Colonel's Corner: Hezbollah — Unstoppable?

July 18, 2006

The ongoing and escalating violence in Lebanon and Israel showcases for the American public what many in the counterterrorism world have known for over 20 years — that Hezbollah is a potent, dangerous force. In fact, many knowledgeable counterterrorism professionals have long considered Hezbollah to be the "A-Team" of terrorism. Forget Al Qaeda. Hezbollah was killing Americans long before al-Qaeda was even conceived by Osama bin Laden and associates.

Born in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley in the early 1980's with the help and support of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah has morphed from strictly being a terrorist organization to now being a political reality in Lebanese politics. It has 14 seats in the 128-member Lebanese Parliament and two members sitting in cabinet positions within the government. Along the way, they managed to: twice blow up the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon, killing 19 Americans; kill 241 Marines and sailors at Beirut's airport complex; hijack TWA Flight 847 and summarily execute U.S. Navy sailor Robert Stethem; participate in the bombing of a U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans; kidnap and kill Bill Buckley, the CIA's Chief of Station in Lebanon; kidnap and kill U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Rich Higgins, who was serving as a U.N. observer... and the list goes on.

Now, as Hezbollah unleashes volleys of rockets onto Israel, Americans are getting a firsthand look at who they are and what they are capable of doing within their own immediate sphere. What is not seen in the current news, however, is the global reach that Hezbollah enjoys. Much as the United States has forces deployed throughout the world, all of whom are quite visible to those around them, Hezbollah has its own forces deployed globally. Unlike our forces, however, Hezbollah's operate as clandestine cells. Credible intelligence sources identify Hezbollah placement in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, and here in our own hemisphere — including the United States. In fact, FBI Director Robert Mueller testified before Congress earlier this year that seven members of Hezbollah had been captured while infiltrating across the border from Mexico into the United States. It's unlikely that they were coming to look for work opportunities like many illegal aliens. Instead, they were coming to join other Hezbollah operatives already in the U.S., some of whom have been here for as long as 20 years.

What is Hezbollah doing here? Again, knowledgeable sources say they have two objectives. The first is to raise money for Hezbollah, and that is borne out in the arrest and conviction of a number of individuals who were getting money through criminal activities and sending it to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The second objective, however, is the more sinister one — long term reconnaissance of potential targets and possible planning to strike them.

As those following the ongoing news know from constant reports and analysis, Hezbollah's militant, terrorist arm is supported totally by Iran and Syria.

Sophisticated rocket weaponry, including the guided missile which struck an Israeli warship off the Lebanese coast in the early days of the fighting, and now reports of long-range, precision missiles being seen in the hands of Hezbollah, are indicators of how Iran uses Hezbollah to achieve its own aims in the region. And Americans should well understand that it is the same Hezbollah that Iran can call on to activate terrorist cell actions around the world, including here in the United States, when it so desires. Accordingly, as distant as it is and despite the fact that no U.S. forces are directly involved, the ongoing fighting has direct implications for the U.S. To wit, the demise of Hezbollah's militant arm, as called for by the United Nations in UN Resolution 1559, could be a small step towards dismantling some of its terrorist cells around the world.

What then should the U.S. role be in the ongoing conflict? First, it's important to note that the United Nations has had a presence in the tenuous Lebanese/Israeli border area since 1978 — the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). UNIFIL's mandate has been to “restore peace and security in the border area” and to “assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area.” Talk of 'sending' the U.N. in to ameliorate the situation is specious. They're already there, and the fact that Hezbollah has been firing rockets from the very area that UNIFIL is responsible for should be a stark indicator that the U.N. is not up to the task.

Second, it's important to note that neither the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on their own or the Lebanese Army on its own have the power to dismantle Hezbollah. Unlike the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1982, an assault which moved quickly to Beirut, an IDF assault into Lebanon these days would result in fierce fighting along the way and a protracted effort against embedded insurgents, much as the U.S. is facing in Iraq. Similarly, the current Lebanese Army doesn't have the military strength or experience to successfully engage Hezbollah. They could have success, however, with appropriate military and material support from the outside. Where that would come from, and how it would be effected, are the key questions. And they are the very questions which those seeking a solution to the ongoing conflict should be focused on. The dismantling of Hezbollah's militant arm is the dominant issue. When it happens, the influence of Syria, Iran, and others bent on the wholesale destruction of Israel will fade dramatically. The U.S. should work diligently to those ends.

Lt. Col. Bill Cowan is a FOX News Channel contributor and internationally-acknowledged expert in the areas of terrorism, homeland security, intelligence and military special operations. He spent 11 years doing undercover operations in Lebanon against Hezbollah and Syria. Read his full bio here.