Is America's view of Iran and Hezbollah dangerously out of date?

There's been an uptick in attempted, actual attacks on and assassinations of Israeli, Jewish, U.S., and Western targets from New Delhi to Tbilisi recently.

Iran denies and dissociates itself from these incidents, but allegations against Iran and its proxies persist from multiple and varied sources.

Collectively, these events form a dangerous tapestry, which should serve as spur to the United States to think carefully about its homeland security posture, and how it might best be reinforced, should these types of activities continue or escalate, with potentially serious implications for this country.

As a step in that direction, the House Homeland Security Committee will convene a hearing Wednesday on the threat posed to the U.S. homeland by Iran/Hezbollah.

Remember that Hezbollah once, not that long ago, held the mantle of deadliest terrorist organization: it killed more Americans (including 241 Marines in a single bombing in 1983) than any other terrorist organization prior to 9/11, when it was surpassed by Al Qaeda.

For the past decade, U.S. Government analysts have understandably focused on Al Qaeda, resulting in a lesser reservoir of U.S. intelligence on, and perhaps even a bit of a blind spot about, Hezbollah. Yet Hezbollah’s activities have grown global, ranging from West Africa to the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.

According to the House Homeland Committee’s announcement, the witness panel (full disclosure: witness Matthew Levitt also serves as Senior Fellow at our Institute) will “focus on Iran’s primary terrorism proxies, including Hezbollah, which already has a robust network within the U.S., and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps” — against a concerning backdrop: the recently thwarted Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States; and the Director of National Intelligence’s assessment just weeks ago, that Iran is “now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States.”

Chairman King’s leadership on this matter is laudable, in part because the lenses through which the United States has historically understood and reacted to Iran and its proxies may be out of date.

Under present circumstances, characterized by a relatively high degree of tension—with Iran’s nuclear weapons program under both scrutiny and sanctions, the danger of such a lag is exacerbated, and the prospect of re-examining first principles is welcome.

Sound policy requires sound assumptions, after all. Yet we may be at risk on this count, which means that risks may materialize and surprise us, while opportunities to minimize and mitigate same may be missed.

“Redlines” are at the heart of the matter, as concerns both threat and response.

For years, a series of operating presumptions prevailed. Among them: that the United States homeland, although a venue for terrorist fundraising and criminal activity, was not itself perceived as fair game as subject of attack; that the terrorist ideologues would not tie themselves too closely to criminal counterparts; and that Shia and Sunni forces would not cooperate.

These and other assumptions no longer apply as they once may have, and the ramifications are disturbing.

Start with the convergence of crime and terror. Hezbollah’s nexus with criminal activity is, notably, greater than that of any other terrorist organization. These interconnections, including with gangs and cartels, give rise to the potential for outsourcing, and open up new avenues and networks to facilitate terrorist travel, logistics, recruitment, and operations.

The situation is not entirely without upside, however: from the point of view of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement authorities, these various points of intersection with criminal networks provide additional opportunities to exploit (for collection and other purposes).

At the same time, Shia and Sunni forces are, in fact, cooperating, notwithstanding that this may be counterintuitive or surprising to some.

Law enforcement officers confirm that ends are trumping means, as Shia members of Lebanese Hezbollah and Sunni (Saudi/Iraqi) militant forces, for example, share and complement each other’s skill sets and human resources.

Having said that, it is important not to overstate the case. Indeed, even within Shia circles, there is competition — for instance, there is debate as to who calls the shots and when, and analysts have also observed more competition than cooperation to date between Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force.

The potential consequences of a reversal of this equation, however, are sufficiently potent as to bear (at minimum) red-teaming and the production of additional threat assessments, to include modalities of attack (such as cyber) and potential consequences.

Turning from capability to intent, law enforcement officials likewise have noted significant terrorist interest in and study of the range of methods and means used to smuggle narcotics and people from Mexico into the United States.

Taken in tandem with the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, such interest is not academic, and all it takes is one bad apple.

Once stateside, opportunities abound to blend in, plot, and plan. On the first point (integration), consider Los Angeles, which is home to the largest Iranian population outside of Iran itself. The picture becomes even more fraught when vulnerabilities are overlaid. Based on recent activity, the Los Angeles Police Department has elevated the Government of Iran and its proxies to a Tier One threat.

The city of Los Angeles contains the most active Hezbollah presence in the United States.

Jewish communities and facilities situated throughout the United States, for example, constitute relatively soft targets — and so too outside the country, as events in France this week so tragically evidence.

It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up the flashpoints that could ensue here at home if certain actions were taken against Iran (even if not undertaken by the United States itself).

Given this convergence of threat vectors accompanied by concerning indicators of adversary intent, coupled with significant vulnerability, what can and should we do?

- Information gathering and sharing is crucial to planning and preparation: keeping eyes and ears open at home and abroad to glean indications and warnings (I&W) of attack will be fundamental, as will outreach to and partnership with state and local authorities and communities, where the rubber meets the road.

- Searching for I&W will require fresh thinking that identifies and pursues links and patterns not previously established by U.S. officials. In part, this entails hitting the beat hard, with local police tapping informants and known criminals for leads.

The flip side should be conversations with respected leaders in the community, to keep channels open, build trust, and foster mutual assistance. These discussions should take place across the board, and not just in major metropolitan centers.

- Disruption should be our determined goal — no doubt Iran and its proxies are expecting as much.

Ironically, the post-9/11 shift of U.S. law enforcement resources away from drugs and thugs toward counterterrorism may be in need of some recalibration, precisely to serve counterterrorist aims, as criminal and terrorist networks increasingly support and reinforce one another.

Lines in the sand may shift, and the maxim “never say never” is prudent philosophy.

Taking the time and making the effort now to understand Iran (its Quds Force, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, etc.) and Hezbollah, and react accordingly, is an investment that is primed to yield substantial returns.

It is important to further peel back and comb through the lessons learned about current tactics, techniques, and procedures as manifested in the spate of recent incidents referenced above.

Refining our understandings in this way will assist with the creation and activation of domestic tripwires designed to keep us left of boom. Though attacks on the United States by Iran and or its proxies have so far been limited to U.S. interests and personnel abroad, the distinction between here and “over there” is no longer as operative as it once was.

The fronts are intertwined, and some analysts have characterized the situation overseas as a “shadow war” between Israel and Iran, with their respective proxies fighting it out, with varying degrees of competence and lethality, in settings from Baku to Bangkok.

Iran and its allies have a penchant, furthermore, for conflating the United States and our ally Israel in the context of Israeli contingency and attack plans, which provides all the more reason to adopt a careful stance, informed by the best possible intelligence, both foreign and domestic.

Now is the time to think through, and operationalize, U.S. strategy – to puncture the threat balloon before it ever goes up.

Frank J. Cilluffo directs the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI). Sharon L. Cardash serves as HSPI’s associate director. Michael Downing is Deputy Chief and Commanding Officer of the Counterterrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department, and an HSPI Senior Fellow.