Just a month ago, the State Department's Counterterrorism Coordinator, Daniel Benjamin, said Hezbollah is "a very ambitious group with global reach." Benjamin did so at an event that re-designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, this time for its support of Assad's regime in Syria. He was asked more than once about Hezbollah's threat here in the United States, and while he tried to say nothing ("I'll just leave it at that"), he did: not only is Hezbollah an ambitious group with global reach, but clearly there is more to the story. "I'll just leave it at that" from the State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator means "I just can't tell you right now."
So let's not have a chat about Hezbollah's history of criminal activity here in the United States; that is widely available elsewhere and in the federal criminal court system. Let's talk about a strong reminder of how Hezbollah behaves in the United States. A couple of weeks ago there was a small blip in the news cycle providing an update not only on terrorist travel methods, but confirming that Hezbollah finds safe haven (at minimum) in Mexico.
From whom? For Raffic Labboun, 44-year-old Lebanese naturalized U.S. citizen considered to be the San Francisco Bay Area Hezbollah leader, who was arrested earlier this month in Mexico. He followed classic terrorist travel embedding tactics: he attended the University of California at Berkeley and graduated as a mathematician, married an American, and had two children here before disappearing back to Lebanon in 2002. He returned in 2006 to work for Costco and, while doing so, committed over $102,000 in bank and credit card fraud, for which he was arrested and convicted in 2009. He was imprisoned until June 2012, and then fled abroad only to be found on the east coast of southern Mexico near Belize with a Belizean passport under a false or stolen name. According to Mexican reporting that states its information is from the CIA, this naturalized U.S. citizen was simultaneously a lead recruiter and imam for Hezbollah in San Francisco, preaching at the Iraqi Community Association (ICA) in downtown San Francisco, the Shia Center of San Francisco, and the Islamic Center Fatimiyya in Hayward, Calif. For more on the Shia Center and San Francisco replacing Dearborn, Mich., as the U.S. Hezbollah hub, see this article.
Considered one of the smartest and most eloquent of the Hezbollah leadership here in the United States, Raffic Labboun, now referred to as Labboun Allaboun but using the false or stolen name of Belizean Wilhelm Dick when he was picked up by Mexican police, is the epitome of terrorist travel 101. The terrorist travel strategy has core elements: establish residence in the United States, permanently embed, build a family with birthright citizenship ties, and either operationally carry out an attack or more likely support the terror organization from the United States publicly (preaching and recruitment) or privately (often via illegal criminal activity).
Labboun did all of these so well in a post-9/11 environment that only his $102,000 credit card fraud, traced as laundered to finance Hezbollah, led to his downfall; the simple recruitment and alleged leadership of San Francisco Hezbollah on their own would probably not have been enough. Obtaining U.S. citizenship while being affiliated with a terrorist organization has become so commonplace that few do more than shrug at the nonfeasance of USCIS.
What is interesting about this case is that Labboun became such a "Hezbollah in America" poster boy that in the end, he unraveled himself by being textbook perfect in his execution of Hezbollah's travel, embedding, recruitment, and fundraising strategies.
The irony is that Labboun's supporters came to his defense emphatically upon his arrest in 2009, which only verified at least some of the accusations leveled against him: support for Iran, criminal activity, and extreme hatred toward the United States all bundled into public commentary. Instead of supporting Labboun, the YouTube video "Ya RAFIC Labboun!" created upon his arrest, touts his extreme, anti-American views, and specific support for Iran.
If anyone actually wondered if pre-trial allegations about Labboun were true, just listen to his followers rap about "Imam Khomeini standing tall against the Great Satan" ("Great Satan" is the Iranian reference to the United States. "Little Satan" is Israel), followed by this chorus and lyric:
Like Imam Khomeini standing tall against Great Satan
Ya Rafic, we hear the peace you speak
Yo bro, we know their goal is to oppress the weak
You've been blessed with the belief
So they stress your every speech
Yo bro, we know the victory is within reach
Baseless racist devilution
This ain't embarrassing
A Lebanese American
Community leader, father, good Samaritan
Building unity amongst Muslims, Christians, peace believers
They demonize him, terrorize him
With lies that's deceivers
But it's no surprise when
They did it to Seyed at Masjid Nabi
Credit card fraud, just a front sadly
They concoct up a story
So-called plots and schemes
Without any evidence
When Labboun was released from federal prison in June 2012, he immediately violated his parole and left the United States, whereupon an international alert was sent out. U.S. intelligence agencies apparently said that Labboun was part of a Hezbollah cell operating out of the Yucatan and Central America. No wonder he was found near Belize, on the far southeastern coast of Mexico, in Merida, with two other Lebanese men from Belize. No Hezbollah in Mexico, Mr. President? The FBI just proved that comment wrong.
Reports say he arrived in Mexico from London. Belize newspapers said this about his passport:
We tried but there was no comment from the U.S. Embassy in Belize or the Immigration Department in Belmopan. According to the Ministry of National Security Wilhelm Dick has a Belizean birth certificate which says he was born in Shipyard in 1976 — and he has a Belizean driver's license issued in Belmopan. The Ministry is working to see if it is the case of identity theft or an invented identity.
Another Belizean TV station went further:
Though he was released from prison only months ago, Allaboun fled to Mexico using a Belizean passport with the name Wilhelm Dick, hoping to pass as a Belizean Mennonite. … News Five attempted several times to speak to the Public Relations Officer for the Ministry of National Security, Delroy Cuthkelvin, who said he would get back to us since he is trying to clarify a few details about Allaboun's Belizean passport. We have a few details we also want clarified. When was the passport for the American citizen with a criminal past issued? Which person at the Ministry of Immigration signed the passport, and better yet, who authorized the passport to be issued in the name of Wilhelm Dick? If the person whose face is in the passport is required to take his photo at the Immigration Office, how did Allaboun get his face on the passport without being in the country? One thing is clear, established policies continue to be disregarded, but under whose leadership was the passport issued? From all accounts, the Belizean identity continues to be flaunted as a cover for criminals and in this case a member of the radical terrorist group, Hezbollah.
While I applaud questioning the Belize passport acquisition by Labboun, I wonder why they assume it was a legitimate passport? In the end, it does not matter very much. What matters is that terrorist travel continues to the United States and is often not caught until after immigration has awarded the terrorist U.S. citizenship. When it will stop, nobody knows.