Nine days after Osama bin Laden’s mujahedeen launched a surprise attack on the United States, President Bush told the American public that “our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
A logical next stop in the war on terror would be Hezbollah, a terrorist group of global reach, which before September 11, 2001, was responsible for killing more Americans than any other terrorist organization, including al Qaeda.
Even after 9/11, several prominent U.S. officials have suggested that Hezbollah could be more dangerous than al Qaeda. CIA Director George Tenet testified to Congress that Hezbollah, “an organization with capability and worldwide presence, is [al Qaeda's] equal, if not a far more capable organization.” Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage echoed this when he stated that “Hezbollah may be the ‘A-team’ of terrorists,” while “al Qaeda is actually the ‘B-team.’”
Nineteen months of counterterrorism warfare have left al Qaeda seriously weakened but not destroyed. The group’s continuing ability to organize and launch attacks — evidenced by the recent back-to-back bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca — is in part due to the ascension of a new military commander. Following the capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, intelligence suggests that Saif al-Adel has assumed command of al Qaeda’s military operations.
Adel is wanted by the FBI for the role he played in the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and was recently named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. The Washington Post also reported last year that Adel trained and fought with Somali guerrillas against U.S. forces in Mogadishu in 1993.
According to Virginia-based Geostrategy-Direct, “Adel has revived al Qaeda with new methods, operations and relationships with Islamic terrorist networks throughout the world.”
On May 18, the Washington Post reported on the belief among some in the administration that Adel ordered the Riyadh bombing from Iran by giving a local al Qaeda cell support for the attack. Two days later, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said at a press briefing: “There’s no question but that there are al Qaeda in Iran…countries that are harboring those terrorist networks and providing a haven for them are behaving as terrorists by so doing.”
Tehran sheltering — or even tolerating — Saif al-Adel would be another severe indictment of Iran, already Hezbollah’s patron and the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Adel’s presence in Iran would pose a greater threat to American security than that of Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq, which was one of the key pieces of evidence the administration used to make its case for war against Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Adel assuming the throne is yet more ominous because of his connection to Hezbollah, who trained him in their camps in the early 1990s. A government witness in the East Africa embassy bombing trial testified that Adel was one of several al Qaeda operatives who received “very good” training from Hezbollah in south Lebanon on “how to explosives [sic] big buildings.”
The Washington Post has called Adel “a key figure in the tactical alliance between al Qaeda and Hezbollah” which transcends the traditional divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. This alliance goes all the way up al Qaeda’s chain of command to bin Laden himself.
The 1998 indictment for the embassy-bombings trial states that “Usama bin Laden, the defendant, and al Qaeda also forged alliances… with representatives of the government of Iran, and its associated terrorist group Hezballah, for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States.”
This alliance dates back to 1994, when bin Laden met with Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyeh in Khartoum. Regarded by terrorism experts to be one of the most ruthless men on earth, Mugniyeh is also alleged by the FBI to be the head of Hezbollah’s security apparatus.
In those days, al Qaeda was a novice in the world of global terrorism compared to Hezbollah: the latter had already achieved major operational successes inside and outside of Lebanon, including bombing the U.S. embassy in Beirut in April 1983, killing 241 U.S. Marines in the barracks bombing later that year, and destroying the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992.
A week after the 9/11 attacks, some members of the Bush administration had already begun making the case for U.S. action against the terrorist camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Throughout 2002 there were reports that an undetermined number of al Qaeda operatives who had fled Afghanistan in the wake of the American victory had taken refuge in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah’s stronghold.
Hezbollah spiritual leader Hassan Nasrallah has been all too clear about his hatred of the United States. A week before the war in Iraq began, he told a crowd of 10,000 in Beirut: “In the past, when the Marines were in Beirut and their fleets were in the Mediterranean sea, we screamed in the southern suburbs ‘Death to America’…today, the region is being filled with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and fleets and ‘Death to America’ was, is and will stay our slogan.”
Nasrallah reiterated this point in a televised interview with al Jazeera on May 8: “When one day a serious and real armed resistance begins, providing that it is on a high level of sacrifice and readiness for martyrdom in any Arab country against U.S. or other occupation forces, we will then see the weakness of the Americans.”
Such statements from a man of Nasrallah’s stature were sure to have consequences. Not surprisingly, once the invasion of Iraq was underway, Hezbollah operatives crossed the Syrian border to join the fight against coalition troops.
Hezbollah’s audacity has not been deterred by the American victory in Iraq or subsequent U.S. demands for Syria to cease its support for terrorist organizations. Lebanese parliament member Mohammad Raad, who is also a member of Hezbollah, was quoted in the Jordanian al Lewah as saying: “The pressures on Hezbollah [from the U.S.] will fade away soon, and the pressures on Syria will not affect Hezbollah.”
Yet Raad’s prediction may have been overly optimistic. Until now, the United States has avoided engaging Hezbollah directly, but the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy released in September 2002 has a clear mandate for preemption in dealing with terrorism. Specifically that document states that “our best defense is a good offense” in fighting the war on terror, which “will be fought on many fronts against a particularly elusive enemy over an extended period of time.”
That same month — one year after the 9/11 attacks — Deputy Secretary Armitage made it clear that this mandate would govern U.S. policy towards Hezbollah: “They have a blood debt to us and … we’re not going to forget it. They’re on the list, their time will come.”
— Eric Leskly is a terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project in Washington, D.C.