U.S. on Iran Threats Since Gaza War

On November 15, FBI director Christopher Wray warned that the United States faced growing dangers at home from the war between Hamas and Israel thousands of miles away. Wray specifically cited Iran, “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” for operations directly and indirectly through proxies that target U.S. personnel both at home and abroad. It has hired criminals to plot assassinations against high-ranking current and former U.S. officials as well as dissidents living on American soil. Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful proxy, has sought to buy weaponry, seed operatives, and raise funds in the United States, Wray told the powerful committee.

In the month between October 15 and November 15, Iranian proxies had conducted 56 drone, rocket, and mortar attacks against U.S. military personnel based in Iraq and Syria to sustain the separate war against ISIS. More than 900 were based in Syria and some 2,500 in Iraq to aid and advise local forces leading the anti-ISIS campaign. The strikes by Iranian proxies, which have escalated since Hamas launched its deadly assault in Israel, have would dozens of Americans, with 27 suffering traumatic brain injuries. 

Mayorkas, Wray and Abizaid
Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas, FBI Director Wray and NCTC Director Abizaid during a House Homeland Security hearing on Nov. 15, 2023. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

At the House hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that Iran, the principal source of arms and support for Hezbollah and Hamas, will remain “the primary state sponsor of terrorism.” He warned that Tehran will continue to “advance plots” against Americans… The PRC [China] and Iran likely will remain the most aggressive actors within the United States.  

Last month, Christine Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified that Iran and its proxies were a “significant concern” across the Middle East because of their ability to generate attacks “that could have significant escalatory consequences.” During the first month of the war, U.S. intelligence concluded that Iran, Hezbollah and other proxies were “trying to calibrate” their involvement in the war launched by Hamas on October 7 to avoid opening up a second front while “still exacting costs” amid of the war.

“This is a very fine line to walk,” Abizaid told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security on October 31. “In the present regional context, their actions carry the potential for miscalculation, thus requiring heightened scrutiny in the region as we monitor for signs that the conflict could spread.”  In testimony to the House on November 15, Abizaid added that the “cascading effects of Hamas’ brutal and highly complex attacks” on Israel “underscore the need for vigilance” about a wide array of terrorist actors “who retain the capability and intent to conduct operations against the United States and our interests.” 

In his comments to Congress, Wray also warned that a “rogue’s gallery” of terrorist groups--including Hezbollah, al Qaeda and ISIS--had called on followers to attack the United States, the primary source of arms and financial aid to Israel. With the threat of terrorism already raised, the latest Middle East war elevated the threat “to a whole other level,” he told the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Beyond the threat from countries and organized militias, Wray cited the danger of a "lone actor" inspired by tensions in the war to launch attacks “on our own soil.” The FBI has “aggressively” tracked the trends, with recent arrests in Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles and at Cornell University. Although the FBI had not identified a specific plot, it was concerned about how “intentions might evolve.” 


Wray Testimony

“It’s been more than five weeks since Hamas terrorists carried out their brutal attacks against innocent Israelis, dozens of American citizens, and others from around the world, and our collective efforts remain on supporting our partners overseas and seeking the safe return of the hostages. But this hearing, focused on threats to our homeland, is well-timed given the dangerous implications the fluid situation in the Middle East has for our homeland security. “In a year when the terrorism threat was already elevated, the ongoing war in the Middle East has raised the threat of an attack against Americans in the United States to a whole other level.

“Since October 7th, we've seen a rogue’s gallery of foreign terrorist organizations call for attacks against Americans and our allies. Hizballah expressed its support and praise for Hamas and threatened to attack U.S. interests in the Middle East. Al-Qaida issued its most specific call to attack the United States in the last five years. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula called on jihadists to attack Americans and Jewish people everywhere. ISIS urged its followers to target Jewish communities in the United States and Europe.

“Given those calls for action, our most immediate concern is that individuals or small groups will draw twisted inspiration from the events in the Middle East to carry out attacks here at home. That includes homegrown violent extremists inspired by a foreign terrorist organization and domestic violent extremists targeting Jewish Americans or other faith communities, like Muslim Americans.

“Across the country, the FBI has been aggressively countering violence by extremists citing the ongoing conflict as inspiration. In Houston, we arrested a man who’d been studying bomb-making and posted about killing Jewish people. Outside Chicago, we’ve got a federal hate crime investigation into the killing of a six-year-old Muslim boy. At Cornell University, we arrested a man who threatened to kill members of that university’s Jewish community. And in Los Angeles, we arrested a man for threatening the CEO and other members of the Anti-Defamation League. I could go on.

