'Fighters Without Borders'--Forecasting New Trends in Iran Threat Network Foreign Operations Tradecraft.

AuthorLevitt, Matthew

The threats to U.S. interests in the Middle East, and possibly in the U.S. homeland, increased in the wake of the January 3, 2020, U.S. drone strike that killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force chief General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Shi'a militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. While the primary overt objective of Iran and its proxies post-Soleimani will likely be to push all U.S. military forces out of Iraq and the region, they will undoubtedly also want to avenge Soleimani's death. And as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has made clear, all Iranian proxy militant groups will be expected to play their parts in this campaign. When they do, Iran and the foreign legion of Shi'a proxies at its disposal are likely to employ new types of operational tradecraft, including deploying cells comprised of operatives from various proxy groups and potentially even doing something authorities worry about but have never seen to date, namely encouraging Shi'a homegrown violent extremist terrorist attacks.

Speaking in the wake of the January 3, 2020, U.S. drone strike in Baghdad that killed the commander of Iran's Quds Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah made clear that the response to the Soleimani assassination would be carried out by the full range of Shi'a militant groups beholden to Iran far into the future. (1) In the post-Soleimani era, Nasrallah intimated, operations by Iran and its web of proxy groups would also deviate from traditional tactics. "Whoever thinks that this dear martyrdom will be forgotten is mistaken, and we are approaching a new era," he said. (2)

To be sure, much of the established modus operandi honed over years of training and practice by the Quds Force and Hezbollah will continue to feature prominently in Iranian and Iranian proxy operations. (3) But Nasrallah's vague pledge to modernize begs the question: What might be expected of a "new era" of international operations carried out by Iran and its proxy forces?

One difference from past operations is opportunistic--prioritizing the effort to push U.S. forces out of the Middle East. Iran will likely leverage Soleimani's assassination to achieve with his death what he aspired toward but failed to achieve in life. Another departure is more strategic--further solidifying the network of Shi'a militant groups Soleimani quilted together under the Quds Force. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has described the Quds Force as Tehran's "fighters without borders," but given the Quds Force's control of this network of Shi'a foreign fighters, the term more aptly applies to the Quds Force and the Shi'a militant networks under its control. (4) Hezbollah has already stepped in to help guide Iraq's various Shi'a militias, at least temporarily. (5) Other changes will likely be tactical, increasingly focused on trying to enhance operational security and the potential to carry out terrorist operations with reasonable deniability.

This article focuses on the areas of tactical adjustment that the Quds Force, Hezbollah, and other Shi'a militant groups might make to enhance their international terrorist attack capabilities. First, the article explains why U.S. authorities are so animated by the potential threat of a terrorist attack against U.S. interests, possibly in the homeland, following the Soleimani drone strike. Second, it forecasts and assesses in turn two specific lines of operational effort that authorities fear Iran and its proxies (led by the Quds Force and Hezbollah) are developing for future operations:

(a) Deploying teams including non-Iranian and non-Lebanese Shi'a militants from around the world and representing a variety of Iranian proxy groups to carry out international terror operations at Iran's behest; and

(b) Developing and encouraging a terrorist trend common in the world of Sunni extremism but not yet seen in the context of Shi'a extremism--Shi'a homegrown violent extremism (HVE).

The Threat to the United States

U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies long assessed that Iran and its proxy groups were unlikely to carry out an attack in the U.S. homeland, unless the United States took direct action undermining their interests.

For example, a 1994 FBI report, issued in the wake of the Hezbollah bombing targeting the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires a few months earlier, downplayed the likelihood of Hezbollah attacking U.S. interests, unless the United States took actions directly threatening Hezbollah. "The Hezbollah leadership, based in Beirut, Lebanon, would be reluctant to jeopardize the relatively safe environment its members enjoy in the United States by committing a terrorist act within the U.S. borders," it assessed. "However, such a decision could be initiated in reaction to a perceived threat from the United States or its allies against Hezbollah interests." (6)

In 2002, the FBI informed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that while "many Hezbollah subjects based in the United States have the capability to attempt terrorist attacks here should this be the desired objective of the group," Hezbollah had never carried out an attack in the United States and its extensive fundraising activities in the United States would likely serve as a disincentive for simultaneous operational activities. (7)

But over the past few years, well before the Soleimani hit, authorities disrupted Iranian and Hezbollah operations here in the United States that have forced them to reconsider longstanding assessments of the possibility that either a state or non-state group might seriously consider carrying out an attack in the homeland. (8)

In fact, in 2012, Iranian-American used car salesman Mansour Arbabsiar pleaded guilty to plotting the previous year with Iranian agents to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C. (9) This was not the first time Iran plotted an attack in the United States, but it was the most spectacular and came at a time when few analysts assessed Iran would consider such an operation. (10) In the wake of that case, then Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress that the plot "shows that some Iranian officials--probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei--have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime." (11)

U.S. officials further worried that Hezbollah's calculus may have begun to shift in early 2015, when it became a matter of public record that the February 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, the founding leader of Hezbollah's Islamic Jihad Organization terrorist network, was a joint U.S.-Israeli operation. (12) Hezbollah printed a deck of playing cards featuring Israeli leaders it held responsible for Mughniyeh's death, which some described as a hit list. (13) Might Hezbollah now seek to avenge Mughniyeh's death by attacking American officials too? As Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) at the time, testified just five months before Mughniyeh was killed: "Lebanese Hezbollah remains committed to conducting terrorist activities worldwide.... We remain concerned the group's activities could either endanger or target U.S. and other Western interests." (14)

Then, in June 2017, the FBI arrested two alleged Hezbollah operatives, Ali Kourani and Samer El Debek, for carrying out surveillance of U.S. targets in the United States. (15) "While living in the United States, Kourani served as an operative of Hezbollah in order to help the foreign terrorist organization prepare for potential future attacks against the United States," U.S. Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said. These included buildings housing the FBI and U.S. Secret Service in Manhattan, as well as New York's JFK airport and a U.S. Army Armory. Kourani was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 40 years. (16) El Debek has yet to stand trial.

Four months after the arrests, in October 2017, then director of NCTC Nicholas Rasmussen told reporters that Hezbollah was "determined to give itself a potential [U.S.] homeland option as a critical component of its terrorism playbook." "This is something that those of us in the counter-terrorism community take very, very seriously," he added. (17)

Kourani described himself as a Hezbollah sleeper agent. According to the FBI, Kourani informed that "there would be certain scenarios that would require action or conduct by those who belonged to the cell." Kourani reported Hezbollah operatives like him would be called upon to act in the event that the United States and Iran went to war, or if the United States were to take certain unnamed actions targeting Hezbollah, Nasrallah himself, or Iranian interests. Kourani added that "in those scenarios the sleeper cell would also be triggered into action." (18)

In September 2019, the FBI arrested Ali Saab, an alleged Hezbollah operative who underwent military and bomb-making training in Lebanon and later collected intelligence on potential targets in New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Saab allegedly provided details on targets including the United Nations headquarters, Statue of Liberty, and New York airports, tunnels, and bridges--including detailed photographs and notes on structural weaknesses and "soft spots" for potential Hezbollah targets "in order to determine how a future attack could cause the most destruction," according to the U.S. Department of Justice. (19) Saab has yet to stand trial.

The U.S. assassination of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (aka Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi), the leader of the Iraqi Shi'a militant group Kata'ib Hezbollah who was with Soleimani at the time, appears to meet the standard Kourani described for potential Hezbollah terrorist action, namely U.S. action directly targeting a senior Iranian official, according to the...

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