By Richard Miniter, PJM Washington Editor Does Iran have a network of sleeper cells inside the United States that could strike us if we bomb their nuclear facilities?
This is the key question that should be put to Ali Reza Asghari, Iran’s former deputy defense minister, who is believed to be in the custody of a western intelligence service. Whether he defected, disappeared, was kidnapped, rendered or captured remains an open question. Whatever the case, Asghari would be “an intelligence bonanza,” according to the Daily Telegraph in London. Indeed, some say, he was a CIA mole for the four years, before he was forced to flee. He is reportedly being held at a NATO base in western Germany.
Asghari was involved in the creation of Hezbollah (Arabic for “Army of God”) in 1982 and was the main liaison between the Lebanon-based terror group and its paymasters in Tehran. He is also a retired general in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.
The consensus view among intelligence analysts, in and out of government, is Hezbollah maintains an extensive network inside the U.S. and Western Europe.
The sleepers in the U.S. may number as many as 800.
This has been the consensus view for some time. There are “hundreds” of Hezbollah members here, a U.S. official told USA Today on May 13, 2003. A senior FBI official told the paper that some 20 potential Hezbollah cells are being investigated.
Senator Bob Graham reiterated to the Miami Herald on Nov. 13, 2002: “recent warnings that Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, had a more established presence in the United States than al Qaeda, and was just as dangerous.”
The then-chairman of Senate Intelligence committee, Graham also told the Miami Herald about his frustration with the FBI over Hezbollah: ”How many Hezbollah agents are there in, say, Tampa?” Graham said. “What were they trained to do in the camps in Syria? Has the group been penetrated so we know their intentions? How do they get money? But we can’t get responses to this.”
The FBI might have been stalling the senator because it simply didn’t know the answers to his questions. There is little reason to believe the situation has improved.
Sen. Graham told the Miami Herald that Hezbollah has substantially greater numbers in the United States than al Qaeda.
Hezbollah has killed more Americans since 1982 than any other terrorist group, except al Qaeda.
Most of those are not “operational terrorists,” one American intelligence official cautioned PJ Media.
Many are here for illicit fundraising. Some channel donations from mosques or peddle videos and books. Others run criminal enterprises for the terror group, everything from car-theft rings to high-end cons.
One cell was involved in cigarette smuggling, capturing the difference between the wholesale price and the high-tax price paid by consumers. Cigarette taxes range from $1 to $3 per pack. The North Carolina cigarette operation was apprehended by the FBI and prosecuted by the Justice department.
Three Yemeni-born men in Rochester, New York were charged with funneling some $15 million to Hezbollah between 2002 and 2004, according to a filing at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York on Feb. 27, 2007. They were caught thanks to a sting operation by the FBI, conspiring to send $200,000 to Hezbollah. The three owned or operated delis, mini-marts and restaurants, from which they allegedly sold fake green cards and engaged in credit card fraud.
Other Hezbollah operatives are here to gather information on potential targets, searching for weak points in schools, malls and office towers.
Still others are foot soldiers who are loaned out Mexican drug cartels, where they serve as bodyguards and enforcers. The Mexicans call them “Turcos.”
This would not be the first time that an anti-American terror organization set up operations in the U.S.
Michael Ledeen, a consultant to President Reagan’s National Security Council, remembering reading intelligence reports that the Abu Nidal organization had cells in 12 American cities in the 1980s. One cell was broken up by the FBI, after a surveillance recording device picked up the harrowing murder of the daughter of a suspected Hezbollah leader. The killer? Her father. The teenage girl was seen talking to a boy who was not a blood relative.
While the FBI continues to monitor a number of suspected terrorists here at home, the bureau usually cannot intervene unless a federal crime has been committed.
“Going to Lebanon on vacation is not a crime,” notes one intelligence analyst.
In Europe, British and French intelligence services have strengthened security after receiving “reliable information” from Israel’s Mossad about Hezbollah’s plans Israeli interests in Europe, according to the Kuwaiti daily Al Seyassah. “Keep in mind that Hezbollah already successfully orchestrated a wave of terror attacks in France killing over a dozen and injuring 300,” writes Olivier Guitta, a native French speaker, on the respected Counter Terrorism Blog.
It could happen here.
Fundraising for foreign terrorist groups under the nose of the federal government is easier than one might expect. Take the case of Al Haramian Foundation of Ashland, Oregon, a Saudi-backed charity accused of funding Islamic militants in Chechnya.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross spent almost a year working for the foundation and chronicled his experiences in “My Year Inside Radical Islam.” Later he became an FBI informant. “It was extremely easy to operate even though the literature was openly radical and anti-democratic. Any participation in secular democracy, even voting, was haram or forbidden.”
Could Hezbollah operate just as freely? “Yes,” he said.
While Hezbollah may have a presence here, the U.S. is developing on their home turf. President Bush has authorized the CIA, in a “non-lethal presidential funding,” to covertly finance anti-Hezbollah groups in Lebanon, the terror group’s home base, according to the Daily Telegraph.