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FBI keeping tight watch on Hezbollah

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FBI keeping tight watch on Hezbollah: FBI analyzes Hezbollah's terror threat

September 9, 2006

Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER

When Hamas and Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers this summer and the Israeli military lashed back in Gaza and Lebanon, the FBI quietly stepped up its scrutiny of the two groups, particularly Hezbollah, which law-enforcement authorities say raises money selling bootleg tobacco and counterfeit goods in California.

The anniversary of the Sept. 11 hijackings has Americans thinking about al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. But the pressure on al-Qaida's top leadership and increasing U.S. confrontation with Iran has many counterterrorism experts looking at the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah as an equal, if not greater, threat.

Hezbollah's access to Iranian money, arms and military training has created the kind of guerilla force that can fight the Israeli military to a stalemate, and it has more of a presence inside the United States than al-Qaida, though neither Hezbollah nor Hamas has ever attacked within the country.

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has called Hezbollah the "A-team" of terrorists. Pat D'Amuro, former executive assistant FBI director for counterterrorism and intelligence, said in a phone interview Friday that Hezbollah is "very well funded, very well trained. They have tremendous capacity."

"If they started getting involved attacking the U.S., in my opinion it would make al-Qaida look like the B-team," D'Amuro said.

Beyond identifying Hezbollah operatives, the questions for the FBI are whether they have military skills, are recruiting Americans to their cause or are preparing for strikes inside the United States or abroad.

"Obviously, everyone had to look hard at that issue," said David Ego, assistant special agent in charge of counterterrorism for the FBI's San Francisco Division. "It was a concern that U.S. citizens and interests might be targeted domestically and overseas as a result of those incidents at the Israel-Lebanon border. We took a hard look, and we continue to take a hard look."

Hezbollah was born out of scattered Shi'a resistance to Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982. The revolutionary government in Iran united the movement and supplied it with arms, trainingand financial support to fight Israel and also partly to capitalize on the successful taking of U.S. hostages in Tehran.

"They felt it was effective to form this organization to bring the United States to its knees," said D'Amuro, now chairman and CEO of Giuliani Security and Safety.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Hezbollah was the world's most lethal terrorist group, credited with 200 attacks and 800 deaths. Its spectacular truck bombings killed 241 Marines in Beirut in 1982 and 19 Americans in the Khobar Towers in 1996, as well as causing the destruction in the early 1990s of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The group took multiple Americans hostage in Lebanon, including CIA Beirut station chief William Buckley, who was tortured for a year before being killed.

The United States and several allies have marked Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and sought to freeze its assets worldwide. But Europe has resisted, in part because Hezbollah provides food, education, housing and the closest thing in Southern Lebanon to an effective government.

Hezbollah has never attacked within the United States but, according to former FBI counterterrorism analyst Matthew Levitt, a 2002 FBI analysis concluded that 50 to 100 Hamas and Hezbollah operatives had entered the country.

For the better part, they are fundraisers, blended into sizable Lebanese American communities in Detroit and Dearborn, Mich., New York City and Charlotte, N.C.

In testimony to Congress last year, Levitt said the best U.S. intelligence estimates suggest Hezbollah receives $20 million to $30 million a year from criminal fundraising activities, such as stealing and reselling baby formula, welfare and food stamp fraud, grocery coupon scams and credit card fraud.

In California, the group has been tied to sales of knockoff Gucci handbags, Louis Vuitton watches and Prada shoes, as well as pirated CDs and DVDs and bootleg tobacco. Some money sustains operatives here, and the rest goes to southern Lebanon.

"They're very proficient," said Dennis Lormel, former head of the FBI's financial crimes division. "It's like an organized crime family."

One Lebanese woman who owned a chain of cigarette stores was stopped trying to fly out of Los Angeles International Airport and found to have $230,000 strapped to her body. Customs officers later seized more than 1,000 cartons of bootleg cigarettes and $70,000 in cash.

"Anytime you see somebody that raises money for the bad guys, whether Hamas or al-Qaida or Hezbollah, those same guys are quite likely going to be involved in military activities," said Chris Hamilton, the FBI's former chief of Palestinian terrorist investigations.

Some experts consider Hezbollah the equivalent of a loaded gun pointed at U.S. civilians, an instrument of deterrence by Tehran. A U.S. military assault on Iran could trigger Hezbollah attacks inside the United States.

But the group is thought unlikely to mount domestic U.S. attacks for fear of military reprisal against Tehran. There are no signs so far that the recent conflict in Lebanon or the U.S. supply of bombs to Israel has triggered preparations for domestic attacks.

"We haven't seen any type of operational activity here in the Bay Area," said Ego of the FBI's San Francisco office.

"I think it would require direct action against them (Iran)," said Hamilton, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. "But it can get more complicated. Say if Israel targeted (Hezbollah leader Hassan) Nasrallah and got him, it could be that Hezbollah would target Jewish or Israeli targets all over the world, though probably not here."

Source: Oakland Tribune

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