For Hezbollah, revenge seems to be a dish best served cold. After an explosive device concealed in a vehicle killed the Lebanese militant group's leader, Imad Mugniyah, on Feb. 12, 2008, reprisal attacks looked all but certain. Hezbollah, after all, could hardly let such a high-level assassination go unanswered. Then on June 8 of this year, nearly a decade after Mugniyah's death, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it had arrested two Hezbollah operatives in New York and Michigan. One of the suspects, Ali Kourani, appears to have played a part in planning the long-awaited retaliatory strike. The criminal complaint against him accuses Kourani of conducting surveillance against various targets, including individuals connected to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), in preparation for an attack avenging Mugniyah. Though the attack never materialized, the information Kourani passed back to Lebanon in the course of his surveillance operations could provide the basis for a future act of terrorism. The case, moreover, offers insight into Hezbollah's workings and highlights the distinctions between its tactics and those of its peers in the world of Islamist militancy.
The details outlined in the two Department of Justice complaints confirm much of what we already know about Hezbollah. First, the targets of Kourani's surveillance reflect the group's fixation on Israeli targets. From 2009 to 2015, Kourani allegedly supplied his handlers in Lebanon with documents and memory cards full of information that he had gleaned on IDF personnel in New York. He also appears to have arranged to purchase large numbers of first aid ice packs from a Chinese company for the ammonium nitrate they contain; the chemical was later used in a plot targeting Israeli tourists in Cyprus in 2012. The other suspect the Department of Justice identified, Samer el Debek, made multiple trips to Panama to conduct surveillance on the Israeli Embassy. While he was there, he also observed the U.S. Embassy and scoped out the security features around the Panama Canal. Kourani, likewise, gathered details about a U.S. government office building in Manhattan, a New York Army National Guard facility and the security features at John F. Kennedy International Airport and transmitted the information back to Lebanon.
Second, that Kourani and el Debek were involved in a dozen plots in at least five different countries illustrates the dispersion and diversity of Hezbollah's targets. If the two operatives detained in the United States offer any indication, the group — with its vast network of agents — likely has the information necessary to strike an array of sensitive international targets should the need arise. And even if Hezbollah doesn't use the intelligence Kourani and el Debek furnished to conduct an attack, their surveillance may in itself serve the group's interests. El Debek told the FBI that "Hezbollah's actions sometimes are intended to send a political message." Threats can be just as effective a means to that end as attacks. In this case, the mere act of hostile surveillance, once discovered, offered a cogent reminder that Hezbollah is still looking for opportunities to strike in places the public might least expect. Many of its past attacks have occurred in countries that don't typically experience militant Islamist violence, such as Argentina and Bulgaria. Panama, similarly, probably isn't the first place most people would think of when imagining a Hezbollah assault on Israelis.
A Different Approach
In this respect, Hezbollah's tactics diverge from those of other militant organizations, for example, the Islamic State. El Debek, in fact, took aim at the extremist group in his comments to the FBI, saying that unlike the Islamic State, "Hezbollah does not kill just to kill." The details of Hourani and el Debek's recruitment, training and missions as Hezbollah operatives reveal further divergences in the two groups' strategies.
Both men lived in the United States when Hezbollah recruited them in the mid-2000s and either already held or were eligible for U.S. passports, two factors that drew the group's interest. A U.S. passport afforded the new operatives a few conveniences, giving them easy access to targets in the United States and helping them avoid suspicion. It also facilitated travel: Hourani and el Debek visited Lebanon regularly to meet with their handlers and learn the ropes of militancy. Along with instruction on operating various weapons systems and conducting surveillance and countersurveillance, the new operatives got hands-on explosives training. Hezbollah taught el Debek and Hourani not only how to construct devices out of readily available materials such as ammonium nitrate but also how to calculate blast radius and remotely detonate the bombs. All the while, they studied Hezbollah's ideology and steeped themselves in the group's violent anti-Israel propaganda. An Israeli airstrike later destroyed Kourani's home in 2006, forcing him to evacuate Lebanon. It was clear to both operatives who their leaders and enemies were.
The Islamic State's recruitment and training procedures appear far less comprehensive by comparison based on its recent attacks. With few exceptions — namely in the Paris, Brussels and Manchester incidents — the individuals behind attacks linked to the Islamic State received no formal training in terrorist tradecraft. The three men who attacked central London earlier this month with knives and a van, for instance, evidently lacked the technical expertise to construct explosive devices, despite the wealth of instructional material online, and instead wore fake explosive belts. In other cases, poor tradecraft has diminished the effect of terrorist acts. Though Jemaah Ansharut Daulah has taken up the Islamic State's cause in Indonesia, its weak explosives have done little to inspire terror among a population that has seen much worse. And Ahmad Rahami produced as many duds as he did live devices for his string of attacks in New York and New Jersey in 2016. Outside Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State's affiliates and grassroots operatives are inconsistent at best in deploying explosives.
Its supporters are also all over the map ideologically. Investigators found evidence that Rahami took inspiration from a variety of Islamist sources, from the Islamic State and its rival, al Qaeda, to Hezbollah. Omar Mateen, the perpetrator behind the Pulse nightclub shooting, also blended the ideologies and of the opposing jihadist groups. From a tactical standpoint, of course, a terrorist act can be equally deadly no matter the ideology that motivated it. Still, it's hard for any one group to take credit for an attack when the assailant borrowed from several competing ones. Hezbollah's training regimen, command and control structure, and adherence to traditional militant tactics, on the other hand, ensure that its operatives know unequivocally whose cause they are serving.
Looking for an Opportunity
But perhaps the biggest distinction between Hezbollah and the Islamic State lies in their target selection and surveillance. The Islamic State has been content to claim attacks on a wide range of soft targets, including concerts, Christmas markets and pedestrian thoroughfares. The only thing the victims of these incidents have in common is that they fell prey to radicalized individuals driven to kill for the sake of killing, as el Debek put it. Soft targets offer Islamic State sympathizers the advantage of ease and familiarity, requiring minimal pre-operational surveillance. Hezbollah, by contrast, chooses its targets more deliberately. The group takes aim at harder targets such as diplomatic missions, U.S. law enforcement offices and high-ranking IDF personnel to get its message across. To attack these targets requires copious surveillance to identify patterns and vulnerabilities, and without the proper training, the operatives planning the attack could easily arouse the suspicions of countersurveillance assets.
Their eventual arrests notwithstanding, Hourani and el Debek demonstrated an understanding of surveillance tradecraft throughout their exploits. El Debek, for example, expressed reservations about collecting video surveillance on the Israeli Embassy in Panama, worried that he would be detected. And during a cleanup operation in Bangkok, Kourani hired a female escort to go to his safe house ahead of him to determine whether countersurveillance assets were watching the building. The two operatives at least knew the basics of surveillance, which is more than can be said of most Islamic State militants.
These differences are important to keep in mind as the Islamic State continues to dominate headlines around the world. Although the group maintains a higher profile than does Hezbollah, its poses less of a strategic threat by comparison. The Islamic State doesn't appear to have dedicated operatives collecting intelligence on targets beyond its base in Iraq and Syria, much less the kinds of compartmentalized operations that Hezbollah runs. The criminal complaints against Hourani and el Debek describe Hezbollah as a group that functions more like a state intelligence apparatus than a militant outfit. By operating discreetly, the organization affords itself greater leeway to exploit its militant capabilities for political gain. Sometimes it does so by carrying out an unexpected and well-planned attack. But more often, Hezbollah fulfills its objectives simply by reminding its enemies that it is watching.