“On top of the so-called "lone actor" threat, we cannot—and do not—discount the possibility that Hamas or another foreign terrorist organization may exploit the current conflict to conduct attacks here, on our own soil.
“We’ve kept our sights on Hamas and have multiple investigations into individuals affiliated with that foreign terrorist organization. And while, historically, our Hamas cases have identified individuals located here who are facilitating and financing terrorism overseas, we continue to scrutinize our intelligence to assess how the threat may be evolving.

“But it’s not just Hamas. As the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, the Iranians have directly, or by hiring criminals, mounted assassination attempts against dissidents and high-ranking current and former U.S. officials, including right here on American soil. Or take Hizballah, Iran’s primary strategic partner, which has a history of raising money and seeking to obtain weapons here in the United States. FBI arrests in recent years also indicate that Hizballah has tried to seed operatives, establish infrastructure, and engage in spying here domestically—raising our concern that they may be contingency planning for future operations in the United States.

“And while we’re not currently tracking a specific plot, given that disturbing history, we’re keeping a close eye on what impact recent events may have on those terrorist groups’ intentions here in the United States, and how those intentions might evolve. 

“Now, I want to be clear: While this is certainly a time for heightened vigilance, it is by no means a time to panic. Americans should continue to be alert and careful, but they shouldn’t stop going about their daily lives.

“All across the country, the FBI's men and women are working with urgency and purpose to confront the elevated threat. That means working closely with our federal, state, and local partners through our FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces; taking an even-closer look at existing investigations and canvassing sources to increase awareness across the board; and doing all we can—working with our partners—to protect houses of worship here in the U.S.

“Bottom line: We're going to continue to do everything in our power to protect the American people and support our partners in Israel.

“Protecting Americans from the threat of terrorism is and remains our number one priority. But as you all know, the range of threats we battle each and every day is enormous.

“But I can tell you, it would be absolutely devastating if the next time an adversary like Iran or China launches a major cyberattack, we don’t see it coming because 702 was allowed to lapse. Or, with the fast-moving situation in the Middle East, imagine if a foreign terrorist organization overseas shifts intentions and directs an operative here who’d been contingency-planning to carry out an attack in our own backyard. And imagine if we’re not able to disrupt that threat because the FBI’s 702 authorities have been so watered-down.”


Abizaid Testimony

“Our CT enterprise remains focused on the Iranian Government’s persistent global activity, including in the Homeland, targeting multiple populations over the past four years, such as Israeli or Jewish interests; Iranian dissidents; and U.S. officials in retaliation for the death of IRGC-QF Commander Qasem Soleimani in 2020. Lebanese Hizballah, a number of Iran-aligned militant groups in Iraq and Syria, the Houthis, PIJ, and HAMAS all have long-standing relationships with Iran and have received materiel, financial support, and training from Iran. These groups and surrogates pose an asymmetric threat to the United States and Israel, and the prospect of the Iranian Government’s provision of more lethal and sophisticated capabilities to them remains a serious concern.”

“More relevant to the Homeland, we are watching for signs that Iran could pursue additional operations here, though we assess they would be unlikely to do so given the consequences amidst the current conflict. Iran and its proxies do have a history of  external operations; Iranian state agents have pursued several dozen lethal plots and assassinated at least 20 opponents across four continents since 1979, while Lebanese Hizballah has conducted international terrorist attacks in Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and Bulgaria.”

“Over the last several years, Iran has plotted against the United States, other Western interests, and Iranian dissidents more aggressively than they have at any time since the 1980s and become increasingly explicit in threats to carry out retaliatory attacks for the death of Iranian officials, especially against current and former U.S. officials whom it holds primarily responsible for Soleimani’s death.”

“As of mid-October, Iran is allowing its partners and proxies in the region to conduct attacks amidst the Israel-Hamas conflict. For the United States, this has included Shia militant rocket and unmanned aircraft system attacks against U.S. facilities in Syria and Iraq, leveraging a longstanding capability. Both Iran and Lebanese Hizballah are conducting or permitting dangerous actions that demonstrate their increased risk tolerance within the current crisis. So far, they appear to be avoiding dramatic actions that would immediately escalate the contours of the current conflict or open up a concerted second front with Israel. However, in the present regional context, their actions and those of their proxies carry great potential for miscalculation.”

Mayorkas Testimony

“Among state actors, we expect Iran, the principal funder of Hezbollah and Hamas, to remain the primary state sponsor of terrorism and continue its efforts to advance plots against individuals in the United States. Foreign terrorists continue to engage with supporters online to solicit funds, create and share media, and encourage attacks in the United States and Europe while their affiliates in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East prioritize local goals… The PRC [China] and Iran likely will remain the most aggressive actors within the United States.”