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Lightning Out of Lebanon: Hezbollah Terrorists on American Soil
“You’ve got to be taught . . .”
by Tom Diaz and Barbara Newman
You’ve got to be taught before . . .
Before you are six or seven or eight.
—Rodgers and Hammerstein
Lyrics from South Pacific
Mohammed Ghandour is a child of Lebanon, born into the desperately poor slums of south Beirut. Packed with Palestinian refugees and Shiite Muslim migrants from the south, the area is called the “Belt of Misery.” But when Mohammed was four years old, his bedtime routine was like that of millions of kids in the comfortably affluent suburbs of the United States. Mohammed took out the same video every evening. And after he put the cassette into the video player, he called his baby sister to join him. The two children sat side by side before the television every evening and watched a story that soon enough was not only familiar, but thoroughly ingrained in their young minds.
What parent’s heart wouldn’t be touched by this image of tender childhood? Who would not want to reach into this charming picture, tousle the moppets’ hair, and pull them close for a kiss? But Mohammed and his sister weren’t watching visual lollipops served up by the likes of Barney, the Teletubbies, or Baby Einstein. They weren’t learning the joys of playground toysharing, the mysteries of counting, or the thrills of reading. In the flickering blue light of the tiny television in a small room deep in the winding alleys of a fetid slum, Mohammed and his baby sister watched a suicide bombing, a real suicide bombing—a five-minute film of Mohammed’s father, Salah Ghandour, ramming a car stuffed with 990 pounds of explosives into an Israeli convoy in south Lebanon.
“There’s my daddy,” Mohammed proudly exclaimed to a visitor at the climactic moment when the image of the crudely produced film flashed into the rolling orange and black ball of a terrible explosion. That massive blast ripped Mohammed’s father to shreds and killed a dozen Israeli soldiers.1
“There’s my daddy.” What seems horrible to Western sensibilities is not only glorified as the holiest of acts within radical Islam, but is taught to children with the same facility and intensity that MTV teaches American kids the latest music and language trends. In a thousand ways every day children like young Mohammed are taught that the suicide bomber not only offers self-sacrifice in the service of an excruciatingly grim God, but an express ticket to the highest rewards of Heaven. Public processions at the funerals of Islamic terrorists and the demonstration marches of radical Islamic groups feature children carrying AK-47 rifles and wearing belts of fake explosives—belts just like those worn by real suicide bombers not much older than they. Nothing more sharply defines the vast chasm between Islamic extremism and the West, their different views of the value of life itself, than these poignant images of children playing at martyrdom.
Salah Ghandour’s self-immolation was an act of terrorism committed—and recorded in progress for a sophisticated program of media and propaganda use—by an organization that terrorism experts call the “A-Team” of international terrorism: Hezbollah, the “Party of God.” Founded in 1982 with the help of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRG), headquartered in Lebanon, closely allied with and supported by Iran, Hezbollah held the record for terrorist murders of Americans before al Qaeda seized that grisly distinction with the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001. Hezbollah, constituted as a political party in Lebanon, is known to have warm links with al Qaeda. According to the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (“9/11 Commission Report”) issued in July 2004, “Al Qaeda members received advice and training from Hezbollah.” This statement confirms information documented elsewhere in this book. The 9/11 Commission Report also describes the contacts of senior Hezbollah members with the hijackers who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, and advises that “this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government.”
Hezbollah still holds the record for terrorist killings of U.S. military personnel—the murder of 241 U.S. marines, sailors, and soldiers when a 12,000-pound Hezbollah truck bomb leveled their barracks in Beirut on October 23, 1983. It is operating in Iraq.
Just as Henry Ford did not invent the automobile but made it a mass-produced fact of modern life, so Hezbollah did not invent the suicide car bomb. But Hezbollah ruthlessly elevated this horrifically indiscriminate device into the first choice of weapons in the sinister toolbox of Middle Eastern terrorism. Large-scale suicide bombing, often coordinated in multiple attacks, is a Hezbollah trademark. Some counterterrorism experts believe that a man named Imad Mugniyah—Hezbollah’s operations chief, wanted by the United States—taught this concept of rolling destruction to Osama bin Laden in 1994, seven years before the al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001. Sanctioned suicide pioneered by Hezbollah has made mass murder by explosive numbingly routine, not only in the Middle East, but around the world.
