This Stratfor analysis on Iran's preparations for a U.S. attack, by Fred Burton and Scott Stewart, has some compelling insights that U.S. planners would do well to consider in drafting their own contingency plans....
As noted by Stratfor CEO George Friedman, news outlets have been rife with speculation about a U.S. attack against Iran, although the frequency and tenor of the leaks have made us question whether the Bush administration intends to order an actual attack or whether the leaks are merely an effort to intimidate Tehran. There is no doubt in our minds, however, that military action is being given at least some consideration, and that U.S. military planners are gathering intelligence and firming up plans to hit a variety of Iranian target sets.
For almost as long as we have been hearing about a pending attack against Iran, we have been receiving source reports regarding Iran's plans for retaliation. Such plans would be directed not only against the U.S. forces delivering the attacks or troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan but also against broader U.S. interests in the region and globally. Indeed, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned in February that any aggression against his country would be met with reciprocal strikes by Iranian forces inside and outside of Iran. One of the most recent of these reports noted that Hezbollah terrorism mastermind Imad Fayez Mugniyah has been training Shiite militants from Arab Persian Gulf states in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley for possible retaliatory attacks.
Such reports are intentional reminders that Iran controls a powerful terrorism card -- and intends to play it should the need arise. Unlike al Qaeda, which has been badly damaged as an organization since 9/11, Hezbollah has never been stronger -- and does pose a strategic threat to the United States.
In addition to Hezbollah -- which might be better positioned to conduct attacks in many parts of the world than the Iranian government itself -- Iran's retaliatory plans would include other external surrogates, as well as indigenous Iranian forces such as the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which includes its Quds Force and Special Unit of Martyr Seekers.
If the United States does attack Iran and the Iranians call upon Hezbollah to take action, the organization can be expected to comply -- though it is known for obscuring its ties to attacks and probably will do the same in the future. There are, however, some operational factors that can be seized upon to spot and help mitigate the threat posed by this dangerous organization.
The revolutionaries who overthrew the shah of Iran and established an Islamic republic in the early 1980s sought to export the ideals of their revolution to other Shiite groups in the region. Hezbollah grew out of these efforts. Although it is a Lebanese organization, it has always been closely aligned with Iran and the Iranian IRGC and MOIS, which helped train and organize its members. This relationship is quite visible in the Hezbollah flag, which incorporates the IRGC symbol of the raised fist holding a rifle. Since the early 1980s, the best and brightest Hezbollah fighters have been taken to Iran, where they have received advanced military and intelligence training -- not to mention ideological indoctrination. Iranian weapons and training have allowed Hezbollah to develop into a powerful military force that can not only compete with its rival militias in Lebanon but also stand up to the might of the Israeli armed forces. Iran also has been intimately involved in promoting its loyalists into positions of power within the Hezbollah organization, while Hezbollah has received hundreds of millions of dollars over the years from its Iranian patrons (not to mention the income it receives from Syria and its widespread illegal activities). For all these reasons, Hezbollah remains loyal to Iran and the ideals of the Iranian revolution.
In addition to its formidable conventional military threat, Hezbollah has continued to refine its already considerable core competency in militant specialties such as kidnapping, assassination and the construction and employment of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It was a Hezbollah operation that resulted in the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, an act that precipitated the 2006 conflict, in which Hezbollah employed IEDs very effectively against the Israel Defense Forces.
Hezbollah has evolved considerably since the 1980s, when it conducted most of its attacks against U.S. targets. Today, it is a political party that holds seats in the Lebanese parliament and a social services organization that runs hospitals, schools and orphanages. This multiplicity of functions has caused some governments and even the European Union to resist labeling the organization a terrorist group.
Hezbollah also is now far larger and more geographically widespread than ever before, while its global array of members and supporters is intertwined with sophisticated finance/logistics and intelligence networks. Also, thanks to Iran, Hezbollah has far more -- and better trained -- operational cadre than al Qaeda ever had. The Hezbollah cadre also is experienced in skullduggery, having conducted scores of transnational terrorist operations before al Qaeda was even formed. In fact, al Qaeda has borrowed many pages from the Hezbollah operational playbook, and there are persistent rumors that Hezbollah leaders such as Mugniyah even helped teach al Qaeda cadre how to construct large vehicle bombs at al Qaeda's training facilities in Sudan. Also, and this is not trivial, Hezbollah operatives can receive assistance in the form of intelligence, or even materials, from MOIS' worldwide network -- as past attacks demonstrate. (The inviolability of the diplomatic pouch is a wonderful thing when you are planning a terrorist strike.) Iranian state sponsorship provides Hezbollah with a support network that al Qaeda can only dream of.
