Politico – The Trump administration on Friday plans to roll out a new public campaign aimed at cracking down more forcefully on the armed wing of Hezbollah in Lebanon, part of a broader effort to counter the militant Shia group’s chief backer, Iran.
The new push will include instituting cash rewards for its “most wanted” operatives, stepping up U.S. intelligence and law enforcement efforts, and also aims to enlist allies to do more to undermine the group’s global network, three administration officials told reporters Thursday.
The so-called Party of God, Hezbollah is also a powerful political bloc in the Lebanese government. It is an avowed enemy of Israel and has been responsible for a series of attacks against U.S. and other Western interests for decades. The State Department designated it a terrorist group in 1997.
The primary objective of the new public campaign, one administration official said, is to “expose them for their behavior” and seek to undermine Hezbollah’s political legitimacy in Lebanon.
“It’s a paradigm shift in how we view Hezbollah,” added another administration official involved in the effort who was not authorized to speak on the record. “While it strives for legitimacy, it is conducting terrorism.”
The “strategic messaging” effort will begin with an announcement at Friday’s White House news briefing, the officials said, followed by a series of other public efforts over the weekend and into next week.
The officials said the new strategy grew out of a larger White House review on Iran as President Donald Trump has to decide by next week whether to recertify the 2015 deal to freeze Tehran’s nuclear program in return for listing economic sanctions.
Trump is expected to determine that the pact is not in the United States’ interest but stop short of calling on Congress to re-impose sanctions.
“We want to counter Iran’s malign activities,” one of the officials said, adding that the new focus on Hezbollah is “part and parcel of that” and that the group “behaves like a proxy” for Tehran.
The officials said the new push was also fueled by charges in June against two individuals, Samer El Debek and Ali Kourani, accused of providing material support and resources to Hezbollah.
The charges say that El Debek “allegedly conducted missions in Panama to locate the U.S. and Israeli embassies and to assess the vulnerabilities of the Panama Canal and ships in the canal.”
Meanwhile, “Kourani allegedly conducted surveillance of potential targets in America, including military and law enforcement facilities in New York City,” according to the U.S. Justice Department.
One of the administration officials said those cases were “likely the tip of the iceberg.”
Another official added that “it is not just an Israeli problem.”
Along with other attacks, Hezbollah has been blamed for truck bombings at the U.S. Embassy and a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Argentina, and more recently, in 2012, the killing of five Israeli tourists in a bombing in Bulgaria.
The group has gone to war with Israel several times and has also been backing President Bashar Assad of Syria in that country’s six-year civil war.
The officials said Hezbollah’s role in helping Assad keep power had cost the group significantly but had also provided critical battlefield preparedness. “They have lost a lot of forces on the ground, but they have gained a lot of experience,” one official said.
Asked whether the group posed more of a threat to the United States than in the past, two officials said there was no new intelligence to suggest that Hezbollah is more likely to launch an attack inside U.S. borders.
“They have a capability,” one official said. “They might not have the intent to act today.”