As Hezbollah continues to wage its relentless terrorist campaign against Israel, supported by its Syrian and Iranian sponsors, U.S. authorities have expressed grave concern that the Middle East conflict could bleed onto America soil. Earlier this week, William Kowalski, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Detroit office, wondered, "if the situation escalates, will Hezbollah take the gloves off, so to speak, and attack here in the United States, which they've been reluctant to do until now?"
Kowalski's concerns are undoubtedly justified given a 2002 FBI assessment that "FBI investigations to date continue to indicate that many Hezbollah subjects based in the United States have the capability to attempt terrorist attacks here should this be a desired objective of the group." A year later, then-CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "Hezbollah, as an organization with capability and worldwide presence, is [Al Qaeda's] equal, if not a far more capable organization." Further heightening concern, Hezbollah spokesman Mojtaba Bigdeli told Reuters this week that Hezbollah has "2,000 volunteers" ready to be "dispatch[ed]…to every corner of the world to jeopardize Israel and America's interests…If America wants to ignite World War Three…we welcome it."
In order to finance the training of these "volunteers," as well as the seemingly endless barrage of rockets that have rained down on Israeli cities, Hezbollah has established an extensive fundraising infrastructure in the United States, as well as in Canada, South America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Supplementing the nearly $100 million Hezbollah reportedly receives from Iran, Hezbollah operatives in the U.S. have engaged in a litany of criminal activities, including credit card fraud, cigarette smuggling, counterfeiting, drug running, and organized retail theft, that provide millions to the Shiite terrorist organization (see Doug Farah's post below).
Further, although Hezbollah has not utilized charitable front organizations in the U.S. to the extent that its comrade-in-arms Hamas has, there is convincing evidence that a Hezbollah-linked charity, with direct ties to the group's spiritual leader in Lebanon, is currently operating in Dearborn, Michigan.
Founded in 1991, the Al-Mabarrat Charitable Organization-USA Inc. has changed its name repeatedly over the last fifteen years, discarding the names "Cedar Organization, Inc.", "Cedar Charitable Organization, Inc." and "Cedar Social Services of America, Inc." On its website, http://www.mabarrat.org/, which is no longer active, Al-Mabarrat claimed that its purpose "is to promote the cause of…orphans by providing sponsorship that will go toward schooling, health, and general." While acknowledging that it proffers that support by working in conjunction with the Al-Mabarrat Association in Lebanon (whose logo it shares), the website conveniently omits the fact that Al-Mabarrat-Lebanon is run by Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.
Fadlallah, labeled Hezbollah's "chief ‘spiritual leader'" by the Department of Justice, has been designated a Specially Designated Terrorist by the U.S. Treasury Department, thus criminalizing financial transactions with him. The U.S. government has further alleged that "Fadlallah issued the fatwa authorizing" the 1983 Hezbollah bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks that killed 241 Americans. Demonstrating its awareness of Al-Mabarrat-Lebanon's terrorist agenda, the U.S. government banned Lebanese Finance Minister Fuad Siniora (currently the Lebanese Prime Minister) from entering the United States in 2003 because of a donation he had made to the organization in 2000
Despite Al-Mabarrat-USA's direct link to a Fadlallah-controlled organization, to date, the U.S. branch continues to operate unfettered. In fact, the organization appears to have gained a level of credibility in the U.S. as the Detroit Free Press reported earlier this month that "many Muslims in the region have donated to Al-Mabarrat."
The most prominent Detroit area Muslim to be publicly linked to Al-Mabarrat is Talil Chahine, the owner of the La Shish restaurant chain, who was indicted in May on federal tax evasion charges for allegedly concealing more than $20 million in restaurant profits and funneling some of those funds to Lebanon. In 2002, Chahine, who federal prosecutors assert has "connections at the highest levels of ... Hezbollah," attended an Al-Mabarrat fundraiser in Lebanon at which he and Fadlallah served as the keynote speakers. (For his part, according to the Detroit Free Press, Chahine admits he attended the al-Mabarrat fundraiser in Lebanon.) At that event, "Chahine was the representative…of a worldwide group of fundraisers," according to DOJ. DOJ has also noted that agents searching Chahine's Michigan house discovered a letter thanking Chahine for sponsoring Lebanese orphans, which DOJ stated "is a euphemism used by Hezbollah to refer to the orphans of martyrs."
Hezbollah's use of Al-Mabarrat as a fundraising front is a savvy strategic move, mirroring a tactic long exploited by terrorist groups. By utilizing charities, terrorists can generate popular support by providing some legitimate services, attract donations from unwitting donors, and obscure financial trails. As the U.S. government's actions against organizations such as the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation, the Illinois-based Benevolence International Foundation, and the Ohio-based KindHearts demonstrate, the U.S. has long served as a fertile ground for these organizations.
As Hezbollah intensifies its terrorist offensive against and threatens to unleash "World War Three," the U.S. government should act to ensure that aid and comfort are not being provided from within our own borders.
Cross-posted at Counterterrorism Blog.