Canadian spies have overheard agents of Lebanese-based Hezbollah talking about a possible strike against the Israeli embassy in Ottawa, according to a report from a U.S. news agency.
ABC News is reporting that British, American and Canadian agencies have picked up chatter about a possible strike taking place outside the Middle East — a key shift in Hezbollah’s modus operandi — after one of its key operative was assassinated in Syria last February.
Unnamed officials told ABC that it was in that context that "suspected Hezbollah operatives have conducted recent surveillance on the Israeli embassy in Ottawa, Canada and on several synagogues in Toronto."
Iran-backed Hezbollah, a Shia Muslim organization, has been banned as a terrorist entity in Canada since 2002, its foreign agents probed by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service since the early 1990s. But in the past, the CSIS fear has tended to be material support from Canada for overseas terrorism, and not that Hezbollah operatives would actively strike at Israeli and Jewish targets inside this country.
The ABC News report suggests up to 20 individuals in "sleeper cells" were active in Canada, and that a known Hezbollah weapons expert was followed to Canada where "he was seen at a firing range south of Toronto, near the U.S. border."
The Globe and Mail has learned, from community sources, there were fears of possible strikes in Canada coinciding with the 60th anniversary of Israel in May, though nothing came of this. Generally, embassies, synagogues and Jewish community groups stepped up security in recent years in anticipation of any possible attack, not necessarily from Hezbollah.
Federal security officials won’t publicly comment on the report. "Hezbollah is a listed entity. It is a crime to knowingly participate in certain activities of this organization," said Melisa Leclerc, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day. "As you can appreciate, the Minister cannot comment on operations that Canada’s security agencies may or may not be undertaking."
U.S. law-enforcement issued a statement saying they had not independently picked up any threat. "The FBI and DHS [Department of Homeland Security] have no specific intelligence about any group or so called sleeper cells planning an attack," said Richard Kolko, a spokesman for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, in an e-mail. "Our job is to gather intelligence, work with our domestic and international partners to identify and disrupt any terrorism event.”
Mr. Kolko told The Globe he could not speak for any agencies outside of the FBI.
The ABC News report made no reference to the FBI co-operation in the investigation but did say U.S. foreign intelligence and eavesdropping agencies had been investigating the threat with CSIS.
The involvement of these agencies would suggest the intelligence about Hezbollah may not have reached the point of where criminal charges could have been contemplated or laid. Its not known what may have happened to the operatives in question.
Still dating back to the 1990s, CSIS identified Hezbollah supporters as a problem — alleging agents running smuggling scams in Canada and the U.S. to send money and proscribed equipment, such as night-vision goggles, back to the Middle East. CSIS agents have openly testified about this in a U.S. court.
An operational foreign paramilitary presence — or "sleeper cells" as ABC News suggested — would be a major departure for Hezbollah, which is also a political party striving for international legitimacy in Lebanon. Any foreign attack could also cause a rift its state sponsor, Iran, which a pariah theocratic state that tends to take an active role in shaping Hezbollah’s activities.
Hezbollah was implicated in terrorist attacks against Israeli embassies and recreation centres in South America in the early 1990s, but since then has generally confined operations against Israel proper — meaning the group has tended to be regarded as a regional threat, rather than a global terrorist menace along the lines of al-Qaeda.