“Until the al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, the self-described ‘Party of God’ had killed more U.S. citizens than any other radical Islamist group and, for the most part, they had gotten away with it,” Tom Diaz and Barbara Newman write in their new book Lightning Out of Lebanon: Hezbollah Terrorists on American Soil.
Barbara Newman, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, spoke to NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez Thursday afternoon about the book, current activity, and the deadly threat of Hezbollah.
National Review Online: I did a double take when I saw that Kofi Annan was encouraging serious people to accept Hezbollah. But then the New York Times reported that people in the U.S. administration are thinking similarly. Can they really be serious? Can Hezbollah ever be a legitimate political movement anywhere?
Barbara Newman: I almost lost my breakfast Thursday, which luckily I hadn’t eaten yet, when I saw the New York Times page-one report today that Kofi Annan is encouraging the acceptance of Hezbollah as the preponderant power in Lebanon and the United States is thinking of yielding to this and France’s pressure to do just that.
I think the report is perhaps a trial balloon by our people to test the waters. But the unvarnished truth is that Hezbollah is the most dangerous terrorist group in the world. It has about 25,000 armed members and as we saw in the pro-Syrian march in Beirut, it can muster a million in the streets.
It’s no coincidence that former Deputy Secretary of State Armitage called them “the A team of terrorism.” They are disciplined, highly trained, with incredibly lethal equipment with a frighteningly good counterintelligence network. A former head of the FBI’s Hezbollah branch told me that “they are the best light infantry in the world and can strike the United States any time any where.” [That general sentiment] was echoed by last week’s testimony of both the CIA and FBI directors before the Senate in open hearings.
Hezbollah does have a dozen members in the Lebanese parliament, which shows how smart Hezbollah is; it is trying to go both way by having a political side and a standing terrorist apparatus.
Hezbollah doesn’t play politics the way we think of it. Its members are devoutly dedicated to the creation of a theocracy in Lebanon similar to that in Iran and to the eradication of the “Jewish entity”–they don’t even say Israel is a state–and to the obliteration of all U.S. influence in the Middle East. We are the “Big Satan” to them and Israel is “the little Satan.”
Those who advocate the position that Hezbollah can be brought into a moderate role by dealing with it politically, have never heard the speeches of its charismatic chief, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah when he calls for death to America. It’s like Chamberlain when he went to Munich and had never read Mein Kampf. These people mean what they say.
NRO:Just how big is Hezbollah?
Newman: Hezbollah has about 25,000 soldiers but its influence is far greater. It has members all over the world.
NRO: Could Hezbollah exist without Iranian support?
Newman: Hezbollah can probably now exist without Iranian support. But I don’t think that will ever be the case. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards started training what became Hezbollah in Baalbeck in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon in 1979, right after Khomeini came to power in Iran. Iran supports Hezbollah with about $100 million a year but Hezbollah has enough businesses and is a powerful fundraiser in its own right. Iran helps Hezbollah by putting at its disposal its diplomatic prerogatives, letting Hezbollah use its security apparatus for communications and shipping of equipment.
NRO: Now, in Lebanon: If Syria gets out, does Hezbollah take over? How can Hezbollah’s power be squashed by the Cedar Revolution–does people power have that kind of power?
Newman: I believe that if Syria pulls out of Lebanon now, which–by the way I don’t think will happen–because the Bashar Assad regime would collapse–Hezbollah would be the most powerful entity in Lebanon. It could easily smash the Lebanese army. The tragedy of all this is that the Cedar Revolution, the confluence of such previously vicious enemies, the Christians, the Sunnis, and the Druze, is occurring in a power vacuum. The Taif agreement, which ended the Lebanese civil war, forced all militias to disarm with the exception of Hezbollah. In the last ten years it has grown into a behemoth and we have done nothing about it.
