Iranian diplomats may have carried out “hostile reconnaissance” of sites in New York as many as six times, a warning sign that the city might be targeted for terrorist attack, according to a police official.
The incidents occurred between 2002 and 2010 and involved videotaping or photographing landmarks, rail service and bridges, said Mitchell Silber, director of the city police department’s intelligence analysis unit, in testimony before a U.S. House panel today.
Hezbollah, a militant group allied with Iran that has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, also has ties to the New York region, he said.
“The city remains the most likely venue for global tensions with Iran to spill over onto American soil,” Silber told the House Homeland Security Committee.
Tensions with Iran have increased over the country’s unwillingness to scale back its nuclear program.
Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she was concerned that Hezbollah would attempt a terrorist attack on American soil and that she had been in touch with U.S. Jewish groups. Napolitano said she wasn’t aware of any specific threats to the groups or other U.S. targets.
Operatives in U.S.
Government officials estimate “hundreds” of Iranian and Hezbollah operatives are in the U.S., said Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York who is the homeland security panel’s chairman.
“We have a duty to prepare for the worst,” he said.
Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the panel’s senior Democrat, complained that Obama administration officials weren’t among the witnesses at the hearing.
“I am concerned about whether the testimony we received will be based on current information,” said Thompson. “We should not engage in a public discussion that creates fear and delivers misinformation.”
New York police are facing criticism for conducting surveillance of Muslim communities. The New York-based Human Rights Watch yesterday requested in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that the Justice Department formally investigate the city department’s actions.
The U.S. and Europe have tightened economic sanctions on Iran since a Nov. 8 United Nations atomic inspectors’ report raised questions about Iran’s nuclear program. The sanctions are meant to pressure Iran’s leaders to abandon weapons-related work and head off a potential conflict in the Persian Gulf region that holds more than half the world’s oil reserves.
The Iranian surveillance has been going on for years, Silber said. In February 2010, federal air marshals found four people who said they worked for the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Co. videotaping and photographing the Wall Street heliport, he said. One person held a camera at waist level, focusing on the structure and not the helicopters in the air, he said.
Several members of the Iranian delegation to the United Nations in 2008 were seen taking pictures of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority train tracks inside Grand Central Station, Silber said. In the early to mid-2000s, police interviewed people with ties to the Iranian government who were taking pictures and videotaping infrastructure, he said.
Police have been examining recent terrorist plots in India, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Thailand that may be connected to Iran, Silber said.
An alleged Iranian plot last year to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. shows that Iran doesn’t fear conducting American operations, said Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.
“America and its allies are already involved in a shadow war with Iran,” he said.
Hezbollah’s presence in the New York region has been uncovered in investigations, Silber said. Twenty-six people, including a former Brooklyn resident, were indicted in 2009 for conspiring to provide material support to Hezbollah by obtaining weapons, and raising money through the sale of fraudulent passports and other schemes, Silber said.
Past cases have shown that Hezbollah operatives, whose primary purpose was to raise money and provide supplies to the group, can have a “potential lethal nature,” said Chris Swecker, a former assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Intelligence officials have told the committee’s staff that “Hezbollah is the group most capable of flipping its nationwide network of criminal fund-raising cells into an operational terror force capable of great violence,” King said.
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