American intel officials warn of risk of Hezbollah attacking U.S.

“Hezbollah could draw on the capability they have … to put people [in] places to do something,” one of the officials said, referring to a potential attack on the U.S. “It is something to be worried about.” The official, like others in this story, was granted anonymity to talk freely about sensitive intelligence.

Officials declined to detail the specific kind of attacks Hezbollah could take but said that the Iranian-backed group has capabilities that other terrorist groups in the region do not. Individuals inspired by the Islamic State or al-Qaeda — but who are not directly connected to the membership of those terrorist groups — have carried out lone-wolf attacks in the U.S. and Europe, officials said. But Hezbollah has an expansive international network that would allow the group to
use its operatives
to carry out an attack in the United States.

Either scenario — an attack domestically or on troops or diplomats overseas — would deal a blow to the Biden administration which has worked to prevent the Israel-Hamas conflict from broadening into a wider regional war and to keep American forces out of the fray.

It would also likely draw Washington back into the Middle East at a time when it is trying to focus its national security resources on countering China and Russia.

The National Security Council, FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center declined to comment. But senior Biden administration officials
have said publicly
after Oct. 7 that it believed Tehran and its proxies were not seeking a wider regional war or a confrontation with the U.S.

U.S. troops in the Middle East have already been attacked by multiple other Iranian proxy groups, including Harakat-al-Nujaba, an Iraqi paramilitary group. These militias have launched at least 127 attacks on American forces in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17. The U.S. has hit back multiple times, including a
Jan. 4 drone strike
in Baghdad that killed a senior militia member.

It is unclear the extent to which Hezbollah regularly coordinates with these other groups, but top intelligence officials in Washington have determined that it has the same aims of disrupting the American military’s position in the region and seeks opportunities to strike U.S. troops.

Still, Lebanese Hezbollah has so far avoided major attacks on Israel or U.S. troops since the most recent conflict kicked off. The group, however, does have a history of targeting Americans and U.S. interests overseas.

In 2011 and 2012, two U.S.-based operatives
allegedly surveilled
American and Israeli targets in Panama as well as in New York City. And the Islamic Jihad Organization, which later became part of Hezbollah, attacked the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983, killing 63 people.

The State Department has increased security at the embassy in recent weeks to stave off any attack on diplomats based in Lebanon, one of the officials said.

“The Lebanon front is ready to kick off. And these Iranian militia are pounding the U.S. in eastern Syria and Iraq,” said Andrew Tabler, who served as special envoy for Syria engagement at the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the Trump administration. “It’s interesting that this is all going on in the background and people are focusing on the Gaza theater, but the war is actually much larger than that.”

Hezbollah and Israeli forces have also clashed on the Israel-Lebanon border following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants on Israel. In the latest clash, Israel on Monday struck Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, killing one of its top commanders. Hezbollah hit back Tuesday, attacking an Israeli army base with explosive drones,
according to Reuters
. Both Hezbollah and Israel have said they do not want the conflict to escalate but have also vowed to continue defending themselves should the other side strike.

While so far Israel-Hezbollah tensions have been mostly limited to cross-border skirmishes, one U.S. official said there are concerns that the group could respond more strongly if Israel does not do more to slow the death toll in Gaza.

“Iran, Hezbollah and their linked proxies are trying to calibrate their activity, avoiding actions that would open up a concerted second front with the United States or Israel while still exacting costs in the midst of the current conflict,” Christy Abizaid, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said during a congressional hearing in October. “This is a very fine line to walk, and in the present regional context, their actions carry the potential for miscalculation.”

American officials are working behind the scenes to deescalate tensions, two of the officials said, and to keep U.S. forces out of the fray.

The administration has backed a plan that would move Hezbollah forces away from Israel’s northern border, allowing thousands of Israelis who fled the fighting to return home. But talks have stalled in recent days, one of the officials said.

“This is a moment of profound tension in the region,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday during his visit to the Middle East. “This is a conflict that could easily metastasize.”

Top intelligence officials have testified in recent months about the threats posed by Hezbollah, saying the group has significant capability to carry out overseas terrorist attacks and that its motivation to strike the U.S. has grown following the Trump administration’s 2019 strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, leader of one of Iran’s top military units.

“The arrests of individuals in the United States allegedly linked to Hezbollah’s main overseas terrorist arm, and their intelligence-collection and procurement efforts, demonstrate Hezbollah’s interest in long-term contingency planning activities here in the homeland,” FBI director Chris Wray said in a congressional hearing Nov. 15.