How can we forget the fact that in 1983 a Hezbollah suicide driver crashed a one-thousand-pound bomb into the Marine Barracks in Beirut and killed 241 of our best and brightest? What about the hostages they took and tortured? What about the CIA Beirut station chief William Buckley who they kidnapped and slowly drowned to death by forcing a pipe down his throat and flooding him with water? They made tapes of his agony and sent it to the CIA. I’m told that former CIA Director William Casey almost went crazy when he heard them, and this propelled him to Iran-Contra, to try to free the hostages.
NRO: How damaging has Hezbollah been and could it be in Iraq?
Newman: Hezbollah is very damaging to us in the war in Iraq. First of all they have trained al Qaeda. Second, they have several offices in Iraq where they share intelligence and equipment with Zarqawi and Baathists fighting us there. Third, Hezbollah commands a great deal of respect in these quarters because they are regarded as having shown that America is beatable; that in the words of Osama bin Laden it is a paper tiger because it showed it can’t sustain casualties when American troops were pulled out of Lebanon after the Marine barracks bombing.
NRO: You say that Hezbollah is here. I’m devil’s advocate: If they’re so embedded, why haven’t they done anything big?
Newman: Hezbollah has been operating inside the United States. Since the 1980s, the FBI has deported hundreds of members and had dozens of cases. Mostly, in these years, the Hezbollah cells were busted for criminal activity such as insurance fraud, credit-card fraud, counterfeiting clothes such as Levi jeans, phony marriages which they arranged to get green cards, and cigarette smuggling. Though these are sort of under-the-radar crimes, they raised millions of dollars which were sent to Hezbollah coffers in Beirut and in some cases used to buy highly sophisticated “dual-use” equipment in Canada such as very sophisticated computers, cell phones hooked up electronically to be capable of remotely controlled explosions, and intelligence drones.
They have not hit us here but the FBI and CIA thinks if we push them to the wall, cut off their ability to raise funds, get tough with them in Lebanon, they easily could hit us here.
Remember, they are very tough and sophisticated. Their soldiers don’t do solo operations. Think of them as a pistol aimed at our head, which can be shot at will.
NRO: Has the war on terror diluted the FBI’s focus on Hezbollah cells in the U.S.?
Newman: The FBI tells me that, no doubt, the war on terror has been focused on al Qaeda and there has been a diminution of interest in Hezbollah, but this is changing. We know that the White House is very concerned about the potentiality of Hezbollah damage. Perhaps this is why some in our government might be counseling to respect the power on the ground and get into negotiations with Hezbollah. It will never work.
NRO: How have U.S. immigration policies and practices helped Hezbollah?
Newman: Without a doubt, U.S. immigration policies and practices made it laughingly easy for Hezbollah members to enter the U.S. illegally. There is a place called Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela where for $300 you can get phony papers to enter the U.S. When immigration officials noticed the blatant forgeries, the Hezbollah members asked for political asylum and were told to report to court on a certain date. Most didn’t. Many found ways to stay here simply by taking identities of friends leaving the country or paying women to marry them and never living with them.
Since 9/11, these politics have been toughened and our people are more vigilant in the pursuit of terrorists trying to enter the country.
But we have porous borders to our north and south and Hezbollah has taken to getting people in the country by hiding in the trunk of cars coming in from Mexico.
NRO: What should every American know about Hezbollah?
Newman: Every American should know that Hezbollah is a terrorist group whose ideology advocates the killing of Americans.
Now, not every Muslim is a terrorist and not every Shiite is a member of Hezbollah. In fact, Hezbollah commands just a small, but unfortunately lethally dedicated membership worldwide.
NRO: Is Hezbollah more of a threat to Americans than al Qaeda at this point?
Newman: A lot of intelligence officers I have spoken to regard Hezbollah as more a threat to Americans than al Qaeda. One FBI station chief I know very well said he’s worried about Hezbollah, he’s worried about the Hezbollah cells in the United States, and he’s worried about Hezbollah members so secretly ensconced here that even operating cells don’t know about them.