Prosecuting Hezbollah Agents: The Domestic Front of a Larger, Long-Term Shadow Conflict
Material support prosecutions comes in many shapes and sizes, but because of their frequency we often fail to notice when their are unusual or novel applications. A case in point (well, two cases in point) arose yesterday, when DOJ's National Security Division announced that the FBI had arrested two men—one in Michigan, the other in New York—who allegedly serve as agents of Hezbollah's foreign-operations arm. One of the men is a naturalized U.S. citizen, the other is (as I understand it) lawfully present in the U.S. but not a citizen. Among other things, the men are accused of having conducted surveillance of potential targets for attacks, both abroad and inside the United States.
The criminal complaints in these cases (both of which are posted by DOJ at the bottom of the page here) specify an array of offenses, all part of the larger family of prevention-oriented charges in DOJ's arsenal. They include provision of material support to Hezbollah; parallel violations of IEEPA sanctions (parallel in the sense that IEEPA sanctions have a material-support like effect); receipt of military-style training from Hezbollah; conspiracy to do the above acts; and so forth.
So what's novel or especially interesting about this?
This is hardly the first time that these sorts of charges have been used to arrest persons who are claimed to be active members (not just supporters) of a designated foreign terrrorist organization. True, many such cases involve people who do not appear to be personally dangerous but who nonetheless are providing some form of support to a DFTO. But there have been plenty of cases over time where the defendant is more than just a supporter of the group—cases in which the arrest appears designed not merely to sustain the de facto embargo U.S. law places on DFTOs, but also to incapacitate a potentially-dangerous person. I think, however, this situation may be the first time DOJ has taken this approach with Hezbollah agents.
Yes, there have been several prior material suppport/IEEPA cases involving Hezbollah. One of the first well-known support cases, in fact, involved a cigarette smuggling operation that was raising funds for Hezbollah. I recall as well that there was a prosecution for sending night-vision goggles to Hezbollah, and also a prosecution related to Hezbollah's cable channel. But I'm pretty sure this week's news is the first time we've seen Hezbollah-related defendants whom the government considers to be operational in the sense described above. (The closest counterexample that comes to mind was the bizarre 2011 case in which a man was convicted of conspiring with the Qods Force [an overseas operations branch of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps] to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States).
I could be wrong about that, and of course it could also be the case that in one or more past instances the government did in fact have such a view about a Hezbollah-linked defendant but either found it unnecessary or perhaps impossible (for evidentiary reasons) to press such claims explicitly in the charges and allegations. So maybe this is not that novel. And it also might be the case that there just has not previously been an instance in which Hezbollah agents of this kind came within such easy reach of US authorities.
All that said, this development does not take place in a vacuum, and it is worth taking note of these arrests in relation to that larger (and long-term) context.
There is the long history of the shadow war between the United States and both Iran and its proxies such as Hezbollah. Note, that regard, that the complaint in these cases specifically describes the defendants as agents not just of Hezbollah, but of the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO) in particular. IJO was the name of the Iran-sponsored group in Lebanon associated with Imad Mughniyah in the 1980s, and responsible for terrorist attacks against the United States there such as the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing. The specifics of how and when it became integrated with Hezbollah are complex, but the key thing is that over time IJO did integrate into and become the external operations arm of Hezbollah. My understanding—which may well be mistaken—is that the separate IJO identity (as distinct from Hezbollah itself) eventually faded out as a result of this integration, though for very good reason the IJO identity continues to loom large in U.S. memory due to the events of the 1980s (note, in this respect, the killing of Mughniyah in 2008). From this perspective, it is perhaps telling (about the U.S. view of the continuity of these matters over the decades) to see the IJO identity specifically emphasized in these charging documents. Meanwhile, the tensions between America and Iran continue to mount, not only in the diplomatic sphere (as the Trump administration ratchets up the pressure and as the Saudis continue to move to isolate Iran) but also on the battlefield in Syria, where U.S. forces on more than one occasion recently have directly attacked Iran-sponsored pro-regime forces.
The bottom line, then, is that this week's arrest of two Hezbollah/IJO agents might best be understood as one small part of a larger, complex policy framework that usually is glimpsed only through the lens of its diplomatic aspects, and as just the latest development in a multi-decade shadow conflict in which America, Iran, and their repsective allies and proxies have wrestled with one another.