British security contractor, Torchlight, supplies the technology to capture sensitive information on Lebanese citizens for the Lebanese army’s military intelligence agency.
Editor’s note: This is Part 3 in a series of investigations on how the British government penetrates Lebanon’s security services to sway political and security outcomes. Read Part 1 and Part 2.
The Cradle recently exposed how the UK Foreign Office has since 2008 infiltrated Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) at every level via its British Policing Support Programme. Leaked files make clear London has insidiously penetrated Beirut’s assorted intelligence services in a number of other ways, courtesy of shadowy security contractor Torchlight.
The documents reveal that these efforts are conducted in express support of the British Embassy’s “political access and influence objectives” in Lebanon, by implanting Whitehall operatives and technology at the heart of the country’s security agencies, in the process training an unblinking eye on their operations – and Lebanese citizens in the process.
Torchlight can be depended upon to deliver. One file notes that all the company’s staff are “highly experienced former UK police investigators, intelligence officers and forensic experts,” providing specialist instruction at one of the country’s leading spy schools, the Joint Intelligence Training Group.
Furthermore, 90 percent of the company’s employees have high-level Whitehall security clearances, granting them “frequent and uncontrolled access” to top secret information, and Torchlight’s offices boast rare ‘List X’ accreditation, meaning the Ministry of Defence has entrusted the firm with storing highly sensitive, classified material on its premises.
Penetrating Lebanon’s military intel unit
Under the auspices of ‘Investigations Advisor and Mentor’, an endeavor ostensibly aimed at improving the investigative processes of the Lebanese Armed Forces’ (LAF) Military Intelligence Directorate, Torchlight ostensibly teaches the unit to move away from the use of “uncorroborated confession evidence” obtained via torture to “recognition and exploitation” of CCTV footage, phone records, biometrics, forensics, and covert on and offline surveillance.
The Foreign Office terms of reference make clear this aim is in no way informed by sincere human rights concerns, but simply a desire to “drive down risks” of being publicly associated with the Directorate.
The true objective is to build a “sustained relationship with an important UK [counter-terror] partner,” and thus “enable, support and assure any joint UK–Lebanese operational cooperation and collaboration,” with intelligence gathered in Lebanon not merely by the LAF but other agencies fed directly back to Metropolitan Police terror unit SO15, the National Crime Agency and “other members of the UK intelligence community.”
In Torchlight’s submissions to Whitehall, dated 2018, the company notes that since launching seven years earlier, it had earned £35 million from Whitehall “security and justice reform” operations overseas, including “counter-terror programming” in Lebanon, and worked with over 70 different foreign government agencies. This experience grants the firm “enhanced understanding” of “the operational realities of present working practice” in and “institutional rivalries” between the LAF, Internal Security Forces, General Security Directorate, and General Directorate of State Security.
Torchlight’s lead “mentor” for the program, William Semple, a veteran SO15 investigating officer, was reportedly “well-networked” across all these services, and “highly familiar” with their operating environments. This fly-on-the-wall insight allowed Torchlight to cultivate “strong relationships” with the agencies’ “strategic and tactical operational heads,” namely, Colonel Tony Mouawad, Colonel Khaled Hammoud, Major Khodor Zarour and Captain Mohamed Wehbi, and Brigadier General Jihad Tarabay.
The company was similarly “well-networked” with military courts, having met with Fadi Sawan, Lebanon’s chief military investigating judge, on “multiple” occasions. Sawan, incidentally, had been charged with leading the August 2020 Beirut blast investigation, but was removed from his position, allegedly for politicizing the investigation.
Moreover, Torchlight’s in-country team includes a “small” number of “well-regarded and highly-networked” former Lebanese intelligence operatives, who advise the company on “constructive” engagement with their former employers, “facilitate introductions and meetings” and ensure the project avoids “pitfalls and obstacles” to “buy-in” from senior leadership.
