January 19, 2024
This week President Biden re-designated Yemen’s Houthis as a global terrorist group amid its increasing attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, the Hezbollah terror group continues to threaten Israel's northern border, and the Israel-Hamas war continues as Hamas still holds more than 100 Israeli hostages taken on 10/7.
Matthew Levitt, Fromer-Wexler Fellow & Director of the Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute, joins us to help make sense of the renewed terror threat, how these terror groups are coordinating their strategy and attacks, and what the U.S., Israel, and its allies are doing to fight back against Iran and its terror proxies.
*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC.
- (0:40) Matthew Levitt
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Transcript of Interview with Matthew Levitt:
Manya Brachear Pashman:
This week the US military struck a Houthi arsenal in Yemen that had threatened US Navy vessels in the Red Sea. It was America's fourth strike on Houthi turf since November 19. Meanwhile, the Hezbollah terror group continues to violate a UN Security Resolution and threaten Israel's border, and Hamas still holds more than 100 Israeli hostages taken during the October 7th invasion and massacre.
What do all these terror groups have in common? Returning here to discuss is Matthew Levitt, the Fromer-Wexler Fellow & Director of the Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute.
Matt, welcome back to People of the Pod.
Thank you so much for having me.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
So let's start with the terror group making the latest headlines. The Houthis? Who are they and why has the Biden administration just re-designated them a terrorist organization?
So the Houthis are a separatist group in Yemen, based in the north of the country. They are Shia, and they get support from Iran. But they're not exactly the same kind of Shia as Iran. And they aren't exactly the kind of proxy that says jump when Iran says how high.
This is a relationship of convenience and my enemy's enemy. And they both hate the United States and the west and hate Israel. And the Houthis have been for years an ineffective, and for the Iranians an inexpensive and risk free way to complicate things for the Saudis. So for years, the Houthis were shooting at the Saudis when the Saudis were involved in the Yemeni war, after the Houthis had taken over.
And that's one of the reasons why things are a little sensitive right now, because there have been efforts to try and negotiate a ceasefire between the Houthis and the Saudis. The Saudis aren't happy with what the Houthis are doing right now in the Red Sea. But they also don't want to rock the boat.
The Houthis have as part of their mantra printed on their flag, Death to Israel, Death to America, Death to Jews, all three, they're not particularly, you know, unclear. And so they have flown drones towards Israel that have been shot down, they have fired ballistic missiles at Israel, some of which have been shut down by US Navy vessels, at least one was shut down by the Saudis. Just pause to think about that for a minute. The Saudis weren't thinking this was aimed at them, the Saudis shut down a Houthi missile aimed at Israel, which suggests that the Israel-Saudi reconciliation track, while very much on pause, is not over. And the Israelis have shot down some including for the first time ever using the arrow anti-missile system, which shot down a ballistic missile in lower outer space.
Now, the Houthis have tried to leverage their position geographically by targeting ships in the Red Sea. They claim that they are targeting only those ships that are owned in whole or in part by Israel or have serviced Israeli ports. They've hit some American ships as well. They're clearly getting intelligence from the Iranians on this. And it has disruptive international freedom of navigation.
And you have now a new problem in terms of getting things where we need them to be to stock our shelves, because boats that would normally go up the Red Sea and through the canal are now going around South Africa.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
And this volatility on the part of the Houthis is also compounded by what's going on with Hamas, and also Hezbollah. Is Iran the common denominator here, Matt? I mean, is that what all these terror groups have in common, or is there much more?
So it's true, the Houthis claimed that what they're doing is in support of the Palestinians. But what we are seeing for the first time put into action is the strategy that was developed by the late Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, who was killed in Iraq several years ago. And that strategy was what he called uniting the fronts. And so this idea that across the spectrum, and it really is a spectrum of proxy, activity of sponsorship.
Hezbollah is at one end very, very close to Iran, the Houthis, I would argue, are at the other end, and Hamas is kind of somewhere in between. Getting them all to be able to coordinate their activities, when push comes to shove. Now, Hamas for its part is very happy with the Houthis. They're quite disappointed with Hezbollah.
