Terror Alliance Has
Hezbollah, Al Qaeda Seen Joining Forces
By Dana Priest and Douglas Farah
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 30, 2002; Page A01
The Lebanon-based Hezbollah
organization, one of the world's most formidable terrorist groups, is increasingly teaming
up with al Qaeda on logistics and training for terrorist operations, according to U.S. and
European intelligence officials and terrorism experts. The new cooperation, which is ad
hoc and tactical and involves mid- and low-level operatives, mutes years of rivalry
between Hezbollah, which draws its support primarily from Shiite Muslims, and al Qaeda,
which is predominantly Sunni. It includes coordination on explosives and tactics training,
money laundering, weapons smuggling and acquiring forged documents, according to
knowledgeable sources. This new alliance, even if informal, has greatly concerned U.S.
officials in Washington and intelligence operatives abroad who believe the assets and
organization of Hezbollah's formidable militant wing will enable a hobbled al Qaeda
network to increase its ability to launch attacks against American targets.
Hezbollah, which was founded by Lebanese clerics in 1982, has two wings. One is political and social, and its vibrant political party holds nine seats in the Lebanese parliament. The other wing is a guerrilla military force. The United States put Hezbollah on its terrorist list in 1997. Unlike al Qaeda, Hezbollah has never targeted Americans on U.S. soil. But its operatives have killed nearly 300 Americans overseas in the last 20 years, including 241 service members in a Marine barracks in Beirut. The concerns over the new partnership have reached the Senate and House intelligence committees' chairmen and vice chairmen, who, under special rules, are regularly briefed by CIA Director George J. Tenet and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on highly classified information and operations not revealed to other committee members.
"Hezbollah is the A-team of terrorism," said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the chairman of the Senate panel, who has been briefed on the subject.The new collaboration illustrates what analysts say is an evolving pattern of decentralized alliances between terrorist groups and cells that share enough of the same goals to find common ground: crippling the United States, and forcing the U.S. military out of the Middle East and Israel out of Palestinian territory. "There's a convergence of objectives," said Steven Simon, a former National Security Council terrorism expert. "There's something in the zeitgeist that is pretty well established now."
Although cooperation between al Qaeda and Hezbollah may have been going on at some level for years, the U.S. war against al Qaeda has hastened and deepened the relationship. U.S. officials believe that after al Qaeda was driven from Afghanistan, leader Osama bin Laden sanctioned his operatives to ally themselves with helpful Islamic-based groups, said a senior administration official with access to daily intelligence reports. Bin Laden or his top associates have used the Internet to convey this message, the official added. There is "no doubt at all" that Hezbollah and al Qaeda have communicated on logistical matters, the official said. Loose partnerships are being facilitated by members' ability to communicate using Internet chat rooms accessible with constantly changing passwords. The connections, intelligence officials believe, are made case by case, depending on the needs of a particular local group. "When someone's traveling and needs assistance in passing through, whomever happens to have that capacity will be turned to," said Paul R. Pillar, former deputy director of the CIA counterterrorism center and author of "Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy."
The chat rooms are set up to avoid detection. New recruits can enter only rooms where "holy war" against America or other general topics are discussed. Only trusted and vetted operatives can access chat rooms where specific deals are discussed. Hezbollah's original goal was to create an Islamic state in Lebanon. For 18 years, with financial and intelligence support from Iran and Syria, the group fought to end Israel's military occupation of a buffer zone in southern Lebanon. It attacked American targets in a bid to drive the United States from the country. Hezbollah first devised suicide bombings as a terrorist tactic, and its successes inspired a generation of terrorists in the Middle East. In 1983, a Hezbollah suicide bomber attacked the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans and six of the CIA's best Middle East experts. Six months later, two suicide bombers drove trucks into western military barracks in Lebanon, killing 58 French paratroopers in one and 241 American service members in the other -- the largest peacetime loss ever for the U.S. military. It prompted President Ronald Reagan to withdraw American troops from the country.
