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Lebanon

Hizballah's Options

By Dan Darling | July 19, 2006

One of the more surprising aspects of the conflict between Israel and Hizballah has been the fact that, to date, neither side has been willing to deploy all of the assets at their disposal to destroy the enemy. While this is easy enough to understand in regard to Israel, given that the Jewish state belongs to the civilized community of Western nations, it is less understandable in the case of Hizballah. While Hizballah's leadership, most notably Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, have threatened "open war" against Israel, his organization's actions do not yet appear to have reached that point.

This is not to say that Hizballah has exercised restraint, but rather to acknowledge that the organization possesses at its disposal an international terrorist network every bit as ruthless and as deadly as Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda. According to the 2005 Patterns of Global Terrorism report issued by the State Department, Hizballah has "established cells in Europe, Africa, South America, North America, and Asia," cells that could be called upon to act against Israeli or Jewish targets worldwide. In the past Hizballah has been implicated (along with its Iranian backers) for the Buenos Aires bombings of an Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center in 1992 and 1994 respectively. These attacks, which killed 90 civilians, demonstrate the broad reach of Hizballah even inside countries that do not possess large Muslim or Shiite populations. In 1999, Argentina issued an arrest warrant for Hizballah operations chief Imad Mugniyeh in connection with both attacks, but he remains at large.

Nor should it be assumed that U.S. targets are necessarily safe. At least one member of Lebanese Hizballah is alleged by the U.S. government to have assisted in the bombing of Khobar Towers, which killed 19 Americans. The ability of Hizballah to operate with ease in countries such as Argentina and Saudi Arabia is a testament to their capabilities. It is also worth recalling the 1998 indictment of Osama bin Laden which alleged that al Qaeda "forged alliances . . . with the government of Iran and with its associated group Hizballah to 'work together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States.'" Given the claims in the 9/11 Commission's final report that "there are also signs that al Qaeda played some role, as yet unknown" in the Hizballah-supported Khobar Towers bombing, it is not unreasonable to suggest that al Qaeda might at some point assist Hizballah.

So from a strategic perspective, why has Hizballah not pulled out all the stops? The answer may lie in the group's organizational decision-making process, the clearest picture of which is given in the 2001 indictment of the Khobar Towers plotters. As the indictment makes clear, surveillance for potential Hizballah targets was reported to Iranian officials; the planning for terrorist attacks was supported and directed by serving members of the Iranian military, likely the elite Qods Force unit charged with carrying out Iran's extra-territorial operations. A similar patterns emerges in the investigations into the Buenos Aires bombings. The decision-making apparatus for Hizballah is most likely located not in Lebanon, but in Tehran.

The likely Iranian rationale for keeping the focus of the conflict on the Levant has more to do more with their desire to retain Hizballah's international terrorist arm as a reserve force (in case of an attack against their nuclear facilities) than with their eagerness to keep the violence from spreading.