Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, famously on guard against assassination attempts ever since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, made a rare appearance in public last week and was, for the first time, guarded both by an outer ring of Lebanon Army personnel and, within the inner ring of personal bodyguards, a suitcase that can pop open to provide a ballistic shield against gunfire. The photo showed the extraordinary lengths to which Nasrallah, said by one analyst also to be wearing personal body armor, feels he must go in order to physically safeguard himself against his enemies.
Intelligence analyst Ronen Solomon, who has been closely following Nasrallah’s security detail, said the organization has increased the professionalism of its bodyguards in recent years, adding canine units, closed-circuit camera surveillance of the crowds and an unchanging cadre of guards, who are related to Nasrallah by blood and kept apart from distant family and friends.
The suitcase, he said, “was first seen on Wednesday, at an event in Beirut, and it serves as a sort of shield against gunfire and grenade shrapnel.”
He assessed that the suitcase-shield, or ballistic blanket, was purchased from Pro-Tech or The Safariland Group, both based in the US, and that it costs $2,500-$4,000.
The changes in security come amid a fresh Hezbollah- and Assad-led offensive in the mountainous region of Qalamoun, Syria, which is an important re-supply route for the anti-Assad rebels, and several months after Hezbollah came under fire from Sunni opponents within its stronghold neighborhood of the Dahiyeh in south Lebanon.
An image of Nasrallah at an event marking the Shiite holiday of Ashura on Wednesday showed one security guard brandishing a loaded AK-47 with the safety off, his index finger carefully positioned outside the trigger guard; another guard beside him, carrying the ballistic suitcase-blanket; one to his left with his hands free; one behind him, speaking into a radio; and one, in the bottom right of the photo, pointing a video camera at the crowd, perhaps sending footage back to a closed-circuit system for live crowd analysis.
A former Shin Bet secret service officer and instructor at the agency’s training center who refused to be named told The Times of Israel that he could draw several conclusions from the picture. One, he said, was that the picture is just a close-up view of “the box” — the inner security circle around Nasrallah — that does not include an outer ring around the stage and snipers around the crowd.
From what is visible, though, he said, “there’s no doubt they are lacking a lot of equipment.” The AK-47, for example, is not equipped with a scope, he noted.
Nor was he impressed with the formation. The members of the inner security “box,” he said, shouldn’t be holding weapons in their hands but should be focused solely on protecting the leader. He guessed that the man barely visible in the photo, to Nasrallah’s right, seen raising a radio or microphone to his lips, was the leader of the group, since he was positioned on Nasrallah’s shoulder, and that his job would be to push Nasrallah down while the other two whisked him out of harm’s way in the event of an attack.
The ballistic blanket, he noted, had a firing hole at its center, allowing a bodyguard to return fire as he retreated or took cover, but, he suggested, was probably not itself equipped to a stop a high velocity round from a rifle. In fact, according to Pro-Tech’s website, it has a level IIIA ballistic protection, which means it can stop a Magnum .44 bullet but not a high-powered rifle round.
Nasrallah, he added, judging by the picture, seemed to be wearing body armor, perhaps made with ceramic plates, which could stop such a round.