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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

February 26, 2003

Hizballah Is Moving Up the Threat Chart

Time Magazine details a new awareness of Hizballah as a terror group that is a growing threat
At first blush, it sounds like a run of the mill smuggling case. On Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina, 29-year-old Lebanese national Mohamad Hammoud will be sentenced on charges of running cigarettes from North Carolina to Michigan. But Hammoud isn't some two-bit crook trying to make a little extra cash. He's considered by the feds to be a dangerous terrorist. Hammoud has been convicted of using his illicit income to help fuel Hizballah, the Lebanon-based, anti-Israel terrorist army. For his crime, he faces up to 155 years in prison. Federal prosecutors are convinced he was a young extremist militant before he gained entry to the U.S. through Venezuela in 1992 with a $200 fake visa. They maintain that he stayed in the U.S. by entering into first one, and then another, phony marriage to American women — all the while still engaged to another woman in Lebanon.

For most Americans, Osama bin Laden is the frightening face of international terrorism. But lately, Hizballah is almost as high on the feds' threat meter. "Al Qaeda has not been the only threat. Prior to September 11th, Hizballah had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group," FBI Director Robert Mueller said last year. Just three weeks ago, two alleged Hizballah soldiers were among several individuals indicted in Detroit — also in a cigarette smuggling scheme that the government said is linked to Hammoud's. Prosecutors allege that they, too, were raising money for Hizballah. And TIME has learned that the FBI is investigating the activities of hundreds of suspected Hizballah members or sympathizers in the U.S. — including several dozen émigrés believed to be hard-core Hizballah believers. The investigation is spread over many cities including New York, Los Angeles and Boston. "You could almost pick your city and you would probably have a presence," says one knowledgeable law enforcement official. The concern is that Hizballah — among other groups — may have U.S.-based sleepers in place not only to raise money, but also to pounce with an attack when the timing is right.

Hizballah is certainly a menacing terrorist group with a known track record of brutal attacks all over the world. The organization's American victims in Lebanon range from Navy diver Robert Stethem — his murdered body was thrown out the window of a TWA airliner in a 1985 hijacking in Beirut — and CIA station chief William Buckley the same year, to 241 killed in a 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine headquarters that led Ronald Reagan to withdraw U.S. forces from Lebanon. The group was also blamed for lethal 1990s bombings of Jewish targets in Argentina — showing that its deadly reach extends far beyond the Mideast.

Attacks like these help account for a $25 million bounty the U.S. has placed on the head of Hizballah's Imad Mugniyeh, who is listed among America's 22 most wanted terrorists and is believed to be hiding out in Lebanon. "Hizballah may be the 'A team' of terrorists, and maybe al-Qaeda is actually the 'B team.' And they're on the list and their time will come," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said last September. "They have a blood debt to us,... and we're not going to forget it." Added an old counter-terrorism hand: "They're very good and very deadly. For whatever reason, they've stopped killing Americans." But if they decide to start again, U.S. officials dread their professionalism, training and discipline — and their penchant for particularly deadly suicide attacks. "They're military trained. They keep their military skills up," said Chris Swecker, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Charlotte office and a key player in the Hammoud case. [more]