Defense Contractor’s Arrest Exposes Another Element in Hezbollah’s US Infrastructure
Hezbollah maintains a global network of operatives and spies working to widen the terrorist group’s presence from Latin America to Western Europe. And as I’ve shown, the United States is no exception.
Last week, a Department of Defense contract linguist, Mariam Taha Thompson, was charged with transferring highly classified intelligence to Hezbollah.
FBI agents arrested Thompson, 61, on February 27 at a military base in Irbil, Iraq. She appeared in Washington’s Federal court last Wednesday to face espionage-related charges. They stem from a December 30 incident. Just one day after the US Air Force struck Iranian Shia militias in Iraq, Justice Department investigators found that Thompson engaged in suspicious activities on the Defense Department’s classified systems.
She is suspected of transferring highly classified information to a Lebanese national with whom she developed a romantic relationship, court documents show. In subsequent questioning, Thompson told the FBI that she didn’t know of the co-conspirator’s affiliation with Hezbollah, saying that in Lebanon, it could either be Hezbollah or another Shia group, the Amal movement.
“I am telling you, he is with Hezbollah or Amal, but, uh, I — no, he never told me. I don’t know,” she said, according to an FBI affidavit submitted with the criminal complaint. She claimed to “hate Hezbollah,” describing it as a terrorist group that is “like the octopus. They can reach anybody. They are the government now” in Lebanon.
State and non-state actors rely on a variety of means to recruit agents, including blackmail, money, and ideological affinity. Espionage activities are sometimes conducted through the use of “honey pots,” a term to describe spies that lure targets by developing romantic or sexual relationships. Spies are often recruited based on several overlapping motivations.
Thompson allegedly searched for dozens of cases on human intelligence sources, including detailed personal information and photographs. An Arabic-language, hand-written note listing the names of American-handled informants was found under Thompson’s mattress. The note also included instructions to monitor assets’ phones and communications.
“If true, this conduct is a disgrace, especially for someone serving as a contractor with the United States military,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said in a statement. “This betrayal of country and colleagues will be punished.”
Previous reports highlight Hezbollah’s efforts to plant operatives abroad and cultivate fundraising and recruitment networks. Some of these global networks help the group plan and execute terrorist attacks as well. But this latest case highlights Hezbollah’s efforts to recruit people with access to classified information within the US government.
Tensions between the United States and Iran reached new heights in late December and early January, after US bases in Iraq faced repeated attacks from Iranian-sponsored Shia militias. On January 3, a US drone strike killed Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani, the mastermind of Iran’s global terrorist operations. While Iran responded with a missile barrage on a base used by US soldiers, the Islamic Republic may seek further retaliation.
The US homeland could be a potential target of an Iran-sponsored attack, based on an Investigative Project on Terrorism report on criminal prosecutions of Iranian operatives and those of its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.
The report shows there are many supporters of Iran and Hezbollah living in the United States. Most cases involve financial and other forms of material support. But “sleeper cells” have likely been nurtured for years. At least one operative told law enforcement officials that Iran could activate these cells to carry out attacks in “certain scenarios.”
One notable case involved a senior officer from Iran’s Quds Force aiding in a plan to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington. Senior members of Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO) have also been prosecuted for scouting potential targets for attack in the United States.
Qassem Soleimani was overseeing each of these major plots overseas.
In September, a Hezbollah operative living in Morristown, NJ was indicted for conducting surveillance of targets to help the terrorist group prepare for future attacks.
Two months later, Hezbollah operative Ali Kourani was sentenced to 40 years in prison for monitoring possible weapons suppliers, gathering intelligence on JFK International Airport, and conducting surveillance on several New York City Federal buildings and law enforcement facilities.
The latest charge involving a Defense Department contractor, if proven, is part of a broader pattern whereby Hezbollah engages in espionage activities aimed at the United States. Not all Hezbollah assets targeting the US come in the form of sleeper cells, terror finance networks, or individual operatives scouting potential locations for attacks. Hezbollah is also seeking to disrupt the US military from within by trying to recruit assets with access to top secret information and the willingness to share damaging intelligence with powerful adversaries.
Steven Emerson is considered one of the leading authorities on Islamic extremist networks, financing, and operations. He serves as the Executive Director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism, a non-profit organization that serves as one of the world’s largest storehouses of archival data and intelligence on Islamic and Middle Eastern terrorist groups.