By Ben Evansky
In the last five months U.S. federal authorities have charged several men, some U.S. citizens, of aiding Hezbollah, a State Department designated terrorist group. These arrests have terrorism analysts wondering if Hezbollah is ramping up its U.S. operations.
The first indictments were handed down in Philadelphia in November when four men were charged with conspiracy to support Hezbollah. One of the suspects - Moussa Ali Hamdan is a U.S national from Brooklyn - and all four remain at large. They were charged with conspiracy to export some 1200 colt machine guns to a port in Syria and also with conspiracy to provide material support to Hezbollah through proceeds made from the sale of fake passports and counterfeit money.
Only last month another four men were charged in Miami for illegally exporting electronics goods to a shopping center in Paraguay, which U.S. authorities say is used to funnel money to Hezbollah. According to the US Treasury Department, both the shopping center and its co-owner Muhammad Yusif Abdallah give a portion of the center's profits to Hezbollah. Abdallah is believed by the US to be a senior leader for Hezbollah in South America.
Just last summer, David Cohen, New York City's Deputy Police Commissioner on Intelligence warned that Hezbollah should not be underestimated. Cohen told a terrorism conference in Manhattan that Hezbollah "...is probably the most capable and disciplined terrorist organization in the world." Cohen said Hezbollah is closely linked, and works under the direction of the Iranian intelligence services and "poses a continuous danger to New York City."
Hezbollah's spokesman Ibrahim Mousawi, reached for comment in Beirut, asked that questions be emailed to him. Despite several emails he has not responded.
Hezbollah has been a pivotal player in Lebanon for many years and currently controls two government ministries. Created in 1982 in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah gets the majority of its funding from Iran. Since 2006 estimates say that funding has risen to one billion dollars a year, and while a lot of that money is used to support its social system, a significant amount of cash supports its terror network.
Hezbollah has targeted the United States several times in the past. In 1983 it bombed a US barracks in Beirut which killed 241 American servicemen, and in 1996, 19 more US servicemen were killed when Hezbollah blew up an apartment building in Saudi Arabia. But can it target the US mainland?
Steve Emerson is the founder and executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism. Emerson, who has written extensively on foreign terrorist groups operating in the US, says Hezbollah has raised "millions to say the least" in the US and believes that the recent busts in Philadelphia and Miami are the "proverbial tip of the iceberg." Emerson tells Fox News that "There are members of Hezbollah in the US who are capable of being activated to carry out terrorist attacks. However, these agents have refrained from attacking the Homeland. In the case of hostilities breaking out with Iran, all bets are off however."
Professor Omar Ashour directs the Middle Eastern studies program at Exeter University in England. Ashour says Hezbollah has sympathizers, supporters and members throughout the Americas but there are differences between them. He says outside of Lebanon they tend to focus on financial, logistical, propaganda and support activities with a few exceptions.
Ashour says its unlikely they will strike on foreign soil and says from a strategic point of view they don't need to launch attacks abroad, as they know "quite well the risks of doing so, especially after 9/11."
Walid Phares, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Fox News contributor on terrorism says there are different types of Hezbollah presences in the US. He says, "You have those Hezbollah supporters who would rise to strike against limited targets, tactical targets but then you have those units that are part of the central force of Hezbollah which have been inserted inside the United States...probably inside major cities of America so that when instructions will come they want to wreak havoc inside this country."
Phares tells Fox News that the US intelligence community is "pretty good about assessing Hezbollah's institutions in Lebanon", and continues to be aware of Hezbollah's potential to strike in the US. However, he says the government is failing to recognize Hezbollah's recruitment process in a timely manner and fears if and when it attacks the homeland, it will be on a national scale and not just a sporadic act of violence as seen in recent homegrown terrorist attacks.