Hezbollah, a militant Islamic organization backed by Iran and Syria, has issued a new call to arms against Americans in the Middle East, touching off fears of terrorist attacks and debate within the Bush administration over whether to move more aggressively against the group and its key sponsors.
The military wing of Hezbollah, long considered by the U.S. to be among the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups, has focused largely on Israel because of its past occupation of Hezbollah’s homeland in Lebanon and other contested territory. But the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has triggered a spate of anti-American rhetoric from the Shiite organization and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
“The people of the region will receive [America] with rifles, blood, arms, martyrdom and martyrdom operations,” Nasrallah said in a speech delivered a week before the war began. His remarks were broadcast on Al Manar, the group’s Beirut-based satellite television station.
“In the past, when the Marines were in Beirut, we screamed, ‘Death to America!’ ” Nasrallah said. “Today, when the region is being filled with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, ‘Death to America!’ was, is and will stay our slogan.”
Hezbollah’s renewed focus on America has sharpened the long-standing debate among U.S. officials over whether the United States can, and should, go after the group. Some believe that a showdown has been overdue since 1983, when the group blew up the U.S. Embassy and a Marine barracks in Beirut. The attacks killed more than 300 people.
But any offensive would be fraught with political, diplomatic and economic risks for the United States, some officials say. Hezbollah’s close ties with Iran and Syria -- the major power broker in Lebanon -- underscore the complexities of pressing the war on terrorism when it involves groups backed by governments, they note.
Few Options on Iran
Though U.S. counter-terrorism officials for decades have regarded Iran in particular as a key player in international terrorism, successive administrations have concluded that they had few viable options in dealing with Tehran, said Roger Cressey, a senior counter-terrorism official with the National Security Council in the Clinton and Bush administrations who recently left the White House.
Testifying before the House last month, J. Cofer Black, the State Department’s top counter-terrorism official, said the Bush administration “has looked upon Iran as a serious threat to the United States, as one of, if not the, primary terrorist threat with capabilities to match.”
Hezbollah has received as much as $100 million annually in recent years from Tehran, as well as weapons, U.S. officials say.
In addition, the Damascus government has given Hezbollah weapons and political and logistical support, the officials say. The group’s ties to Iran and Syria prompted the United States to put both nations on its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
With thousands of well-trained, well-armed and highly disciplined soldiers, and thousands of missiles and other armaments, Hezbollah could pose a more potent threat than even Al Qaeda, several top U.S. officials have warned.
“I’ll tell you that Hezbollah, as an organization with capability and worldwide presence, is its equal, if not a far more capable, organization,” CIA Director George J. Tenet testified to Congress this year. “I actually think they’re a notch above in many respects” in part because of the group’s ties with Iran, he said.
Even before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Hezbollah’s TV station, with an estimated audience of 10 million, began airing music videos that call for suicide attacks against American forces in Iraq -- “the army of evil, an invading, aggressive, occupying army.”
Several U.S. officials said a continued U.S. presence in Iraq could provoke a violent reaction from Hezbollah.
“We take it seriously, and we’re looking at them. They’ve been lethal before and continue to be,” said one senior administration official.
“There are concerns,” a second American official said of the shift in Hezbollah’s focus. “Whether it is the natural outgrowth of the U.S.-British invasion of Arab land or something more fundamental and significant, we don’t know,” he added.
One U.S. official described Hezbollah’s threats as a tactical ploy, saying intelligence analysts believe that Israel is still the organization’s primary focus.
In Nasrallah’s speech before 150,000 supporters in a Beirut suburb, the Hezbollah leader said the United States, as well as Muslim nations that support it, will face dire consequences as a result of the U.S. presence in Iraq. “America has made no secret of its desire to change the structure of the entire area, and these [Arab] regimes will not be spared,” he said. “They must use the remaining days to reconcile with their peoples in order to stand united against the onslaught.”
Nasrallah declined to be interviewed by The Times regarding Hezbollah’s policies toward the United States, instead requesting that questions be put to him in writing. He then declined to answer those, but he said the translation of his speech was “accurate,” according to an aide, Haidar Dikmak. “We can’t say anything more on [the] Nasrallah speech,” Dikmak said.
