Fifteen years ago, deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage called Hezbollah the “A-Team of terrorists.” He regarded al Qaeda as less capable, maybe a B-Team (though certainly not a JV-Team).
In any case, he was confident that the “war on terror” would soon result in the defeat of both organizations. “We’re going to take them down one at a time,” he predicted.
We haven’t yet. Al Qaeda is in the news less frequently than it used to be, but it has grown and spread, steadily and strategically. Expect to hear more from al Qaeda over the years ahead.
As for Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Party of God, it was first designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization in 1997. It has been similarly designated by Canada, the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and others. Yet it has gone from strength to strength.
The Obama administration saw Hezbollah as corrigible. In 2010, John Brennan, then assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, called it “a very interesting organization.” He acknowledged that there were “elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us,” but he claimed also to have identified “moderate elements.” Those he wanted “to try to build up.” Suffice it to say he did not succeed.
For years, Hezbollah was an important faction in the Lebanese government. Today, it effectively controls the Lebanese government. The Lebanese Armed Forces are weaker than — and increasingly subservient to — Hezbollah’s militia.
Hezbollah is Arab but unlike most Arabs, it is Shia, not Sunni. More to the point, it is intensely loyal to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the great Shia power, which is not Arab but majority Persian.
From Iran’s theocrats, Hezbollah receives funds, weapons and instructions. Like Iran’s theocrats, Hezbollah has long proclaimed “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!”
Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah since 1992, has expressed his support for the creation of a “Greater Islamic Republic,” one that would be headed by “the Jurisprudent Ruler” — meaning Iran’s Supreme Leader. In other words, he welcomes Iranian imperialism.
Since 2013, thousands of Hezbollah troops have been fighting in neighboring Syria, serving as the cat’s paw for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards, helping Bashar Assad, another Iranian vassal, slaughter his Sunni subjects. With additional military support from Russia, these efforts have kept the dictatorship in power.
But terrorism is the business Hezbollah knows best. An abbreviated list of the anti-American attacks for which it is believed responsible: the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut that left 63 dead; the 1983 bombing of the U.S Marine barracks in Beirut in which 241 were murdered; the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847; and the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia killing 19 U.S. military personnel. Hezbollah also armed and trained the Shia militias that targeted American forces in Iraq.
Hezbollah openly seeks the extermination of Israel with which it has fought several armed conflicts. Mr. Nasrallah does not employ the usual dodge — that he is “anti-Zionist” but not anti-Jewish. On the contrary, he has said that if the Jews would all “gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”
Hezbollah operatives were responsible for the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992; death toll: 29. In 1994, a Hezbollah operative drove an explosives-filled van into the Buenos Aires Jewish community center, known as AMIA, murdering 85 people, the most lethal terrorist attack in Argentina’s history. For none of Hezbollah’s terrorist atrocities has there been serious consequences.
Ever eager for new opportunities, Hezbollah in recent years has been forging alliances with international organized crime syndicates — Latin American drug cartels in particular.
American intelligence and law enforcement picked up on these activities and, in 2008, launched Project Cassandra to combat the burgeoning multinational coalition of terrorists, narcotics traffickers, arms dealers and money launderers.
The campaign made significant progress. Then, as detailed last month in a stunning investigative report by Josh Meyer in Politico, President Obama put an “insurmountable series of roadblocks” in its path.
“In its determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran,” Mr. Meyers writes, “the Obama administration derailed an ambitious law enforcement campaign targeting the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, even as it was funneling cocaine into the United States.”
David Asher, who helped establish and oversee Project Casandra, told Mr. Meyer: “This was a policy decision, it was a systematic decision. They serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down.”
Which bring us, finally, to some encouraging news: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week announced the creation of the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team (HFNT) — experienced terrorism, narcotics trafficking, organized crime, and money laundering prosecutors who are being tasked with investigating individuals and networks providing support to Hezbollah.
Mr. Sessions said the goal is “to ensure that all Project Cassandra investigations as well as other related investigations, whether past or present, are given the needed resources and attention to come to their proper resolution.”
Fifteen years ago, the U.S. government was confident it could “take down” the world’s most lethal terrorist organizations. That mission has yet to be accomplished. It probably didn’t help that for eight of those years the president and his advisers thought they could transform sworn enemies into cooperative moderates by serving them cocktails of diplomacy, “soft power” and bribes.
The current administration takes a more realistic view of those who call themselves jihadis — whether Sunni or Shia. We may not be winning what used to be called the “war on terror” but at least we’re back in the fight.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for the Washington Times.