Published January 18, 2007
Does any terrorist organization pose a greater threat to Americans than Al Qaeda?
The shocking answer to that question unfolds this Saturday, January 20th, at 8 p.m. EST, as FOX News Channel presents a breakthrough documentary, “Smokescreen: Hezbollah Inside America.”
While Americans are still largely focused on Al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden — who’s presumably rotting away in some cave — the terrorist group Hezbollah has been setting up shop right here in America’s heartland. And most Americans don’t know a thing about it. But we should know more about Hezbollah — a lot more.
As tensions with Iran are increasing, it’s important to keep in mind that Hezbollah is largely funded by Iran and has operated as its tool in terror operations around the world. As former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte recently reminded us: “Hezbollah’s self-confidence and hostility toward the U.S. as a supporter of Israel could cause the group to increase its contingency planning against U.S. interests.”
But Hezbollah has been focused on U.S. interests for quite some time. In fact, Hezbollah operatives have been quietly setting up operations in the U.S. for years.
One of those operations is the subject of “Smokescreen: Hezbollah Inside America,” an exhaustive FOX News report about a Hezbollah cell that was operating for several years in Charlotte, North Carolina. FOX followed the many tentacles of this cell, which extended far beyond Charlotte — to Michigan, to the West Coast, to Canada and to Beirut, Lebanon, where most of the members were from. FOX News spent months tracking this story to all these places and more.
At least one member of the Hezbollah cell first came to the U.S. on forged visa picked up in Venezuela. Others overstayed their tourist or student visas. Once here, they began making millions through a combination of tobacco smuggling, credit card schemes, and arranging phony “green-card” marriages. They even succeeded at obtaining a $1.7 million loan from the Small Business Administration.
Even though the team succeeded in gaming our system and making millions of dollars in criminal enterprises, the FBI was on to them almost from the start.
But this was before 9/11 (and before the Patriot Act) when the FBI was prevented from combining its terrorist surveillance with criminal investigations. A “Chinese Wall” separated criminal investigations from terrorist investigations, so ATF that had launched its own probe into the case, knew nothing of the gang’s terrorist connections.
This is just one of the many hurdles the FBI, ATF, state and local law enforcement needed to overcome in bringing this cell down. We highlight their heroic efforts and the flaws in our own system that allowed this terror network to flourish.
Initially, the hardest part of the job for FBI terror investigators was convincing their cohorts that Hezbollah was a genuine threat to Americans. There was much skepticism, despite the fact that before 9/11, no terrorist group had killed more Americans in the Mideast than Hezbollah. And Hezbollah extended their killing spree to this hemisphere, with a 1994 bombing that killed dozens of women and children at a Jewish center in Argentina. But the FBI, as much of the nation, was still in its pre-9/11 mindset, refusing to devote the resources or concern that we should have been devoting to the terrorist threat.
The exceptions to that rule are the heroes of this story: An FBI agent who refused to allow the taunts and skepticism of his colleagues to dissuade him from tracking the connections that linked a group of Lebanese illegals operating in Charlotte to terror cells in Canada and Beirut. An alert sheriff’s deputy, working part time at a tobacco wholesaler in Charlotte, who spent his own time tracking down a suspicious group of Arabic-speaking customers who were trading wads of cash for tons of cheap tobacco. A young prosecutor willing to bet his reputation on a case that had to leapfrog over terrorist laws that were either antiquated or hadn’t even been written yet.
While arrests were made in this case a year before 9/11, the case was tried just after 9/11, and that brought with it a whole new set of questions that we examine.
Were members of the terror cell too readily convicted by a jury that was still caught up in a post-9/11 panic? Certainly that’s the contention of Stanley Cohen, the lawyer for the cell’s ringleader, Mohammad Hammoud.
FOX News wanted to find out more about the case. So we got Cohen to take us to Beirut to talk to members of the cell indicted in the case. Only by seeing the volatile environment in which the cell members were raised did we get an appreciation of what motivated them. But we also witnessed why the United States needs to stay vigilant in its efforts to stop those who want to do us harm.
We went to Beirut, and our timing was auspicious. Our visit coincided with an explosive power struggle in Lebanon between Hezbollah and its opponents in government. While we were filming in Hezbollah's stronghold in Southern Beirut, a FOX producer rushed to the scene to tell us that cabinet minister Pierre Gemayal had just been shot and killed in an ambush not far from where we were filming. The decision was made to get out quickly.
The night before the assassination, Cohen appeared shaken after a conversation with Sheik Abbas Harake, a man we were supposed to interview the next day.
According to the U.S. government, Harake was a military commander in Beirut and received money from Mohammad Hammoud, Cohen's client. Harake was the alleged conduit connecting the Charlotte cell to the military wing of Hezbollah. Cohen argued that Harake was just a used car salesman, who ran a humanitarian aid group for Hezbollah. But the night before the assassination, it appeared Harake knew that something was up. He called Cohen to say he couldn't make the interview the next day. "Things are about to get ugly," a nervous Cohen told me after speaking with the sheik.
What makes "Smokescreen: Hezbollah Inside America" particularly relevant today is not merely how it connects with the growing conflicts in the Mideast and our growing conflicts with Iran, but the fact that the case in Charlotte is about to be reopened. In February, the leader of the Charlotte cell, who was sentenced to 155 years in jail, is up for re-sentencing. This story will undoubtedly shed more light on the case and help decide whether this man will ever see the light of day outside of a U.S. prison.
A gripping story that's must see television, "Smokescreen: Hezbollah Inside America" airs on Saturday night at 8 p.m. EST. Don't miss it.