assessments

Hezbollah: Gaming Out a Threat Matrix

13 MINS READJul 20, 2006 | 00:43 GMT
By Fred Burton Over the past week, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has hit Hezbollah hard. The militant group's headquarters building in southern Beirut, Lebanon, has been utterly destroyed and its command-and-control network, training camps and arms-storage depots have been struck repeatedly in bombing raids. Israel's air campaign is geared toward dismantling Hezbollah and crippling its ability to conduct military operations targeting Israel in the future. Should the Israelis invade Lebanon and begin to systematically eradicate Hezbollah on the ground, Hezbollah likely would stand and fight for a time, but there is little chance it would prevail in a toe-to-toe military confrontation against IDF. Its only realistic chance for long-term survival would be to adopt the strategy used by Saddam Hussein's forces following the U.S. invasion: Fade into the woodwork and launch an insurgency. Such a campaign would take Hezbollah back to its roots: During the early 1980s, it operated as an insurgent organization. Should this occur, it is entirely possible Hezbollah also would return to the tactics it used at that time (which, by the way, also have been used by insurgents in Iraq): bombings, assassinations and kidnappings. However, the difference between the Hezbollah of the early 1980s and the Hezbollah of today is that over the decades — as it matured into a political party with a powerful militia — it also planted roots far afield. The organization today has an international network of cells, which have carried out bombings and other attacks far beyond the Middle East in the past. If history serves as a guide, those cells conceivably could be called upon again to take action. We must be clear on this point: We are not predicting any imminent attacks by Hezbollah forces in the West or in other parts of the world. Whether such strikes would be in the group's interest — or whether they would be permitted by Iran, which has trained and maintained close contact with the commanders of Hezbollah's military wing — remains a matter of serious debate. There are very good arguments as to why Iran would refuse to authorize such attacks at this time, or even attempt to dissuade Hezbollah from mounting them, as it considers its own position and ambitions within the region and the wider Muslim world. There also are plausible arguments that Hezbollah, which has a long history of acting on motives of retribution and revenge, might not be held in check by the Iranians. Some of these are strategic questions, the answers to which may be determined by events that are still in play. There are, however, some things that can be known definitively. One of these is that Hezbollah has used — and appears to maintain — an "off the shelf" model of operational planning. This means that hypothetical targets are selected and initial surveillance conducted without any violence necessarily ensuing. The advantage of such a planning model is that it allows the group to strike hard and fast once a "go forward" decision has been made. The disadvantage, however — and this is key — is that pre-existing plans must, by necessity, be dusted off (however briefly) and surveillance must be updated before an actual strike takes place. And it is during this stage that cells become most vulnerable to detection. If there is any strength in logic (and we believe there is), logic dictates that, with the situation unfolding along the Israeli-Lebanese border, Hezbollah units overseas likely are updating surveillance on potential targets now — whether any decision to move against those targets has been made or not. Hezbollah: The Network Any discussion of potential targets, however, must first take into consideration the shape of Hezbollah's global network: where it has presence, what it considers to be high-value operations and where there are targets it can afford to strike. Hezbollah has received hundreds of millions of dollars over the years from its patrons in Iran and Syria, but it also brings in millions of dollars from a significant business network that spans much of the globe. Hezbollah has a long-standing and well-known presence in the tri-border region of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, where the U.S. government estimates it has earned tens of millions of dollars from selling electronic goods, counterfeit luxury items and pirated software, movies and music. It also has an even more profitable network in West Africa that deals in "blood diamonds" from places like Sierra Leone and the Republic of the Congo. Cells in Asia procure and ship much of the counterfeit material sold elsewhere; nodes in North America deal in smuggled cigarettes, baby formula and counterfeit designer goods, among other things. In the United States, Hezbollah also has been involved in smuggling pseudoephedrine and selling counterfeit Viagra, and it has played a significant role in the production and worldwide propagation of counterfeit currencies. The business empire of the Shiite organization also extends into the drug trade. The Bekaa Valley, which it controls, is a major center for growing poppies and cannabis; here also, heroin is produced from raw materials arriving from places like Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle. Hezbollah earns large percentages of the estimated $1 billion drug trade flowing out of the Bekaa. Much of the hashish and heroin emanating from there eventually arrive in Europe — where Hezbollah members also are involved in smuggling, car theft and distribution of counterfeit goods and currency. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government has targeted the financial networks of Hezbollah along with those of al Qaeda and other groups. Federal authorities have had some success in locating and seizing Hezbollah assets, and several Hezbollah suspects have been arrested in North Carolina and Michigan; nevertheless, the flow of illicit funds has not been completely stemmed. There are indications, however, that these efforts have cut into the profitability of Hezbollah activities in North America and South America and rendered the organization more dependent on nodes in places like West Africa. For the most part, the cells beyond the Middle East are used as financial assets, but they also can be called upon to assist Hezbollah's military wing in conducting militant operations. For example, the Bangkok, Thailand, node assisted in the preparations and logistics for the 1988 hijacking of Kuwait Airways Flight 422, which was hijacked shortly after it departed Bangkok. Likewise, the node in the tri-border region in South America was called upon to aid in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
