A House hearing on Hezbollah as a global terrorist threat coupled with Thursday’s prison sentence of a Hezbollah member — the first in a European court — brings into sharp focus the rising danger of the Lebanese terror organization for the security of the U.S. and its allies.
The criminal court in Limassol, Cyprus, sentenced Hossam Taleb Yaacoub — a self-confessed Hezbollah operative -- to four years in prison for plotting to kill Israeli tourists on the island. “There is no doubt these are serious crimes which could have potentially endangered Israeli citizens and targets in the republic,” the three-member judge panel said.
The Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah — a major proxy of Iran’s radical clerical rulers — has an extensive history of carrying out terror attacks on U.S. soldiers. In January 2007, Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq played a critical role in the murders of five U.S. soldiers in Iraq. In 1983, a year after its founding, Hezbollah executed a double suicide attack against U.S. and French military barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen and 58 French paratroopers.
And Hezbollah’s mushrooming presence in United States’ backyard is cause for concern. Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told FoxNews.com, "With Hezbollah playing a central role in Iran's shadow war with the West, concerns over the group's presence and capabilities in Latin America are well-placed. Hezbollah's reach in the region extends beyond the tri-border area of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay -- recent cases highlighted Hezbollah activities in Venezuela and Mexico, too.”
Levitt delivered testimony this month to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Proliferation and Trade, saying, "In early September 2012, Mexican authorities, in a joint operation conducted by migration and state police, arrested three men suspected of operating a Hezbollah cell in the Yucatan area and Central America.”
One of the suspects arrested was Rafic Mohammad Labboun Allaboun, a dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen, linked to a U.S.-based Hezbollah money laundering operation.
Roger F. Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and a former U.S. ambassador, said at the congressional hearing, “Hezbollah is not a lone wolf. In this hemisphere it counts on the political, diplomatic, material and logistical support of governments – principally Venezuela and Iran – that have little in common but their hostility to the United States.”
Last week in Jerusalem, President Obama called on countries to outlaw Hezbollah. In a clear reference to the ongoing EU talks about banning Hezbollah, Obama said, “That’s why every country that values justice should call Hezbollah what it truly is: a terrorist organization.”
Only a handful of Western democracies — the U.S., the Netherlands, Canada — consider Hezbollah a full-blown terrorist organization. The United Kingdom has merely blacklisted Hezbollah’s military wing for targeting British soldiers for death in Iraq.
The EU has so far snubbed Obama administration counterterrorism officials, who have repeatedly urged the 27-member body to crack down on Hezbollah’s legal status in Europe. The results of Bulgaria’s investigation last month into the bombing of an Israeli tour bus last year have not persuaded major European powers France and Germany to designate Hezbollah a terrorist entity.
The bomb detonation in the Black Sea resort of Burgas caused the deaths of five Israelis, their Bulgarian bus driver, and injuries to 32 Israelis.
Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov declared in February that the two suspected Burgas perpetrators “were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah,” adding that investigators have found information “showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects.”
Alan Mendoza, director of the London-based think tank The Henry Jackson Society, told FoxNews.com it is "not a good rule to allow terrorist organizations to operate with free reign on your territory.” He said that “when we allowed Jihadists free reign in Europe in the 1990s, we reaped what we sowed in the 2000s.”
He cited the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, which were partially launched from Hamburg, Germany, and the terror attacks by Al Qaeda in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005.
He said the first step is to include Hezbollah in the EU terror list. Mendoza stressed that the EU needs to then carry out a concerted effort to disrupt Hezbollah networks in Europe similar to the counterterrorism strategies imposed on Al Qaeda.
Gerald Steinberg, a political studies professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel, said, "For years, Hezbollah has been using Europe to raise funds, recruit and expand its terror network with impunity. Under the guise of a ‘political wing’ that is separate from a ‘military wing,’ Hezbollah has developed a terror infrastructure in Latin America and operates as Iran's proxy in Bahrain (which, unlike Europe, issued a ban). From these bases, Hezbollah is also able to send agents to attack targets in the U.S. and American interests around the world."
Hezbollah’s potency as a lethal terrorist organization has at times superseded Al Qaeda's. National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen said last year, “When we are briefing the White House, Hezbollah, coupled with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, are the terror threats at the top of the list.”
In fact, before Al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11, Hezbollah was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist entity.
“Unless the 27 members of the European Union do the right thing immediately and ban Hezbollah -- Iran's central operational arm -- there will be more murderous attacks far worse than the bus bombing in Bulgaria," Steinberg, the Israeli political scientist, said. "Similarly, given Hezbollah's deep involvement in the violence of the Assad regime, European condemnations of these horrors are exposed as entirely hollow.”
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency documented the operational activity of 950 members of Hezbollah on German soil. German government officials have resisted outlawing Hezbollah but said if there is legal evidence of Hezbollah terror attacks it will look into a ban of Hezbollah’s military wing. The French have blocked an inclusion of Hezbollah in the EU terror list because they fear losing diplomatic leverage in Lebanon.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He writes on counterterrorism. Follow Benjamin on Twitter: @BenWeinthal
Benjamin Weinthal reports on human rights in the Middle East and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal