The U.S. government's top counter-terrorism official said today that the American intelligence community has seen "continued activity" in the U.S. on behalf of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, potentially as part of the group's goal to have the option to launch attacks on the homeland in the future -- what the official said is a "critical component" of Hezbollah's "terrorism playbook."
"While much of our work in the government has focused on al Qaeda and more recently on ISIS, in the 20 years since Hezbollah's designation as a foreign terrorist organization, we have never taken our focus off of Hezbollah and the threat it represents to the homeland," Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Nicholas J. Rasmussen told reporters at a State Department briefing. "And while I'm not here today to speak publicly about any specific or credible or imminent threat to the homeland, we in the intelligence community do, in fact, see continued activity on behalf of Hezbollah here inside the homeland."
Rasmussen discussed the arrest of two alleged Hezbollah operatives this summer, presumably a reference to two men picked up in Michigan and New York who were the subject of an in-depth Code and Dagger report.
From Code and Dagger's original report:
The complaint against [Samer El] Debek, along with another purported Hezbollah operative arrested in New York named Ali Kourani, paint a detailed, darkly colorful picture of the time, effort, tradecraft and training Hezbollah allegedly devotes to what officials call its "sleepers" abroad -- molding what experts say are highly competent and more treacherous operatives than the ISIS-inspired attackers who dominate the headlines more frequently.
"These guys are definitely not your guy that walks into a nightclub in Orlando or these other individual attacks you see," said former FBI special agent Brad Garrett, referring to the June 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida by a young man who pledged his allegiance to ISIS. "These guys obviously have received formal training, which potentially makes them a lot more dangerous."
More recent court documents indicate the cases against the two men are on pause as their attorneys negotiate with prosecutors for potential plea deals.
"Those arrests serve as a stark reminder of Hezbollah's global attack infrastructure as well as the group's aspirations potentially to carry out attacks here in the homeland," Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen's comments echoed those of former CIA officer and Lebanon expert Bob Baer, who previously told Code and Dagger that Hezbollah has been preparing the ground for attacks all over the world, including in the U.S.
"The fact [is] that there are [Hezbollah] cells in the U.S. and if we go to war with Iran... will these guys go operational?" Baer said then. A 2012 report from the House Homeland Security Committee (PDF) estimated Hezbollah could have "hundreds" of operatives in the U.S., though the actual number is hard to know "because of their operational security expertise."
The potential for Hezbollah to launch attacks inside the U.S., Rasmussen said today, "is something that those of us in the counter-terrorism community take very, very seriously."
Following Rasmussen's comments, Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism Nathan A. Sales announced new Rewards for Justice bounties for information on two alleged Hezbollah officials: $7 million for Talal Hamiyah, alleged leader of Hezbollah's external security organization, and $5 million for Fuad Shukr, a purported member of Hezbollah's Jihad Council and who allegedly "played a central role" in the planning and execution of the attack on a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983 that killed 241 U.S. service personnel.
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