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Posted on Feb 19, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Lightning Out of Lebanon – Book Review

Jim H. Moreno

loolcover.jpgBook Review: Lightning Out of Lebanon: Hezbollah Terrorists on American Soil
Tom Diaz & Barbara Newman, Presidio Press

The year was 2001. Like now, and like many years before, I could sit down at my $900 computer, and with but a few keystrokes and mouse clicks, bring page after page of the world in all its glory and wonder to my monitor. I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I could order a pizza from a local Papa John’s, or order a book from Amazon in Seattle, some 3,000 odd miles away. I could browse my local newspaper’s website and read about all the city’s crime the day before, or I could surf over to Terre Haute, Indiana, and read about Timothy McVeigh’s execution. I had a week’s worth of weather forecasts for thousands of cities at my fingertips, find out damn near every theater across America showing Amelie, complete with times and ticket prices. I could type in a From address here and a To address there, and be rewarded with a very detailed map connecting both addresses, along with distance and expected driving time. I could do all this, and so very much more, but you get the picture. Me, just one being with an old Hewlett-Packard, could in mere seconds become master of time and cyberspace, and seemingly pull the entire world to my bedroom.


And therein lies a source of the shock, horror, and terror I felt on 11 September 2001, and I daresay it was the same for millions of other Americans. HOW?! Doesn’t the U.S. Government and state authorities have technology that can do more than order pizza? I’m sure they have people who are astoundingly smarter than I, right? People who do nothing but soak up information from all over the world, and get paid the big bucks to do so? Going with the basic concept of proportion, if one man and a cheap computer can access a webcam five states away to watch the Mardi Gras parade, then a government should be capable of a whole lot more. HOW?!

In the years since 9/11, that question has been answered. For the most part, and in regards to the al Qaeda terrorists who planned and carried out those events. That was but one incident, and they, us, we, all failed to stop it. But did you know that before, during, and after that surreal period in our lives, there were American authorities, government agents, law enforcement personnel, and spatially aware citizens engaged in combat against another terrorists organization? Did you know that the front line in that battle had culminated and settled at Charlotte, North Carolina? Did you also know that the battle was fought for ten years? I have to say, with all my computer savvy and autodidactal skills, I knew none of it, until I read Lightning Out of Lebanon: Hezbollah Terrorists on American Soil, by Tom Diaz and Barbara Newman.

Lightning Out of Lebanon traces the recent history of Hezbollah terrorists in America, particularly, the rise and fall of a Hezbollah cell that operated in Charlotte from 1992 to 2002. Part official police report, part detective novel, part candid interview, the authors untangle the astonishing tale of how the "Party of God" infiltrated into America, established a sleeper cell right in Hometown, U.S.A., and then proceeded to use and abuse everything Americans take for granted to grow and prosper their terrorists ideals, both here and abroad. That is, until some alert local police and FBI agents took notice. It’s a classic tale of the good guys having to battle against the bad guys, and against the very system that is supposed to help protect them from the bad guys, complete with a positive ending.

The primary subject of this case study is Mohammed Youssef Hammoud, painstakingly convicted in 2002 and sentenced to 150 years in a federal maximum security prison in Texas. Long before that fateful day, the "exceptionally bright, extraordinarily personable, and deeply religious" Hammoud had spent his teens and early twenties being groomed by Hezbollah in Lebanon to carry out their clandestine operations in America. Much of the early chapters describe in great detail how Hammoud and other terrorists gained entry into the U.S., sometimes through manipulating the system, and sometimes simply able to do what they wished with not a single questioning eye ever turned in their direction.

Once inside American borders, the trail follows Hammoud to the tobacco state of North Carolina, where he quickly begins to create blatantly false identities and marriages, and works on creating a Hezbollah cash provider sleeper cell through an illegal cigarrette smuggling operation that stretched from Charlotte to Dearborn, Michigan. Hammoud also employed a staple Shiite tactic used since ancient times called taqiyya. "When there is a danger of loss of life or property, taqiyya allows Shiites to disguise their true beliefs and adapt to the mode of the dominant society, while mentally reserving their true beliefs." Along with the description of another common practice, mut’a, which allows for temporary marriages, the authors help guide readers to a deeper understanding of how Hammoud was able to subvert the people around him, his environment, and his very religion, into whatever best suited his needs. If for no other reason, this is why Lightning Out of Lebanon should be read.

Thankfully, there is another reason. Parallel to Hammoud’s story, the authors also describe the immense struggle and victory of the stalwart men and women who were finally able to put an end to the Charlotte Hezbollah cell. Rick Schwein was one of the FBI agents assigned to the case, a former U.S. Army Ranger who served as Intelligence Officer with Task Force 160 in the 1980’s. FBI agent Bob Clifford, a former U.S. Navy SEAL staff officer and later, "one of the architects of an internal revolution in how the FBI approached terrorism investigations", teamed up with Schwein in 1997. These two men were the driving force for the rest of the team. Iredell County Deputy Sheriff Bob Fromme and ATF agent John Lorick worked together conducting surveillance and gathering intelligence about the terrorist cell’s cigarette smuggling operation. Federal Prosecutor Ken Bell was tantamount during the trial to insuring the prosecution’s ten years of effort were not in vain, and he succeeded. Other members of the team included Chris Swecker, Martha Rubio, and later, Canadian Mike Wright and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service team designated to work with the Americans in sharing information on Hezbollah in order to strengthen the case for trial. Each one of them dedicated months and years to halting the growth of the Hezbollah sleeper cell in Charlotte, before who-knows-what might have happened became reality.

However, like the disaster on 9/11, the Mohammed Hammoud case profiled in Lightning Out of Lebanon, though a resounding success for the side of Good, is still only a single case won against one terrorist cell and one terrorist. The book soberly comes to an end by emphasizing that point very well. ""If this can happen in Charlotte, North Carolina," said U.S. Attorney Bob Conrad, "it can happen anywhere in America."" How many othere terrorist sleeper cells exist within America’s borders? How many other terrorists are there in New York, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, and Tampa, all known to be currently housing "Hezbollah supporters … actively involved in criminal conspiracies"? What about those cells and individuals unknown? Surrounded, hounded, and engulfed as we are in the Information Age, in America and around the world, those who would see terrorism and its kin cease to exist should take an honest deep look at what we know, and what we think we know, else we find ourselves again asking the terrible question, HOW?!