Terrorist groups throughout the world pose a serious threat to Americans yet many of us know little about them. Three terrorist organizations we often hear about in the U.S. are Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda; however, many Americans cannot specify differences or similarities between the three. It is essential that people understand the threat of each of these groups so that they are better able to protect themselves and their country. “The public needs to be aware of what these terrorist organizations are, how they are organized, where primarily – and how – they operate, how they differ from one another and how they’re coordinating efforts with one another. You always have to know your enemy,” says W. Thomas Smith Jr., a national security expert and former U.S. Marine.
“The American people, for whatever reason, seem to be under-informed when it comes to issues of international terrorism,” says Smith. Jed Babbin, former U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, agrees, “People need to have a better understanding of what the overall threat is.”
All three of these organizations are Islamic. “In some ways they’re pretty well all connected at least by ideology,” says Babbin.
“Hamas” means zeal in Arabic, but it is also an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement. Founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin formed Hamas in 1987 to counter the influence of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Yassir Arafat. Hamas includes both military and political wings and is the largest and most influential Palestinian militant movement. The military side performs anti-Israeli attacks in the form of suicide bombings, rocket attacks, IED attacks and shootings of Israeli inhabitants. Hamas’ military wing has as many as one thousand active members in addition to thousands of supporters and sympathizers. Babbin says, “Their sole purpose is the destruction of Israel. That’s their mission in life.”
In January 2006 Hamas won control of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority government in March 2006. Hamas has not directly targeted U.S. interests, although the group makes little or no effort to avoid targets frequented by foreigners. Babbin agrees, “Frankly, I don’t think Hamas is much of a threat to the United States or to Americans, except those traveling in the Middle East and Israel.”
A good amount of Hamas’s funding comes from Palestinian expatriates, private donors in Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Persian Gulf states. Iran also provides significant support, which some diplomats say could amount to $20 million to $30 million per year.i In addition to funding, Iran also provides weapons and training to Hamas.ii Some Muslim charities in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe funnel money into Hamas-backed social service groups that fund schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens and sports leagues.
While Hamas is by no means harmless, it also may not be one of America’s most prominent threats. “I don’t think that they have the international reach that outfits like Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah do, but we don’t really know. One of the big problems we have on this whole conflict is our intelligence on these folks is very limited. It comes mainly and directly from what the Israelis and other sources will share with us,” says Babbin.
Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, is a direct threat to the US, as proven by 9/11 and various other attacks. Al-Qaeda is considered the top terrorist threat to the United States.
“Al-Qaeda” is Arabic for “the base.” It is an international terrorist network established in 1988 by Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda helped finance, recruit, transport, and train thousands of fighters from dozens of countries to be part of the Afghan resistance to defeat the Soviet Union. Its headquarters today are currently unknown.
Babbin says, “Al-Qaeda is focused on destroying the United States and its economy.” Al-Qaeda even issued a statement in the “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders World Islamic Front Statement” in 1998 saying, “to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim.”
Al-Qaeda tactics include assassination, bombing, hijacking, kidnapping, suicide attacks and others. Al-Qaeda has autonomous underground cells in roughly 100 countries, including the United States. It may have several thousand members and associates. “There is obviously a global reach there and a global agenda,” says Babbin.
Al-Qaeda has cooperated with numerous terrorist groups worldwide including Hezbollah. One difference between the two groups is “Al-Qaeda, which is Sunni, is a global network of terrorist cells. Shia Hezbollah on the other hand – though certainly fielding and supporting its own cells throughout the world – is a proxy army of Iran… Those attempting to soft-soap the threat will often say that Sunni and Shia don’t work together. But that’s not true,” says Smith. “Sunni and Shia are absolutely coordinating their efforts against the West,” he adds.
Hezbollah was established in 1982 during the Lebanon War when a group of Lebanese Shia Muslims declared themselves the “Party of God” or Hizb Allah. Inspired by the Iranian Revolution, Hezbollah received training from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and funding from Tehran. Strongly anti-Western and anti-Israeli, this radical Shia organization dedicates itself to creating an Iranian-style Islamic republic in Lebanon and removing all non-Islamic influences from the region.
Hezbollah sources assert that the organization has between five and ten thousand fighters. It receives substantial amounts of financial, training, weapons, explosives, political, diplomatic, and organizational aid from Iran and Syria. Iran purportedly provides financial assistance and military assistance worth $25-50 million.
Hezbollah’s status is significant as Iran’s front-line operative arm against Israel. “Iran basically has two military force structures. One, the national military, has an army, navy and an air force. But there is a parallel Islamic revolutionary force – the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or IRGC – which reports directly to Iran’s spiritual leaders,” says Smith.
“Hezbollah is a Lebanon-based Shia terrorist army, directly supported by Iran, specifically Iran’s Quds Force – literally the “Jerusalem force” – which is a special operations branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC provides direct operational support to Hezbollah through training, facilitation, and by providing money and weapons,” Smith adds. Its core consists of several thousand militants and activists, the U.S. government estimates. Israeli Intelligence officials estimate that Hizballah’s weapons arsenal includes between 40,000 to 80,000 short and long-range rockets, as well as anti-aircraft, anti-tank, and anti-ship weapons.
In 2008, Former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff warned, “Someone described Hezbollah like the A-team of terrorists in terms of capabilities, in terms of range of weapons they have, in terms of internal discipline.” Chertoff added, “To be honest, they make Al-Qaeda look like a minor league team.”
U.S. intelligence reports say that Hezbollah cells operate in Europe, Africa, South America, and North America.i “[Hezbollah] has more and more a global reach. There are many credible reports of Hezbollah operating in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua. So they are a growing threat to the United States,” says Babbin. “We know that Hezbollah is operating with great freedom of movement in South America. And there is the very real threat that Hezbollah’s operatives may be coming up through our own porous southern border into the United States,” says Smith. “I wouldn’t discount them coming in through the Northern border as well,” adds Babbin.
The Washington Times reported in March 2009 that, “Hezbollah is using the same southern narcotics routes that Mexican drug kingpins do to smuggle drugs and people into the United States, reaping money to finance its operations and threatening U.S. national security, current and former U.S. law enforcement, defense and counterterrorism officials say.”
Smith advises American citizens to do their part in fighting terrorism by utilizing the military’s SALUTE report when they see something suspicious. SALUTE is an acronym for size, activity, location, unit, time and equipment. This way the witness can identify how many people they see, what those people are doing, where they are specifically, what clothing they are wearing, time and date of sighting, and what equipment such as book bags, flashlights, etc… they might be using. After writing down these notes, Smith suggests contacting law enforcement authorities.