Lebanese actor arrested for 'spying' for Israel
Ziad Itani reportedly had ties with an Israeli intelligence officer he initially thought was a Swedish woman; he allegedly provided her with information on senior Lebanese officials—including Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and former defense minister Abdul Rahim Mrad—and was asked to form group of liberal politicians in effort to prepare public opinion for normalization with Israel.
Itani, who was arrested on Wednesday, reportedly admitted in his interrogation to the accusations leveled against him.
He is suspected of following a series of senior political figures in Lebanon and trying to get close to their aides in an effort to obtain information about their movements.
He also stands accused of providing information to his Israeli handlers about two senior, well-known political figures in Lebanon—Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and former defense minister Abdul Rahim Mrad.
His Israeli handlers allegedly asked him to provide them with information on the reactions on the Lebanese street to the unexpected resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, which is affiliated with Hezbollah, reported on Saturday that Itani's involvement with Israel began when he was contacted on Facebook in 2014 by an "attractive woman," 30 years old with black hair, white skin and green eyes, who introduced herself as "Colette Vianoi."
The two reportedly exchanged messages, with Itani believing the woman to be Swedish. Their Facebook relationship continued until 2015, when Itani gave the woman his phone number and email address.
At first, according to Al Akhbar, the two talked mostly about the economic situation in Lebanon and in the world, but their topics of conversation soon changed.
In early 2016, the "Swedish woman," who according to Al Akhbar was an Israeli intelligence officer, managed to recruit Itani to work for her. Security officials quoted by the paper claimed he knew at that point she was Israeli, as she revealed her true identity to him.
The two continued talking via messenger apps, WhatsApp and Gmail, with their communications encrypted and split into three parts, each sent through a different app, or otherwise an encrypted message was sent via one app and decrypted with the help of another.
The personal account used by the Israeli officer—who may have been either a man or a woman—would reportedly be closed every three weeks and reopened under a different name.
According to interrogation transcripts quoted by Al Akhbar, Itani knew the new account belonged to his Israeli acquaintance because the two agreed to begin communications every time with the phrase: "HI IT'S ME" in English and in all capital letters.
The Israeli officer, according to the paper, would ask after Itani's well being on a daily basis. Itani told his interrogators the two agreed he would log onto his Facebook and WhatsApp accounts every day at 2pm so his handler knows he hasn't been caught.
It was also reported Itani received many phone calls with calling codes of several different countries, including Belgium, Sweden, Israel, Turkey and Qatar. The handler allegedly used a new phone time every time.
Itani reportedly met with his Israeli handler face-to-face for the first time in Turkey in August 2016.
"Colette" reportedly asked the actor to work to make himself an influential public figure and make special connections. Among other things, he was told to look after his appearance so he could blend into certain crowds, where he could cultivate his connections. To that end, he was sent a monthly sum of $500-$1,000.
The paper elaborated on the suspicions Itani tried to get close to influential political figures via their aides and journalists in their close circles, reportedly providing his Israeli handler with information on his conversations with them.
Itani, according to the paper, was asked to choose political figures considered liberal who support peace in the Middle East, in order to establish a small group to promote peace that also includes the establishment of a Palestinian state and later normalization with Israel.
Itani told his Israeli handler he had close ties with the advisor to the minister of interior and municipalities, Nouhad Machnouk, and she reportedly asked him for the minister's home address and encouraged him to get closer to the aide.
Itani also told his handler he knew the former defense minister, Abdul Rahim Mrad, and his son and provided her with information about them. The handler reportedly asked Itani for information about their home addresses and movements as well.
The Israeli handler also reportedly asked Itani about the security situation in southern Lebanon and in the Palestinian refugee camps in the country, and sought to know whether Hariri's resignation was genuine or merely a political ploy.
Their last contact was recently, when the Israeli handler told Itani she intends to visit Lebanon on December 2 of this year and even booked a hotel room to that end. Itani tried to postpone the meeting, but "Colette" insisted and said she will be joined by someone who could help train him.
Security officials denied to the paper the reports on Friday that Itani was gathering information on Machnouk and Mrad in order to assassinate them, saying he only wanted to get close to the minister and former minister in accordance with the instructions he received from the Israeli handler.