Hezbollah Presence in the United States is No Surprise

One of the biggest concerns for officials involved in border security is the potential for members of terrorist groups to sneak into the United States from Mexico. Elected officials and counterterrorism authorities believe that members of Hezbollah have entered our country this way, and have used this possible security risk as a basis for initiating stronger border security measures. Such statements tend to make headlines, and those headlines tend to shock Americans into thinking the next 9/11 will come from Mexico.

The real response to such statements reasonably could be, “so what?”

What many people don’t know is that thousands of people associated with Hezbollah have been quietly making a living in various parts of the United States for a long time, and sending money back to the Middle East to help fund terrorist activities there. The real kicker is that we’re helping them, and have been for quite a while.

[Editor’s note: For a different perspective on Hezbollah’s presence and threat in the US, see the new Guest Commentary, Hezbollah Doesn’t Need Iran’s Money When They Have US Funds]

In 2006, Rep. Edward Royce testified before Congress that the FBI had over 200 active cases in 2005 against people in the United States suspected of being associated with Hezbollah.

“The vast majority of this activity has been linked to fundraising, specifically to attempts to use Visa cards and MasterCards for fraudulent funds to support Hezbollah along with other criminal fundraising activities,” Royce said.

And they’re raising that money by selling fake purses, cigarettes and other name-brand goods to Americans.

The first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 reportedly was financed by the sale of counterfeit textiles from a store on Broadway in New York City. Three years later, a confiscation of 100,000 counterfeit Nike brand t-shirts intended for sale at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games uncovered a multi-million dollar fundraising operation conducted by followers of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman – a blind cleric later convicted of plotting to bomb New York City landmarks.

Raids on counterfeiting operations in California have led to the discovery of Hezbollah flags, photos and other memorabilia. In one case, a female cigarette counterfeiter was arrested at the Los Angeles airport on her way to Lebanon with $230,000 in cash strapped to her body. While the woman claimed to be traveling for vacation, it was presumed that the funds were being transported to Hezbollah.

In February 2008, police conducted raids against 32 stores in New York City’s Chinatown that retailed knock-offs of high-end brand products. The total street value of the goods was in excess of $1 million. The next month, a raid made on the home of Rakesh and Poonam Kumar in Suffolk County, New York yielded a seizure of $2 million worth of products that also replicated the designs of several high-end brands.

But that was pocket changed compared to a sting that was made in April 2008 in a Queens, New York warehouse. In this raid – the largest in New York history – police confiscated 75,000 pairs of fake Nike sneakers, 75,000 knock-off handbags and 5,000 pieces of fake name brand clothing.  The street value of these products was estimated at $4.5 million. New York authorities strongly believed the proceeds from the sale of these goods were headed to Middle Eastern terrorist organizations.

Obviously, the presence of so many people in the United States actively raising money for terrorist organizations is a frightening thought. It also tends to stun people when they’re told that members of Hezbollah are crawling all over the country and have been for a long time.

The most recent example of such activity took place in mid-December 2011 when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided an Oklahoma car dealership that the government suspects may be one of dozens of similar businesses in the US involved in funding Hezbollah. DEA Agent Derek Maltz told ABC’s KTUL-TV that “the used cars being purchased in the United States are being shipped into West Africa. They are making 15, 20, 25 percent profit, and the proceeds are all being sent back into Lebanon, with Hezbollah benefitting.”

There are several things though that need to be understood about the Hezbollah presence in the US and the fact that members continue to arrive in order to reduce panic and over-reaction. First, there’s no information to suggest that members of Hezbollah living in the United States are currently planning to blow up anything. In fact, it goes against their best interests to do so. Both the United States and Latin America are huge cash cows for the organization and they’re working hard to elude the FBI so they can continue to make huge sums of money.

Similar to acts of violence on US soil by Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), any violent acts by Hezbollah would bring the full weight of US law enforcement and, possibly, the military, down on their rackets, drastically reducing the illicit revenue they’re able to generate in America.

Hezbollah has also been raising money from similar criminal enterprises for decades in the tri-border region where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina intersect, as well as in free trade zone areas throughout South America.

Hezbollah was responsible for the two largest terrorist attacks ever conducted in Latin America, one in 1992 and the otherin 1994. Both targeted Jewish targets in Buenos Aires. It’s assumed the group still has the capability to conduct such attacks again. But in a post-9/11 environment, the motivation to conduct such attacks would have to be very strong to sacrifice the millions of dollars that Hezbollah is raking in by its under-the-radar counterfeit businesses.

Should we be concerned that members of Hezbollah have entered the United States via our southwest border, and likely will continue to do so? Yes. But alarm over reports that members of this terrorist group are entering the country from across the Southwest border should be tempered by the knowledge that Hezbollah associates are likely coming here to raise more money, not kill Americans. If they want to accomplish that in the future, they don’t need to bring in new people through Mexico; they already have plenty of associates in-country to do that, and that should be the focus of law enforcement when dealing with any potential internal Hezbollah threat.

A retired Air Force captain and former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Homeland Security Today correspondent Sylvia Longmire worked as the Latin America desk officer analyzing issues in the US Southern Command area of responsibilty that might affect the security of deployed Air Force personnel. From Dec. 2005 through July 2009, she worked as an intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency’s situational awareness Unit, where she focused almost exclusively on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and southwest border violence issues. Her book, "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars," was published in Sept. To contact Sylvia, email her at: sylvia(at)longmireconsulting.com.

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