Hezbollah is neither a remote curio of Lebanon nor an organization whose activity is limited to the Middle East. The Party of God has intertwined itself like a noxious vine around the vast Lebanese diaspora, a worldwide expatriate community of traders and merchants. Silently, deliberately, and all but invisibly, its cohorts have infiltrated the United States and its neighbors, Canada and Latin America. Hezbollah is here, now. Hezbollah cadres are known to have been planted in at least fourteen cities in the United States, places as unlikely as Houston, Texas; Louisville, Kentucky; and Charlotte, North Carolina. Its American cells are led by dedicated, coldly calculating men who grew up on the same stark diet of fanatical hatred of the West that is fed daily to millions of children like young Mohammed Ghandour. Carefully—but sometimes audaciously, a measure of their contempt for U.S. law enforcement authorities—Hezbollah’s operatives have woven themselves into the American tapestry.
These hidden agents of hatred have taken advantage of America’s cultural openness and exploited our civil liberties to raise funds and acquire military equipment illegally shipped abroad to support Hezbollah’s war of terror against the West. They have engaged in military training and raised millions of illicit dollars through a ruthless catalog of criminal enterprises, including large-scale cigarette smuggling and tax evasion schemes, credit card fraud, drug running, gun trafficking, Internet pornography, and an array of other criminal schemes. Lying effortlessly and continuously, they have cynically duped ordinary Americans into unknowingly aiding their terror operations, often by appealing to simple greed and a willingness to dismiss low-level criminal acts as “not really that bad.”
Most ominously, Hezbollah’s minions lurk in sleeper cells, willing, able, and waiting only for the command of their masters in Beirut and Tehran to commit acts of violent terror on American soil. No one who understands Hezbollah’s history doubts for a second its ability to inflict horrible damage should it choose to do so. According to FBI officials, serious credence was given to fears of a Hezbollah plot to assassinate President Clinton’s National Security Adviser, Anthony (Tony) Lake. In 1995 there was enough concern to have Lake move out of his home into the more secure quarters of Blair House, the nation’s official guest residence opposite the White House.
The threat is not theoretical. Hezbollah’s dark talents have been gruesomely demonstrated in the Western Hemisphere by sophisticated bombing attacks in Argentina. Hezbollah sleeper cells—constituted much like those in the United States—are known to exist in an area of South America known as the Tri-Border region of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. These cells cooperated with the Iranian secret service to carry out two horrific signature bombings in Argentina. On March 17, 1992, the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires was struck by a suicide bomber, killing 29. And on July 18, 1994, another powerful bomb destroyed the main building of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Aid Association (AMIA) on a busy street in downtown Buenos Aires. That bomb killed 86 and wounded 300, the greatest loss of Jewish life in a terrorist incident outside Israel since the Second World War. A senior staff member of a committee of the U.S. Congress regards the Argentine bombings as, in part, a not-so-subtle Hezbollah signal to the United States. “The message is,” he said, “we did it there. We can do it here.”
Just as distant thunder warns of the fury of a coming storm, the presence of these Hezbollah cells in America warns of a frightening potential from a body of killers said by one American intelligence expert to make Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda “look like a bunch of kindergartners.” Fortunately, a small band of extremely talented men and women from the ranks of local and federal law enforcement, together with a team of equally talented prosecutors, have dedicated much of their lives to rooting out Hezbollah’s weeds in America. The almost serendipitous coming together of a handful of these able men and women exposed and successfully prosecuted one major Hezbollah cell in the most unlikely of places—Charlotte, North Carolina. They continue working to unravel a tangle of other cells rooted deeply in other unsuspecting American communities.
This is the story of Hezbollah’s invasion of America, and of the thin line of defense upon which American lives depend. It describes in microcosm virtually all of the issues raised by and investigated by the 9/11 Commission—with one major difference. These extraordinary men and women overcame the obstacles that blinded America to the coming attack by al Qaeda, and succeeded in exposing Hezbollah’s operations. But one part of this story cannot be told, because it remains unknown—and that is whether even more hidden layers of Hezbollah’s dark enterprise lie undetected, coiled to strike in America.
The Bourj al-Barajneh neighborhood lies about ten miles to the southeast of downtown Beirut, not far from the headquarters of Hezbollah. What strikes many visitors first is the pervasive stench from the vast heap of an open garbage dump, swarming with dark clouds of flies, at the entrance of an eponymous refugee camp for Palestinians. The Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp, established after the creation of Israel and the partition of Palestine in 1947–48, blends into the surrounding Lebanese neighborhoods. Its borders are indistinguishable to the visitor, although Palestinians and Lebanese know precisely where the boundaries lie. In any case, the camp and the surrounding neighborhoods are grindingly poor warrens, labyrinths of narrow paths barely deserving to be called alleys, rank with open sewers and the acrid smell of stale urine, littered with garbage, spiderwebbed with makeshift electrical connections, drunken with bootleg utility piping, and above all, dark with despair. The encamped Palestinians have been virtually ignored by Arab governments for more than fifty years, with the exception of the occasional trotting out of refugee misery for purposes of international incitement. Their children are regularly rallied to dance and cheer upon news of the latest suicide bombing in Israel.
