In his new book Homeland Security, Assessing the First Five Years, former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff argues:
Al-Qaeda and its network are our most serious immediate threat, they may not be our most serious long-term threat….[Hezbollah] has developed capabilities that Al-Qaeda can only dream of, including large quantities of missiles and highly sophisticated explosives.
Chertoff’s statement is conventional wisdom among many terrorism experts. Shortly after 9/11 then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage stated:
Hezbollah may be the 'A-Team of Terrorists' and maybe al-Qaeda is actually the 'B' team.
But Hezbollah has not carried out a successful out-of-area attack since the 1996 Khobar strike. Is Hezbollah still capable of carrying out long-range terror attacks?
In 1992, exactly one month after Israel assassinated Hezbollah Secretary-General Abbas al-Musawi, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed. Two years later, on July 18, 1994 Hezbollah bombed the Jewish communal offices in Buenos Aires, at least partially in response to Israel’s capture of Hezbollah leader Mustafa Dirani on May 21 and a bombing of a Hezbollah training camp on June 2.
In contrast, it has been almost a year and a half since Hezbollah terror master-mind Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated. Hezbollah has threatened revenge against Israel for the assassination of Mughniyeh. But attempts to kidnap Israeli tourists and bomb the Israeli embassy in Baku have been foiled. Azerbaijan borders Iran and Iran has a very large Azerbaijani population, so Hezbollah and its IRGC allies should have had a relatively easy time carrying out an attack.
Has Hezbollah’s ability to launch an attack deteriorated, or is it merely biding its time? In and of itself, this is an important question – but it achieves even greater significance in light of the unstable situation in Iran. One constraint on Western action is the concern of long-range terror by Hezbollah and its allies in the IRGC. If that threat is not be as significant as previously assessed, then one barrier to action is lowered.
There is no question that Hezbollah has been one of the most terrorist groups. The bombings and hostage crisis in Lebanon in the 1980s were textbooks cases of how to use terrorism to advance a cause. The 1983 Marine barracks bombing led to the withdrawal of an international peacekeeping force from Beirut – leaving Lebanon as prey for Syria and Iran. Six months earlier a Hezbollah car bomb destroyed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 including about half a dozen experienced CIA Middle East operatives – a blow from which the CIA has never recovered.
Hezbollah attacks were not limited to Lebanon. Besides the Buenos Aires attacks, Iran and Hezbollah worked hand in hand throughout the 1980s to carry out attacks in Europe to advance Iranian interests and eliminate opposition to the regime.
Victims of their Success
Hezbollah’s very effectiveness led to a heavy focus on their operations. Hezbollah’s international terror attacks declined after the 1996 Khobar tower bombing. One reason was that U.S. intelligence outed Iranian intelligence operatives worldwide. According to Jeff Stein’s always informative blog SpyTalk intelligence agencies worldwide have focused on Hezbollah and have scored a number of successes rolling up Hezbollah cells. In addition, in 2007 Ali Resa Asgari, an IRGC commander who had worked closely with Hezbollah defected to the west.
The Weakest Link
Hezbollah is known to have supporters everywhere there is a substantial Lebanese Shiite population (including West Africa, Latin America, Europe, Australia, and the United States.) Cells of Hezbollah operatives committing petty crimes to raise money for the organization have been discovered in Latin America but also in the United States. At the same time, Hezbollah remains an organization with tremendous capabilities. It has money, recruits, overseas supporters, and access to technology. So what Hezbollah capability has been degraded that hampers their international operations?
While Hezbollah has supporters worldwide, this support may have limits. Some of these groups, such as the network of drug traffickers recently arrested in Curacao are in it for the money and their support is limited to financing. This is NOT to downgrade the importance of cracking down on terrorist financing operations, merely to point out that such groups may have limited utility in carrying out terror attacks. Even if they have the motivation to carry out these attacks, they usually lack the skills. Terror attacks require high-level skills at constructing explosives, surveillance of targets, and operational security. In addition, suicide bombings require suicide bombers who need to be indoctrinated.
It would appear that Hezbollah is having some difficulties moving these key personnel without detection. Past attacks have relied heavily on support from Iranian Embassies. These Embassies appear to be carefully monitored by intelligence agencies. While there have been numerous reports of high staffing levels at Iranian Embassies throughout Latin America, the mere fact that these reports are public (to the extent that Iran’s Ambassador to Nicaragua had to publicly deny that the IRGC was operating out of his Embassy) indicates that the Iranians and Hezbollah are no longer able to operate in the shadows.
The downgrading of Hezbollah’s international reach (if it is true, as this post posits, and not the product of a strategic decision by Hezbollah) has been achieved at a high cost in intelligence resources. Unfortunately, Hezbollah continues to have the motivation to carryout international attacks, and will search for new avenues through which to launch these attacks. Intelligence agencies must remain vigilant. Further, Hezbollah and Iran certainly retain capabilities in Iraq and the Persian Gulf - which are particularly sensitive theaters.
However, Hezbollah is being pulled in a number of directions and the inability to carryout international attacks complicates their situation. In my work modeling Hezbollah at the University of Maryland there is substantial evidence that Hezbollah is sensitive to public opinion in Lebanon. One crucial example is not launching attacks against Israel before elections. It is unclear what Hezbollah will do now that the elections are over, but the fallout from the 2006 as well as Lebanon’s mini-civil war in which Hezbollah fought the government, have tarnished Hezbollah’s reputation. There are some reports that suggest Hezbollah is now facing recruitment difficulties. However, their core constituency and their Iranian sponsors are virulently anti-Israel and will insist that Hezbollah strike at Israel. Unwilling to open a direct front on Israel’s northern border and unable to strike at Israeli targets abroad, Hezbollah will find it difficult to satisfy its constituencies.
Now is the time for a political offensive that exacerbates these tensions and works to deligitimate Hezbollah.