Overall Threat Assessment
Literally â€œthe party of God,â€ Hezbollah has transformed itself from a marginalized radical â€œclandestine militiaâ€ to a â€œmainstream political party,â€ (Harik 1). Hezbollah has cells on all inhabited continents, with a particularly sinister presence in Latin America (Byman; Noriega and CÃ¡rdenas). Before September 11, Hezbollah was responsible for â€œmore American deaths than any other terrorist organization,â€ (Byman 54). Its global reach and history of attacks are not the only reason why Hezbollah presents the highest possible threat to the United States. Hezbollah has become a legitimate â€œstate within a state,â€ funded not only by its native Lebanon but with â€œsignificant support from Iran and Syria,â€ (Masters and Laub 1). Hezbollah has also managed to legitimize itself, developing not only a â€œmoderateâ€ facade (Harik 1), but a political party with â€œextensive security apparatus, political organization, and social services network,â€ that appeals to a large number of Shia in Lebanon (Masters and Laub 1). With Iranâ€™s continual financial and military support, Hezbollah has effectively infiltrated the Lebanese government, leading to the recent resignation of the nationâ€™s prime minister and potentially dragging the proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia into full force. Therefore, the overall threat assessment posed by Hezbollah is highâ€”a higher threat perhaps than any other non-state actor in the world.
The official Hezbollah founding manifesto is dated 1985. Lebanon had been embroiled in a long civil war that began in 1975, a legacy of a hastily and poorly drawn post-colonial border. Sectarian violence seemed inevitable as Lebanon comprised three distinct cultural and religious groups: the majority Maronite Christians, the Sunni, and an â€œimpoverished and underdevelopedâ€ Shia community scattered throughout southern Lebanon and the northern Beqaa valley (Norton 12). When Lebanon first gained independence from France, these three groups tried to share power equally in Beiruitâ€™s government but failed, leading to a devastating civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990 and claimed 150,000 lives at least (Norton 12). Contributing to domestic unrest in Lebanon was the ongoing influx of Palestinians, and the eventual formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which would â€œchallenge the authority of the Beirut governmentâ€ and establish the â€œstate within a stateâ€ model that would eventually be picked up by Hezbollah (Norton 14). As many of the Palestinian refugees poured into Shia areas in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah and the PLO started to pool resources.
Politically, economically, and social disenfranchised, the Shia community in Lebanon started to wield increasingly greater amounts of power in the region. A higher birth rate versus their Sunni and Christian counterparts in the country also helped the Shia in Lebanon gain traction. To secure its own borders and fight against the PLO, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. The invasion â€œgalvanized a faction of disenfranchised Shiites to take up arms in support of an Iranian-style clerical regime,â€ kick-starting the birth of Hezbollah (Masters and Laub 1). Iran, which had been undergoing its own revolution, recognized the opportunity to gain traction in the region and establish itself as an enemy of both the United States and the Soviet Union. Iranâ€™s Revolutionary Guards started to train Shiite militias in the Bekaa Valley, creating the precursor to Hezbollah, Islamic Amal. Islamic Amal fought against the South Lebanon Army and Israel for years before being reborn in 1985 with the name Hezbollah, â€œparty of God.â€
Thus, Hezbollah was therefore born, and remains, a group of Shiites who officially pledge allegiance to Iran and which is also officially dedicated to the obliteration of the state of Israel. The Hezbollah manifesto reads: â€œthe Zionist entity is aggressive from its inception…our struggle will end only when this entity is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease-fire, and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated,â€ (Masters and Laub 1). The charter of Hezbollah also mentions the United States and the Soviet Union as enemies of Islam. Besides becoming embroiled in the Lebanese civil war and launching attacks against Israel, one of Hezbollahâ€™s first moves was actually against the United States. In 1983, prior even to its charter, Hezbollah with the help of Iran launched suicide attacks on the United States embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, killing 258 Americans (Masters and Laub 1).
When the civil war in Lebanon ended in 1989, the Taif Accord required Hezbollah to rebrand and reposition itself. Hezbollah remained committed to its anti-Israel and pro-Iran platform. The group also maintained power in Lebanon by proclaiming itself the protector of the Shia people, and by claiming â€œdeep faith and a literal interpretation of Godâ€™s words,â€ (Harik 1). In 1990, Syria established a military peacekeeping presence in Lebanon but Hezbollah continued a â€œguerilla warâ€ in the south of the country to prove its ongoing commitment to extricating the state of Israel from the region (â€œProfile: Lebanon’s Hezbollah movementâ€ 1). In addition to its diplomatic ties with Iran, its social and economic strategies in empowering the Shia communities in Lebanon, and its creative military strategies, Hezbollah also began to play a more active role in Lebanese national politics. The party has had candidates in national elections since 1992. Hezbollah claimed credit for ousting Israeli forces from Lebanon in 2000, a deft marketing strategy that enabled Hezbollah to gain a political stronghold in Beirut.
