While the repercussions of Hezbollah's attack on northern Israel, which left eight IDF soldiers dead and two more taken prisoner, continue to mount, the Lebanese terrorist organization seems determined to maintain its reputation as the world's second most dangerous terrorist group. But as Israel continues to respond to Hezbollah's attacks on its territory (including the recent firing of Katyusha rockets at Nahariya that left two dead and eleven wounded), it is important for Americans to recognize that this organization is not just an enemy of Israel.
Hezbollah was founded by Lebanese Khomeinists and members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Lebanon in the 1980s. Prior to September 11, it was supported by Syria and Iran and was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist group. Hezbollah is believed responsible for having taken part in the simultaneous suicide bombing of U.S. Marine barracks and French paratrooper headquarters in Beirut on April 18, 1983, an attack that killed 241 Marines and 58 French soldiers, the highest loss of life among servicemen either nation had suffered since the Vietnam and Algerian wars, respectively. According to press reports and government documents, it was the execution and impact of these attacks, combined with the subsequent withdrawal of the U.S.-led Multinational Forces from Lebanon, which later served as an inspiration to Osama bin Laden.
References to cooperation between al Qaeda and Hezbollah abound in the September 11 Commission's final report, suggesting that the boundary between Shiite and Sunni is not as pronounced as some analysts and academics might otherwise believe. Or as the commission itself noted within the context of cooperation between al Qaeda and Hezbollah's Iranian masters, "In late 1991 or 1992, discussions in Sudan between al Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support — even if only training — for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States."
The commission's final report goes on to detail how several of al Qaeda's "top military committee members and several operatives who were involved with the Kenya cell [which later perpetrated the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi] . . . were sent to Hezbollah camps in Lebanon."
Other references of al Qaeda cooperation with Hezbollah in the final report include the attendance of Hamas and Hezbollah delegations in bin Laden's proto-al Qaeda Islamic Army Shura in Sudan, continued contacts — as well as "advice and training" — between senior al Qaeda and Hezbollah operatives over the years even after bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, and "circumstantial evidence that senior Hezbollah operatives were closely tracking the travel of some of these future muscle hijackers into Iran in November 2000," with the lattermost being an area that the commission believed "requires further investigation by the U.S. government."
No discussion of the continuing threat posed to U.S. interests by Hezbollah would be complete without a mention of Imad Mughniyeh. A former member of Yasser Arafat's Force 17 bodyguard unit, Mughniyeh has served as Hezbollah's operations chief for more than two decades, during which time he was linked to nearly every act of Hezbollah and Iranian-sponsored terrorism worldwide, including the Beirut bombings, the hijacking of TWA 847, and the kidnapping and murder of U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic officials in Lebanon, the bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994. (He was also suspected of direct involvement in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia.) More recently, the Daily Telegraph reported in April 2004 that "Intelligence officials in Iraq have uncovered evidence that Mughniyeh has been helping to train the self-styled al-Mahdi army set up by Moqtada al-Sadr," whose followers are believed to have been responsible for the recent outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq.
In his book "Inside Al Qaeda," Rohan Gunaratna alleges that Mughniyeh "helped al Qaeda to develop its agent-handling systems" and that it is the CIA's nightmare "that Osama, the leading Sunni terrorist, and Mughniyeh, the leading Shia terrorist, would combine their forces." While such an ecumenical terrorist alliance has yet to emerge, the informal understanding that exists between the two groups appears to serve their purposes well enough for the time being. In August 2003, CNN cited "U.S. and coalition intelligence officials" as alleging that Mughniyeh had "forged an alliance with al Qaeda members against U.S. forces in Iraq."
As Israel continues to engage in military operations against Hezbollah in the hopes of retrieving its captive soldiers, it is important for U.S. observers and policymakers to keep in mind that the danger posed by Hezbollah is not merely an outgrowth of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but is the result of a calculated design by a ruthless terrorist organization that has killed Americans in the past and continues to support and assist those organizations that seek to kill Americans today.
In the case of Hezbollah, Israel's enemy is our own.
By Dan Darling