Al-Qaeda Still Coming to America

In Phoenix, 42-year-old Ali Yousif Ahmed al-Nouri was recently arrested for the murder of two Iraqi police officers in the Iraqi city of Fallujah nearly 14 years ago. His neighbors.  were shocked to learn that the driving instructor was charged with assassinating the officers on behalf of al-Qaeda.

Omar Muhialdin, the owner of a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant where Ahmed was a regular customer, told the Associated Press that he was surprised at the arrest because “Ali drinks a lot. Ali likes to dance. He’s not religious.”

His arrest begs the question: How many other members of al-Qaeda are living in the United States?  And are they still willing to carry out terrorist attacks at the behest of the terrorist organization?

Some members of al-Qaeda are attempting to come into the country illegally.

In late January 2020, three suspected members of al-Qaeda were arrested in Columbia as they tried to board a flight to Dallas, Texas.  All three men entered Columbia from Venezuela. Al Raefee, Tuameh Tuameh, and Al Harari, are all from Syria.

Syria has an al-Qaeda branch, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

News of the arrests of the Syrians was published in Law Enforcement Today and SOFREP, both online publications that cover law enforcement and military affairs. The arrests have not been covered by the mainstream media in the United States, and the U.S. State Department Office of Public Affairs ignored a request for comment.

The three men had passports issued in Columbia, showing them as born in Cartagena.  All three passports were issued on the same day in 2016, a red flag noted by Columbian authorities, according to Law Enforcement Today.

Julio Borges, Presidential Commissioner for Foreign Affairs of Juan Guaido’s interim government of Venezuela, said on Twitter of the arrests, “One more example that Nicolas Maduro has become the greatest protector and promoter of international terrorism.”

The United States and many other western countries recognize Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela, but Maduro has refused to step aside. He is backed by military and intelligence operatives from Cuba and Russia. Maduro has continued the policies of the late Hugo Chavez, who had close ties to Iran and its terrorist arm, Hezbollah.

Since the 9/11 attacks, Americans have been inundated with news of al-Qaeda, which is responsible for the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—including the crew and passengers of three airliners.

Nearly two decades after the attacks, many Americans have grown complacent about the threat, and some lawmakers question the cost of continuing the fight against al-Qaeda.

After the death of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in 2011, the group began pursuing more limited goals, focusing on quietly rebuilding itself while allowing the Islamic State, or ISIS, bear the brunt of the West’s counter-terrorism efforts.

Al-Qaeda itself may be relatively weak, but it continues to plot against the United States. In a March 2018 speech, the new leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri called on his followers to strike the United States.  His speech was entitled “America is the First Enemy of Muslims.”

Zawahiri is sustaining the beliefs of Osama bin Laden, whose vision was to create a network of fighters to lead a global jihad whose ultimate goal was to undermine the power and influence of the United States.  Al-Qaeda, in Arabic, means “the base.”  ISIS evolved from al-Qaeda in Iraq, and numerous other Sunni terrorist groups have followed Al-Qaeda’s lead.

Al-Qaeda is not only an organization, it is an idea that still has the attention of the FBI.

In testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee on Oct. 30, 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, “We remain concerned that groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda have the intent to carry out large-scale attacks in the U.S.”

Within the past decade, several small-scale Al-Qaeda or ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks have been carried out in the United States.

  • On November 5, 2009, Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army major and psychiatrist, fatally shot 14 soldiers and wounded more than 30 others at Fort Hood, Texas. Hasan shouted “Allahu Akbar”, Arabic for “God is Great” while carrying out his shooting rampage. Born to Palestinian immigrants in Virginia, Hasan was apparently influenced by Anwar al-Awlaki, the leader of the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church. Al-Awlaki preached that there was a U.S.-led “war on Islam.”  Considered to be a senior recruiter for al-Qaeda, al-Awlaki  was killed in 2011 by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, after he fled the United States.

 

  • On Dec 2, 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik attacked an office holiday party in San Bernardino, CA, killing 14 and wounding 22. Farook was a U.S.-born citizen of Pakistani descent; Malik was a Pakistani-born green card holder.  According to the FBI, they were “homegrown violent extremists” who were radicalized over the internet.

 

  • On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Mateen told investigators that the attacks were vengeance for American airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.  Mateen was also radicalized through the internet.

 

  • On Dec. 6, 2019, a Saudi national receiving flight training at Naval Air Station Pensacola killed three and wounded eight others before being killed by police. The gunman, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, posted anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadi messages on his social media. On Sept. 11, 2019, one of his posts said, “the countdown has begun” just two hours before the shooting. Investigators believe he was radicalized in Saudi Arabia.

 

After an initial investigation by the FBI, Attorney General William Barr said Aishamrani was “motivated by jihadist ideology.”  Barr said 21 Saudi military students were removed from training in the United States and returned home, following investigations that showed many of the students possessed jihadist or anti-American material.