In the mid-1980s, at Iran's behest, Hezbollah and its factions were responsible for kidnapping 18 Americans in Lebanon. They killed three, including William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut. Over the next decade, the United States alleged that Iranian intelligence officials, posing as diplomats, were involved in anti-U.S. and anti-Israel violence around the world. Hezbollah's intelligence officer, Imad Mughniyah, was implicated in the 1996 attack on Khobar Towers, the U.S. military housing complex in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 U.S. servicemen were killed. After Israel pulled out of Lebanon in May 2000, the political wing of Hezbollah wanted to focus exclusively on political activities and charitable work. Some intelligence officials believe Iran and Syria have dampened their support for Hezbollah's militant wing. Iran, in particular, a senior U.S. intelligence official said, has tried to restrict Hezbollah's contacts with al Qaeda for fear of being targeted in the U.S. war on terrorism. There is little dispute that al Qaeda and Hezbollah operatives work together, but some analysts reject the notion that the two groups have buried their differences, which have long been sharp because they derive their support from the two competing branches of Islam. "I just don't see it," said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service. "There's not a lot of commonality there."
Although all of Hezbollah's attacks have taken place overseas, the FBI is investigating close to a dozen Hezbollah groups in the United States. Their overt purpose is to raise money for Lebanese charities. In the United States, Hezbollah's "objective is to facilitate illegal funding . . . sometimes through sophisticated cyber-crimes," Graham said. "Today they aren't here plotting to blow up anything, they are in a support role." But a recent criminal court case in Charlotte -- in which eight defendants pleaded guilty and two were later found guilty by a jury -- showed how what prosecutors alleged was one Hezbollah cell involved in cigarette smuggling conspired to aid the organization as a whole. One of the men, Mohamad Hammoud, was caught on wiretaps speaking on the phone with Hezbollah's military commander in Lebanon, Sheik Abbas Harake.
Court documents in the United States and Canada say Hezbollah members in both countries have tried to procure military equipment, including laser-range finders, aircraft-analysis software, global positioning gear, night-vision goggles, blasting equipment and mine detection machinery for fighters in Lebanon. U.S. law enforcement officials and terrorism experts fear the infrastructure and personal relationships established to facilitate illicit arms and document purchases could easily be used to launch attacks on U.S. soil. "It gives you an infrastructure you can potentially build on," Pillar said. That is what analysts believe happened in Argentina in 1996, when Hezbollah, which had longtime financial and logistics networks in Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. In the last 18 months, Hezbollah has reactivated some of its overseas assets in South America, Europe and Central Asia, Simon said. "They appear to be cocking their guns again."
The more recent relationship between Hezbollah and al Qaeda first surfaced publicly in testimony in October 2000 by Ali Mohamed, a former U.S. Green Beret who pleaded guilty to conspiring with bin Laden to bomb U.S. embassies in Africa. He testified to having provided security for a meeting in Sudan "between al Qaeda . . . and Iran and Hezbollah . . . between Mughniyah, Hezbollah's chief, and bin Laden." Hezbollah, he testified, provided explosives training to al Qaeda while Iran "used Hezbollah to supply explosives that were disguised to look like rocks." Last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld accused Iran of sheltering al Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan. "Iran has served as a haven for some terrorists leaving Afghanistan," he said.
Among the more important al Qaeda operatives believed to be in Iran is Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian accused of helping plot a bombing at the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman during the millennium celebrations. Administration and intelligence officials also say they have multiple confirmations of a meeting in March in Lebanon between al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah figures. The new alliances challenge the traditional analysis of militant Islamic-based groups, which were seen as competing and noncooperative, divided by their personalities and each group's particular brand of Islamic militarism. Understanding the workings of a more diffuse network of terrorists may determine whether the CIA and FBI can adapt quickly enough to the post-Sept. 11 world to prevent more attacks, said terrorism experts and operatives far from Washington. European and U.S. intelligence operatives on the ground in Africa and Asia said they have been trying to convince headquarters of the new alliances but have been rebuffed.
"We have been screaming at them for more than a year now, and more since September 11th, that these guys all work together," an overseas operative said. "What we keep hearing back is that it can't be because al Qaeda doesn't work that way. That is [expletive]. Here, on the ground, these guys all work together as long as they are Muslims. There is no other division that matters."© 2002 The Washington Post Company