American intelligence agencies have growing evidence that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist group maintains a network of sleeper cells in the United States, according to a new report.
Though Hezbollah has not conducted a major attack on U.S. soil, the group could decide to strike key American sites should U.S.-Iran relations deteriorate substantially, according to the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
“Preparations to combat Islamist terrorism broadly should strongly consider the nuanced and growing Hezbollah threat to U.S. national security,” the report concludes.
Hezbollah or “the Party of God” is based in southern Lebanon and has long served as Iran’s way of Islamizing a formerly Christian country while also stoking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and periodically launching rockets into northern Israel.
But the organization has other enemies besides Israel and should not be viewed within the narrow scope of the Arab-Israel conflict.
In fact, the Shiite terror group has been building its presence in South America since the late 1980s and was able to make inroads on the North American continent during the Obama years, terror analysts say.
The problem is not new but it is reaching a point where a major terrorist event on U.S. soil is more possible, said John Guandolo, a former FBI counter-terrorism specialist who now operates a private consulting business at Understanding the Threat.
He says there is now a sizable Hezbollah presence in the U.S.
Urging Trump to take action
“There is a great deal of testimony – much of it by senior Drug Enforcement Agency officials – over the years revealing how dangerous the situation is,” Guandolo told WND.
“They operate under the direct authority of the leadership of Iran which makes them, legally, an agent of an enemy state operating in the U.S.,” he added. “Our response, in my opinion, should be very strong. For the last eight or nine years we have not taken any strong action, but hopefully that will change.”
About a dozen U.S. mosques in several states are owned or supported by the New York City-based Alavi Foundation, which has ties to the government of Iran. One such mosque is the Islamic Education Center in Potomac, Maryland, Guandolo said.
Alavi’s mosques and all its U.S. assets, including a 36-story glass tower in Manhattan, were seized in 2013-14 for alleged links to Iran’s government in violation of sanctions against that country, but the forfeiture was reversed on appeal in July 2016.
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Bush, Obama ignored the threat
Hezbollah is known for having “broader penetration in the Western Hemisphere than any other terrorist organization,” stated the U.S. State Department’s acting coordinator for counter-terrorism, Mark F. Wong, in testimony before the U.S. House International Relations Committee in 2002.
Hezbollah “is a multi-faceted, multinational” organization that “has a presence in virtually every country in North and South America. …” Wong reported to Congress at the time.
Both al-Qaida and Hezbollah have been known to be active along the border region of Colombia, Peru and Ecuador.
Hezbollah and Hamas have also been setting up shop in the tri-border region of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, also known as the “Muslim Triangle.”
Hezbollah has set up legitimate businesses that also deal in counterfeiting U.S. currency, drug smuggling and other illicit trades. This area of South and Central America has been described as a “haven for Islamic extremists” by the former administrator of the DEA, Asa Hutchinson, in testimony before the House International Relations Committee.
Another wave of warnings came in August 2013, again in testimony before Congress. That’s when Cuban-American Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., then-chair of the House Middle East and North Africa subcommittee, warned that Iran was building an “extensive intelligence and terrorist network” in Latin America that the Obama administration was ignoring.
Ros-Lehtinen blasted the Obama administration for putting “politics over national security” in refusing to “get serious” about Iran’s growing infiltration of Latin American nations.
Matthew Levitt’s in-depth essay in Prism magazine last year cited extensive evidence of Iran’s growing influence in Latin America and detailed how Iran works to circumvent economic sanctions through some 36 cultural centers in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia.
Hezbollah is now believed to have penetrated the U.S. during the lax border security that became endemic during the Obama years.
Philip Haney, a retired Homeland Security officer who developed data templates for radical Islamic sects, said Caracas, Venezuela is home to the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere – the Al Ibrahim mosque, which is Shia and has ties to Iran.
“That would be an obvious transport point for a lot of things going on there,” said Haney, co-author of “See Something Say Nothing.”
He points to the Panama Free Trade Zone as a “wild west” type of region for fraudulent commercial activity, much of it conducted by Lebanese businessmen funneling money to Hezbollah.
“There are a lot of Lebanese immigrants operating there and they’re there for a reason, it’s kind of like the Switzerland of Latin America,” he said. “They deal in the movement of vehicles, cigarettes and infant formula, cigarettes in particular, and they’re run by Lebanese crews here in the U.S.”
There are so many tactical operations going on in the Western Hemisphere – visa fraud, drug trafficking, contraband, car and cigarette fraud – that it’s hard to keep track of them, Haney said.
“You have to remember the Lebanese have been moving money through non-conventional channels for many years and have become very good at it. It’s a form of underground economy generating huge off-market revenue,” Haney said.
“And that’s where the free trade zone comes in because it’s like a wide-open environment, it’s a source of capital for both legitimate and illicit transactions.”
There is a whole network of Lebanese financiers who operate in the zone.
Here’s how some of them work:
- Passport fraud: These are real passports but they’re issued to people with false names and identities. “It’s a legit passport obtained illegitimately. It’s not fake, it’s real, but it’s issued normally to a person who created a new identity or a false identity,” Haney said.
“We’ve known about all this stuff for probably a good 10 years.”
CNN reported just last month on a fake passport ring run out of Venezuela that included allegations that passports were given to people with ties to terrorism.
