During the George W. Bush administration, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage famously called Hezbollah the "A team of terrorists," adding: "al-Qaida is actually the B team." How do these two organizations compare today?
Last week, the State Department released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism 2012." A "senior administration official" highlighted an "alarming trend": a "marked resurgence of terrorist activity by Iran and Hezbollah. The tempo of operational activity was something we haven't seen since the 1990s. ... We see no signs of this activity abating in 2013. In fact, our assessment is that Hezbollah and Iran will both continue to maintain a heightened level of terrorist activity and operations in the near future."
State is right to see Hezbollah and Iran as joined at the hip: The former is financed and instructed by the latter. That has not always been understood despite the fact that, before 9/11/01, Hezbollah was responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist organization. And Hezbollah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, has proclaimed: "Death to America was, is, and will stay our slogan."
Hezbollah has been sending combatants into Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad, the dictator and Iranian satrap. A Hezbollah attack on a bus in Bulgaria last July killed five Israelis and one Bulgarian. In Nigeria, authorities recently broke up a Hezbollah cell, seizing what one Nigerian official called "a large quantity of assorted weapons of different types and caliber. ..."
State's report contains surprisingly little information about Hezbollah in Latin America. However, a 500-page report issued last week by Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman reveals that Iran has established "clandestine intelligence stations and operative agents" in at least nine Latin American countries. They are being used "to execute terrorist attacks when the Iranian regime decides so, both directly or through its proxy, the terrorist organization Hezbollah."
Nisman provides additional evidence that Iranian and Hezbollah operatives were responsible for two terrorist bombings in Argentina in the 1990s. There's an American nexus: Nisman charges that Mohsen Rabbani, Iran's former cultural attache in Buenos Aires -- implicated in the 1994 attack in Argentina in which 85 people were killed -- directed "Iranian agent" Abdul Kadir, now serving a life sentence in connection with the 2010 plot to bomb John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Connect the dots, Nisman argues, and they draw a picture of Iran "fomenting and fostering acts of international terrorism in concert with its goals of exporting the revolution."
Considering all this, can al-Qaida still be considered a serious competitor? Yes, it can! Last weekend, my colleague, uber-researcher Tom Joscelyn, pointed out that AQ and its affiliates now "are fighting in more countries than ever." AQ maintains safe havens in both northern Pakistan and Afghanistan's Kunar and Nuristan provinces. Its loyal ally, the Taliban, is responsible for a level of violence "higher than before the Obama-ordered surge of American forces in 2010," according to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
A somewhat independent Taliban in Pakistan, Joscelyn notes, "remains a threat after orchestrating the failed May 2010 bombing in Times Square. The State Department announced in September 2010 that Pakistani Taliban has a 'symbiotic relationship' with al-Qaida." The AQ-affiliated al Nusrah Front may be the most effective force fighting against Assad's troops, Hezbollah and Iranian forces in Syria. AQ is resurgent in neighboring Iraq, with April 2013 the deadliest month in that country in nearly five years, according to the U.N.
AQ has expanded operations in Yemen. In Somalia, Shabaab -- which formally merged with AQ last year -- is far from defeated. In Nigeria, Boko Haram continues to slaughter Christians. In Egypt, al-Qaida members and associates are operating more freely than ever.
Libyan groups closely linked to al-Qaida were responsible for the 9/11/12 attack that killed four Americans. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) easily took over northern Mali until French forces pushed them out of the population centers. Al-Qaida affiliates are becoming more viable in Tunisia, too.
Despite all this, the State Department report asserts that "core" al-Qaida "is on a path to defeat." I am not alone in finding insufficient evidence to substantiate that thesis. And even if it does prove to be accurate, who's to say that a weakening core can't be compensated for by a strengthening periphery?
In the final analysis, "Which is the A team of terrorism?" is not the paramount question. What is: In the years ahead, does the U.S. have what it takes to be the A team of counterterrorism?
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.