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Analysis: Hezbollah threat at the border?

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor   |   Aug. 3, 2006 at 3:57 AM
WASHINGTON, Aug. 3 (UPI) -- As the conflict in Lebanon intensifies, U.S. official are weighing the consequences of a possible strategic shift by the Islamic extremist group Hezbollah.

U.S. officials tell United Press International that intelligence assessments indicate the group's strategic posture up till now appears designed to avoid direct confrontation with the United States.

But "whenever there's an up-tick in tension (in the Middle East) there's a concern that the posture could change," said one U.S. intelligence official authorized to speak with the media. At that point, said the official, attention switches to trying to work out what capabilities the group might have. "Capacity is what is interesting people at the moment."

Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House subcommittee on terrorism and non-proliferation, told UPI he is concerned Hezbollah might be positioning itself for an attack against the United States.

"We're seeing a pattern of activities on the border and elsewhere," he said, indicating "a renewed operational focus by Hezbollah on getting their people in over the border, between the ports of entry," because that way, U.S. authorities will not know they are in the country.

Royce said there was a rise in the number of ethnic Lebanese with Brazilian nationality apprehended at the border. "We're seeing a pattern of (Hezbollah) operatives" from Latin American countries "attempting to come into the United States," he said.

The tri-border region of South America, where the frontiers of Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina all meet, has a large Lebanese-origin population and has long been identified by some in U.S. intelligence as a hotspot for Hezbollah activities

Royce referenced recent statements from militants linked to Hezbollah in Iran that said they had the capability to stage suicide attacks against U.S interests around the world.

"We know that there are Hezbollah people here," he said, adding that as many as 300 "individuals doing work for Hezbollah" had been apprehended -- arrested or convicted -- "over the years." He said they were involved in fundraising or other logistical support operations for the group.

"The question is, could these types of cells be given the green light" to commit terrorist attacks within the United States?

Under these circumstances, he said "it would behoove the United States to get some measure of control of the border."

Royce cautioned that he knew of no specific intelligence warnings regarding any current plots by the group, which espouses the hardline Shiite Islam of the Iranian revolution, and is said to be backed by Iran and Syria.

And that caveat was echoed by several U.S. officials that United Press International spoke to.

"We have no credible intelligence that they are planning any attack," said FBI spokesman Richard Kolko, adding that the bureau was "maintaining its vigilance against any potential threats" from the group.

"While it is appropriate to be concerned," said another U.S. intelligence official, "There is nothing that has the hair standing up on the backs of our necks right now."

Indeed the official added that there was a "a train of thought" among U.S. analysts noting that "with the exception of the original kidnapping," Hezbollah "actions during the current crisis have been limited to combat-level operations."

The question these analysts were asking, said the official, is "would they actually conduct terrorist attacks at this time and risk undermining the broad support that they have" in the region and around the world.

Hezbollah is considered a "hard target" by U.S. intelligence, but officials told UPI they remain confident about their ability to get intelligence about the group's strategic-level decisions.

Indeed, federal law enforcement officials told UPI that in the absence of specific threat information, the scenario of a "self-generated" jihadi plot undertaken without command or control from Hezbollah, was as worrying a scenario as an actual plot from the terror group.

"Equally, we are vigilant against any independent individual or group taking up the same cause without direction or instructions," said Kolko. He said the bureau had a robust outreach program to both the Muslim and Jewish communities "to encourage anyone with any information about threats of this type to come forward."

© 2006 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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