In Hezbollah, size, professionalism, experience and state-sponsorship are combined to create a dangerous organization. In fact, because of these factors, Hezbollah poses a larger potential threat to the United States than does al Qaeda -- especially an al Qaeda crippled by U.S. actions since 9/11.
Although Hezbollah operatives are highly skilled in the tradecraft of terrorism, those planning attacks are not invulnerable to detection -- most significantly during the preoperational surveillance stage.
Like the military commands of many countries, Hezbollah uses a contingency, or "off-the-shelf," model of operational planning, meaning that several hypothetical targets are selected and attack plans for each are developed in advance. This gives the Hezbollah leadership several plans to choose from when considering and authorizing an attack -- and it allows the group to hit hard and fast once a decision has been made to strike. Although law enforcement and security officials most likely are aware of some of the preselected targets -- due to countersurveillance operations -- an off-the-shelf operation makes it difficult for authorities to determine which target will actually be hit. Moreover, the potential time lapse between the initial surveillance and any attack could allow any alerts or increased security caused by the surveillance to subside by the time an attack takes place.
Even though Hezbollah tends to use off-the-shelf plans, the need for countersurveillance remains strong. When an order to execute a mission is given, pre-existing plans must be dusted off, meaning the preoperational surveillance must be updated before an actual strike can take place to ensure that no important changes have occurred at the target. Although this second round of surveillance often is less comprehensive than the initial surveillance, these secondary efforts still require cell members to expose themselves -- and thus become vulnerable to detection.
Although it has been many years since Hezbollah conducted an overseas attack, operatives linked to Hezbollah (or the Iranian MOIS/IRGC) have been observed many times conducting surveillance of potential targets inside and outside the United States -- and several operatives have been arrested as a result. In some of these cases, the operatives could have been pinging the system, or even having some fun by messing with the Americans, but Hezbollah's use of off-the-shelf planning is one reason so many detected surveillance efforts have not been followed by an attack.
Judging from Hezbollah's past response to specific events, it seems to take the group four to five weeks to launch an off-the-shelf attack, as was shown in such attacks as the 1992 bombing in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the 1994 Buenos Aires and London bombings. This time allows planners to touch up the plan, surveil targets again, obtain explosives, construct their devices and bring in an attack team.
Because of this, should the United States strike Iran and Hezbollah be asked to conduct retaliatory strikes overseas, there would be a lag of some four to five weeks before any such attacks would occur. Therefore, countersurveillance efforts should be increased on potential targets during this lag time, especially on targets where Hezbollah or Iranian officers are known to have conducted earlier surveillance.
Although the Iranian MOIS and IRGC components seem to prefer assassinations and small-arms attacks, Hezbollah operatives tend to conduct more spectacular attacks, such as vehicle bombings and hijackings. Hezbollah also has a history of claiming such attacks using pseudonyms, such as Islamic Jihad Organization or Organization for the Oppressed of the Earth, in order to sow confusion and hide the group's hand.
Hezbollah has an expansive worldwide presence, though it has had much greater operational success staging attacks in the developing world -- where weapons and materiel are readily available -- than in more industrialized and secure regions such as Europe. The size difference between the vehicle-borne bombs employed in 1994 in Buenos Aires (where Hezbollah was able to purchase explosives commercially) and the smaller device used in London (where explosives were difficult to obtain) was quite dramatic -- as were the results.
Hezbollah would have strong motives (pleasing its Iranian masters, for one) to conduct an attack inside the United States rather than in the developing world -- even though such an attack might be more limited. In practical terms, however, it might consider how the American response to 9/11 affected al Qaeda and choose not to go down that road. Instead, it could attack Americans abroad, as it has done many times in the past without arousing much U.S. retribution.
Hezbollah, however, has much clearer vulnerabilities than al Qaeda. For example, its training camps and political and social components constitute recognizable infrastructure in Lebanon. While some of that infrastructure is deliberately placed in Lebanese civilian concentrations, a good deal of it, particularly the facilities in the Bekaa Valley, can be attacked without major concern for civilian life. Another consideration for Hezbollah is that the group also maintains close ties to the Syrian regime, and its Syrian handlers do not want to end up in the U.S. crosshairs. Should Hezbollah strike, therefore, it would do so with its characteristically hidden hand.