The opportunities for al-Qaeda attacks in the United States are limitless. Targets such as electric power plants, pipelines, water lines, and bridges are numerous and difficult to protect. The operatives could launch conventional attacks on shopping malls, movie theaters, train stations, or at public events such as baseball games.

The FBI and other counter-terrorism organizations realize the vulnerabilities for terrorist attacks in the United States.  What they don’t know is the identity of most of the terrorists, where they are, and how many are in the United States.

In October 2019, Naif Abdulaziz M. Alfallaj, 35, was sentenced in U.S. District Court to 12 years in prison for concealing his attendance at an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and committing visa fraud.

Alfallaj, a resident of Weatherford, Oklahoma came to the United States in late 2011 on a nonimmigrant visa based on his wife’s status as a foreign student. Court documents state that he used the visa to apply for lessons at a private flight school in Oklahoma.

The FBI found his fingerprints on an application to al-Farooq, one of al-Qaeda’s training sites in Afghanistan.  According to a 2013 study on “Al-Qaeda in the United States” by the Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank, 47 percent of the 171  Americans convicted of Al-Qaeda-related terrorist offenses between 1997 and 2011 attended the al-Farooq training camp.

FBI Director Wray told Congress that the most immediate terrorist threats to the United States come not only from foreign terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, but also from homegrown violent extremists who are inspired by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

The homegrown groups are particularly dangerous, Wray says, because of their lack of direct connection to the larger organizations and their ability to rapidly mobilize with the use of encrypted communications—such as the i-phone.

Because terrorist propaganda and training are available on the internet, al-Qaeda does not have to smuggle operatives into the United States to recruit and carry out acts of terrorism.

In 2017, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy sponsored a conference on al-Qaeda.  Aaron Zelin, a Richard Borow Fellow at the institute, said that, contrary to the assumptions of many U.S. policy makers, al-Qaeda “is not on the run and is very active in numerous locales, most specifically in Syria, Yemen, Mali, Somalia, and Libya” as well as in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“One must remember that al-Qaeda is nimble, always learning and adjusting in its quest for survival and expansion,” Zelin wrote.

Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, delivered a paper at the conference, in which he said al-Qaeda is present “in more countries today than it was in 2001—and in three times as many as when the Obama administration took office in 2009.”

Al-Qaeda is “fully operational” in 18 countries, Hoffman said.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, controversy has surrounded reports that al-Qaeda operatives have been crossing the border from Mexico. The arguments have been linked to President Trump’s plans for a border wall, and opinions on the issue seem to depend on ideology. Those opposed to the border wall appear to also be skeptical of reports of al-Qaeda entering the United States.

U.S. intelligence information on the issue remains classified, but reporting based on public information indicates that some terrorists have crossed the border from Mexico into the United States.

A report by the Center for Immigration Studies in November 2018 states that 15 suspected terrorists have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border since 2001.  Those detained had affiliations with ISIS, Hezbollah, and al-Shabbab, among others.

The Center report said at least 100 other migrants detained at the border were on U.S. terrorism “watch list” known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE).  That number pales by comparison to the approximately 3,000 “special interest aliens” from countries of interest who are detained annually at the southern border.

How many were not caught crossing the border?  Where are they?  Nobody knows.

 

 

Iran and Hezbollah

After a U.S. missile killed Iranian QUDS Force General Qasem Soleimani on January 3, the region erupted in chaos. The Iranians launched a missile attack on the U.S. military base in Ain al-Assad, Iraq. Iranian military forces then shot down a civilian airliner from Ukraine, killing all 176 people aboard—Iran claimed it was a mistake.

Rumors of war spread, as protesters filled the streets in Baghdad and Tehran. Two days later, Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of the terrorist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon called for Shiite militias to attack U.S. military targets.

Nasrallah praised the Iranian missile attack on the Ain al-Asad U.S. military base in Iraq.  According to a translation by the Lebanese Naharnet outlet, Nasrallah, in a January 5 speech, said, “The Americans will leave our region humiliated, defeated and terrified.”

His speech brought into focus the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran. For decades, Hezbollah has portrayed itself as a political organization that helps widows and orphans in Beirut, a city torn apart by war and civil strife for half a century. In 2018, Hezbollah and its coalition won 71 of 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament.

A Shiite Muslim organization, Hezbollah claims its relationship with Iran is based on religious and cultural ties.

The reality is far different.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Nasrallah, who does not hold an official public office in Lebanon, has shaped Hezbollah into the dominant political power in Lebanon and drives Hezbollah’s military operations—a euphemism for terrorist activities.

Since Nasrallah took over leadership of Hezbollah in 1982, he has claimed that his political wing is separate from Hezbollah’s global terrorist operations. In May 2018, however, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called Nasrallah’s claim a “false distinction” and imposed financial sanctions on Nasrallah and other top Hezbollah officials.  The U.S. order called Nasrallah a “Specially Designated Terrorist.”

