Though delayed to obtain Congressional support, US airstrikes targeting Syria
are likely to occur in the near future. The more limited the strikes, the less
likely Syria, Iran or Hezbollah retaliate in any significant fashion. But in the
event they do decide to strike back, Hezbollah is the most likely vehicle. And
while the group could rain missiles down on northern Israel, it is more likely
to strike with reasonably deniable terrorist attacks in an effort to make it
more difficult for the West to strike back.
In fact, for some time now
Hezbollah operatives have been trolling the globe targeting Israeli tourists
abroad. Last July marked the first successful international attack by the group
in Burgas, Bulgaria, when six people, including five Israelis, were killed on a
bus leaving the airport. Just two weeks earlier, Hezbollah agent Hussam Yaacoub
was arrested in Cyprus where he was preparing for a nearly identical attack.
Yaacoub, who has since been convicted, admitted to police: “It was just
collecting information about the Jews, and this is what my organization is doing
everywhere in the world.”
Earlier, in January 2012, Thai police arrested
Hussein Atris, a Lebanese national who also carried a Swedish passport, trying
to flee the country. Intelligence officials surmised that Hezbollah had been
using Thailand as an explosives hub – Atris rented the space a year earlier –
and decided to use its on-hand operatives and material to target Israeli
This past May, three Lebanese suspects were arrested in
Nigeria, one of whom had a considerable weapons cache hidden at his home. They
were believed to be planning attacks against both Western and Israeli
According to the US Treasury Department, Hezbollah has an
“expansive global network” that “is sending money and operatives to carry out
terrorist attacks around the world.”
Now with a more direct threat to its
interests, Hezbollah is unlikely to ease up on its ongoing global
But even these latest activities – some related to Hezbollah’s
efforts to avenge the 2008 death of Imad Mughniyeh and others tied to Iran’s
shadow war with the West – while increased in pace and scope, are hardly new.
Following the assassination of the notorious Mughniyeh, Hezbollah, in
consultation with its patron Iran, merely revitalized operations, with Hezbollah
focused on “soft targets” (Israeli citizens), and Iran focused on “hard targets”
(Israeli and Western diplomats).
Hezbollah was well placed to take on
these roles, with decades of experience operating all over the world, from South
America to Southeast Asia.
Hezbollah first made a name for itself in the
1980s with large-scale suicide attacks in Lebanon, including attacks on the US
embassy and French and US military bases. This month marks the 30th anniversary
of the marine barracks bombing in Beirut.
Hezbollah then expanded its
operations further into the Middle East – Kuwait in particular – then Europe. In
1992 and 1994 Hezbollah truck bombs struck in Argentina, first hitting the
Israeli embassy and then hitting the AMIA Jewish community center. In 1996,
another large-scale attack was successful – this time targeting the Khobar
Towers military housing at a base in Saudi Arabia.
Ironically, it would
be another organization’s largescale suicide attack that, for a time, would
change Hezbollah’s calculus; following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the
United States, Hezbollah’s operational attacks declined noticeably, but the
networks were not abandoned, just refocused on fundraising and logistics.
Networks in South America embedded themselves into global narcotics trafficking
networks, shipping drugs to other Hezbollah agents across the Atlantic to West
Africa along the tenth parallel, known to smugglers as “Highway 10.” From there
drugs would travel to Europe and the Middle East, with the profits sent to
Lebanon. In one case, Hezbollah agent Ayman Joumma was laundering as much as
$200 million in drug money a month.
In North America, a case that began
in criminal enterprises led to a treasure trove of information on Hezbollah’s
global procurement network and financial fraud network, including evidence of
Hezbollah’s attempts to obtain MANPADs in addition to various other types of
military equipment from Europe and North America. The case also led to an
undercover agent being presented with high-quality forged passports from several
European countries and Canada, in addition to several samples of very
high-quality counterfeit currencies, including US dollars and
Today, Hezbollah is bogged down in Syria, where it has taken
significant losses, but it has also gone all-in on the side of the Assad regime,
to the extent that it sees its own survival wrapped up in the survival of the
Assad regime. If Western strikes are seen as limited and intended only to
punish, not remove, the Syrian regime then Hezbollah & Co.
retaliate at all. But in the event strikes are seen as seriously undermining the
regime’s continued viability, Hezbollah’s global networks could be called upon
to retaliate against Israeli or Western interests.
The author is
delivering a plenary lecture at the ICT counterterrorism summit in Herzliya on
the topic of his new book, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of