Facing an unprecedented Israeli military onslaught, Hezbollah could turn back the clock a decade and resort to terrorist strikes against Jewish and Western targets outside of Lebanon, experts warn.
While it is not believed to have struck abroad since the bombing of a Jewish communal center in Argentina in 1994, the Lebanese Shiite militia has been raising money around the world for years and has the means to activate operational cells abroad, including in the United States, according to several analysts and officials.
Concern about Hezbollah’s global reach has grown, both in Washington and in Jerusalem, after its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, threatened “all-out war” last week. Then, on Tuesday, the Iranian branch of Hezbollah, which is linked to the Lebanese militia, said that it stood ready to attack Israeli and American interests worldwide, according to a Reuters report from Tehran.
“We have 2,000 volunteers who have registered since last year,” said the spokesman from the Iranian branch, Mojtaba Bigdeli. “They have been trained and they can become fully armed. We are ready to dispatch them to every corner of the world to jeopardize Israel and America’s interests. We are only waiting for the supreme leader’s green light to take action. If America wants to ignite World War III… we welcome it.”
According to some analysts, Hezbollah has the capability to make good on its threats. “There is no doubt that Hezbollah has the infrastructure and the capability to strike in the U.S. if it decides to pursue that option,” said Steven Emerson, a terrorism analyst.
While there is much debate about the level of coordination between Hezbollah and Iran in the current escalation in Lebanon, most observers agree that a reactivation of the group’s terrorist activity would require Tehran’s green light and that such a prospect remains unlikely so long as diplomatic efforts are ongoing to resolve the international diplomatic crisis over Tehran’s nuclear program.
The American government has not raised the terrorism alert level in recent days, but American counterterrorism officials are “shaking the trees,” as one insider put it, in order to glean information about Hezbollah and Iranian operatives from foreign intelligence services, informers, surveillance and wiretaps.
In New York, the police department has decided to step up its counter-terrorism activities. “In the wake of recent developments, the police department’s counter-terrorism resources have been deployed in such away to pay additional attention to certain Israeli facilities in New York and other sensitive locations,” Paul Browne, a deputy commissioner with the New York City Police Department, told the Forward in an email. “This is being done as a precaution, not because of specific threat information.”
One such instance was a pro-Israel rally held on Monday in midtown, during which the NYPD sent officers from its counter-terrorism unit to support the crowd-control unit. The NYPD has taken similar steps following attacks abroad and violent flare-ups in sensitive areas such as the Middle East.
“People should see more police around Jewish schools and institutions,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
In addition to Hezbollah, American officials are worried that the new wave of violence could prompt loosely affiliated individuals to strike Israeli or Jewish targets.
A terrorism analyst and a former senior intelligence official both said that government officials had told them that this was their main preoccupation.
“Law enforcement types are concerned about unaffiliated Shiite in America becoming radicalized by the events in Lebanon and possibly striking out blindly,” said the former official.
In recent years and as a result of the anti-terrorism campaign launched after the September 11 attacks, homegrown operatives have pulled off spectacular attacks, such as the London subway bombings last summer, while relying on little if any coordination with established terrorist networks.
“You have homegrown terrorists harboring virulent antisemitic feelings who see the Middle East violence as a precipitating event,” said Pollock, pointing to the recent trial of a man who allegedly plotted to blow up the Herald Square transportation hub in Manhattan, and to a group of militants arrested in Canada last month.
Several Hezbollah sympathizers and operatives in recent years have been arrested, deported or convicted because of their fundraising activities for the outlawed group. In one of the most noteworthy examples, authorities busted a Hezbollah cell in North Carolina that was engaged in cigarette smuggling, bank fraud and money laundering. Following a law-enforcement operation known as “Operation Smokescreen,” 25 individuals were convicted and the cell leader was sentenced to a 155-year prison term for providing material support for terrorism.
Several experts said that while Hezbollah could count on such support networks in the United States and use them to conduct retaliatory actions, there was no concrete evidence of the group having operational cells on American soil.
A year ago, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank affiliated with the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, acknowledged that the 1994 bombing of the AMIA communal center in Argentina, in which 85 people were killed, may have been an unanticipated consequence of Israeli military actions in South Lebanon. The institute called upon the Israeli government to weigh consequences on Diaspora Jews when formulating policy.
Argentina has accused Iran of sponsoring the attack and dispatching a Hezbollah commando to carry it out with the support of Iranian diplomats. Observers believe the modus operandi for an attack in response to the current crisis would remain unchanged and, as such, depends on Tehran.
Wayne White, a former senior State Department Middle East intelligence analyst now with the Middle East Institute, warned that “if Hezbollah is badly damaged or otherwise hindered in its ability to operate within Lebanon against Israel, it will place much more emphasis on finding ways of operating elsewhere against Israeli, Jewish and, perhaps, U.S. interests.”