Monday, August 23, 2010

Hezbollah, Radical but Rational

In Hezbollah, Radical but Rational Stratfor analyzes the group's capability and motivation for conducting a terrorist attack in the U.S.:
Hezbollah’s global commercial network transports and sells counterfeit consumer goods and electronics and pirated movies, music and software. In West Africa, the network also deals in “blood diamonds” from places like Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and fences illegally bunkered oil from the Niger Delta. 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 had a significant role in the production and worldwide propagation of counterfeit currencies. Hezbollah also has a long-standing and well-known presence in the tri-border region of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, where it earns tens of millions of dollars annually from legal and illegal commercial activities, according to U.S. government estimates.

The Hezbollah business empire also extends into the drug trade. The Bekaa Valley, Lebanon’s central agricultural heartland, is controlled by Hezbollah and serves as a major center for growing poppies and cannabis and for producing heroin from raw materials arriving from places like Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia. Indeed, Hezbollah controls a commanding percentage of the estimated $1 billion drug trade flowing out of the Bekaa. Much of the hashish and heroin emanating from there eventually arrives in Europe, where Hezbollah members also are involved in smuggling, car theft and the distribution of counterfeit goods and currency. Hezbollah operatives in the Western Hemisphere work with Latin American drug cartels to traffic cocaine into the lucrative markets of Europe, and there have been reports of Hezbollah members dealing drugs in the United States.
Hezbollah has a group of operatives capable of undertaking terrorist missions that is larger and better-trained than any group al Qaeda has ever had. Hezbollah (and its Iranian patrons) have also established a solid foothold in the Americas, and they have demonstrated a capability to use their global logistics network to move operatives and conduct attacks should they so choose. This is what U.S. government officials fear, and what the Iranians want them to fear. The threat posed by Hezbollah’s militant apparatus has always been a serious one, and Hezbollah has long had a significant presence inside the United States. The threat it poses today is not some new, growing phenomenon, as some reports in the press would suggest.

But despite Hezbollah’s transnational terrorism capabilities, it has not chosen to exercise them outside of its home region for many years now. This is due in large part to the way Hezbollah has matured as an organization. It is no longer the new, shadowy organization it was in 1983 but a large global organization with an address. Its assets and personnel can be identified and seized or attacked. Hezbollah understands that a serious terrorist attack or series of attacks on U.S. soil could result in the type of American reaction that followed the 9/11 attack and that the organization would likely end up on the receiving end of the type of campaign that the United States launched against al Qaeda (and Lebanon is far easier to strike than Afghanistan). In the past, Hezbollah (and its Iranian patrons) have worked hard to sow ambiguity and hide responsibility for terrorist attacks, but as Hezbollah matured as an organization, such subterfuge became more difficult.

There is also international public opinion to consider. Hezbollah is a political organization seeking political legitimacy, and it is one thing for it to be seen as a victim of Israeli aggression when standing up to Israeli forces in southern Lebanon and quite another to be seen killing innocent civilians on the other side of the globe.

Hezbollah also sees the United States (and the rest of the Western Hemisphere) as a wonderful place to make money through its array of legal and illegal enterprises. If it angered the United States, its business interests in the Western Hemisphere would be severely impacted. Hezbollah could conduct attacks in the United States, but it would pay a terrible price for doing so, and it does not appear that it is willing to pay that price. The Hezbollah leadership may be radical, but it is not irrational. Many of the senior Hezbollah leaders have matured since the group was founded and have become influential politicians and wealthy businessmen. This older cadre tends to be more moderate than some of the younger firebrands in the organization.

So, while Hezbollah has the capability to attack U.S. interests, it does not currently possess the intent to do so. Its terrorist attacks in Lebanon in the 1980s, like the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks and the two attacks against the U.S. Embassy, were intended to drive U.S. influence out of Lebanon, and the attacks largely succeeded. An attack by Hezbollah inside the United States today would result in the return of U.S. attention to, and perhaps even a presence in, Lebanon, something that is clearly not in Hezbollah’s interests.

Then why the recurring rumors of impending Hezbollah terrorist attacks? For several years now, every time there has been talk of a possible attack on Iran there has been a corresponding threat by Iran that it will use its proxy groups in response to such an attack. Iran has also been busy pushing intelligence reports to anybody who will listen, including STRATFOR, that it will activate its militant proxy groups if attacked and, to back up that threat, will periodically send IRGC-QF, MOIS or Hezbollah operatives out to conduct not-so-subtle surveillance of potential targets. (They clearly want to be seen undertaking such activity.)

In many ways, the Hezbollah threat is being played up in order to provide the type of deterrent that mutually assured destruction did during the Cold War. The threats of unleashing Hezbollah terrorist attacks and closing the Strait of Hormuz are the most potent deterrents Iran has to being attacked. Since Iran does not yet possess a nuclear arsenal, these threats are the closest thing it has to a “real nuclear option.” As such, they are threats that Iran will make good on only as a last resort.
So it would appear that the threat of a terrorist attack by Hezbollah is
mostly propaganda, by both the U.S. and Iran (provided the U.S. stays out of Lebanon), than any real wish to do so by the group's leadership.  They could do so, but it would not be worth the price.  Like other international drug dealers, like MS-13 and other 4GW entities, they simply have too much to lose if they chose to stray off the path of their profitable business ventures.

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