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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Iran, Syria, and Hizballah – Threatening Israel’s North

Filed under: Al-Qaeda and Global Jihad, Hizbullah, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Syria
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 2, No. 3     July 17, 2002

Many television viewers were surprised when U.S. Senator Bob Graham declared on “Meet the Press” on July 7 that there are “more urgent” priorities facing the United States than dealing with Saddam Hussein. The chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence singled out the terrorist training camps in Syria and Lebanon “where the next generation of terrorists are being prepared….That is a much more immediate threat to the security of the United States of America, in my judgment, than Saddam Hussein.”1

However, for more than a year Middle East analysts have been tracking the growth of a dangerous collaboration between Iran, Syria, and the Hizballah terrorist organization. Hizballah – with Syrian and Iranian blessings – has been launching limited but dangerous attacks against Israel’s north, testing Israel’s tolerance.

The Iranian-Syrian-terrorist triad was alluded to in President Bush’s June 24, 2002, speech in which he called for new Palestinian leadership: “Every nation actually committed to peace must block the shipment of Iranian supplies to these [terrorist] groups, and oppose regimes that promote terror, like Iraq. And Syria must choose the right side in the war on terror by closing terrorist camps and expelling terrorist organizations.”2


The Hizballah Build-up

Since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon two years ago, Hizballah has moved its frontline positions to within several hundred yards of Israel’s border and its civilian communities. Hizballah continues to challenge United Nations’ authority by claiming the Shaba’a Farms region as Lebanese territory under Israeli occupation, requiring “liberation.”3 Iranian transport planes continue to land in Damascus to unload materiel for Hizballah in Lebanon. Israeli intelligence sources warn that Hizballah has amassed an estimated 9,000 rockets and missiles, including new 70-kilometer missiles that put one million Israeli citizens within their range,4 plus 45-kilometer-range Fajr-5 surface-to-surface missiles, and SA-7 surface-to-air missiles.5

Hizballah’s new forays and tactics are growing bolder and are approaching a point of no return. In March 2002, Palestinian gunmen under Hizballah command crossed into northern Israel at Matsuba and killed seven Israelis. Israeli security services recently arrested an Israeli citizen, Nissim Nasser, a Lebanese Jew (born to a Muslim father), who was spying for Hizballah, providing photos and maps of targets for “mega-terrorist” attacks. In June, Israeli troops captured a Hizballah official in Hebron who had apparently entered the country on a Canadian passport. At the same time, Israeli spokesmen revealed that they had captured mines in Hebron that had previously only been used by Hizballah in Lebanon. During April’s “Defensive Shield” operation, Hizballah fired 1,000 anti-tank missiles and 1,000 mortar shells at Israeli positions in northern Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians.6

Since January, Hizballah gunners have been firing anti-aircraft guns into the skies above northern Israel, whether planes are flying or not. The shells – some of which may have been calibrated to explode on contact – rain on Israeli communities in the north.


Syrian Involvement

It is axiomatic that nothing happens in Lebanon without Syrian approval, including Hizballah mischief-making. Besides permitting the transfer of Iranian military equipment via Damascus airport, Syria reportedly provided Hizballah with heavy 240 mm rockets from its own arsenal.7

In early July 2002, a commentator for the Beirut Daily Star revealed, “Hizballah’s secretary-general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, visited Damascus to commemorate the death of Jihad Jibril. Surrounded by Ahmad Jibril and Islamic Jihad’s Ramadan Abdallah Shallah, Nasrallah emphasized that attacks against Israel would continue. No doubt this is a view shared by the Syrian leadership.”8

Syria has not permitted the dispatch of the Lebanese army to the southern regions controlled by Hizballah, as required by UN Security Council Resolution 425 (March 19, 1978) which called for the return of the Lebanese government’s “effective authority in the area.”

President Bashar Assad boldly responded to President Bush’s challenge to cut ties with Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist organizations on July 1. In an interview published in the Al-Liwaa newspaper, Assad declared: “Syria supports the Lebanese national resistance, including Hizballah…in resisting Israeli occupation and liberating land, politically and in the media, because the brothers in the Lebanese resistance do not need military support from Syria….As for the Palestinian groups [in Syria]…their work is limited to political and media activities, and their offices in Damascus provide political representation to the 400,000 Palestinians living in Syria and who look to attain their rights and return to their land.”9


Syrian-Iranian-Terrorist Ties

If the late President Hafez Assad kept Iran at arm’s length, his son Bashar, the current president, is locked in an embrace with Iran. “The deepening partnership between Iran and Bashar Assad’s Syria,” warned strategic affairs analyst Ze’ev Schiff, “should be considered as one of the more important recent developments in the region. In the meantime, he is allowing Iranian religious propagandists to operate in his country’s mosques.”10

Iranian fingerprints were evident in terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in South America and in assassinations throughout Europe a decade ago. If Iran did, indeed, turn away from terrorist activity in the mid-1990s, as some analysts have argued, the Islamic republic has now returned to the terrorist game with a murderous vengeance. The arms-laden Karine-A ship was outfitted by Iran in Iran, and visitors to Tehran report of officials’ public pride in the venture.