U.S. officials said it is too early for an administration still caught up in the war in Iraq and its aftermath to formulate any new policies on Hezbollah, but top Bush administration officials publicly warned Syrian President Bashar Assad this week against supporting terrorism or sheltering fleeing Iraqi officials. Syria has denied giving refuge to officials of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Last fall, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called on the administration to order Syria to shut down Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon and strike the camps if Damascus refused.
But that never happened, in part because Syria has offered some help in the fight against the Al Qaeda terrorist network, such as detaining and interrogating several alleged Al Qaeda operatives. Moreover, such strikes would be politically complicated because Hezbollah is not simply a terrorist group: It funds social services, and its political party -- which holds several seats in Lebanon’s parliament -- is recognized as a legitimate entity by many nations, including some in Europe.
U.S. officials have accused Hezbollah, Iran and Syria of sending fighters or military equipment to Iraq for the war, charges that all three reject. Now, these officials believe that Hezbollah, Iran and Syria may try to thwart efforts to rebuild Iraq by launching attacks on U.S. and British targets there.
There have been suicide bombings against U.S. forces in Iraq. Hezbollah has not claimed responsibility, but U.S. officials have not ruled out its involvement and note that in the past it has used proxy groups to hide its involvement in attacks.
Some U.S. officials said they fear Hezbollah may launch preemptive attacks if it believes that it is the next target of the Bush administration. In addition, they believe that Syria and Iran -- which use Hezbollah as “their attack dog,” in the words of one official -- could use the group to retaliate against the U.S. if Washington increases political or economic pressure on those governments.
“You cannot rule out that if they get the feeling they’re next that they could throw the first punch,” one official said. “That would mark a sea change in the war on terrorism.”
Before Al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks, Hezbollah had killed other Americans -- at least 300 in overseas strikes -- often with Iran’s help, U.S. officials say.
Two years ago, U.S. authorities indicted 14 men in the deadly 1996 bombing of a U.S. military housing complex in Saudi Arabia known as Khobar Towers, saying they were members of Hezbollah. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft announced that “elements of the Iranian government inspired, supported and supervised” the men. But no Iranian officials were indicted.
Founded in 1982 after Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has been inspired by the revolutionary ideology of Iran’s late supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Hezbollah’s initial goal was to oust the Israeli army from Lebanon and establish an Islamic republic. But the U.S. became a target when it sent troops into Beirut to facilitate Israel’s withdrawal from the capital. After the Marine barracks was blown up, President Reagan withdrew American troops from Lebanon.
Today, U.S. officials say, Hezbollah has active cells on four continents, where operatives raise money, recruit and frequently make surveillance tapes of U.S. embassies and officials, provided with cover by Iranian diplomats.
“We see them actively casing and [conducting surveillance on] American facilities,” Tenet said recently.
The group allegedly has even been raising money in the United States. A federal grand jury in Detroit indicted 11 people on racketeering charges this year, alleging that a portion of their profits from criminal enterprises was intended to support Hezbollah. In Charlotte, N.C., two men were convicted recently of similar charges.
Still, there is no consensus on what action, if any, the U.S. should take. Cressey, the former National Security Council official, said even a surgical strike on Hezbollah camps in Lebanon would almost certainly trigger a confrontation with Iran and Syria.
Many within Congress and the administration have argued against military action or more stringent nonmilitary measures beyond listing Syria and Iran as state sponsors of terrorism and imposing limited economic and political sanctions.
The result, one congressman recently complained, is that the United States has essentially done nothing to compel Iran to stop supporting terrorism.
When members of the House international terrorism subcommittee recently asked what the administration is doing about the threat, Assistant Secretary of State Earl Anthony Wayne said: “We regularly dialogue with our partners who we think might have [a] more forgiving attitude toward Iran [and] will continue to do so until they change their policies on terrorism, on weapons of mass destruction, on human rights within their own country.”
“So they can expect harshly worded letters?” retorted Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), the panel’s ranking Democrat. “That’s pretty much the Clinton administration approach.
“Other than the fact that we’re going to bad-mouth them, what else might we do to the government in Tehran?” Sherman asked. “Anything that might even cost them a nickel?”