FEDS FEAR STRIKE AMID NUKE SHOWDOWN
By NILES LATHEM Post Correspondent
May 22, 2006 -- WASHINGTON - The Hezbollah terror group - one of the most dangerous in the world - may be planning to activate sleeper cells in New York and other big cities to stage an attack as the nuclear showdown with Iran heats up, sources told The Post.
The FBI and Justice Department have launched urgent new probes in New York and other cities targeting members of the Lebanese terror group.
Law-enforcement and intelligence officials told The Post that about a dozen hard-core supporters of Hezbollah have been identified in recent weeks as operating in the New York area.
Sources said the activities of these New York-based operatives are being monitored by FBI counterterrorism agents as part of a nationwide effort to prevent a possible terror strike if the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program spins out of control.
Additional law-enforcement attention is being centered on the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, where there have already been three episodes in the last four years in which diplomats and security guards have been expelled for casing and photographing New York City subways and other potential targets.
The nationwide effort to neutralize Hezbollah sleepers in the United States, being spearheaded by the FBI and Justice Department's counterterrorism divisions, was triggered in January in response to alarming reports that Iran's fanatical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, met with leaders of Hezbollah and other terror groups during a visit to Syria.
Among those attending the meetings, according to reliable reports, was Hezbollah's chief operational planner, Imad Mugniyah - considered one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world - who is responsible for the bombings of the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and who, more recently, provided Iraqi guerrillas with sophisticated explosive devices.
U.S. officials stressed there is no intelligence information pointing to an imminent attack by Hezbollah.
But officials said they have detected increased activity by Hezbollah operatives - including more heated rhetoric by its leaders and in Internet chat rooms as the U.S.-Iran diplomatic showdown heats up.
"Hezbollah is a group that the U.S. has to be concerned about in the current climate. Hezbollah is already coming under heavy pressure by the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, and Ahmadinejad is under pressure on the nuclear issue," said Walid Phares, an outside terror expert who has briefed law-enforcement officials on Hezbollah in recent weeks.
"They are well funded, very well organized, and we assume that their penetration of the U.S. is deeper than al Qaeda's. It is only rational for the U.S. to think in pre-emptive ways. An attack here is clearly in the realm of the possible," Phares added.
A U.S. counterterrorism official called the latest effort a "major undertaking," with separate probes also under way in Los Angeles, Boston and Detroit.
Hezbollah has so far limited its activities in the United States to fund-raising and criminal enterprises. The FBI has already taken down two major rings, one in Charlotte, N.C., and one in Detroit, in which members were smuggling cigarettes, Viagra and baby formula, and kicking profits back to Hezbollah.