Washington sees potential Hezbollah threat in the US
The Trump administration’s policy towards Iran is beginning to take shape, more than six months after the White House placed the Islamic Republic “on notice” and US President Donald Trump tweeted that Iran was “playing with fire.”
Along with accusing key Iranian ally Hezbollah of being active within the United States’ borders, the Trump administration elected not to recertify the 2015 nuclear treaty with Iran, in the latest in a series of measures aimed at rolling back Iranian gains in the Middle East. In response, Iran has delivered its own warnings and threats.
Iran has a proven ability to retaliate against any measures imposed by Washington, both in the region and globally. Despite accusations to the contrary, the willingness and ability of Hezbollah to do likewise remains uncertain.
The United States appears certain of the threat posed by Hezbollah. In addition to the bounties offered for information leading to the arrest of Talal Hamiyah and Fu’ad Shukr, both veteran Hezbollah commanders, other measures have been announced to isolate the group’s revenue supplies.
The Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act is intended to target and punish the group’s foreign funders. Consideration has been given in Washington to designating those parts of Lebanon under Hezbollah control a “primary money laundering concern,” a selective extension of the Patriot Act, allowing the United States to isolate further revenue streams for the group.
During the announcement of the rewards for Hamiyah and Shukr, Nicholas Rasmussen, the director of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, noted that the United States sees “continued activity on behalf of Hezbollah here inside the homeland.”
“It is our assessment that Hezbollah is determined to give itself a potential homeland option as a critical component of its terrorist playbook, and that is something that those of us in the counterterrorism community take very, very seriously,” he said.
Hezbollah has been operating in the United States for decades, mainly through fund-raising efforts; procuring niche equipment, such as night-vision goggles; and surveillance of potential targets. Hezbollah, however, is not thought to have carried out any attacks on US soil.
As long ago as July 2002, the FBI noted in a letter to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that, while Hezbollah had assets in the United States to carry out attacks, the party’s “extensive fund-raising activities” militate heavily against such a decision being made.
Hezbollah does not share the nihilism of the Islamic State nor al- Qaeda and sees no value in random unprovoked attacks against targets in the West. Nevertheless, it has in place the apparatus to conduct attacks should the need arise, potentially even in the United States.
In an interview with this writer in July 2003, Hezbollah Secretary- General Hassan Nasrallah, was asked his party’s response if the United States was to launch a war against Hezbollah that could threaten its existence. With the US-led invasion of Iraq only four months old and before the insurgency had begun in earnest, there was much speculation that Hezbollah was America’s next target in the war on terror.
“In such a case, everyone has a right to defend its rights, its existence, its people and its country by any means and at any time and in any place,” Nasrallah replied. “In addition to this fact, there are many people who love Hezbollah and support Hezbollah throughout the world. Some may not sit idly by” if Hezbollah were to come under attack.
The meaning was clear: If Hezbollah felt it was under grave threat, it could retaliate “throughout the world.”
The arrests in June of Ali Kourani and Samer el-Debek, both naturalised US citizens of Lebanese ancestry and alleged Hezbollah External Security Organisation (ESO) operatives, added to worries about the party’s activities in the United States. They are accused of conducting surveillance on US and Israeli embassies in Panama and military and law enforcement facilities in the United States, especially New York. Debek was a specialist in bomb-making and explosives.
“Pre-operational planning is one of the hallmarks of Hezbollah in planning for future attacks,” said New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill at the time of the arrests.
While the men are not the first Hezbollah operatives to be arrested in the United States, Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said they could prove to be the most dangerous given the larger context of worsening enmity between Washington and Tehran.
Citing the alleged assassination plot by Iran in 2011 against the then Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir in a Washington restaurant, Levitt concluded that it “may well have underscored for Iran the need to act through better proxies when operating in the United States.”
Still, Iran has no shortage of options to strike at the United States closer to home in the Middle East if tensions worsen. There are approximately 5,000 US service personnel operating in Iraq who could be vulnerable to attack by Iran-backed militias.
In a little-reported indicator of what may lie ahead, a US soldier was killed in Iraq on October 1 by an explosively formed penetrator bomb (EFP), a type that has not been seen in Iraq for six years. The EFP was used extensively by Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia groups to target US and coalition forces mainly in southern Iraq at the height of the insurgency.
The sudden deadly reappearance of such a weapon sparked speculation that Iran is reminding military planners of the vulnerability of US forces in Iraq should Washington continue with its tough stance against Tehran.
Nicholas Blanford is the author of Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel (Random House 2011). He lives in Beirut.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.