Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hizballah have seeded the United States with hundreds of operatives, some of whom are capable "of flipping a U.S.-based fundraising cell into a lethal terror force, should Iran decide that is in its interests," a preliminary report from the House Homeland Security Committee finds.
As tensions escalate over Iran's nuclear weapons program, the committee met Wednesday to assess the possibility of Iranian/Hizballah attacks in the United States in retaliation for sanctions or a possible military strike. Last fall's unraveling of an Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington showed that Iranian leaders "now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived US actions that threaten the regime," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate panel in January.
Suspect Manssor Arbabsiar told investigators that "he was recruited, funded and directed by men he understood to be senior officials in Iran's Qods Force."
New York presents a top target in any future plot, NYPD Director of Intelligence Analysis Mitchell Silber told the committee. Between 2002 and 2010, NYPD and federal officials identified at least six cases in which Iranian diplomats were caught conducting "hostile reconnaissance of New York City," he testified. In one case, people carrying credentials from the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Company ignored incoming and outgoing flights, photographing and videotaping the landing pad and waterline at the Wall Street Heliport.
Other witnesses described the kinds of criminal activity in the United States linked to Iran and Hizballah. Chief among them was a massive cigarette smuggling ring based out of North Carolina that sent profits back to Hizballah leaders in Lebanon. Many of the suspects had military training from Hizballah, said former Chris Swecker, who served as Assistant Director of the FBI's Criminal Division and who worked on the case.
That profile matches what the NYPD sees in some ongoing investigations, Silber said.
The hearing had nothing to do with the debate over how to best address Iran's nuclear program. But the committee's ranking Democrat, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, devoted nearly his entire opening statement to that issue, noting the United States did not attack Iran in response to the 1979 hostage crisis or after determining Iran was complicit in various terrorist attacks on American targets. In addition, the Democrats' witness at the hearing, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl, focused his prepared remarks on the nuclear issue.
When Thompson indirectly addressed the security issue, he urged law enforcement not to look at any particular moment in time and pretend it tells the whole story.
That drew a rebuke from Republican Dan Lungren of California. The 9/11 Commission chastised government for failing to connect the dots leading up to the al-Qaida attacks in New York and Washington, he said. "Aren't dots snapshots in time?"
The dots currently in sight, from the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to attempted terrorist attacks in the past six weeks traced to Iran in Thailand, India and Georgia indicate "we may be moving toward a point ..[of] a higher likelihood of terrorist activity in the homeland," Silber said.