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Before September 11, 2001, one terrorist group had killed more Americans than any other: Hezbollah, the “Party of God.” Today it remains potentially more dangerous than even al Qaeda. Yet little has been known about its inner workings, past successes, and future plans–until now.
Written by an accomplished journalist and a law-enforcement expert, Lightning Out of Lebanon is a chilling and essential addition to our understanding of the external and internal threats to America. In disturbing detail, it portrays the degree to which Hezbollah has infiltrated this country and the extent to which it intends to do us harm.
Formed in Lebanon by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in 1982, Hezbollah is fueled by hatred of Israel and the United States. Its 1983 truck-bomb attack against the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut killed 241 soldiers–the largest peacetime loss ever for the U.S. military–and caused President Reagan to withdraw all troops from Lebanon. Since then, among other atrocities, Hezbollah has murdered Americans at the U.S. embassy in Lebanon and the Khobar Towers U.S. military housing complex in Saudi Arabia; tortured and killed the CIA station chief in Beirut; held organizational meetings with top members of al Qaeda–including Osama bin Laden–and established sleeper cells in the United States and Canada.
Lightning Out of Lebanon reveals how, starting in 1982, a cunning and deadly Hezbollah terrorist named Mohammed Youssef Hammoud operated a cell in Charlotte, North Carolina, under the radar of American intelligence. The story of how FBI special agent Rick Schwein captured him in 2002 is a brilliantly researched and written account.
Yet the past is only prologue in the unsettling odyssey of Hezbollah. Using their exclusive sources in the Middle East and inside the U.S. counterterrorism establishment, the authors of Lightning Out of Lebanon imagine the deadly future of Hezbollah and posit how best to combat the group which top American counterintelligence officials and Senator Bob Graham, vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have called “the A Team of terrorism.”
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BARBARA NEWMAN, author of The Covenant: Love and Death in Beirut, is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and is the founder of Barbara Newman Productions, Inc., which has produced numerous documentary films for Discovery Channel, A&E Network, the History Channel, and Showtime, among others. She was senior producer/creator of the Now It Can Be Told series, a nationally syndicated newsmagazine, and, before that, an investigative producer for ABC News’s 20/20. She was also a correspondent for National Public Radio and hosted All Things Considered.
TOM DIAZ is the author of Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America. From 1993 to 1997 he was the lead Democratic counsel on counterterrorism issues, helping to write key antiterrorism legislation. He has recently served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice on the use of high technology by terrorists and as law-enforcement investigative tools. As a reporter he has covered conflicts and tensions in Central America, India, Pakistan, the former Soviet Union, and the closing days of the 1991 Gulf War.
“You’ve got to be taught . . .”
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...
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