CIA: Hizbullah cells in U.S. could strike if Syria pressed

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

U.S. agencies have warned that Hizbullah has been recruited by Syria to prepare massive retaliatory attacks in any confrontation between Damascus and Washington.

U.S. officials said the CIA and State Department have warned that Iran and Syria could employ Hizbullah to launch attacks against U.S. interests in the Europe, the Middle East and North America. They said the Shi'ite movement is seen as more entrenched in the West than Al Qaida and could have up to 12 cells in the United States alone.

"It has a significant presence of its trained operatives inside the United States waiting for the call to action," Sen. Bob Graham, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said. "In recent years they have been infiltrating into this core in the United States people who have gone through their training camps and have the skills of terrorist activity."

Officials said the regime of President Bashar Assad has given Hizbullah a free hand to dominate Lebanon, particularly the south. In exchange, Hizbullah has supported Syria's occupation of Lebanon and serves as a military arm of Damascus, Middle East Newsline reported.

The officials said the United States cannot rule out that Hizbullah has access to weapons of mass destruction.

Last year, 18 suspected Hizbullah agents were prosecuted on charges of being members of a ring that procured and smuggled military equipment to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Officials said the ring could have been an element of a Hizbullah network in the United States based in such cities as Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Kansas City, where there are large concentrations of Shi'ites.

"Syria and Hizbullah have become one in terms of their interest," a U.S. official who specializes in counterinsurgency said. "The two have an alliance that basically links their fate."

Hizbullah and Syria become strategic allies under the rule of Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000. While the late President Hafez Assad kept Hizbullah at arm's length, Bashar has touted the Iranian-backed group as a model of Arab resistance.

"I'll tell you that Hizbullah, as an organization with capability and worldwide presence, is its equal, if not a far more capable, organization [than Al Qaida]," CIA director George Tenet said in testimony to Congress. "I actually think they're a notch above in many respects."

Iran, which provides Hizbullah with $100 million a year, will also encourage the group to attack U.S. targets should Washington launch a military campaign against Damascus, officials said. Some officials have not ruled out a Hizbullah attack even before a U.S. strike.

A major obstacle to a U.S. strike on Hizbullah is that unlike Al Qaida, Hizbullah agents outside of Lebanon enjoy Iranian diplomatic immunity.

Officials said Hizbullah agents abroad work out of Iranian embassies under diplomatic cover.

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