Terror-cell alliance at work in US?
A collaboration between Al Qaeda and Hizbullah may pose most serious challenge yet to US security since 9/11.
WASHINGTON — Mohamad Hammoud had big business ideas and desperately wanted to stay in the US. But the government had denied the Lebanese national's visa request. So in 1996, he married an American girl in Detroit rather than the one waiting for him back home.
That enabled him to obtain his green card and later establish a multimillion-dollar cigarette-smuggling operation. From his profits, he sent money and equipment to the Hizbullah terrorist organization in Lebanon.
Last month, Mr. Hammoud was convicted of, among other things, financing suspected Hizbullah terrorists.
Although it was the first trial of this kind, the FBI reportedly believes at least 12 other Hizbullah cells in US cities are following a pattern similar to that of Hammoud's operation. More striking, US authorities believe that Hizbullah is increasingly linking up with Al Qaeda, the No. 1 target in the US war on terror. Their pooling of resources could pose the most formidable challenge yet to US security in the post-Sept. 11 world, US officials and terrorism experts say. "If I were Osama bin Laden and needed to fall back on a network, it would be Hizbullah," says Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who investigated the 1983 US Embassy and Marine barracks bombings in Beirut. "It is known that Hizbullah is very good at car-bombings, owns stinger missiles, is good at hijacking and putting operatives all over the world.
"We know there is tactical cooperation," which, Mr. Baer adds, "goes back at least on some levels to 1995-96. There is definite information that [Hizbullah] set up an alliance between pro-Iranian Shia groups and Al Qaeda in July 1996. There was a meeting with Iranian intelligence. And from that, it is only inevitable that these relations developed."
Baer says it's not clear what the cooperation level within the US is between Al Qaeda and Hizbullah. But terror experts and government officials say that in addition to the Al Qaeda sleeper cells in place here, several Hizbullah cells are also entrenched in US cities especially those with strong Shia Muslim communities such as Detroit, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and Kansas City. It would surprise no one in the intelligence community if the two were cooperating helping particularly with logistics.
In fact, another Lebanese national, Semi Osman, was arrested in May in the Seattle area. And FBI officials there are looking into the same kind of cell operation as Hammoud's. Apparently Mr. Osman married a local Muslim, joined a well-known Seattle mosque where he became an imam, or prayer leader, and possibly operated a jihad training camp in Bly, Ore.
He's not been charged with acts of terrorism so far, but is being held on charges of immigration fraud and the illegal possession of a semiautomatic handgun with its serial numbers removed. The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that he is suspected of leading a cell there that may have ties to Al Qaeda.
There are no clear-cut connections between Hizbullah and Al Qaeda in either of these cases. But the similarities in the way the cells operate are striking, and the suicide-bombing techniques used by both organizations are essentially the same.
Moreover, other evidence has pointed to HizbullahAl Qaeda collaborations. During the New York trial for those accused of the near-simultaneous 1998 attacks on two US embassies in Africa, Al Qaeda members testified about meetings between Mr. bin Laden and Imad Mugniyah, chief of Hizbullah's terror wing. And Israeli officials have charged that Al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan traveled through Iran to join up with Hizbullah in Lebanon.
The Hizbullah organization was spawned in 1985, in the aftermath of Israeli and Syrian invasions of Lebanon after US peacekeepers were sent there to keep Lebanese Muslims apart from Israeli forces and their Christian allies.
Before that,on April 18, 1983, a suicide bomber who was a member of the group that later became Hizbullah drove a truck into the US Embassy in Beirut. Sixty-three people were killed, including 17 Americans. The CIA, according to Baer, lost its six best Middle East experts in that blast the deadliest act of terror against the US at that point.
Then, on Oct. 23, 1983, two suicide bombers also members of the precursor to Hizbullah drove explosives-laden trucks into barracks of French soldiers and the US Marine barracks there. They killed 241 marines and prompted a hasty retreat by the Reagan administration.
The blasts were both so powerful like the attacks on the US embassies in Africa and later the World Trade Center and Pentagon that they left little evidence to sift through. But Baer was eventually able to tie Mr. Mugniyah, now the head of Hizbullah's terror wing and one of the most wanted terrorists in the world, to the Marine barracks bombing. Mugniah has also been implicated in the 1985 hijacking of TWA 847, in which a US Navy diver was killed, and the 1992 Israeli Embassy bombing in Argentina, in which 29 were killed.
From 1985 to May 1990, Hizbullah conducted a string of highly successful hit-and-run guerrilla attacks on the Israeli troops occupying southern Lebanon. Those became so effective, killing many Israeli soldiers, that Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government decided to pull out of the strip in May 2000.
Throughout the Arab world, that was seen as a major victory for the group. Also during that time, Hizbullah effectively formed a political arm, giving it a stronger foothold in the region. Hizbullah currently holds nine seats in Lebanon's parliament. James Kitfield writes in the National Journal that "asked whether they are with the United States or Hizbullah, the overwhelming majority of Arabs would choose the latter."
The US is interested in targeting the group in its "war on terror." US Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham (D) of Florida called Hizbullah the "A-team of terrorists" early last week after returning from a trip to the Middle East.
The FBI's most-wanted terrorists list, released last October, includes three Hizbullah members. The rest are mainly Al Qaeda operatives. In November, the US State Department beefed up financial sanctions against the group.