One confidential intelligence document obtained by CNN links Venezuela’s new Vice President Tareck El Aissami to 173 Venezuelan passports and ID’s that were issued to individuals from the Middle East, including people connected to the terrorist group Hezbollah, CNN reports.
One of CNN’s sources for the story was a cop who said he was offered a cut of the profits if he had cooperated with the scheme.
Here’s more from the CNN report:
The accusation that the country was issuing passports to people who are not Venezuelan first surfaced in the early 2000s when Hugo Chavez was the country’s president, interviews and records show.
A Venezuelan passport permits entry into more than 130 countries without a visa, including 26 countries in the European Union, according to a ranking by Henley and Partners. A visa is required to enter the United States.
- Vehicle shipment fraud: Cars originating in Venezuela often get shipped to the Middle East for resale. They are bought low and sold higher for profit, which is legal. But it’s what’s stashed inside the cars that are illegal contraband.
“It’s very common. They use the cars as cover and they put contraband in them because most of the shipping containers these cars get loaded into are not inspected,” Haney said. “Some are stuffed with millions of dollars in cash. It’s in the seats and in the floor boards.”
“These cars can even turn up in car-bombings in Baghdad and sometimes they were tracked all the way back to the united states,” he added.
- Illicit cigarette sales: What does cigarette smuggling have to do with terrorism? A lot, say terrorism experts. The market for illicit cigarettes is $3 billion a year and growing, and the Lebanese are a huge player in this market.
The Lebanese buy cigarettes in low-tax states like Missouri, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia and then sell them in high-tax states like New York, where they can undercut highly taxed cigarettes and make huge profits.
For example, a pack of cigarettes in New York City can sell for upwards of $14 due to the $4.35 tax. But in Missouri the cigarette tax is only 17 cents, and in Georgia it is 35 cents, so a pack sells at retail for $6. That means a single truckload of black-market cigarettes can be worth up to $2 million to a ringleader.
A recent arrest in the Bronx netted charges against Mohamed Mustafa and Hiyad Chaib for running the illicit cigarette ring, Pix 11 reported.
Two brothers in North Carolina were convicted in 1992 of sending millions to the militant group, Hezbelloh, in Lebanon. The money made on the illicit cigarette sales is often laundered through a legitimate business here in the U.S. but much of the money ends up in the Middle East.
In 2002 Operation Smokescreen was a multi-agency federal counter-terrorism effort focused on black-market cigarette sales in Iredell County, North Carolina, that served as a fundraising effort for Hezbollah.
Detectives made repeated observations of a group of men purchasing large quantities of cigarettes, often with $20,000 – $30,000 in cash. The joint counterterrorism operation ended the fundraising operation, resulting in the arrest, trial, and conviction of the cell members.
In 2013, one of the defendants in another Brooklyn ring had long-time ties to Rashid Baz, the Lebanese cab driver accused of shooting up a van full of Orthodox Jewish students on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994, Pix 11 reported.
“Lebanese immigrant gangs are doing these different criminal enterprises in the U.S. You’re talking macro truckloads of cigarettes,” Haney said. “They sell to vendors at about the same price but they didn’t have to pay the tax so they make a profit. So you have the cocaine trade, the cigarette trade here, the shipment of vehicles going to the Middle East, you have the Panama free trade zone being exploited.”
- Drug trafficking: Hezbollah launders money through the free trade zone in Panama and they work with the Mexicans in the drug cartels, Haney said. “That’s why you started seeing really violent beheadings and stuff like that in the drug trade over the last couple of years,” he said. “Hezbollah is using the drug trade to finance its operations.”
Five types of jihad
So what’s all this have to do with sleeper cells and possible terror on U.S. soil? Not only do the smuggling and fraudster operations finance terrorist organizations, but they plunder the legitimate businesses here in the United States.
“There’s different forms of jihad. Financial jihad is one,” Haney said. “It has to do with the concept of plundering the unbelievers. You don’t have to blow them up, you can just make them go broke.”
He said there are five major types of jihad and warfare conducted with bombs and guns is only one of them.
Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam of Yemeni parents who helped plan terror attacks for al-Qaida, specialized in financial jihad, Haney said.
“It comes from Quran chapter 8 on the spoils of war, plundering the unbelievers,” he said.
So while most intelligence is geared toward stopping the next big terrorist attacks, groups like Hezbollah are busy nibbling away at the edges of Western society. It’s less sensational but just as damaging over the long haul.
“This is more like the death by a thousand cuts kind of thing, not one fatal thrust but a thousand small ones,” Haney said. “If you approach everything from the expectation that there’s going to be one big attack you bias yourself because you’ve misdiagnosed the nature of the threat. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all.”
“There’s a lot more going on over on the Shia side of the fence than most people realize because we mostly focus on the Sunni groups like the Muslim Brotherhood,” Haney added.
In fact, the two sides are increasingly working together.
Notwithstanding the current disagreements over Syria, there is a long history of cooperation between Muslim extremists on both the Sunni and Shia sides, according to the Washington Institute, which published a policy paper on the issue in May 2013. There have been many meetings aimed at global reconciliation between the two, facilitated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The Muslim Brotherhood acts as a liaison between the two in terms of how they are addressing their enemies, the U.S. and Israel,” Haney said. “There’s a lot of overlap. And there are a lot of refugees coming out of the Middle East that are not all Sunni, they’re also Shia.”
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