like a bamboo plant. This deception would not stand up to close scrutiny but the enemy troops were not going to closely examine every bamboo plant when they were sweeping an area for sensors. So this worked, except when, after the war, surplus sensors of this type were shipped, unmodified, to Europe for use there in a future war there.

Russia was known to have adopted this "intelligent rock" technology after the 1960s, and are still using it. China probably has it as well and someone is using it in Iran. There has been some interest in planting bugs on animals but further research found that the animals' movement were too unpredictable to be useful. Efforts to miniaturize sensors and transmitters for use on mechanical insects is still stalled by technology that is not quite ready to go yet. So Arab paranoia regarding monitoring devices hidden in animals (real or artificial) is not totally unfounded, but somewhat premature.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close