As part of the efforts to check Iran’s regional influence, officials in Washington announced a multimillion-dollar reward for two operatives of Tehran’s Lebanese Shia proxy, Hezbollah.
Washington confirmed a $7 million bounty for information leading to the arrest of Talal Hamiyah, head of Hezbollah’s foreign operations, and up to $5 million for the apprehension of Fu’ad Shukr, a top Hezbollah military operative, the US State Department said.
Hamiyah has been on the State Department’s foreign terrorist list since 2015 and Shukr was added in 2013.
Washington and Hezbollah have been foes since 1983, when the group was blamed for suicide bombings against the US Embassy and a military barracks in Beirut.
National Counterterrorism Centre Director Nicholas Rasmussen said Hezbollah was active far outside of the region and had a presence in “nearly every corner of the globe.”
Referring to the arrests in June of US nationals Ali Kourani and Samer el Debek, who have been charged with being members of the group, Rasmussen said US intelligence agencies had assessed Hezbollah was building the capacity to strike directly within “the homeland.”
An unidentified senior Hezbollah official told Reuters: “These accusations from the American administration against Hezbollah and its mujahideen are rejected and void… They will not affect the work of the resistance at all.”
The official said the announcement was the result of Hezbollah’s gains in Syria rather than a wider opposition to Iran. Hezbollah has sent thousands of its fighters into Syria to support the Assad regime and has claimed a critical role in pushing back the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups.
State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales said the United States would seek to persuade other countries to designate Hezbollah an international terrorist group.
“Some countries have chosen to designate only Hezbollah’s military wing (a terrorist group) leaving its so-called political wing untouched but that is a false distinction,” Sales said at a briefing. “Make no mistake. Hezbollah has no political wing. It is a single organisation, a terrorist organisation and it is rotten to its core.”
Designating the group as a terrorist organisation, Sales said, was “not merely symbolic.” By not doing so, countries “limit other governments’ ability to freeze Hezbollah’s assets, to shut down its front companies, to eliminate its fund-raising and recruiting capabilities and to prosecute Hezbollah-associated networks. The United States will need allies in this fight,” he said.
Hezbollah plays a critical role in Lebanon’s power-sharing agreement and has earned local support both for its defeat of Israel in 2006 and providing services in areas under its control.
The Shia militia has evolved into a parallel army on top of a political-military operation, making Hezbollah a virtual state-within-the state in Lebanon.
The US move against Hezbollah is part of a wider strategy of countering Iranian influence in the region, which now includes US sanctions imposed upon the country’s elite security force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
“We are hopeful that the United States does not make this strategic mistake,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said at a news conference. “If they do, Iran’s reaction would be firm, decisive and crushing and the United States should bear all its consequences.”