WASHINGTON – A recent report by the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security states that there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, people he described as "Iranian and Hezbollah terrorists" in the United States.
An alarming part of the officials' assessments focuses on the apparent surveillance missions that Iranian diplomats and possible Hezbollah operatives have been seen conducting at sensitive targets such as New York City's subways and bridges, and at nuclear power plants and tunnels elsewhere in the United States in the past 10 years.
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At the same time, US officials caution that Hezbollah, a Shiite militia based in Lebanon, has largely avoided attacking US targets since it carried out mass-casualty bombings in the 1980s against the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut. One reason may be that it does not want to endanger its lucrative North American fund-raising operations.
The renewed focus on Hezbollah – which US counter-terrorism officials regard as the most potent and disciplined of Islamic militant groups, even more so than al-Qaeda – comes amid a growing confrontation over Iran's nuclear program.
An Israeli or US strike on Iran's nuclear sites could prompt Hezbollah to change strategy, moving from surveillance and fund-raising in North America to launching retaliatory attacks on either country, several US officials said.
Iranian-inspired surveillance missions in the United States have been scattered over a period of years. But, when combined with a handful of recent attacks or plots around the world, they have contributed to an assessment within the US government that considerable violence directed against US targets – at overseas installations or businesses, or at American soil – could follow any strike on Iran's nuclear program.
Every NYC landmark a target? (Photo: Anat Lev-Adler)
US intelligence and law enforcement officials, along with private experts, say there is little doubt Hezbollah has an extensive network of supporters, fund-raisers and potential operatives in the United States.
'Thousands of sympathizers'
A law enforcement official said that the New York Police Department, whose monitoring of Muslim communities has prompted political controversy, believes that between 200 and 300 Hezbollah sympathizers live in New York City. Between 10 and 20 of those are relatives of Hezbollah leaders or fighters who were killed in action, said the official.
The NYPD's knowledge of Hezbollah's infrastructure is sufficiently detailed that it has identified three Lebanese towns, Bint Jbeil, Yanoun and Yatar, to which suspected sympathizers of the group have ties. At least a handful of people in New York connected with Hezbollah have also undergone military training in Lebanon, the official said.
A preliminary Homeland Security report said that pinpointing the number of Hezbollah operatives inside the United States was difficult because of the group's operational security. The report nonetheless cited the estimates of "some officials" that the group "likely" has "several thousand sympathetic donors" in the United States as well as "hundreds" of operatives.
Ready and willing? (Photo: AP)
But other officials said there was a big difference between a Hezbollah "supporter" and someone who would be willing to engage in violent activity. The officials said such distinctions have been blurred in public discussions about the domestic threat the group allegedly poses.
Over the years, US federal authorities have brought numerous criminal cases against alleged Hezbollah operatives, most of them related to fund-raising or other support activity rather than plotting against US targets.
The access to potential funding sources is one reason why Hezbollah has avoided targeting the United States or its interests, experts say.
Because the United States is such a critical source for funds and equipment, Hezbollah might be reluctant to embark on attacks inside the United States – even if prodded to do so by patrons in Iran. Attacks against US targets overseas might be more likely, the report said.
Some of the officials said that anxieties about possible Hezbollah – or Iranian-related attacks were increased in the wake of an alleged plot by Iranian agents to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington and other alleged Iranian plots uncovered recently in Thailand, India, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
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