The other residents of Bourj al-Barajneh, packed cheek by jowl with the Palestinians, are poor Shiite Muslims, émigrés from Lebanon’s rural south. The Shiites are a minority Muslim denomination that broke off from the majority Sunni faithful in the seventh century, persecuted ever since as a heretical sect. Shiites, however, are the majority in Iran. They are also strongly represented in Iraq, where they were viciously suppressed by its erstwhile dictator, Saddam Hussein, and remain ungratefully and violently rebellious in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. In Lebanon, most Shiites were farmers, living for centuries in numbing medieval rural servitude in the south. Desperately poor, badly organized, and long-suffering under the dominant Sunnis—Islam’s majority wing—the Shiites in Lebanon were traditionally friendly with Israel, Lebanon’s southern neighbor. During the 1970s some Shiites even fought alongside Israeli soldiers against the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as members of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA).
The Shiites began immigrating to the city’s suburbs in the 1970s, under pressure from the successive invasions of Yasser Arafat’s PLO—expelled from Jordan in 1970—and an Israeli army determined in 1982 to eradicate the PLO after suffering a decade of cross-border terrorist raids and rocket attacks mounted by the PLO from Lebanon. The Israelis’ heavy-handed treatment of the Shiites played into the agenda of Israel’s radical Islamic foes.
The occupation of the south soon destroyed the earlier amicable relations and turned Lebanon’s Shiites into implacable enemies. Israeli officers and soldiers who once motored leisurely home through south Lebanon on weekend passes found themselves the targets of Shiite ambushes and suicide attacks, like that committed by Salah Ghandour and enshrined by his son.
Like many such centers of rural-to-urban emigration in less developed parts of the world, Bourj al-Barajneh became a hellhole of futility, its residents trapped in endless poverty, the victims of and participants in rolling waves of violence over the beginnings and ends of which they had no control. The chronic cancer of despair thrived. The male children born into these hopeless streets quickly became willing grist for the mills of an array of armed militias that succeeded one another in archaeological layers of violence. The violent process culminated with the Hezbollah terror machine controlling the area.
Mohammed Youssef Hammoud came kicking and screaming into the pitiless world of Bourj al-Barajneh on September 25, 1973. The Hammoud family was devoutly religious, one to whom Shiite clerics and saints, and some lay leaders, were figures of reverent authority. The hand of centuries of Islam and Shiite doctrinal history touched the infant Mohammed at his birth. Like many such families, the Hammoud family grew large beyond the means of its poverty. Mohammed Hammoud was one of five brothers and seven sisters. In addition to the ties of his immediate family, young Mohammed was born into the intense bonds of a network of clan and extended family. The physical and social closeness of Bourj al-Barajneh creates a world in which one’s business is at once both no one’s and everyone’s. Cousins and close friends would turn up time and again in Mohammed’s life, far from Lebanon.
The tumult of the larger Middle East conflict marked every milestone in Mohammed’s young life. On October 6, 1973, scarcely two weeks after his birth, Syria and Egypt struck Israel in a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish religious calendar. Only emergency aid from the United States saved Israel from a military setback that could have threatened the Jewish state’s existence. Discussion of the war, its impact, and America’s role burned hotly through Bourj al-Barajneh, as it did everywhere on the “Arab street.” In the United States, however, ordinary Americans were more focused on relief over the end of the Vietnam War—the Paris Peace Accords had been signed only in January—and frustration over the impact of an oil embargo that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed on the West in retaliation for aid to Israel. The Arab embargo set off a recession, and the price of gasoline soared in America from 30 cents a gallon to about $1.20 in the worst days. Those events generated a brief flurry of crudely stereotypical ethnic attacks on the Arabs. But the subtleties of the longer term implications of the Arab–Israeli struggle simply failed to interest most Americans.
Excerpted from Lightning Out of Lebanon by Tom Diaz and Barbara Newman.
Copyright © 2005 by Tom Diaz and Barbara Newman. All rights reserved.
Posted with permission of the publisher.
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