The next important phase in Hezbollahâ€™s history was during the 2006 war with Israel, which began when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others. Lasting for more than a month, the war caused over a thousand civilian deaths, which only fed into Hezbollahâ€™s anti-Israel rhetoric. As a result, â€œHezbollah survived the war and emerged emboldened,â€ (â€œProfile: Lebanon’s Hezbollah movementâ€ 1). Hezbollah had in fact become so powerful that by 2008, when the government of Lebanon tried to dismantle Hezbollahâ€™s communication networks, the group responded by seizing the capital. The clash resulted in 81 deaths. More importantly, Hezbollah won the skirmish, securing a new political agreement that effectively gave the party the power to veto any cabinet decision (â€œProfile: Lebanon’s Hezbollah movementâ€ 1). Since 2008, Hezbollah has gained more seats in Parliament, causing the most recent political kerfuffle in November 2017.
Furthermore, Hezbollah involved itself fully in the Syrian civil war. In support of Iran and President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah sent thousands of militants to Syria. Both Syria and Lebanon have therefore become primary battlegrounds in the ongoing proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which supports Sunni groups throughout the Middle East. By 2016, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League had declared Hezbollah a terrorist group (â€œProfile: Lebanon’s Hezbollah movementâ€ 1). Clashes between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Saudi-backed Sunni groups in Lebanon have severely destabilized the region with no apparent resolution in sight.
Since 1992, the General Secretary of Hezbollah has been Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah has been part of Hezbollah since before the charter, having had strong ties with what is known as Hezbollahâ€™s ideological predecessor, al-Dawa al-Islamiya (The Islamic Call), which â€œfollowed the teachings of prominent Iraqi cleric Mohammed Baqir al-Sad,â€ (Masters and Laub 1). Second in command to Nasrallah is Naim Qassem. Nasrallahâ€™s chief political advisor is Hussein al-Khalil. Until his death in a car bombinb in 2008, Imad Fayez Mugniyah served as Hezbollahâ€™s â€œtop planner of worldwide terrorist operations,â€ (Masters and Laub 1).
Hezbollah is a hierarchical organization with military, political, and judicial branches, evidence that the group serves effectively as a shadow government or a â€œstate within a state,â€ (Kalb and Saivetz 43). At the top of the Hezbollah hierarchy is the seven-member shura council, which is in charge of seven subordinate councils including the political assembly, the jihad assembly, the parliamentary assembly, the executive assembly, and the judicial assembly (Masters and Laub 1). The shura council also selects Hezbollahâ€™s General Secretary, the top commander of the organization, a position that has been held by Hassan Nasrallah since 1992.
The current goal of Hezbollah has changed little since its inception in 1985: to use whatever means possible to resist or subdue Israeli and Western (American and European) involvement in the Middle East. Hezbollah frames its motivations in multiple ways, one being religious or jihadi in nature, and another being linked to social justice. As Kalb and Saivetz point out, Hezbollah has been able to â€œproject a very special narrative…that depicted a selfless movement touched by god and blessed by a religious fervor and determination to resist the enemy, the infidel,â€ (45). However, Hezbollah has never claimed to be primarily a religious or jihadi organization. Hezbollah has always embedded itself into Lebanese politics, serving as the de facto political representation for Shiites in the country. Its domestic goal is to champion the interests of its Shiite constituents in Lebanese parliament, not just to provide the anti-Israeli and anti-Western voice in Lebanese government but also to ostensibly promote the empowerment of Shiite supporters. The foreign policy objectives of Hezbollah are firmly aligned with those of Iran, and include aiding Assad in Syria and helping Iran in its proxy wars against Saudi Arabia. Therefore, Hezbollahâ€™s current goals have expanded far beyond its initially regional reach and now impacts Shia communities around the world.
Hezbollah uses multiple tactics to achieve its goals, including the classic instruments of power (diplomacy, information, military, and economics). Maintaining diplomatic ties with Iran and other Shiite groups has enabled Hezbollah to remain politically and economically viable, while forging political alliances with community leaders in Lebanon has permitted the group to retain domestic respect. Its infiltration into mainstream politics has caused Hezbollah to receive tacit international recognition. In 2013, the European Union designated only the Hezbollah military wing as a â€œterroristâ€ group (Norton xii). Hezbollah has been able to frame itself as a â€œlegitimateâ€ resistance group that is qualitatively different from other terrorist or radical organizations like al-Qaeda and Hamas (Harik 7). As Kalb and Saivetz note, Hezbollah has become adept in its use of the Internet and media to promote its goals and gain support, even during turbulent times. Military action is of course a primary capability and tactic of Hezbollah. With Iranâ€™s economic support and military training, Hezbollah has gone on to become the trainer of other terrorist groups including those in Iraq and Israel (Byman 54). Hezbollah capitalizes on its quasi-state status, as not being responsive directly to the international community. Finally, Hezbollah has been forging alliances with Mexican drug cartels and other groups in Latin America to present a clear and present danger to American national security (Noriega and CÃ¡rdenas 1). Cell building in Latin America has been the primary tactic whereby Hezbollah is spreading its wings worldwide.
