July 26, 2020:
Syria has been at war since the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising and because of that over a third of the population has fled the country, including a growing number of people belonging to the Syrian government. That has created a bonanza for intelligence agencies, who can pay for secrets of the highly secretive Assad clan that has ruled Syria since the 1960s. Some of these secrets are headed for books while others will be locked away by foreign intel agencies. Some have become public and one of the more interesting collections are about the Syrian Branch 211, a division of the Military Intelligence Division that was responsible for uncovering Israeli electronic devices hidden in furniture, concrete, artificial rocks and many other unlikely locations.
Syria has long been a prime target for Israeli espionage and remains so today. Knowing who to spy on is just as important as teaching your case officers how to spy. Sometimes deciding who to keeps tabs on, or steal information from, can mean the difference between a successful operation and a ruined reputation that makes others unwilling to work with you.
Depending on the country and the circumstances, it is sometimes easy for a nation to decide who they should be spying on and stealing secrets from. Warfare between actual nations often makes the spy game less murky. When two nations go to war, they both spy on each other to get an edge on the battlefield, figure out what the other is thinking, and obtain information on each other's weapons, tactics, and logistics matters. Israel was, and to some degree still is, in this position prior to the Six Day War in 1967. Israel, surrounded by hostile states and facing what it thought was imminent attack, was able to win, in large part, because of their massive network of informants and spies in Arab countries. Information gained from those spies, recruited by the Mossad and Military Intelligence (AMAN), made the difference.
Back in the 1960s Israel was technically at war with every neighboring country and several others in the region. That meant Israel's intelligence mission was simple and straightforward: know everything there is to know about how Arab militaries work. While the Egyptian and Syrian secret services spied on their own people, Israel's leaders knew more about Arab military capabilities than the Arabs themselves. One such spy, Eli Cohen, was so effective at infiltrating and gaining the trust of the Syrian government that he was given a tour of the Syrian fortifications on the Golan Heights. The helped make it possible for attacking Israeli forces to quickly destroy these elaborate and well-hidden fortifications during the 1967 war.
Cohen gained so much trust and confidence in Syria that he was offered a senior job in the Syrian Ministry of Defense. The Assads and their Baath Party associates were particularly paranoid, which is one reason an Assad took control of Syria in 1970 and a son of that Assad is still running Syria. Eli Cohen was caught by Syrian intelligence in 1965 because the Syrians were obsessed with the belief that Israeli had agents in Syria. With the help of Russian electronic detection equipment, operated by Russian experts, the Syrian spy hunters found clues. Cohen used a very clever system for his wireless transmissions to Israel but the Syrians eventually figured out how it worked. Cohen was executed and the Syrians kept looking, and finding evidence of Israeli espionage. Not so much spies as electronic devices operating from Israel and often using hidden transmitters in Syria. This was even more disturbing as it indicated Israel still had the capability of planting well-hidden spying devices throughout Syria.
Dealing with this is what Branch 211 was created for. The latest disclosures come from a Syrian who was apparently familiar with Branch 211 activities from the 1990s until quite recently. One thing about Branch 211 was that they rarely made public what Israeli devices they had found. While there would have been some good publicity for Branch 211, Syria noted that revelations would also reveal how vulnerable Syria was. Any evidence of Israeli espionage must be kept secret.
The recent revelations go back to 1995, when a shepherd outside Damascus reported coming upon some cables buried in the ground. Branch 211 investigated and found that the Israelis had set up a surveillance camera near a ballistic missile launch facility. Branch 211 estimated the surveillance system had been operational for at least five years and regularly transmitted photos back to Israel while someone got to the site regularly enough to change the batteries.
In 2001 a regular Branch 211 sweep of offices occupied by senior officials stumbled on an electronic listening device built into solid wood components of a desk. The device recorded audio for ten days and then transmitted that at 2 AM to an Israeli satellite. The listening device turned out to be German as was the expensive furniture.
In 2004 army patrols near a military airport were told to randomly open telecommunication inspection boxes and report if they found anything unusual. This was a hassle but the troops obeyed. One patrol found a listening and recording device that had been operational for up to three years, recording communications between two major Syrian airbases.
In 2008 Branch 211 discovered an Israeli eavesdropping system in the headquarters of a combat brigade. The system was installed when the brigade headquarters building was under construction and thus difficult to detect. One listening device was found in the ceiling of the brigade commanders office and had been there for several years. More intense inspections of other recently built structures found more such devices. The more recent ones were much more difficult to detect and Branch 211 was criticized for not detecting the installation of these devices during construction of these buildings. Often these devices had been placed in newly poured concrete. Some of these devices may have been found during the first five years of the current civil war, when government forces were losing and many of their headquarters and government buildings were blown apart.
What worries Branch 211 is how many devices they have not detected. The Syrians know that the Israelis were constantly coming up with new clandestine listening device ideas. For example, in early 2014 some UN peacekeepers patrolling the Israel-Lebanese border discovered what appeared to be an Israeli (it had Hebrew text on it) electronic device. It was hidden, but not well enough. It was unclear if the device was on the Israeli or Lebanese side so the UN notified the Lebanese and Israelis to come help sort this out. Lebanese troops arrived first and went to get the device. But then the Israelis showed up and threatened to open fire if the Lebanese did not pull back. All sides conferred and it was agreed that a few Israeli troops would move forward to remove the device, a process the Lebanese could observe through binoculars. By the end of the day it had still not been determined (to everyone’s satisfaction) if the device was on the Israeli side of the border.
The UN patrols a zone along the border to prevent clashes and the Israelis have long been known to hide monitoring devices on their side to keep an eye on who is doing what. Most of these devices, especially those close to the border, are hidden in order to prevent their discovery and destruction (or capture if on the Lebanese side). Most are not discovered, but enough are to make the Lebanese angry and Islamic terrorists operating along the border nervous. This is especially the case with Hezbollah, the Iranian supported Shia group that is the largest Islamic terrorist group in the region. Iran has also been an ally of the Assads since the 1980s, which means the Iranians have been active in Syria (with Branch 211) and Lebanon (with Hezbollah) seeking new Israeli espionage devices.
Sometimes this zeal turns into unintentional comedy. 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 in the last few years. It’s not always birds. In 2010 the Egyptians accused Israel of training 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 fake rock containing 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 rocks thing for decades) and the Israelis (who gave 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. Israel will sometimes go to great lengths to destroy these devices when they are found. 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 believes 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 has 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. Hunting for Israeli sensors has become a popular activity along the border.
Russia was known to have adopted this "intelligent rock" technology after the 1960s, and is 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.