By Suzanne Kelly
Hezbollah is in the United States, and according to current and former intelligence officials testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday, the Iranian-linked terror group is in a prime position to launch a terrorist attack against a U.S. interest if it desires to do so.
Hezbollah cells have been operating on U.S. soil for years, but experts say their efforts have mainly been in criminal activities aimed at generating revenue for their broader efforts. But escalating tensions with Iran over its nuclear program have cast a new eye on the dozens of Hezbollah support cells that have been raising money and drawing scrutiny from law enforcement officials for more than a decade through sometimes legitimate business operations.
Michael Braun, a former assistant administrator with the Drug Enforcement Administration, testified that the group started ramping up development of business operations inside the U.S. after September 11. He cited one particular case involving a bank investigation that led the DEA and the Department of Treasury to a string of car dealerships operated by Hezbollah supporters.
"There were over 70 used-car dealerships that were identified as part of the money-laundering scheme for laundering the hundreds of millions of dollars of cocaine-generated revenue, much of which was, you know, was tracked back to Hezbollah," Braun said. "I asked our investigators, 'how many of those businesses existed pre-9/11 vs. post-9/11?' The answer was 'absolutely none.' "
The concern now is that these support groups will move to an operational mode and that if they do, they are well-prepared for an attack.
Chairman Peter King told the committee that Hezbollah militants have "trained in weapons, explosives and spycraft in Lebanon and Iran, where the Revolutionary Guards Corps works hand-in-hand with Hezbollah." According to the chairman, there have been 20 federal investigations of Hezbollah operations inside the U.S. since September 11.
Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, detailed what a Hezbollah attack might look like, saying the group is well-established enough that it could call on local individuals or networks to support foreign operatives.
But other experts say that would be a big shift and that an attack within U.S. borders would undoubtedly come at a price, and Hezbollah undoubtedly knows it. According to Mitch Silber, director of intelligence for the New York Police Department, the consequences of U.S. retaliation against the group for any such attack is likely enough to keep them from carrying one out, even as a proxy of Iran. Silber says that the fact that Hezbollah has been on the radar of law enforcement for years has also given intelligence and law enforcement officials a human intelligence advantage with these groups.
A federal law enforcement official would not provide CNN with an estimate of how many people affiliated with Hezbollah are believed to be in the U.S. The official would say only that the cases the U.S. has brought involving Hezbollah have involved areas such as fundraising and attempting to procure arms and have not involved plots.
The state of play continues to be that the FBI is on the watch for possible activity here in light of world events, particularly those concerning Iran.