In his January speech, made from an undisclosed location in Beirut, Nasrallah said, “The suicide attackers who forced Americans to leave from our region in the past are still here and their numbers have increased.”

His remarks were a likely reference to the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. The 1st Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment was sent to Lebanon in 1982 by President Reagan to help quell growing terrorist activity in the country.

During the early morning of October 23, 1983, a 19-ton Mercedes truck packed with explosives rammed through the front gate of a compound housing the Americans, killing 220 Marines, 18 Navy sailors, and three Army soldiers.  More than 100 servicemen were injured.

Ten minutes later, another explosives-filled truck crashed into a building housing soldiers of France’s 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment, killing 58 paratroopers.

After sorting out conflicting claims of responsibility for the Beirut bombings, U.S. investigators determined that Hezbollah was responsible for the attacks.  Since Nasrallah assumed leadership of Hezbollah in 1982, it is highly likely that he ordered the attacks.

The State Department, in its annual 2018 “Country Reports on Terrorism,” said  “Iran remains the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism,” and supports Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Jihad. The U.S. State Department has designated all three as terrorist organizations.

Hezbollah’s future terrorist activities depend heavily on funding.  Its financial sources include Lebanese business groups, private individuals, and taxes paid by the Shia Lebanese.  Its main source, however, has been Iran. In 2018, U.S. Treasury officials estimated that Iran gives Hezbollah $700 million a year.

Iran’s ability to continue its funding of Hezbollah is now in question, since President Trump in 2018 announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the “Iran nuclear deal.”

Iran had benefitted financially from the deal, orchestrated by former President Obama. On Jan. 17, 2016, the day after four American detainees were released by Iran, a U.S. jet carrying $400 million in euros, Swiss francs and other currencies landed in Iran.  Soon after, $1.3 billion in cash followed. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told Congress that Iran would receive a total of between $25 billion and $50 billion from the deal.

U.S. intelligence officials believe that some of that money was explicitly used to fund terrorism, while other funds ended up in the bank accounts of corrupt Iranian leaders.

Since President Trump ended the JCPOA, the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions targeting Iran’s energy, financial, shipping, and shipbuilding industries. As a consequence of the sanctions, unemployment has skyrocketed in Iran, and demonstrations against the regime have erupted throughout Iran in recent months.

With Iran’s financial support in doubt, Hezbollah may have to resume—or accelerate—its ties with drug cartels in South America.  In 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency arrested four members of Hezbollah on charges of selling cocaine in the U.S. and Europe to fund Hezbollah operations in Syria and Lebanon.

According to the DEA, Hezbollah began exporting operatives in the 1980s to the tri-border region of South America, where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet.  Hezbollah targeted the region because many Arab immigrants fled Lebanon and settled in the area during the civil war of the 1970s. The Muslim population in the tri-border area is estimated to be around 30,000 people.

In 2008, the DEA launched Project Cassandra, after investigators concluded that Hezbollah had transformed itself into an international crime syndicate, collecting $1 billion a year from drug and weapons trafficking.  For eight years, agents used informants, wiretaps and undercover operations to uncover Hezbollah’s network, according to reporting by Politico  and testimony before Congress by former DEA and Treasury department officials.

DEA agents traced the conspiracy to the top leadership of Hezbollah and its state sponsors in Iran. However, the investigation was hamstrung by the Obama administration, which was trying to negotiate the Iran nuclear deal.

During congressional testimony in 2017, Katherine Bauer, an Obama-era Treasury Department official, said the Hezbollah investigations conducted by the DEA during the Obama administration “were tamped down for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardizing the nuclear deal.”

U.S. investigators found evidence linking Hezbollah with Mexican and Columbian drug cartels and high level officials in the Syrian, Russian, and Venezuelan governments. When DEA investigators sought approval for more significant investigations, prosecutions, arrests, and financial sanctions, officials at Justice and Treasury departments delayed or rejected their requests, during the last two years of the Obama administration.

The roadblocks were the result of Obama’s promise in 2009 to improve relations with Iran as part of a broader rapprochement with the Muslim world.  In May 2010, John Brennan, Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor and then CIA director, said in a speech that the administration was looking for ways to build up “moderate elements” within Hezbollah.

Obama announced the final agreement on the Iran nuclear deal on Jan. 17, 2016.  A few months later, Project Cassandra was dismantled.  As a result, U.S. investigators lost valuable insights into Hezbollah’s illicit operations with top officials in the Iranian, Syrian, Venezuelan and Russian governments—including presidents Nicolas Maduro, Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin.

If U.S. economic sanctions against Iran continue, Hezbollah may be tempted to look back to South America for illicit ways to replenish its finances.  Regardless of where Hezbollah obtains its funds, it is highly likely that the organization will continue to wage terrorism, in concert with Iran.

(For more insight into Hezbollah’s illicit operations in South America, read my novel, The Nexus.)