One such obstacle is internal opposition to the program, from so-called “negative blockers.” Its work with the Military Intelligence Directorate was said to have “initially met with resistance” from agency staff due to their entirely understandable “suspicions” about the true purpose of the project. However, having conducted analysis to “understand the root causes of beneficiary concerns” and allayed them, Torchlight was allocated an office within the Directorate’s headquarters.
While local stakeholders were “unlikely to say ‘no’ to project proposals” as a result, the company suggested that its work could still “meet with passive resistance.” It’s clear that certain elements and individuals remained wary of London’s advances. A document outlining engagement strategies for specific Lebanese personnel notes that the government’s military court commissioner was “unsupportive” of international cooperation, although due to having recently been “mired in controversy” his tenure in the post “may be coming to an end.”
The nature of the controversy isn’t stated, and the commissioner isn’t named in the file, although the post was at that time held by judge Peter Germanos, who briefly enjoyed Western media attention in March 2019 after he ruled homosexuality wasn’t a crime in Lebanon, and refused to prosecute military officers charged with “homosexual activity.” Just as Torchlight predicted, he duly resigned in February 2020.
One can’t help but wonder if his downfall was British-engineered. Leaked files related to a “rule of law initiative” in the Balkans covertly run by the UK National Security Council’s Stabilisation Unit make very clear that London doesn’t tolerate high-level opposition to its agenda, and readily employs active measures to neutralize any and all resistance.
“In contexts where elite incentives are not aligned with our objectives/values … an approach that seeks to hold elite politicians to account might be needed,” the document ominously states.
To this end, Whitehall sought to “build relationships and alliances with those who share our objectives and values for reform” by cultivating a nexus of civil society organizations, media outlets and campaigning groups that could “bring local governments to account” and “align the programme with stated goals.” As the first instalment of this series revealed, that’s precisely what British intelligence has been doing in Lebanon for many years.
UK data access to Lebanese citizens
“Passive resistance” was projected to be a particular problem in another program, through which Torchlight equips the Military Intelligence Directorate with technology to process and manage digital evidence to support investigations, and trains operatives in its use.
One file related to the operation notes lustily that 90 percent of Lebanese citizens use the internet, while 75 percent are mobile phone users, which “presents major opportunities for intelligence and law enforcement to use digital forensics techniques to drive and support investigations, providing high quality evidence” – and London to keep a close eye on the population too, of course.
Nonetheless, “complex political and institutional landscapes” were said to “likely present engagement challenges” throughout the program, in particular “sensitivities with regards to access to data.” Given the “possibility of reluctance” to allow Whitehall full access, “rapidly developing relationships of trust” was key. The “privilege” of Torchlight’s office space within the LAF would be leveraged for the purpose. In a perverse irony, one file concludes by stating that for the company, “the most important consultancy skill is listening.”
There are sinister echoes in this of the Pentagon’s effort to collect the biometric data of the entire population of Afghanistan. From 2010 onwards, US soldiers went from town to town, amassing information such as iris scans and fingerprints at literal gunpoint, often travelling in colorful trucks equipped with jingling bells to make the process “more culturally appealing.”
It’s fitting then that Torchlight conducted an operation on behalf of the British Embassy in Kabul, training the National Directorate of Security – Afghanistan’s domestic intelligence service – to “examine, collect, [and] record” forensic material.
A summary of the project records that such evidence was “increasingly being collected during investigations” – perhaps a reference to Washington’s policy of hoovering biometric data “from as many local nationals as possible” in the aftermath of a bombing or skirmish. Official US army guidelines instructed soldiers to “enroll everyone” in such circumstances, including the dead, and record “good contextual data” about them, such as “where they live, what they do, and to which tribe or clan they belong.”
London doesn’t rely on such belligerence to access sensitive personal information on residents of West Asia. It simply dispatches representatives of Torchlight and other such companies to the headquarters of constituent security and intelligence services, posing as friends. These agencies would do well to consider that there’s a reason Britain has been known as the “perfidious Albion” since at least the 13th century.