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It is noteworthy that these operations were assisted by the local Hezbollah infrastructure (and Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security, through the Iranian embassies in Bangkok and Buenos Aires) but were not actually conducted by them. To provide plausible deniability, the actual attack teams in the past generally were deployed from outside the targeted country. Serious Strikes, Personal Motives Following Hezbollah's 1983 strikes against the U.S. Embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut, a closely related Shiite organization in Kuwait carried out a series of attacks — including a truck bombing targeting the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City. Kuwaiti authorities later arrested and convicted 17 Shia for involvement in that plot. This group became known as the "Kuwaiti 17" or the "Dawa 17." Among its members was Mustafa Youssef Badreddin, a cousin and brother-in-law of senior Hezbollah operative Imad Mugniyah, who has been described alternately as the head of Hezbollah's security apparatus, as the group's chief of intelligence and as its chief of special operations. Securing Badreddin's freedom became a personal cause for Mugniyah, who directed Hezbollah's military wing to undertake a rash of operations for that end. These operations often involved Hezbollah resources outside of Lebanon. Demands for the freedom of the Dawa 17 became standard in Hezbollah's hijackings and other activities. (Badreddin escaped from prison after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.) This pattern of personally motivated strikes continued. Israel's assassination of Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi in February 1992 was followed by the bombing of the Israei Embassy in Buenos Aires in March — immediately after the end of the 30-day mourning period. And in July 1994 — after the IDF had killed dozens of Hezbollah members in a strike against the organization's Ein Dardara training camp — Hezbollah struck again at Jewish targets overseas, with the vehicle bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires and the attacks, eight days later, against the Israeli Embassy in London and a Jewish charity in north London. The pattern of attacks is noteworthy now, in light of recent Israeli efforts to kill Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Whether an unsuccessful attempt would be sufficient, in Hezbollah's thinking, to have set the clock ticking for a reprisal is not yet clear. "Off The Shelf" Planning After the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, a team of experienced U.S. post-blast investigators was dispatched to assist the Argentine government with its investigation. One of their key findings was that, due to the short lapse between the assassination of Musawi and the attack on the embassy in Buenos Aires, the target likely had been selected in advance and most of the operational planning was done well before the operation was authorized. Then, when the "launch" order was sent, the attack plan was quickly updated and executed. Observation of known Hezbollah operatives since that time, by U.S. and allied government agencies, has affirmed that this appears to remain the organization's preferred method of operation. In the 12 years since its last overseas attack, Hezbollah operatives have been seen conducting surveillance in many parts of the world (including the United States) — at times, triggering arrests — but no attacks have ensued. Therefore, it is believed that these operatives have been carrying out preliminary operational planning for hypothetical, future attacks. It is believed that the leadership of Hezbollah's military wing has a large selection of "off-the-shelf" plans that it can choose from should it decide to mount attacks anywhere in the world. In all probability, targets for "off-the-shelf" plans already have been mapped. Using the Buenos Aires and London attacks as a gauge, it is believed that Hezbollah is able to carry out strikes within four to five weeks, once a decision to carry out an attack has been made. Implications There is a distinct possibility that, with the heavy strikes launched against Hezbollah over the past week — far worse than that visited upon the group in the 1994 attack against Ein Dardara — Hezbollah might consider ordering reprisals against pre-selected Israeli or Jewish targets in various places around the world. If that hypothesis is true, it is logical that Hezbollah operatives would be working now to update and execute their existing attack plans. An important part of that process would involve additional surveillance of targets — to ensure that nothing had changed since the last round of surveillance was completed and that no recent security countermeasures have been added that could thwart the plan as written. This activity is likely under way, regardless of whether a "go" order has been issued. Given that Hezbollah has been known to use "off-the-shelf" plans, its operatives worldwide could be expected to update strike plans during times of heightened tensions — a form of contingency planning, if you will. Thus, it stands to reason that Hezbollah operatives would be actively conducting surveillance at this moment. During periods of surveillance — which come during various stages of an attack cycle — operatives must commit certain kinds of acts that make them vulnerable to detection. If a potential target set can be determined, specific industries or businesses — as well as diplomatic targets and Jewish nongovernmental organizations — can set up appropriate security practices and countermeasures to mitigate their risks. In sum, law enforcement personnel and corporations and managers who are responsible for the security of a facility or person that conceivably might be targeted by Hezbollah should find countersurveillance and surveillance detection assets especially valuable during the next several weeks. Mapping Potential Targets As we have noted, Hezbollah has a global network that stretches into South America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Given the situation unfolding along the Israeli-Lebanese border, we believe that, should the organization choose the path of terrorism — the traditional weapon of a weak foe against a much stronger opponent — Hezbollah would strike at Israeli targets abroad. Historically, the group has had much greater success with attacks in the developing world — where weapons and materiel were readily available — than in more industrialized and secure regions like Europe. The size differential between the vehicle-borne bombs employed in 1994 in Buenos Aires (where Hezbollah was able to purchase explosives commercially) and the smaller device operatives were forced to use in London (where explosives were difficult to obtain) is quite dramatic. Additionally, authorities in places like the United States and Europe will be stepping up their monitoring of known and suspected Hezbollah members — thus mitigating the risks of attack in those regions relative to the risks in the developing world. Also arguing against a Hezbollah strike in North America is the severe backlash the group could expect to its financial operations. Key business hubs, such as the trade in illicit diamonds in West Africa, also would need to be protected. Therefore, the risk of a Hezbollah strike logically would be greatest in other parts of the developing world, where the overall backlash to the organization's networks would be less severe. Again, this argument assumes that Hezbollah both will find it necessary to strike out at foreign targets and is not restrained by either of its state sponsors. Should that be the case, however, logic argues against another strike in Argentina; with Hezbollah already having attacked there twice, security would be stiffened. Instead, strikes might come in nearby countries like Paraguay (where Hezbollah suspects were arrested while casing the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Asuncion, in 1998) or Brazil. Beyond South America, there are other countries that have strong ties to Israel — such as South Africa and Kenya — which also present themselves as potential targets. These are sufficiently removed from Hezbollah's lucrative diamond business in West Africa to be safe for action, and they are target-rich environments. The same argument applies to Bangkok as well, where Hezbollah has conducted operations before.

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