Published reports point to the involvement of terrorist Hizballah leader Imad Mughniyah in the Karine-A affair.11 The Americans blame Mughniyah for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut which killed 241 Americans and the 1996 attack on Khobar Towers, a U.S. military housing complex in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 American servicemen were killed.12 Israeli intelligence sources believe that Mughniyah has changed both his name and his physiognomy and is living in Iran.

“Iranian terrorism,” Schiff warned, “is aimed not only against Israel; it is also perpetrated in the Gulf states, in Turkey, in Africa and in Central Asia….A report issued by the State Department states that Iran is the most active country in the sphere of international terrorism.”13

In early June 2002, Hizballah joined Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command at a two-day conference in Tehran in support of the Palestinian “intifada.” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sent a message to the conference participants in which he denounced what he called the “new strategy” of Israel and the U.S. to bring Palestinians to the negotiating table. The conference organizer and one of Hizballah’s founding fathers, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, addressed the conference, calling Israel a “cancerous tumor” and praising Palestinian suicide bombers for achieving more than all Arab wars and peace talks.14

Iran’s terrorist sponsorship accompanies its development of long-range missiles that put Israel and other countries in the region under missile threat. The Shihab-3 missile, apparently developed with North Korean assistance, is now operational; the Iranians are believed to possess 10 of these missiles in their arsenal. In a manner reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s attempt to base mid-range missiles in Cuba in the 1960s, Iran has provided Hizballah in Lebanon with Fajr-5 surface-to-surface missiles.15

U.S. intelligence officials reported in April that Iran’s annual budget for Hizballah now exceeds $100 million.16


Now al Qaeda-Hizballah Relations?

The Washington Post revealed the extent of al Qaeda-Hizballah cooperation on June 30. Hizballah, the Post warned, is “increasingly teaming up with al Qaeda on logistics and training for terrorist operations [including] coordination on explosives and tactics training, money laundering, weapons smuggling, and acquiring forged documents.”

As evidence of the new ties, the Post provided the October 2000 testimony of Ali Mohammed, “a former U.S. Green Beret who pleaded guilty to conspiring with bin Laden to bomb U.S. embassies in Africa. He testified to having provided security for a meeting in Sudan ‘between al Qaeda…and Iran and Hizballah…between Mughniyah, Hizballah’s chief, and bin Laden.’ Hizballah, he testified, provided explosives training to al Qaeda while Iran ‘used Hizballah to supply explosives that were disguised to look like rocks.'”17

Some analysts discount the possibility of an alliance between the radical Sunni al Qaeda and the Shi’ite Hizballah. They forget, however, the close relationship between Sunnis and Shi’ites that developed in December 1992 when 415 Sunni members of the Palestinian Hamas were exiled by Israel to Lebanon. They were warmly received by the Shi’ite Hizballah, who taught them the deadly craft of bomb-making as well as the concept of suicide bombers, a “martyrdom” closer to Shi’ite tradition than Sunni.



Last year, a New York court handed down guilty verdicts against four men accused of carrying out bombing attacks against American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The court documents show al Qaeda’s worldwide network, including the fact that Iranian government officials helped arrange advanced weapons and explosives training for al Qaeda personnel in Lebanon where they learned, for example, how to destroy large buildings.18

The Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah threat to Middle East stability is now even more dangerous because of the introduction of al Qaeda terrorism. As the world focuses on the fates of Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein, attention should also be paid to the growing dangers along Israel’s northern border. The volatile mix of two state sponsors of terrorism and two potent international terrorist groups has not escaped the attention of President Bush, leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, or Israeli and American military planners.

*    *    *



1. NBC, “Meet the Press,” July 7, 2002.

2. President Bush, June 24, 2002,

3. See UNSC Res. 425. In a statement released on October 7, 2000, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pointedly referred to the area as “the Shaba’a farms area of the Golan Heights.” UN Press Release SG/SM/7578.

4. Alex Fishman, “The Next War is On the Way,” Yediot Ahronot, June 28, 2002.

5. Michael Rubin, “No Change, Iran Remains Committed to Israel’s Destruction,” National Review, July 1, 2002.

6. Fishman, op. cit.

7. Fishman, op. cit.

8. Michael Young,

9. Cited by BBC, July 1, 2002,

10. Ze’ev Schiff, “Iran: Clear and Present Danger,” Ha’aretz, May 31, 2002.

11. Matt Rees, “Postmarked Tehran,” Time, January 13, 2002.

12. Dana Priest, Douglas Farah, “Terror Alliance has U.S. Worried, Hizballah, Al Qaeda Seen Joining Forces,” Washington Post, June 30, 2002.

13. Schiff, op. cit.

14. Guy Dinmore, “Iran Meeting Offers Support to Palestinians,” Financial Times, June 3, 2002.

15. Schiff, op. cit.

16. Rubin, op. cit.

17. Preist, Farah, op. cit.

18. Daniel Pipes and Steven Emerson, “Terrorism on Trial,” Wall Street Journal, May 31, 2001.