(photo credit: AP [file])
Hizbullah has a greater capability of staging a mass casualty terrorist attack in the US than al-Qaida does, and military action against Iran might trigger exactly that, according to a top counter-terrorism official with the New York police.
"Hizbullah at the strategic level, with its state sponsors, more or less decided not to attack the United States interests directly in the continental United States at all," Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism Richard Falkenrath of the New York Police Department told the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs this week. "But our assessment is, if they ever change their minds, they have the capacity to inflict terrible damage on the United States, and I worry about that a lot. We haven't seen it yet, but I don't like to be in a position where our defense lies in the strategic decision of a terrorist organization."
Falkenrath added that he had seen various intelligence assessments on what would cause Hizbullah to change that strategic decision and that "direct US military operations against the Hizbullah leadership are regarded as one," as well as attacks against its state sponsor, Iran.
He suggested that the Lebanese terrorist group has focused its violent acts abroad because "they would have too much heat on them if they did attack the United States, and they can accomplish most of their interests without it."
Another terrorism expert, Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, said Hizbullah had so far calculated that it wouldn't be worth the blowback from the United States when its main agenda focuses on Israel.
"From their point of view, the United States is a place you raise money and can use for propaganda," he explained.
Byman, who spoke at a Brookings event on Iran this week, said that even with the chaos there over the presidential election, he didn't expect to see Teheran's support to terrorist groups abroad diminish in the near term. With many of the more moderate voices in Iran's ruling institutions siding with the opposition, and thereby finding themselves ostracized or marginalized, he contended that the hardliners have only strengthened their position.
"If you think about the people sitting around the table," he said, "some of the more pragmatic voices are going to be missing or weaker."
So long as Hizbullah is dormant, Falkenrath assessed that al-Qaida remained the most serious external terrorist threat to America, and that the greatest risk for the execution of a high-casualty event came from "European-descent radicals who have sought training in Pakistan and are somehow reinserted into their homelands." Should they infiltrate American territory, Falkenrath said, New York City was still their destination of choice.
"New York remains at the very top of their list, both symbolically and in terms of physical consequences of a successful attack," he said. "New York, unfortunately, has a very special place in the extremist mindset."
Falkenrath, a former member of the Bush White House's homeland security team, criticized the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress for not sufficiently emphasizing terrorism prevention in their budget priorities.
"We've seen these budgets slowly trickle down. The levels are shrinking; the competition for grant funding is becoming more fierce; and, frankly, the bureaucracy and the bureaucratic process that we have to go through to actually get the monies dispersed and spend them is becoming ever more onerous," he said, noting that the difficulties began under the Bush administration.
Instead, he said that the federal government had been shifting its focus to preparedness when it came to responding to a large attack or disaster.
"I think a pure focus on preparedness and getting ready to clean up the consequences of an attack should not crowd out the things that the country, and particularly the American law enforcement community, can do to protect the country in the first place," Falkenrath maintained.
As an example, he pointed to bio-detection and bio-surveillance, which he claimed had become "a distant, low priority at the federal level," where once it had led the way to providing state-of-the-art and other equipment to monitor the New York subway and other public places for radiation to detect exposure in the event of an attack.
That project, he said, had been eliminated under the Obama administration's 2010 homeland security budget, which passed the US House of Representatives on Wednesday.
However, before the vote, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) proposed an amendment allocating $40 million for that initiative, according to Congressional staff, which was adopted overwhelming by the House.
The bill, which also includes $18 million for a security grant program which provides funds to many Jewish institutions around the country, still needs to be passed by the Senate and signed by the president.