The October 15 attack against U.S. diplomatic personnel in Gaza may have been a signal that Hezbollah, a highly effective terrorist organization (and, after al Qaeda, the number one terrorist killer of Americans), has reinitiated hostilities with the United States after a lull in anti-U.S. attacks since the 1980s. If so, there are important implications for the United States, and particularly its relationships with Hezbollah’s patrons: Iran and Syria.
While the joint Palestinian-American investigation has not come to any conclusions (and, predictably, Palestinian cooperation has been less than satisfactory), the October 15 attack, in which three American security personnel were killed, has all the trademarks of a Hezbollah operation.
The idea that Hezbollah was involved in the attack–in which a mine buried under a road destroyed a vehicle with U.S. diplomatic plates–is, admittedly, a conjecture. But it is a plausible one. The attack required high-level technical skills to construct the mine (which was detonated by remote) and effective intelligence work to plan and carry out the attack. Few groups apart from Hezbollah have such resources.
Hezbollah gained experience ambushing Israeli vehicles in its long war with Israel in Lebanon. It has shared its expertise with several Palestinian groups, which have successfully used buried mines to destroy or damage Israeli Merkava tanks. But the major Palestinian terrorist groups have denied participating in the October 15 attack, and Hezbollah is known to be building its own network in the West Bank, Gaza, and among Israeli Arabs.
Separately, two days later, a convoy of U.S. diplomats in Lebanon was intercepted by Hezbollah fighters and prevented from inspecting sites on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Hezbollah effectively controls southern Lebanon. Reportedly, the Hezbollah fighters permitted U.N. personnel to continue on, but forced the Americans to turn back, tailing and harassing the U.S. convoy. Hezbollah and the Lebanese government insist that the U.S. embassy did not coordinate the trip with them beforehand.
The proximity of this incident to the Gaza attack may only be a coincidence. But if Hezbollah were involved in the Gaza attack, these two events are noteworthy, and may be indicative of a new Hezbollah strategy against Americans.
If Hezbollah is targeting Americans, it is doing so in close coordination with its patron states, Iran and Syria. Syria has been under increased U.S. pressure to prevent the passage of jihadists across its border into Iraq and to shut down Palestinian terrorist groups headquartered in Damascus. The U.S. supported an Israeli air raid on Syrian territory, and the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Syrian Accountability Act (the Senate is expected to do so later this month), which requires the president to expand sanctions against Syria. While Syria is weak in conventional military terms, the Syrian regime seems certain that U.S. forces are overcommitted and unable to undertake a full-scale military confrontation. Therefore, they might reason, Hezbollah terrorism is a convenient stick to use against the United States.
Iran, on the other hand, is seeking any means possible to distract the United States from thwarting its nuclear ambitions. A new wave of terrorism against Americans might serve that purpose. Iran is also seeking to extend its influence, particularly in the Palestinian-Israeli arena.
Hezbollah attacks on Americans could ignite a tinderbox. Because of American support for Israel, the U.S. is hated as much as Israel in Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinians celebrated 9/11; and, when American investigators arrived on the scene of the October 15 bombing, a Palestinian crowd tried to attack them. Hezbollah could characterize attacks on Americans as part of the Intifada, encouraging other Palestinian terrorist groups to join in seeking American targets–possibly beyond the bounds of Israel.
If Hezbollah and its patrons are challenging the United States, they are ushering in a new stage in the war on terror. A first priority must be defanging Hezbollah by breaking up its cells around the world and pursuing sanctions against Iran and Syria, its state backers. U.S.-Israeli intelligence cooperation will be a crucial asset in this fight. These steps may lead to further confrontation–but, if past experience teaches anything, retreat will only embolden the terrorists.
–Aaron Mannes is the author of Profiles in Terror: The Reference Guide to Middle East Terrorist Organizations & Affiliated Groups, to be released in the spring of 2004.