By Aaron Kliegman
A common argument in the US — especially among the political left and the isolationist-leaning right — is that Iran doesn’t really threaten America. Sure, the argument goes, Iran’s regime does nasty things to its own people and to others across the Middle East, but it poses no threat to the American homeland. Iran is merely a regional problem and should therefore be ranked much lower on the list of Washington’s strategic priorities.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) would beg to differ. In a newly published article for the academic journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, two veterans of the NYPD Intelligence Division, Ioan Pop and Mitchell Silber, detail how Iran and its most powerful proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah, very much threaten the American homeland.
“The threat from Iran and Hezbollah was always near and sometimes at the very top of the threat matrix for New York City based on Iran and Hezbollah’s global reach, sophistication, and lethality,” the authors write. “There is evidence Iran and Hezbollah have sought in recent years to create a sleeper network in the United States and Western Europe, which could be activated to launch attacks.”
Indeed, for years, Iran and Hezbollah have maintained sleeper cells and sleeper agents in the US, waiting for Tehran’s signal to strike. One operative for Hezbollah told the FBI during interviews in 2016 and 2017 that, if the US and Iran went to war, “the US sleeper cell would expect to be called upon to act.” Some experts say Hezbollah, which answers to (and receives about $700 million a year from) Iran, is present in at least 15 American cities.
That Iran’s leaders adhere to an ideology largely based on anti-Americanism and control a nation-state with ballistic missiles and a nuclear program makes the situation all the more concerning. And don’t forget that Hezbollah is “the most technically capable terrorist group in the world.” Hezbollah effectively controls Lebanon and has far more knowledge and capabilities than the likes of ISIS and al Qaeda.
Those who don’t think Iran will try anything on American soil should recall the Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US in Washington, DC. Or listen to Nick Rasmussen, director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, who said in 2017, “It’s our assessment that Hezbollah is determined to give itself a potential homeland option as a critical component of its terrorism playbook.”
Pop and Silber identify seven principles that underpin Iran and Hezbollah’s way of operating in America:
- Intelligence gathering and surveillance activities;
- Plausible diplomatic, business, education, and other covers to conceal operational activities;
- Infiltration of Iranian dissident groups;
- Logistical planning for possible future attacks;
- Preparing “human target packages” to enable assassinating dissidents and adversaries;
- Counter-intelligence tradecraft, and operational security
- Recruiting operatives with dual nationalities and Western passports from the Shia diaspora.
The authors outline each principle, sharing several harrowing anecdotes. In 2003, for example, uniformed NYPD officers were riding a train around 2 am when they saw two men filming the subway train tracks. The men initially claimed diplomatic immunity but turned out to be guards at the Iranian Mission to the UN. One month later, the guards were expelled from the US for “engaging in activities that were not consistent with their duties” — meaning they were spying.
Sixteen years later, an Iranian citizen and a dual US-Iranian citizen pleaded guilty to acting as illegal agents of the government of Iran. They were charged for monitoring two Jewish facilities in Chicago and American members of an exiled Iranian opposition group.
In another incident, an investigation by the NYPD and the FBI led to the arrests in 2017 of two naturalized Americans from Lebanon who were trained by Hezbollah to collect intelligence in the US. One of the men was later sentenced to 40 years in prison for “covert terrorist activities on behalf of Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization.” American authorities noted that Hezbollah uses surveillance to plan for future terrorist attacks.
Nor should we forget another way that Iran has targeted the American homeland: Through cyber-attacks. Just in the past few weeks, hackers linked to Iran targeted the American drug maker Gilead Science, which is working furiously to produce treatments for the coronavirus.
Iran has been at war with America since 1979, when Islamist radicals took a great nation hostage. Since then, Tehran has tried to position itself to be able to launch attacks in the US. Those who minimize the Iranian threat need to shake their ignorance — or their ideological rigidity. At this very moment, Iran and its thugs in Hezbollah are plotting to attack Americans not just in the Middle East, but also in America itself.
Aaron Kliegman is a freelance writer based in Virginia. Previously, he was a staff writer and news editor at the Washington Free Beacon, where he wrote analysis and commentary on foreign policy and national security. Aaron’s work has been published in a range of publications, and he has a master’s degree in international relations. Aaron is now writing regular columns for the Inner Circle as a contributor, and I am excited to have him on the Gingrich 360 team. — Newt