2012-04-13 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

Iran, Hezbollah And The Threat To New York, Part I
By Michael D. Silber Director Of Intelligence Analysis New York City Police Department

The following testimony was given before the United States Senate.

Over the past decade, the mission of the New York City Police Department has expanded greatly to address the evolving threat of international and homegrown terrorism. Grounded in existing law and fully in accordance with the US Constitution, we have built an intelligence and counterterrorism program that has served as a deterrent and has helped to protect the city from fourteen terrorist plots since September 11, 2001.

As the Director of Intelligence Analysis for the New York City Police Department, my responsibility is to dispassionately assess the impact of geopolitical trends and tensions, including the increasing threat of war – on the security of New York City. Dating back to at least 2005, we have considered the possibility that efforts to halt the development of Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program could trigger a full blown conflict in the Persian Gulf involving Iran, Israel and potentially the United States.

In light of New York’s symbolic importance as a terrorist target, its large Jewish population, locations of Israeli interest, and status as one of two outposts of Iranian diplomatic presence in the US via its United Nations mission, the city remains the most likely venue for global tensions with Iran to spill over onto American soil. A terrorist attack by Iran or Hezbollah in New York City could serve as retaliation for real or perceived

US support or involvement in military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities or against its regime.

While it is not my role to weigh in on potential US diplomatic and military strategy, the NYPD is responsible for considering all of the possibilities and taking all the precautions necessary to keep New York City safe.

Over the last six months, our analysts have studied terrorist plots with a plausible nexus to Iran that have been attempted or carried out in Azerbaijan, India, Georgia, Thailand, as well as here in Washington. What we have learned has heightened our concerns. Disconcertingly, these plots demonstrate that Iran and/or Hezbollah remain committed to striking against Israeli and Western targets. Further complicating the task of law enforcement is the diversity of methods evinced by these plots, including differences in the profile of perpetrators, types of explosives used, delivery method, and tradecraft.

For example, in Baku, Azerbaijan in mid-January 2012, Azerbaijani authorities detained three men on charges of planning to attack two Israelis employed by a Jewish school in Baku. According to Azerbaijani authorities, the men received smuggled arms and equipment from Iranian agents – including a sniper rifle with silencer, pistols, sixteen pieces of plastic explosives and detonators which were smuggled into Azerbaijan from Iran via the Caspian Sea, overseen by Iranian intelligence services. Just last Wednesday, March 14, Azeri officials announced the arrest of 22 Azeri citizens for cooperating with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Azeri National Security Ministry alleged that the individuals, some of whom were recruited by Iran as far back as 1999, received weapons and spying training at Iranian military facilities. The suspects were reportedly directed by the IRGC to stage attacks against Western embassies and their employees, including those of the U.S. and Israel.

In Bangkok, Thailand, on January 12, 2012, Thai police arrested Hussein Atris, a Lebanese man carrying a Swedish passport, at the Bangkok airport and raided a three-story commercial building to which he was linked, recovering bomb-making materials including 4,380 kg of urea-based fertilizer and 290 liters of ammonium nitrate. These materials were believed to be intended for use in an attack in Thailand or to be shipped abroad for use elsewhere. According to Swedish media reports, one of his relatives, Germany resident Muhammad Atris, was involved in the Iranian assassination of four Kurdish opposition figures in 1992.

In Tblisi, Georgia, on February 13, 2012, a “sticky bomb” was affixed to a vehicle carrying an Israeli diplomat; the bomb was detected and diffused without causing harm.

In a rare coordinated attack, at approximately the same time as the failed bombing in Tblisi, a motorcyclist attached an almost identical “sticky bomb” to a minivan belonging to the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi. The explosion injured four people, including the wife of an Israeli Ministry of Defense representative. Reports indicate that the embassy may have been targeted and surveyed by an Indian national who used his press credentials to obtain access and escape scrutiny.

The next day, in Bangkok, Thailand, a cache of explosives kept in a rented house in downtown Bangkok by a group of Iranian nationals was detonated in an accidental explosion. An Iranian man, one of the occupants of the house, escaped armed with grenades, which he then threw at a taxi and at police, grievously wounding himself and causing no other casualties. Following the explosion and his attempt to flee, Thai authorities identified three other Iranians wanted in connection with the explosion, including a woman who had already returned to Iran, and arrested one Iranian national attempting to fly to Malaysia. Interestingly, telephonic analysis suggests a direct connection between the Bangkok and the New Delhi plots.

While the timing of some of these foiled plots around the world suggest a linkage to and retribution for the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s infamously effective operational leader, they also seem to be calibrated to provide direct retaliation for the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran in recent months.

While these incidents all occurred overseas, another plot uncovered in the past six months has forced a recalculation of the odds that Iran and its surrogate, Hezbollah, might seek to strike out against targets on American soil if hostilities commenced in the Persian Gulf or even as the Iranian regime feels itself increasingly under pressure. This was the plot foiled last October – obviously absent overt hostilities – in which a naturalized U.S. citizen of Iranian descent, directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, hired an individual whom he thought was a member of a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The plan involved blowing up a Washington, D.C., restaurant — potentially killing hundreds of Americans in the process.

In the wake of this plot, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified in January to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Iranian officials “are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.”

The NYPD has long been concerned about the possibility of asymmetrical attacks by Iran and/or Hezbollah occurring in New York City. Thus we also have spent significant time and effort studying the modus operandi of Iranian and Hezbollah terrorist attacks worldwide that occurred prior to the ones discussed above.

Most notable are the 1992 and 1994 bombings of Israeli and Jewish targets in Argentina, which killed 29 and 85 people, respectively. With this in mind, we sent a team to Argentina to study the modus operandi of those attacks and to meet with Argentine security officials who worked the investigations. Coupled with open source information, this is what the NYPD learned:

Iran has a proven record of using its official presence in a foreign city to coordinate attacks, which are then carried out by Hezbollah agents from abroad, often leveraging the local community— whether wittingly or not — as facilitators. In the Argentinian cases, Iranian agents were sent to Argentina years before the attacks, where they integrated into society and became Argentine nationals. For example, Mohsen Rabbani is believed to have been in charge of coordinating the 1994 attack and is subject to an Interpol arrest warrant for his involvement. He first came to Argentina, eleven years earlier, in 1983, where he subsequently became the main imam at At-Tauhid, an Iranian-funded mosque in Buenos Aires.

After traveling to Iran in August 1993 to participate in a meeting that allegedly gave the planned attack the green light, Mr. Rabbani returned to Argentina as a cultural attaché to the Iranian Embassy, conveniently providing him diplomatic immunity. Then, Hezbollah agents from abroad received logistical support from members of the local Lebanese-Shiite community and the Iranian Embassy to carry out the attack.

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