Back during the George W. Bush administration, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage famously called Hezbollah the "A-team of terrorists," adding that "al-Qaida is actually the B-team." How do these two organizations compare today?
Last week, the State Department released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism 2012." At a background briefing , a "senior administration official" highlighted an alarming trend: a "marked resurgence of terrorist activity by Iran and Hezbollah. The tempo of operational activity was something we haven't seen since the 1990s. … We see no signs of this activity abating in 2013. In fact, our assessment is that Hezbollah and Iran will both continue to maintain a heightened level of terrorist activity and operations in the near future."
The State Department is right to see Hezbollah and Iran as joined at the hip: The former is financed and instructed by the latter. That has not always been understood despite that, prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Hezbollah was responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist organization. And Hezbollah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, has proclaimed: "Death to America was, is, and will stay our slogan." A pertinent question: If Iran's rulers should obtain nuclear weapons, might they give one or two to Hezbollah to use for approved purposes? A plausible answer: Why not?
It is well known that Hezbollah has been sending combatants into Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad, the dictator and Iranian satrap. Less publicized are Hezbollah's operations in other corners of the world. A Hezbollah attack on a bus in Bulgaria last July killed five Israelis and one Bulgarian. In Nigeria, authorities recently broke up a Hezbollah cell, seizing what one Nigerian official called "a large quantity of assorted weapons of different types and caliber."
The State Department report contains surprisingly little information about Hezbollah in Latin America. However, a 500-page report issued last week by Argentinean prosecutor Alberto Nisman reveals that Iran has established an archipelago of "clandestine intelligence stations and operative agents" in Latin America that are being used "to execute terrorist attacks when the Iranian regime decides so, both directly or through its proxy, the terrorist organization Hezbollah."
Among the South American countries in which Iran and/or Hezbollah have set up intelligence/terrorism bases: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname.
Nisman provides additional evidence -- not that more is needed -- that Iranian officials and one Lebanese Hezbollah operative were responsible for two terrorist bombings in Argentina in the 1990s. There is an American nexus too: Nisman charges that Mohsen Rabbani, Iran's former cultural attaché in Buenos Aires -- implicated in the 1994 attack on a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in which 85 people were killed -- directed "Iranian agent" Abdul Kadir, now serving a life sentence in connection with the 2010 plot to bomb John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Connect the dots, Nisman argues, and they draw a picture of Iran "fomenting and fostering acts of international terrorism in concert with its goals of exporting the revolution."
Considering all this, can al-Qaida still be considered a serious competitor? Yes, it can! Last weekend, my colleague, über-researcher Tom Joscelyn, pointed out that al-Qaida and its affiliates now "are fighting in more countries than ever."
In Afghanistan, al-Qaida maintains safe havens in Kunar and Nuristan provinces. Its loyal ally, the Taliban, is responsible for a level of violence "higher than before the Obama-ordered surge of American forces in 2010," according to NATO's International Security Assistance Force.
Al-Qaida and its affiliates have bases in northern Pakistan. The Pakistani government, Joscelyn notes, "continues to be a duplicitous ally, sponsoring and protecting various al-Qaida-allied groups. The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, remains a threat after orchestrating the failed May 2010 bombing in Times Square. The State Department announced in September 2010 that the TTP has a 'symbiotic relationship' with al-Qaida."
The al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front may be the most effective force fighting against Assad's troops, and Hezbollah and Iranian combatants in Syria. Al-Qaida is resurgent in neighboring Iraq, with April 2013 the deadliest month in that country in nearly five years, according to the U.N.
Al-Qaida has expanded operations in Yemen. In Somalia, Shabaab -- which formally merged with al-Qaida last year -- is far from defeated, and has managed to carry out attacks in neighboring Kenya and Uganda, as well. In Nigeria, Boko Haramcontinues to slaughter Christians. In Egypt, al-Qaida members and associates -- including Muhammad al-Zawahiri, the brother of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri -- are operating more freely than ever. On Sept. 11, 2012 they hoisted an al-Qaida flag above the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Libyan groups closely linked to al-Qaida were responsible for the Sept. 11, 2012 attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) easily took over northern Mali until French forces pushed them out of the population centers. Al-Qaida affiliates are becoming more visible and perhaps viable in Tunisia, too.
Despite all this, the State Department report asserts that "core" al-Qaida "is on a path to defeat." I am not convinced that there is sufficient evidence to substantiate that thesis. And even if it does prove to be accurate, who's to say that a weakening core cannot be compensated for by a strengthening periphery?
In the final analysis, "which is the A team-of terrorism" is not the paramount question. What is? In the years ahead, does the U.S. have what it takes to be the A-team of counterterrorism?
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.