Hizballah Is Moving Up the Threat Chart

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Mohamad Youssef Hammoud, age 15, in Lebanon

At first blush, it sounds like a run of the mill smuggling case. On Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina, 29-year-old Lebanese national Mohamad Hammoud will be sentenced on charges of running cigarettes from North Carolina to Michigan. But Hammoud isn't some two-bit crook trying to make a little extra cash. He's considered by the feds to be a dangerous terrorist. Hammoud has been convicted of using his illicit income to help fuel Hizballah, the Lebanon-based, anti-Israel terrorist army. For his crime, he faces up to 155 years in prison. Federal prosecutors are convinced he was a young extremist militant before he gained entry to the U.S. through Venezuela in 1992 with a $200 fake visa. They maintain that he stayed in the U.S. by entering into first one, and then another, phony marriage to American women — all the while still engaged to another woman in Lebanon.

For most Americans, Osama bin Laden is the frightening face of international terrorism. But lately, Hizballah is almost as high on the feds' threat meter. "Al Qaeda has not been the only threat. Prior to September 11th, Hizballah had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group," FBI Director Robert Mueller said last year. Just three weeks ago, two alleged Hizballah soldiers were among several individuals indicted in Detroit — also in a cigarette smuggling scheme that the government said is linked to Hammoud's. Prosecutors allege that they, too, were raising money for Hizballah. And TIME has learned that the FBI is investigating the activities of hundreds of suspected Hizballah members or sympathizers in the U.S. — including several dozen émigrés believed to be hard-core Hizballah believers. The investigation is spread over many cities including New York, Los Angeles and Boston. "You could almost pick your city and you would probably have a presence," says one knowledgeable law enforcement official. The concern is that Hizballah — among other groups — may have U.S.-based sleepers in place not only to raise money, but also to pounce with an attack when the timing is right.

Hizballah is certainly a menacing terrorist group with a known track record of brutal attacks all over the world. The organization's American victims in Lebanon range from Navy diver Robert Stethem — his murdered body was thrown out the window of a TWA airliner in a 1985 hijacking in Beirut — and CIA station chief William Buckley the same year, to 241 killed in a 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine headquarters that led Ronald Reagan to withdraw U.S. forces from Lebanon. The group was also blamed for lethal 1990s bombings of Jewish targets in Argentina — showing that its deadly reach extends far beyond the Mideast.

Attacks like these help account for a $25 million bounty the U.S. has placed on the head of Hizballah's Imad Mugniyeh, who is listed among America's 22 most wanted terrorists and is believed to be hiding out in Lebanon. "Hizballah may be the 'A team' of terrorists, and maybe al-Qaeda is actually the 'B team.' And they're on the list and their time will come," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said last September. "They have a blood debt to us,... and we're not going to forget it." Added an old counter-terrorism hand: "They're very good and very deadly. For whatever reason, they've stopped killing Americans." But if they decide to start again, U.S. officials dread their professionalism, training and discipline — and their penchant for particularly deadly suicide attacks. "They're military trained. They keep their military skills up," said Chris Swecker, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Charlotte office and a key player in the Hammoud case.

The Hammoud case is auspicious because it has been the first of its kind under a 1996 anti-terror law that outlawed giving material support to terror groups, such as an uncertain amount of smuggling profits that Hammoud was proved to have sent abroad. "The case was about fund-raising, but there was enough evidence seized in the course of the investigation to justify a legitimate concern about terrorism in general," U.S. attorney for Charlotte Bob Conrad tells TIME of the charges his office brought against Hammoud and two dozen or so others, including his brother and several Americans. "A group such as this is in place to do other things."

The Hammoud case began innocuously enough in 1995. Local sheriff's detective Bob Fromme, working off-duty as a security guard at JR Tobacco Warehouse in Statesville, N.C., grew suspicious when he saw a group of Middle Eastern men repeatedly buying hundreds of cartons of cigarettes apiece. Local prosecutors in tobacco-friendly North Carolina weren't interested, but Fromme persuaded the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to investigate. Just as they were poised to bring charges, the FBI swooped in and took over — linking the smuggling operation to the Hizballah cell that Hammoud allegedly headed.

The FBI is using fund-raising investigations like the one in Charlotte to nab operatives like Hammoud while trying to roll up any possible plans for violence. As FBI agent Swecker put it: "These fund-raising cases were good ways to get in and see what they were doing. And if we had to wait and see what they were doing — I mean that'd be way too late." So far, neither Hammoud's gang nor other Hizballah operatives are accused of planning specific attacks here. But Conrad noted that the government filed an affidavit citing a confidential source who said that "if Hizballah issued an authorization to execute a terrorist act in the United States, Mohamad Hammoud would not hesitate in carrying it out." And prosecutors may present evidence at Hammoud's sentencing from an inconclusive post-trial investigation of allegations that Hammoud sought a hit man to "put bullets into the skull" of Kenneth Bell, the lead prosecutor.

Evidence gathered in the case included photos of Hammoud handling guns and rocket launchers in Lebanon and taking target practice in the U.S., as well as brandishing an automatic rifle in Hizballah headquarters in Lebanon — at age 15. Seized from Hammoud's house was a videotape of Hizballah men with explosive belts around their waist "and the interpretation of the chanting is that 'We pledge to detonate ourselves to shake the ground under the feet of our enemies, America and Israel,'" Conrad says. "To me, that indicates a general intent to engage in violence on our soil." Canadian intelligence intercepts showed the Charlotte cell had been in close contact with Hizballah leaders in Lebanon, and the cell was found to have procured "dual-use" equipment for military use there.

Hammoud denied during his trial that he was a Hizballah militant. His lawyer could not be reached. Hizballah leaders in Lebanon also could not be reached for comment. Federal sources say the FBI has identified a small number of emigres who attended Hizballah training camps in Lebanon and now reside in the U.S. A few of these have even returned to Lebanon for more advanced training, sources say. Agents are monitoring them closely, along with a larger number of suspected Hizballah members, associates and sympathizers suspected of providing logistical support for the organization.

While authorities put the heat on Hizballah here, the U.S. has also moved to try to rein in the terror group abroad. In a private meeting in Damascus last April, Secretary of State Colin Powell asked Syrian President Bashar Assad to restrain Hizballah forces that had been firing rockets at Israel from the north. A diplomatic source critical of Iran's role in arming Hizballah tells TIME that the U.S. has at least twice asked Saudi Arabia to stop giving Iranian military supply planes overflight permission for loads of weaponry earmarked for Hizballah. "We continually raise this issue with diplomatic discussions and our views on overflight are well known throughout the region," a U.S. State Department official told TIME. "We don't tolerate illegal flow of weapons and that message has not changed." A Saudi spokesman had no immediate comment.

Meanwhile, the feds are watching closely to see if groups such as Hizballah use the Iraq crisis as a lynchpin for attacks. "If they sympathize and identify with Iraq and they decide this is just an affront to Muslims all over the world, then they could decide to get involved," said one law enforcement official. "We are certainly watching that--nationwide."

Whether Hizballah switches from quiet fund-raising to attack mode in the U.S. "is a big issue," agrees Rep. Jane Harman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "They don't ask our permission."

Additional reporting by Viveca Novak and Adam Zagorin/Washington; Kim Ghattas/Beirut; Matt Rees/Jerusalem