A secretive FBI team has been invited into Lebanon to investigate an assassination that at least one expert believes was conducted by the country's own ruling militant party.
Little is known about the investigators the FBI sent to Lebanon following the targeted killing of the country's spy chief last week. The FBI usually only sends agents abroad to investigate issues related to Americans, or if the a country specifically asks for help. The bureau has declined to comment on this ongoing investigation.
One retired agent who spent much of his career conducting similar investigations in the region says "more than likely there could a connection to Hezbollah" regarding the car bomb that killed Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan. The FBI assists countries that face crises like this one with a variety of specialties, but only if they are specifically invited.
"In an investigation like that, you want to incorporate as much evidence as you can from the intelligence world, from the criminal world," says Pasquale "Pat" D'Amuro, former FBI assistant director for counterterrorism, and a veteran of investigations in East Africa in the late 1990s and throughout the Middle East.
Hezbollah, a powerful ally of the Syrian government, rejected political opponents' claims of involvement in the attack, further separating the Lebanese from those who oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad and those who support him. The violent protests that resulted, combined with fighting spilling across the border from volatile Syria, spurred Lebanon to look to the FBI for assistance. The complications of these deployments extend far beyond the investigation itself. Al-Qaida operatives have actively targeted FBI agents following up on separate terrorist attacks, D'Amuro says. Before a team can deploy to a host country, both sides must agree on what kinds of weapons they are allowed to carry to protect both the agents and local citizens.
The Americans are also under the jurisdiction of the resident U.S. ambassador, who may add his own stipulations regarding weapons the agents may use.
In the case of this most recent instance in Lebanon, the local government usually grants limited access to the FBI for only recovering evidence, says D'Amuro. The Lebanese have never asked for additional help with the criminal investigation in his own experience.
By contrast, in 2008 the FBI's Rapid Deployment Team based in Los Angeles was sent to Mumbai to work closely with the Indian government to determine who was responsible for the coordinated shooting and bombing attacks that killed 166 people and injured more than 300.
That team was tasked with learning more about the assailants and sharing intelligence with local forces, according to the FBI. The process can often lead back to direct threats against the U.S. In this case, a surviving attacker said he was linked to Pakistani-based terrorism organization Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, which fundraises and recruits worldwide, including in America.
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Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.