My position coming into this office has been that the United States has core national security interests in making sure that Iran doesn’t possess a nuclear weapon and it stops exporting terrorism outside of its borders.
President Barack Obama, Press Conference, June 23, 2009
One of the principal tools by which Iran has exported — and continues to export — terrorism is through its Lebanese surrogate, the terrorist para-state Hezbollah.
The Shiite organization has often been described as the “A-team” of terrorism because of its ability to inflict mass casualties in synchronized, rolling bomb attacks on multiple targets. Some experts believe that Osama bin Laden learned the concept of synchronized shock and awe terror attacks from Hezbollah’s late terrorist-in-chief, Imad Mugniyah.
According to Richard A. Falkenrath Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism, New York Police Department, Hezbollah ranks at the top of the NYPD counter-terrorism worry list—just a notch below the predominantly Sunni al Qaeda. Speaking at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Tuesday (June 23, 2009) Falkenrath said that Hezbollah has more or less decided not to attack the United States directly. But, he warned, “our assessment is that if they changed their mind they have the capacity to inflict terrible damage on the United States.”
Since at least the early 1990s Hezbollah’s leaders — most particularly its secretary general, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah — have assiduously constructed an infrastructure-in-place in the Western Hemisphere. My co-author and I described that infrastructure and the bloody history of Hezbollah in Lightning Out of Lebanon: Hezbollah Terrorists on American Soil (Random House 2005). We focused on the operations of a Hezbollah support cell in Charlotte, North Carolina, but also describe in some detail Hezbollah’s terror bombing attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets in Argentina.
In the years since Lightning‘s publication, Hezbollah’s operations and capabilities in the Western Hemisphere have grown even stronger, according to widespread public reports. For example, last year the Los Angeles Times reported on one particularly troubling aspect of Hezbollah’s growth–its deepening alliance with the anti-American regime of Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chavez:
As part of his anti-American foreign policy, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has established warm diplomatic relations with Iran and has traveled there several times. The Bush administration, Israel and other governments worry that Venezuela is emerging as a base for anti-U.S. militant groups and spy services, including Hezbollah and its Iranian allies.
“It’s becoming a strategic partnership between Iran and Venezuela,” said a Western anti-terrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive.
Building infrastructure and ties with governments like that of Chavez and perhaps others in the Andean region is important to the terrorist para-state Hezbollah. Perhaps equally important is its criminal fund-raising efforts. We reported in Lightning on the vast sums Hezbollah raised through illegal cigarette trafficking from North Carolina to Michigan. We also described a panoply of schemes for raising funds in the so-called Tri-Border Area.
In recent years, it appears that Hezbollah has also moved into the drug trade.
According to a report in The New York Times on October 22, 2008, “Colombian authorities said…that they had broken up a drug and money-laundering ring in an international operation that included the capture of three people suspected of shipping funds to Hezbollah guerrillas.” (See also, Agence France Presse report in English on October 22, 2008, “Colombian authorities have arrested three men with alleged links to the Shiite militant group Hezbollah as part of an international drug sting that has netted close to 100 suspects.”)
On the same date as these two snippets, the Los Angeles Times provided a much more complete description of the operation and Hezbollah’s involvement:
Chekry Harb, who used the alias “Taliban,” acted as the hub of an unusual and alarming alliance between South American cocaine traffickers and Middle Eastern militants, Colombian investigators allege.
Authorities accuse Harb of being a “world-class money launderer” whose ring washed hundreds of millions of dollars a year, from Panama to Hong Kong, while paying a percentage to Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States and Israel. Harb was charged with drug-related crimes in a sealed indictment filed in Miami in July, but terrorism-related charges have not been filed.
The suspects allegedly worked with a Colombian cartel and a paramilitary group to smuggle cocaine to the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Harb traveled extensively to Lebanon, Syria and Egypt and was in phone contact with Hezbollah figures, according to Colombian officials.
“The profits from the sales of drugs went to finance Hezbollah,” said Gladys Sanchez, lead investigator for the special prosecutor’s office in Bogota, in an interview. “This is an example of how narco-trafficking is a theme of interest to all criminal organizations, the FARC, the paramilitaries and terrorists.”
These reports are the tip of an iceberg of evidence of Hezbollah’s growing presence, according to more or less well-informed U.S. officials. New York City has hands-down the best counter-terrorism structure of any city in the United States, and its experts worry that these developments have only enhanced Hezbollah’s ability to project power into the United States.
Generally, when Hezbollah decides to flip the switch and exercise its power, things explode and people die.
Asked what he thought might prompt Hezbollah to attack the United States directly, Falkenrath suggested a direct U.S. attack on Hezbollah or an attack on Iran. Both of these seem most unlikely. But, unlikely or not, Hezbollah’s ability to attack the United States with bloody effect remains an Iranian pistol to America’s head.
One wild card remains. Hezbollah has not yet apparently retaliated for the assassination last February of its late terrorist-in-chief, Imad Mugniyah. It is a well known fact that Hezbollah always extracts revenge for such killings. The only open question is when and where will it strike.