There are reports in the Arabic press, that Hamas expected that Hezbollah would get much more involved and Hezbollah didn't when they saw the US naval presence, you know, two aircraft carriers. Whatever the specifics, Hamas have been very vocal about how displeased they are with the level of support they're getting from Hezbollah, though that has been significant. And they're pretty pleased with the support they're getting from the Houthis, which is outsized what might have otherwise been expected from the Houthis.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
So the alignment of these groups with Iran, what exactly does that mean? Does that mean that Iran is pulling the strings? Are they funding the activities? All of the above? I mean, you mentioned the goal of coordinating all these proxies, but does coordinating go as far as collaborating?
So I don't want to get into a semantic discussion of what exactly is the difference between collaborating and coordinating. I think what's important to understand here is that it's not like in the movies, where everybody's getting together at a meeting with evil laughs, coordinating all that they're doing. There have been some meetings, we know that for at least the past few years. Iranian Quds Force, Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad had been meeting at what they call, their term not mine, a joint operations room in Beirut. What all is coordinated is not entirely clear. You've had Iranian and some Shia militants from Iraq, the Ḥashd ash-Shaʿbī making statements recently about how, you know, generally things are coordinated right now.
Frankly, the level of coordination took a hit with the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. And there was no one with the gravitas to kind of bring all these proxies together. So they actually leaned on Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Lebanese Hezbollah to come in and serve that role not only kind of mediating between the various Iraqi Shia militant groups, but also the others, the Hamas is that Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Houthis. So they're not all sitting around a big conference table. And you'll do this and you'll do this, but they're all getting support–financial and often weapons from Iran. There is some significant cross pollination in some personalities.
So for example, for the first time this week I've seen in the open source, Israelis say that the head of the Redwan special forces unit in southern Lebanon that has been firing anti tank guided missiles into Israel multiple times a day is a guy known as Abu ‘Ali Al- Tabataba’i. He was in southern Lebanon for many years. Then he was sent to Syria, where he worked with Iraqi Shia militants and Quds Force. Then he was moved from there to Yemen, where Hezbollah had a very, very small contingent, maybe a couple of dozen.
But the fact that they sent someone that senior was telling. I actually wrote a piece of Foreign Affairs about this years ago, when it came out that he was sent to Yemen. He was designated by the US Treasury, there's a Rewards for Justice from the State Department to reward out for his head. Well, he now is back from Yemen, got a promotion and is the overall head of the Redwan unit. And he has at this point, all kinds of personal relationships.
And so there's a little bit of cross pollination, you might talk about the people you know, from back when you went to college together. And back in the day the Al Qaeda would talk, did you go to the duranta camp in Afghanistan? Do you remember that trainer? Well, now there's a similar thing going on in the Shia extremists milieu? Did you go to the camps together? Were you in Iran at the same time, or Iraq or Lebanon at the same time? Which trainer did you have, who did they send to you? And so there is coordination happening, but I don't think it's Houthis. Sometime this morning, you're going to be targeting a ship.
On the flip side, there is some open source information about ships that you can find and their ownership. But it's clear that the Iranians are also providing them information that is not public. And they're also clearly working with Hezbollah. If you go back to October 7 itself, the plotline of October 7, fire a bunch of missiles under that cover, infiltrate across the border, take as many civilian communities as possible, kill a bunch of people, kidnap others across the border.
That was the Hezbollah plan that the IDF Northern Command was preparing and training to deal with for years. And it was Hamas who used it, so you can see some of that connectivity.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
Ah, exchanges of strategy.
Strategy and more. It's not every tactic. It's not every every instance, but there is certainly overall strategy that they're coordinating. There certainly is communication. There certainly is movement of funds and of weapons. And, and this is the first time we're seeing that type of coordinated effort involving militants from Iraq, Iranian assets in Syria. You know, at one point, the Iranians flew a drone and crashed it into a school and a lot. The drone flew down. Jordan didn't cross into Israel until the very end went into a lot. It was a school where children evacuated from communities in the south, are being educated. I don't know if it's luck. I think it is. I don't think the Iranians had intelligence to know exactly what time class got out. But it was, you know, a couple of hours after class got out could have been much, much worse. And even just today, there are reports of things being shot towards Israel, around the Red Sea.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
So are we at risk of a wider war? Or does anything stand in the way of that?
