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Hezbollah Trial Offers Clues To How Militant Group Operates


The sunny island of Cyprus has been a vacation haven for Arabs and Israelis alike. But recently, it's been the site of a much-watched trial of an admitted Hezbollah operative. He has described himself simply as a pawn in the militant group's hierarchy, tasked with doing surveillance on restaurants, hotels and buses serving Israeli tourists. But his trial has revealed a wide range of details about how Hezbollah operates and how it may be getting more sophisticated.

Nicholas Kulish of The New York Times was at the trial in Cyprus, and he joins us now. Nicholas, welcome.

NICHOLAS KULISH: Hi. How are you doing?

CORNISH: So this man on trial, he's named Hossam Yaakoub. And we know that he has both Lebanese and Swedish passports. What exactly has he said that he was doing for Hezbollah?

KULISH: Well, he's admitted to tracking the arrival times of flights from Israel as well as observing the buses and writing down their license plate numbers that were used to travel by the tourists from the airports to the hotels. He was surveilling hotels as well as some parking lots and looking for even kosher restaurants, he said.

CORNISH: Tell us exactly how he was caught.

KULISH: The Cypriot officials said that he was caught with the help of a tip from a foreign government, which a lot of people assume was the Mossad. But he was arrested by Cypriot police while he was still in the midst of performing his surveillance.

CORNISH: Is there a sense of how high up the hierarchy he really is?

KULISH: I think that there's a sense that he's a valuable and trained operative, but more in the form of a scout, somebody who would collect and gather information, not a decision maker and not somebody who would necessarily perform an attack himself.

CORNISH: Now, a few days after Yaakoub was arrested last summer, Israeli tourists were killed in a bus bombing in Bulgaria. And I take it Yaakoub denies any role in that. But is there a sense that someone just like him may have been doing the same thing sort of surveillance of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria in order to plan that kind of attack?

KULISH: European and American intelligence officials absolutely believe that there's a connection and that they're more or less the same style of attack, and one was foiled and one, unfortunately, was successful. And I think that just - to the lay observer, the way that the bomb was planted on the bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, and compared to the surveillance of buses in exactly the same situation at an airport with the Israelis arriving, it certainly appears that way.

CORNISH: Now, what has this trial revealed about how Hezbollah is changing?

KULISH: Well, I think that experts like Matthew Levitt, for example, a former treasurer, counterterrorism official, have said that you see much more tradecraft, that you see much better planning and, you know, more caution, that some previous plots had seemed a little sloppy as though Hezbollah had gotten rusty and was out of practice when it came to foreign terrorism activities. And this time, they seem to be using sharper and better trained operatives.

CORNISH: And what to make of someone like Yaakoub himself, with European passports, he started out, he says, his work as just being a courier. Are there aspects to who he is that can tell us more about how Hezbollah operates?

KULISH: Well, I think that people with Western passports and Swedish passports, you know, what could be less suspicious than a Swedish passport? And so you really want to have the kind of person who can travel in and out of countries unobserved. These are very sought after people.

But, you know, another thing that you have to notice is that there's real large networks of Hezbollah supporters and operatives throughout Europe because the organization is not considered a terrorist organization. It's not been banned by the European Union, and so they can more or less operate freely.

CORNISH: Of course, the U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist group. And as you said, European countries classify it as a political party. But is there a sense that this trial is making some people in Europe think twice about that?

KULISH: Well, it's interesting because the Bulgaria bombing, a lot of people said, would change minds. But the European Union is an incredibly bureaucratic beast. And a lot of people say that even though nobody was killed in Cyprus, an actual conviction in a European court for this sort of plot could hold more water with bureaucrats in Brussels than the bombing of a bus.

CORNISH: Nicholas Kulish of The New York Times, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KULISH: Absolutely, a pleasure.

CORNISH: Nicholas Kulish has been covering the trial in Cyprus of an admitted Hezbollah operative. Closing arguments are scheduled for next week.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.