Over the past eight years, providing for the security of the United States has become a huge business, funded by taxpayers at the federal, state, and local level. Thousands if not hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on the continued perception that there exists a vast alien menace that must be guarded against at all costs lest there be another 9/11. Voices suggesting that the threat is being overstated and even intentionally misrepresented are few and far between, but in reality the contention that groups are ready, willing, and able to stage an attack or even a series of terrorist attacks that would do serious damage to the United States is extremely questionable. The few terrorist convictions obtained in the US since 9/11 have the air of a comic opera, with bizarre plots by pizza deliverymen and paint gunners exposed by agents provocateur inserted in their midst by the FBI. If, as Osama bin Laden has sometimes asserted, the way to destroy the United States is by crippling its economy, then one can argue that the terrorists are already winning. Hundreds of billions of dollars that could be used productively are being wasted every year in the endless war on terror while the United States sinks ever deeper into a sea of debt.
To be sure, with so many vested interests desperately wanting the money spigot to remain open, there is no shortage of propaganda and propagandists ready willing and able to tell the American people just how bad the terrorist threat is. To help the cause along, everyone who might be regarded as a terrorist by anyone anywhere has been thrown into the hopper, with the United States government declaring universal and unending war.
Anyone who has studied the terrorism problem realizes that terrorists come in all sizes, shapes, and flavors. The lumping together of all of them is more a political phenomenon than a practical response to the threat that they do pose. George W. Bush’s so-called "global war on terrorism" was an ill conceived rallying cry to extirpate all terrorists everywhere, but it was from the beginning highly selective. Lethal terrorists in Sri Lanka, Kashmir, and in the Kurdish region of Iraq never received much attention while groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, that do not threaten the United States at all, seemed to be the object of disproportionate concern. Given limited resources, even for the world’s only remaining superpower, Bush should have triangulated the terrorism problem and focused all of the US efforts on the few groups that truly have an international reach and might be able to carry out terrorist attacks in America and Europe. Most prominent among those groups is al-Qaeda, still ensconced along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and still plotting attacks, if our intelligence services are to be believed. That al-Qaeda is still in business is an indictment of the entire approach taken by the US government over the past eight years. There is no sign that anything will change under President Barack Obama, though to be fair he inherited the mess that he must now try to clean up.
The drumbeat that terrorists are everywhere and that all terrorists are America’s problem continues. One of the most recurrent themes is that Hezbollah is the "A-team" of terrorist groups, far exceeding al-Qaeda in its proficiency and lethality. This view was first posited in 2003 by deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage. It was jumped on by Florida Democrat Senator Bob Graham, who was running for president at the time. Graham said "It has a significant presence of its trained operatives inside the United States waiting for the call to action. They are a violent terrorist group. And they have demonstrated throughout their now 25-year history a hatred of the United States and a willingness to kill our people." Graham did not provide a scintilla of evidence to support his assertion that the US is awash with Hezbollah operatives, information that might have proven to be of interest to the FBI if it were true.
The Hezbollah threat warnings have surfaced again, more recently, in a speech given by Richard Falkenrath, New York City’s Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism. Falkenrath is a Bush-Cheney homeland security product who has impressive credentials though one might note that he has always held what might be described as staff positions and has never actually worked directly against terrorists or terrorist targets. Speaking at the AIPAC-founded Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) at the end of June, Falkenrath said that Hezbollah could "hit the US harder than al-Qaeda," though he also noted that it has "more or less decided not to attack the United States interests directly in the continental United States at all." He added: "They would have too much heat on them if they did attack the United States, and they can accomplish most of their interests without it." The only situations in which Hezbollah would likely attack the United States, according to Falkenrath, is if the US were to take military action against either Iran or Hezbollah itself.
The remarks are similar to statements made by President Bush’s Department of Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff who warned in briefings that the group’s military capabilities are far ahead of those of al-Qaeda. In a forthcoming memoir Chertoff has reportedly written "Al-Qaeda and its network are our most serious immediate threat, (but) they may not be our most serious long-term threat. Having operated for more than a quarter-century, (Hezbollah) has developed capabilities that al-Qaeda can only dream of, including large quantities of missiles and highly sophisticated explosives."
Wading through the fluff, the statements both by Falkenrath and Chertoff are clearly intended to depict Hezbollah as potentially the number one terrorist threat against the United States. But exactly what kind of threat would that be and is the assertion itself credible? Hezbollah does not fit most definitions of a terrorist group. It is a legal political party in Lebanon that controls a conventional guerrilla force. It has only attacked the United States directly once, when US forces were in Beirut in 1983. Hezbollah was behind the bombing of the Marine barracks that killed 241, reportedly in retaliation for a devastating shelling by the battleship New Jersey. Apart from that, the group is locally focused on Lebanon and Israel and has no specific anti-American agenda. Both Falkenrath and Chertoff concede that Hezbollah is not currently targeting the United States, though they suggest that could easily change. One wonders what exactly Chertoff has in mind for the longer term Hezbollah threat. Does he expect the group’s trained guerrillas to use the missiles and explosives that they admittedly have to attack New York? It might be difficult to move the ordnance out of Lebanon and across the Atlantic Ocean. Chertoff knows perfectly well that Hezbollah has no interest in the United States and threatens only Israel.
Likewise Falkenrath admits that the group has made the political decision not to operate against the United States unless Washington decides to attack Iran or Hezbollah itself. Falkenrath might be forgiven for having a US-centric view of the world because that is how he makes his living, but anyone else might not be too surprised to discover that if you attack someone they might think of striking back. That used to be referred to by a number of expressions that were not particularly pejorative, including deterrence and defense. Someone should tell Falkenrath that if you want to avoid being counter-attacked you avoid initiating hostilities in the first place.
What Falkenrath and Chertoff are really doing is basing their analysis on the Bush Administration doctrine which basically accepted that all Israel’s enemies are also the enemies of the United States because all terrorists are indistinguishable. That is manifestly untrue and it is perhaps time to put the genie back in the bottle. High officials who are in the counter-terrorism business should not be blamed for their prejudices on the issue of terrorism as they have made careers out of hyping all terrorists all the time. There are indeed terrorists out there and some of them are quite likely able and willing to stage attacks against the United States, though it is reasonable to assume that the scale of the threat has been deliberately and consistently overstated. Hezbollah is not a terrorist group with a global reach or with any evident ambitions to expand its activities. If Chertoff and Falkenrath have any hard evidence that there is a threat to the US homeland posed by heavily armed guerrillas in Lebanon they have certainly not made much of a convincing case. President Obama would be well advised to ask his terrorism advisers some hard questions to determine how many of the threats that America is reportedly confronted by are real and how many are bogus.