WASHINGTON - The warning last month from Representative Peter King, the
chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Homeland
Security, was blunt: An investigation by his staff had determined that
"hundreds" of people he described as "Iranian and Hezbollah terrorists"
were in the United States.
But interviews with US intelligence
and law enforcement officials, as well as private experts, about the
Iranian-sponsored group paint a more nuanced picture. There is a threat,
though whether it is imminent or extensive is far from clear, they say.
alarming part of the officials' assessments focuses on the apparent
surveillance missions that Iranian diplomats and possible Hezbollah
operatives have been seen conducting at sensitive targets such as New
York subways and bridges, and at nuclear power plants and tunnels
elsewhere in the United States in the past 10 years.
At the same
time, US officials caution that Hezbollah has largely avoided attacking
US targets since it carried out mass-casualty bombings in the 1980s
against the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut. One reason may be
that it does not want to endanger its lucrative North American
The renewed focus on Hezbollah - which
US counter-terrorism officials regard as the most potent and disciplined
of Islamic terror groups, even more so than al-Qaida - comes amid a
growing confrontation over Iran's nuclear program.
An Israeli or
US strike on Iran's nuclear sites could prompt Hezbollah to change
strategy, moving from surveillance and fund-raising in North America to
launching retaliatory attacks on either country, several US officials
said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss security matters.Fears of Iranian retaliation to strike on its nuclear program
leaders, while acknowledging the likelihood of retaliation by Iran or
its agents, have sometimes downplayed the risk of a broader conflict.
surveillance missions in the United States have been scattered over a
period of years. But, when combined with a handful of recent attacks or
plots around the world, they have contributed to an assessment within
the US government that considerable violence directed against US targets
- at overseas installations or businesses, or at American soil - could
follow any strike on Iran's nuclear program.
US intelligence and
law enforcement officials, along with private experts, say there is
little doubt Hezbollah has an extensive network of supporters,
fund-raisers and potential operatives in the United States.
enforcement official said that the New York Police Department, whose
monitoring of Muslim communities has prompted political controversy,
believes that between 200 and 300 Hezbollah sympathizers live in New
York City. Between 10 and 20 of those are relatives of Hezbollah leaders
or fighters who were killed in action, said the official.
NYPD's knowledge of Hezbollah's infrastructure is sufficiently detailed
that it has identified four Lebanese towns - Bint, Jbeil, Yanoun and
Yatar - to which suspected sympathizers of the group have ties. At least
a handful of people in New York connected with Hezbollah have also
undergone military training in Lebanon, the official said.
preliminary report issued by investigators for King, a New York
Republican, said that pinpointing the number of Hezbollah operatives
inside the United States was difficult because of the group's
operational security. The committee report nonetheless cited the
estimates of "some officials" that the group "likely" has "several
thousand sympathetic donors" in the United States as well as "hundreds"
But other officials familiar with up-to-date US
intelligence on Hezbollah said there was a big difference between a
Hezbollah "supporter" and someone who would be willing to engage in
violent activity. The officials said such distinctions have been blurred
in public discussions about the domestic threat the group allegedly
poses.Numerous criminal cases have been brought against alleged agents
the years, US federal authorities have brought numerous criminal cases
against alleged Hezbollah operatives, most of them related to
fund-raising or other support activity rather than plotting against US
The access to potential funding sources is one reason
why Hezbollah has avoided targeting the United States or its interests,
said Evan Kohlmann, an investigator who monitors militant websites for
the government and private businesses.
"For the last 15 years, Hezbollah has regarded North America as a piggy bank," Kohlmann said.
Reliable figures for Hezbollah's fund-raising, which is done covertly, are not available.
the United States is such a critical source for funds and equipment
such as night-vision devices that might be useful to its paramilitary
operations, Kohlmann said, Hezbollah might be reluctant to embark on
attacks inside the United States - even if prodded to do so by patrons
in Iran. Attacks against US targets overseas might be more likely, he
Kohlmann said that Hezbollah regards the US as such an
important supply point that the group supposedly has planted its own
"procurement manager" somewhere in North America.
heightening US officials' concern about Hezbollah-related attacks is the
accumulation of accounts of alleged attempts by Iranian operatives to
"case" potential US targets.
According to a New York law
enforcement source, there have been several notable incidents of this
nature involving individuals who turned out to be accredited to Iran's
In a 2003 incident, New York police patrolmen
observed a group of men videotaping the tracks out of the front window
of a subway train traveling between Queens and Manhattan at 2 a.m. The
Iranians were arrested, but later released after they produced
diplomatic credentials. The law enforcement source said they were asked
to leave the country.
In a 2006 incident, the captain of a
sightseeing boat became suspicious after a group of Iranians taking his
cruise along the East River broke into two smaller groups and started
snapping pictures of the undersides of the Brooklyn and Manhattan
bridges. The six men all turned out to be covered by diplomatic
immunity, the law enforcement source said.
In September 2008,
three more Iranians with diplomatic status were observed taking pictures
of rail tracks going into Grand Central Station that are not routinely
accessible to members of the public.
And in a 2010 incident,
security personnel at a heliport near Wall Street observed a group of
men who claimed to be affiliated with an Iranian broadcasting network
taking pictures of the framework supporting the heliport deck which was
cantilevered over the river.
A federal official said that similar
surveillance incidents had been reported in other cities such as Los
Angeles and Las Vegas. Targets under observation included nuclear power
plants, tunnels and casinos.
Some of the officials said that
anxieties about possible Hezbollah- or Iranian-related attacks were
increased in the wake of an alleged plot by Iranian agents to kill the
Saudi ambassador in Washington and other alleged Iranian plots uncovered
recently in Thailand, India, Azerbaijan and Georgia.