LIGHTNING OUT OF LEBANON
Hezbollah Terrorists on American Soil
By Tom Diaz and Barbara Newman
Presidio. 250 pp. $24.95
Al Qaeda understandably receives the lion's share of public and media attention, but it is only part of a larger constellation of terrorist groups. Another dark star is Hezbollah, or the Party of God: a Shiite Lebanese militia that's responsible for hundreds of American deaths. Hezbollah is justly infamous for its 1983 and 1984 bombings of U.S. facilities in Lebanon, its 1980s kidnappings of Westerners there, its 1990s bombings of Jewish and Israeli targets in Argentina and its assaults on Israel. A member of the group also helped in the 1996 attack on Khobar Towers, a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 Americans. Because of Hezbollah's skill, reach, brutal track record and links to Iran and Syria, serious efforts to advance our knowledge of the organization are welcome. Unfortunately, Lightning Out of Lebanon, by Tom Diaz and Barbara Newman, falls short. It illuminates the day-to-day realities of counterterrorism but offers only a simplistic and alarmist portrayal of Hezbollah and unsophisticated ideas about how to combat it more effectively.
Lightning Out of Lebanon explores the operations of a Hezbollah cell based in Charlotte, N.C., whose 17 members and accomplices were convicted in 2002 of conspiring to aid a terrorist organization and other crimes. The cell's members raised money for Hezbollah by buying cigarettes in low-tax North Carolina and selling them illegally in high-tax Michigan. We learn about the arrival in America of the cell's leader, Mohammed Hammoud, whom Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon sent to establish a network here, and we see how he and fellow employees -- some Lebanese, some not -- at the Domino's Pizza store where he worked took to smuggling, and how local FBI investigators and Justice Department lawyers brought the ring down.
The book shines when discussing FBI operations and the mundane realities of the Hezbollah operatives' daily existence. The FBI officials faced numerous problems, most of which stemmed from byzantine or misguided regulations and procedures rather than the craftiness of their prey. Time and again, opportunities were lost because the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department didn't share information. The artificial "wall" separating criminal and intelligence investigations within the FBI also created roadblocks, making it far harder for investigators to put the pieces together and act effectively.
Despite such problems, Diaz and Newman show that law enforcement -- derided during the 2004 election as the counterterrorism tool of the weak -- can pack a powerful punch. Arrests for minor violations such as credit-card fraud can produce investigations, which in turn yield intelligence that can be used to disrupt a broader network. Moreover, law enforcement officers can appeal to members of the local community. One key break for the U.S. investigators in the case of the Hammoud cell occurred in 1997, when a law-abiding member of Charlotte's Lebanese community told the FBI of his suspicions of his neighbors.
Hammoud and his band spent much of their time trying to plant roots and avoid being deported on visa violations. Hammoud, for example, used a fake visa to enter the United States, applied for political asylum and tried several phony marriages before finally regularizing his visa status. Diaz and Newman offer amusing (but also depressing) descriptions of how these scams work.
The book's biggest problem, however, is that the authors fail to show how Hezbollah has changed over the years. They make constant references to the horrific attacks against U.S. military targets in Lebanon in 1983 and imply that Hezbollah will soon attempt similar attacks on U.S. soil. But almost all of their examples, including the Charlotte cell at the center of the narrative, suggest a Hezbollah that is not at war with the United States. The Charlotte cell focused on fundraising; other Hezbollah supporters discussed in the book tried to acquire sophisticated equipment that would help Hezbollah fight Israel. Hezbollah treats the United States as a parasite treats its host, rather than as a mortal enemy.
To be sure, Hezbollah today is still an enemy, but a far different kind of foe than Diaz and Newman's sloppy portrait suggests. The authors worry about Hezbollah surveillance of U.S. personnel overseas, support for Palestinian terrorists and other nefarious activities. In fact, these activities are an extraordinary switch from the early 1980s, when Hezbollah operatives focused on killing Americans. Hezbollah now wants to intimidate and deter Americans, not murder them indiscriminately -- an important shift, though hardly a reassuring one. After all, Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's chief sponsors, aren't eager for a direct clash with the United States. Moreover, Hezbollah is now a major player in Lebanese politics (as its recent pro-Syria demonstrations attest) with much to lose from reckless behavior. These changes have not transformed a murderous organization into a friend, but they have changed the nature of the threat -- and of a shrewd U.S. response.
But rather than seriously discuss these nuances, the authors bat aside anything that suggests that Hezbollah is no longer quite the same organization that killed so many Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s. For example, State Department officials who note the decline in drug trafficking from Lebanon are dismissed as "fantasists in pin-striped suits."
Given this crude portrait of both the enemy and officials fighting it, the authors' recommendations are unsurprisingly facile. They call for taking the "handcuffs" off U.S. law enforcement agencies, even though they note that the Patriot Act toppled the now-famous "wall" between intelligence officers and FBI criminal investigators.
The story of the Charlotte cell -- and the broader tale of U.S. law enforcement successes in helping prevent other attacks after Sept. 11 -- provides vital lessons in protecting America from terrorism. While Lightning Out of Lebanon offers some insights, its simplifications produce more heat than light.
Daniel Byman is an assistant professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His latest book, "Deadly Connections: States That Sponsor Terrorism," will be published this summer.