Brennan: Al-Qaeda and Associates the Only Terrorists Currently in ‘Armed Conflict’ With U.S.
His statement to that effect, contained in written answers to questions put by the Senate Intelligence Committee ahead of Thursday’s confirmation hearing, aligns with the administration’s policy of sharpening the focus of the U.S. campaign against Islamist terrorists to concentrate primarily on al-Qaeda and associated groups.
It comes amid an upturn in international violent activity attributed to the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah and its ally and patron, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force.
Brennan has taken positions in the past on Hezbollah that have raised eyebrows, including arguing for encouraging “moderate elements” in the group and suggesting that Israel be persuaded to abandon its “aim of eliminating Hezbollah as a political force.”
Among questions put to Brennan ahead of Thursday’s hearing was the following: “Would you describe the United States as being presently engaged in an armed conflict with terrorist organizations other than al-Qaeda and associated forces? If so, which terrorist organizations?”
His written reply to the committee was, “No, but we face threats from terrorist organizations other than al-Qaeda and its associated forces, and we confront these forces using a variety of diplomatic, economic, homeland security, law enforcement, intelligence, and military authorities and tools.”
Asked whether he could foresee the U.S. engaging in future armed conflicts with terrorist groups other than al-Qaeda and associated organizations, Brennan answered, “I hope not. However, we live in a dangerous world, and I cannot say we will never another armed conflict with a terrorist organization.”
While it is evident that the U.S. is not “presently engaged in an armed conflict” with Hezbollah, the terrorist group does view the U.S. as “the enemy.”
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah also warned last September that U.S. targets in the Middle East would come under attack if Israel launches airstrikes against nuclear facilities in Iran.
As administration officials frequently note, until al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. in 2001, Hezbollah was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist group in history.
And its activity has been on the increase, intelligence officials say.
“Lebanese Hezbollah has intensified its terrorist activities around the world and we remain concerned the group’s activities endanger U.S. interests and citizens, as well as our allies,” National Counterterrorism Center director Matthew Olsen told a Senate panel last September.
Even so, the administration’s counterterror focus is almost entirely on al-Qaeda and related groups.
Its national counterterrorism strategy, released in June 2011 to replace the previous one dated 2006, contained just two references to Hezbollah.
Near the end of the 19-page report a two-paragraph section entitled “Other Terrorist Concerns Requiring Focus and Attention” said that Hezbollah poses “significant threats to U.S. strategic interests as regional destabilizers and as threats to our citizens, facilities, and allies worldwide.”
The rest of the report dealt almost exclusively with “al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents.”
The Obama administration’s approach contrasts to that of its predecessor. Nine days after 9/11, President Bush in a speech to Congress said the campaign he was launching “begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
The following year then deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, suggested that Hezbollah may ultimately pose the bigger threat, telling a U.S. Institute of Peace audience that “Hezbollah may be the A-team of terrorists and maybe al-Qaeda is actually the B-team.”
Hezbollah has been blamed for some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in history, including suicide bombings in the early 1980s against American and French troops and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut (where victims included Robert Ames, at the time Brennan’s superior at the CIA), and the bombing of Israeli and Jewish targets in Argentina a decade later.
In 2011 U.S. law enforcement officials disrupted a plot to carry out attacks on American soil, including the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant bombing that by its nature could have harmed Americans in addition to the target.
Washington accused Iran’s Qods Force, although Al-Arabiya also pointed to a Hezbollah link, reporting that one of two Iranians charged in a U.S. court in connection with the plot, Gholam Shakur, has an office in southern Lebanon and is in direct contact with Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general.
This week a Bulgarian government investigation concluded that Hezbollah members were involved in a deadly bombing of a bus carrying Israeli tourists last summer.
Brennan has led administration calls on the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group, a move long resisted by European governments that draw a distinction between the organization’s political and “military” activities.
Brennan himself has sounded equivocal on the subject in the past, however.
“It would be nice to be able to put Hezbollah in a category of being totally evil,” he said in a 2006 interview on C-SPAN, “but Hezbollah as an organization is a very complex one that has terrorist arm to it. It has a social and political nature to it as well.”
At the time Brennan – who had a 25-year career at the CIA and served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center in 2004-5 – was in the private sector.
But even after being appointed as Obama’s counterterrorism advisor in 2009, he voiced similar views. Hezbollah as “a terrorist core,” he told an event in Washington that August, but “a lot of Hezbollah individuals are in fact renouncing that type of terrorism and violence and are trying to participate in the political process in a very legitimate fashion.”
Asked about those remarks, a State Department spokesman said, “Until Hezbollah decides that it’s going to change and stop carrying out the acts of terrorism and other acts that are causing instability in the region, there’s no reason for our policy to change.”