April 04, 2012
By Steve Pomerantz
JINSA Director of Counter-Terrorism Programs
Within a few weeks of becoming Chief of Counter Terrorism at the FBI, I was presented with the draft of a speech I was to deliver before a national meeting of a major Jewish Organization in Florida. My attention was drawn to a sentence that asserted, in essence, that every single Middle East terrorist organization of any consequence had some sort of presence in the United States. Being new to my position I challenged that statement and was presented with information that confirmed its accuracy. The nature and scope of each organization's presence in this country was different and ranged from those which only propagandized and fund raised here to others who actually had a secret cell structure in America.
Also during my tenure in this position, I was called to testify before Congress about the threat of terrorism from within our shores. Although I cited a range of concerns, at the top of the list was the danger of attack carried out at the direction of the Iranian government by assets already in place in our country. I cited very specifically the estimated 40,000 Iranian students then studying in our country, many of whom belonged to an Iranian student organization known for its loyalty to the Iranian government and its hostility to the U.S. I also pointed out that Iran had the distinction of being the single most significant state sponsor of terrorism in the world, besting both Libya and Syria, among others, for this dubious distinction.
Some things seem to never change. Iran is still the world's most significant state sponsor of terrorism and they still have the capability to utilize existing resources in this country to mount a terrorist attack should they choose to do so for any reason. And within our borders we still harbor individuals and organizations dedicated to the twin ideologies of radical Islam and Jihad who would be prepared to strike if directed to do so by the Iranian government. Notwithstanding these facts, the need to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, even if that means the use of force and the concomitant potential for Iranian retaliation, is abundantly clear. Given its history and the stated intentions of its fanatical leadership, a nuclear armed Iran is simply beyond the realm of toleration.
It is beyond conjecture as to whether or not Iran would utilize its overseas resources to carry out terrorist attacks on its behalf. Indeed Iran has already shed blood on American soil. In July of 1980 Ali Akbar Tabatabei was gunned down at his home in Bethesda, Maryland. by Dawud Salahuddin, born David Belfield, an American convert to Islam. Salahuddin subsequently fled the United States for Iran where he stills resides as a guest of those who ordered his murderous mission. In Argentina, the Iranians utilized both their Hezbollah proxy and their diplomatic assets to mount attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets that left scores dead and injured. Today the Iranians direct and support organizations responsible for attacks on American targets in Afghanistan as well as attacks against Israel carried out by both Hezbollah and Hamas.
Given this history it would be beyond irresponsible to ignore the threat of attacks on this country and our citizens and institutions abroad in the event of military action against Iran either by the United States or Israel. Although we have no formal diplomatic relations with Iran, they maintain an official presence in this country through their membership in the United Nations. They would not be the first country to utilize this presence to carry out activities inimical to the interests of their hosts. Given Iran's record in Argentina, this is a no brainer.
Iran's unofficial presence in the United States, through its resident students and other expats, presents yet another problem. Although the vast majority of them are most likely non threatening, even a small number of sympathizers, energized by hostile action against their homeland and whipped up by the Mullah's violent rhetoric present a real threat. Even more dangerous is the potential for secret cells, previously embedded in this country and responsive to direct orders from Tehran. These may consist of Iranian operatives or members or adherents of other organizations willing to act in support of Iran. Last of course, are the lone wolves. Fanatics dedicated to Radical Islam and Jihad. They are already infected with the requisite ideology and require no direction, only a galvanizing event and religious justification.
Planning for a retaliatory strike by Iran should there be military action against their nuclear facilities is surely at or near the top of current national security and counterterrorism concerns. Whether the focus is the homeland or our overseas assets, the first line of defense is intelligence-knowing as much as we can about Iran's intentions and capabilities. Without accurate intelligence, correctly analyzed and disseminated in a coordinated and timely manner we are operating blindly. Secondly, we have to focus our resources, which are always finite, in response to what our intelligence tells us. Hunkering down in some 21st century equivalent of the Maginot Line is simply courting disaster.
Both at home and abroad, we have come a long way since 9/11. Whether or not we can successfully thwart an Iranian or Iranian sponsored and directed terrorist attack may well be the ultimate test of exactly how well we have done. The outcome will either be measured in lives saved and destruction averted or the number of casualties incurred and the dollar amount of damage inflicted on our nation.
Steven L. Pomerantz, JINSA's Director for Counter-Terrorism Programs. Prior to his position at JINSA, he was an Assistant Director at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Chief of Counter-Terrorism.