Yes. We really are at the brink of a regional war. And I see a lot of people, a lot of press saying that Israel has done something which brings us to the brink of a regional war. And I challenge that Israel is responding to not only the attack on October 7, but to all kinds of attacks. Still, the United States also is not bringing the region to the brink of war, when United Kingdom strike Houthi assets in an effort to prevent them from being able or to deter them from carrying out attacks on vessels in the Red Sea. Ultimately, this really comes down to how far do Iran and its spectrum of proxies want to push the envelope.
I think at the end of the day, they're actually quite happy with what's going on. So long as the fighting in the Gaza Strip continues, I think they feel justified in saying this can go on. They have said, Hezbollah and others have said, that this can stop when the fighting of the Gaza Strip stops. Whether that is what they actually mean or not is something only time will tell. But I think at the end of the day, the decision about whether or not this spills into a broader regional war doesn't rest with Israel or the United States or the United Kingdom, those that are responding to the aggression.
But it’s the aggressors. How far does Hezbollah want to push this? For a long time, Hezbollah was only hitting military targets in the north and now they're selectively hitting some civilian targets. Killed a mother and her son in their home in northern Israel just a few days ago. Generally, they're still hitting military targets but it's escalating a little bit in response to the Israeli assassination of Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri, which was a big deal because they killed him in Hezbollah stronghold.
They hit some pretty significant Israeli military targets, a radar installation on the Hermon mountains and Northern Command Headquarters near Safed.
Those appear to be one offs. Do the Shia militias do something more? Do Iranian assets in Syria try and infiltrate more drones or rockets? Do the Houthis get lucky and hit something particularly big and bark something more. There's lots of ways for this to unintentionally, to escalate. But I do think that all parties right now don't want a regional war.
That said, Hezbollah, Iran, the Houthis, the Shia militias in Iraq, certainly Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, some of the groups that we're seeing very active in the West Bank right now are quite happy to see this level of pressure on Israel and starting the first of what I think they want to be a trend, of these types of coordinated assaults.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
So why don't they want a wider war? What is their goal?
They all have as part of their goal, their raison d'etre, destroying Israel, kicking the United States out of the region, undermining Western powers in the region, etc. But they all also understand that you go too far, and you open up this to a much broader conflict. The United States has barely gotten involved. They've done a few very, very small things in Yemen. They have been very supportive to Israel's effort to defend itself. While the US has sent significant forces to the region, they have not done anything, for example, regarding Hezbollah in Lebanon. They've not done anything in terms of the Hashed al-Shaabi in Iraq attacking Israel, though they have responded very, very, very few times, I might add, to the significant number of times Iraqi Shia militants have struck at US military targets in Iraq and Syria. They understand that this could get much bigger. And ultimately, Iran understands that if things escalate too much, that the fight is going to come to Iran. And it won't stop.
They also really don't want Hezbollah in particular, to go too far in the moment. Because all those rockets that the Iranians have provided to Hezbollah in violation of UN Security Council resolution 1701, since the 2006 war, they're not there primarily for this. They're there to deter Israel and anybody else from attacking Iran's nuclear program, which by the way, the Iranians have been pushing the envelope on throughout this period of conflict since October 7.
And if anybody should attack Iran or its nuclear program, this is seen as Iran's best second strike capability. It's why Hezbollah has basically not fired almost anything other than the Kornet anti tank guided missiles, fired a couple of other short range things. But none of the precision guided missiles under the longer range missiles, that's all, but that powder is dry. That's all for now. And I think Iran doesn't want those spent right now, and also doesn't want these to escalate to the point where the Israelis go ahead and try and take them out under the cover, or in the context of this current conflict.
So there's a strategic set of goals and they believe in, you know, the concept of muqawima, of resistance. There's this idea of muqawima patience, right? This, from their perspective is what God wants, it will eventually happen.
This past three months, this is a huge step on the road to resistance victory. This is a huge success in terms of galvanizing multiple forces to unite the fronts. Doesn't all have to happen right now. But they believe that this is very much a sign that they're on the right path, and it's a step in what they would consider to be the right direction.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
Well, Matt, thank you so much. I appreciate you explaining who these terror groups actually are and helping our listeners better understand the headlines.
It’s always a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me. And if you want more, there's plenty more at WashingtonInstitute.org. Thank you for the work you're doing and for having me on the show.