US offers $10 million for information on operative in Hizbollah’s Unit 121

Salim Ayyash, a senior operative in Hizballah’s assassination unit, led the hit squad that conducted the 2005 truck bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others in Beirut. (Photo: AP)
Salim Ayyash, a senior operative in Hizballah’s assassination unit, led the hit squad that conducted the 2005 truck bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others in Beirut. (Photo: AP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - The US State Department announced on Monday that it was offering a reward of up to $10 million for information related to the Lebanese national, Salim Jamil Ayyash, whom it described as “a senior operative in the assassination unit of the terrorist organization Lebanese Hizbollah.”

Even by the generous standards of the State Department’s Rewards for Justice (RFJ) office, which administers the reward program, $10 million is a significant amount of money. Aside from the head of al Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that is the largest sum now being offered for information on wanted individuals, including the head of ISIS.

The large amount of money that RFJ is ready to pay for information on Ayyash, as well as the wording of the RFJ’s offer, suggest that Washington has intelligence that he may well be involved in planning some attack against the US.

The RFJ is asking for information on Ayyash’s “location or identification” or “information leading to preventing him from engaging in an act of international terrorism against a US person or US property.”

Last week, the Associated Press reported that members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had been discussing prospects for an attack on Ft. McNair, a military base alongside Washington’s Potomac River waterfront.

International Tribunal’s Conviction of Salim Ayyash

In last August, a UN-backed international tribunal, based in the Netherlands, found Ayyash guilty in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, a prominent Sunni politician and wealthy businessman, who played a key role in ending the Lebanese civil war and then became the country’s prime minister from 1992 to 1998 and again between 2000 and 2004.

Hariri was murdered in February 2005, targeted by a large truck bomb that killed him, along with 22 others, as his motorcade drove through Beirut. His death sparked widespread protests, which became known as the Cedar Revolution and which forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

Ayyash’s conviction, in absentia, focused attention on Hizbollah’s Unit 121, an assassination squad for which he worked. Although Ayyash’s whereabouts are unknown, figures like Hariri's son, Saad al-Hariri, as well as much of the Lebanese public, assume that he is being protected by Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s head, to which Unit 121 directly reports.

Unit 121 “had already been active for years under different identities,” when it murdered Hariri, The Washington Post reported last August, following Ayyash’s conviction. 

Hizbollah has “highly experienced bombmakers and an intricate command structure that is designed to insulate top officials from blame,” Matthew Levitt, a former counterterrorism analyst with the FBI and Treasury Department, told the Post.

Notably, Unit 121 is “still active” at the present time, the Post stated.

In October 2017, following the arrest of two Lebanese-Americans, charged with providing material support to Hizbollah, Nicholas Rasmussen, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, warned of “continued activity on behalf of Hizbollah here” in the US.

“It’s our assessment that Hizbollah is determined to give itself a potential homeland option as a critical component of its terrorism playbook,” Rasmussen said.

One defendant (Ali Kourani) was found guilty, when he stood trial in New York two years later. The other (Samer al-Debek) apparently pled guilty, according to Levitt, and may well have decided to cooperate with US authorities.

Both men had become US citizens years before, According to the criminal complaint against them, each was supposed to “maintain ostensibly normal lives,” but be prepared to “be activated and tasked with conducting [Hizbollah] operations.”

The Dutch-based tribunal which found Ayyash guilty of Hariri’s assassination failed to convict any other individuals, including two men who stood trial with him. It concluded there was “insufficient evidence,” although Ayyash clearly did not act alone. Nor did the tribunal tie Hizbollah’s leadership to the murder, disappointing many Lebanese.

Editing by John J. Catherine