In the early years of the organization, Hezbollah pledged allegiance to Iran, and in exchanged received financial support and training from Iranâ€™s Revolutionary Guards. As of 2014, Iran had been sending up to $200 million per year to Hezbollah (Masters and Laub 1). Hezbollah also receives funding from Assadâ€™s government of Syria. Now, though, Hezbollah has become fully capable of supplementing Iranâ€™s allowances with its own fundraising tactics and techniques. The cells Hezbollah establishes include a fundraising component, which also â€œoversees illicit and legitimate business activity,â€ (Noriega and CÃ¡rdenas 2). Hezbollah has thereby attracted financiers throughout Latin America and indeed the world, from both Lebanese in diaspora and non-Lebanese Muslims who do business with Hezbollah firms, as well as organized crime syndicates around the world. Hezbollah has â€œcreated a global finance and logistics network of its own,â€ with vested interests in everything from West African blood diamonds and illegal crude oil to the production and trade of counterfeit consumer goods and currencies (Stewart 3). Hezbollah has documented contact also with Latin American cartels, and enjoys the support of anti-American governments around the world (Noriega and CÃ¡rdenas; Stewart).
What began as a highly localized organization, Hezbollah has now become a global, transnational threat. Hezbollah appeals to anti-American and anti-Western sentiments around the world, whether Islamic or not. Of course, Hezbollah attracts the support of Shia Muslims around the world, and to an extent also appeals to other radical groups devoted to similar causes such as the annihilation of Israel. Hezbollah is one of Iranâ€™s most powerful and potent allies in the proxy war with Saudi Arabia, and plays a major role in Syria. Hezbollah has a presence in Africa and Asia as well, having infiltrated organized crime networks engaged in illicit but also legitimate businesses, making it difficult to identify sources of funding for the organization. In other words, Hezbollah is not a typical jihadi group committed only to a religious doctrine. The most important and immanent threat to the United States comes now from Latin America, where Hezbollah has effectively established a network of fully operational, well organized, and well-funded cells with â€œready access to the US border,â€ (Noriega and CÃ¡rdenas 4). It is no wonder that Hezbollah is one of the primary targets in the war on terror.
Countering the Threat
Countering Hezbollah is not easy, and will require ongoing efforts to extricate the transnational, non-state actor from all the continents in which it operates overtly or clandestinely. Information sharing is the first and perhaps most important method of countering the threat. By working with intelligence officials and the military in allied nations or regional groups, the United States can at least gain access to intelligence and share information that can lead to the dismantling of Hezbollah cells. Greater information sharing can help identify Hezbollah operatives in the public and private sector. The support of the public will be critical to help mitigate the problem. Another method of countering the threat will be to rethink American alliances with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Supporting Saudi Arabia is not necessarily a beneficial response or long-term solution, given the fact that Saudi funds Sunni militant groups in their proxy wars with Iran, and those militant groups are no less hostile than Hezbollah. Retaining close ties with all allied governments, including those in South Asia and East Asia, will help prevent Hezbollahâ€™s spread and eventually weaken the economic ties that enable its proliferation.
Byman, Daniel. â€œShould Hezbollah Be Next?â€ Foreign Affairs 82, No. 54 (2003): 54.
Harik, Judith Palmer. Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism. New York: I.B. Taurus, 2005.
Kalb, Marvin and Carol Saivetz. â€œThe Israeliâ€“Hezbollah War of 2006.â€ Press/Politics 12, No. 3 (2007): 43-66.
Masters, Jonathan and Zachary Laub. â€œHezbollah.â€ Council on Foreign Relations. Jan 3, 2014. Retrieved online: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/hezbollah
Noriega, Roger F. and JosÃ© CÃ¡rdenas. â€œThe Mounting Hezbollah Threat in Latin America.â€ American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, No. 3, October 2011. Retrieved online: http://tonyrivera.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/The-Mounting-Hezbollah-Threat-in-Latin-America.pdf
Norton, Augustus Richard. Hezbollah: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
â€œProfile: Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.â€ BBC. March 15, 2016. Retrieved online: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-10814698
Stewart, Scott. â€œHezbollah, Radical but Rational.â€ Security Weekly. Retrieved online: http://www.texasbordervolunteers.org/userfiles/Hezbollah,%20Radical%20but%20Rational.pdf
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