John Kerry was tired and fed up. During a closed-door meeting in late September 2016, he had been trying to tell to Syrian oppositionists why the United States was reluctant to take further military action against the regime in Damascus. But he wasn’t getting much sympathy from his audience.
Kerry was sent to explain that the United States expected the Syrian opposition to fight ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates there, but was not interested in responding militarily to Iranian surrogates such as Hezbollah. The reason, Kerry told the Syrians, was that “Hezbollah is not plotting against us.”
It seems clear now that Kerry’s principal motivation in attempting to steer the opposition away from any confrontation with Iran’s terrorist proxies was a fear of angering the regime in Tehran. Kerry was at pains to avoid jeopardizing the Obama administration’s already-fragile nuclear deal with the Islamic republic, which Obama and his team desperately wanted to hold up as a key, legacy-burnishing foreign-policy achievement.
But Kerry’s off-the-cuff comment betrayed either a shocking ignorance or cynical indifference: Hezbollah is — and was, and will continue to be — plotting against the United States, even as it fights to prop up Bashar al-Assad and makes mischief elsewhere in the world. Though largely overlooked by a mainstream press consumed with the circus of former FBI director Comey’s testimony to Congress, the fact of Hezbollah’s ongoing plotting was brought into stark relief in early June, when the Justice Department announced that it had arrested two Hezbollah operatives and charged them with committing a variety of terrorism-related offenses on American soil.
Hezbollah, it should be noted, is the most advanced terrorist organization operating today. It long ago became a de facto state within the country of Lebanon. And though in previous years some European countries resisted labeling it a terrorist organization because of the many other functions it fulfills in Lebanese society, most have now come to understand it for what it really is.
Befitting its status as a state within a state, Hezbollah has both a functional military wing and fairly sophisticated intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities. The members of this latter branch, called the Islamic Jihad Organization, or IJO, operate just like many moderately advanced sovereign intelligence and security services the world over. They identify, train, recruit, and dispatch spies for all the usual reasons that nation-states do so. But their spies have the added mandate of preparing for and executing terrorist attacks.
Hezbollah is — and was, and will continue to be — plotting against the United States, even as it fights to prop up Bashar al-Assad and makes mischief elsewhere in the world.
The two men arrested — one in New York City and the other in suburban Detroit — were essentially Hezbollah spies, or assets. The fact that they were both naturalized U.S. citizens made them extremely valuable: After all, it’s much easier, no matter your name or ethnicity, to travel on an American passport than on a Lebanese or Iranian one.
U.S. citizen Samer El Debek was a bomb maker who was also trained in surveillance and counter-surveillance. Hezbollah felt confident enough in his abilities that in 2009 they sent him to Thailand to clean up traces of explosives left by other operatives who’d been forced to flee the Thai authorities. His status as an American citizen also enabled him to travel to Panama, where he was told to case the American and Israeli embassies, in addition to assessing the security weaknesses of Panama Canal facilities.
Ali Kourani, also a naturalized U.S. citizen, was recruited by the IJO after the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, during which his family’s home in Lebanon was destroyed. This created a perfect opportunity for IJO operatives to befriend the young man and use his simmering anger as a lever to convince him to work covertly for Hezbollah in the U.S.
According to the DOJ, Hezbollah set up elaborate protocols for Kourani to use in his communications with the group so that he would not be discovered. The IJO only met Kourani in person in Lebanon, where they could control the environment. He, too, received military training while in the country. Upon his return to the U.S., he was instructed to analyze security at airports, surveil military and law-enforcement facilities in New York City, and identify sources of weapons that could be used in IJO operations.
The DOJ report on the arrests omits details of how the two were discovered and ultimately apprehended, but it must have been a long and complicated investigation, underlining the challenge that counterterrorism officials face. For every El Debek and Kourani that is caught and prosecuted, there are others still lurking in the shadows. But these are no mere “sleeper cells”; they are active, planning and preparing for eventual operations against and even within the United States.
Dangerous as ISIS and al-Qaeda may be, they have achieved nowhere near this level of sophistication in terms of planning, training, or spycraft. Arrests such as these are a sobering reminder that, contrary to what John Kerry may believe, Hezbollah continues to plot against us, both here and abroad.