The Islamic organization known as Hezbollah both defines and challenges concepts of terrorist entities. On one level, and since its inception in the early 1980s as a Shiite response to the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has consistently reflected the militant, and typically covert, agendas and violent behaviors of terrorist groups. Also in keeping with terrorist organizations in general is its foundation as fiercely political, significantly fueled by religious concerns, and at least partially not identified with specific national or state interests as held by the country of origin. At the same time, and in part due merely to its longevity, Hezbollah very much presents a new paradigm in terrorism, one in which the terrorist entity takes on roles and attributes of mainstream political and military presences: “a new model of nonstate actors using nontraditional tactics of warfare and funded by…more prominent members of the international community” (Roshandel, 2011, p. 119). As will be examined in the following, the relatively typical emerging of Hezbollah as a militant reactionary force in the Middle East has evolved to constitute an international threat of a unique, and consequently more dangerous, character. In Hezbollah, and through a singular and evolving organizational structure and agenda, a new and more potent terrorist force exists.
The inception of Hezbollah, as is true of so many facets of the Middle East, may be traced to the mid-20th century. Lebanon, controlled for decades by the French, was gradually permitted to assume its own national identity following the upheavals of World War II, and French forces were essentially withdrawn by 1946. In these years the bulk of the Lebanese population adhered to the form of Christianity known as Maronite, an Aramaic variation on Orthodox Western Christianity. Lebanon was poised to solidify is presences as an independent nation, and one essentially distanced from the Arabic world, when the emergence of the state of Israel altered everything. Israeli aggression towards its neighbors, commencing with the establishing of the state and ongoing to this day, has served to gradually emphasize Lebanese policies and interests as both fiercely anti-Israeli and at odds with its other Middle Eastern nations. International tension, largely based on a perceived unwillingness on Lebanon’s part to unite in fighting Israel, has long been the norm; for example, Lebanese leaders were denounced by the Arab world when, in 1967, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and Lebanon refused to involve itself in the broader conflict (Avon, Khatchadourian, & Todd, 2012, pp. 12-13). Howsoever its religious culture was developing, as will be seen, the key aspect of Lebanese policy was a consistent resistance to Arab cooperation combined with an antipathy toward Israel.
It was in this unique arena that Hezbollah emerged, and chiefly through the increasingly dominant presence of the Lebanese Shia population. The Shia are devoutly Islamic and perceived themselves as drastically discriminated against by the Maronite majority, a circumstance leading to Shia leader Imam Musa Sadr’s being elected head of the Supreme Islamic Shi’ite Council in 1969. Sadr’s agenda was strong and consistent, and based on promoting Islamic empowerment. He organized the Shia working classes, created the Council of the South, and founded the Movement of the Disinherited, the Shi’ite political organization with its own militia (Avon, Khatchadourian, & Todd, 2012, p. 15). When Hezbollah actually arose as a distinct organization is unclear, but it is generally recognized as emerging in 1982. There is as well no clear basis for the formation of Hezbollah, chiefly because multiple forces went to its evolving presence. On one level, there is no discounting the rise of Shi’ite influence as fostering Hezbollah in terms of a faith-based ambition to attain status; on another, the ongoing controversies within Lebanon regarding support for Arab interests also appears to have assisted in the Hezbollah identity. For example, the thousands of Palestinian refugees seeking asylum in Lebanon sparked intense debate as to Lebanon’s position itself. The majority of Lebanese Muslims, as did some Christians, desired a pro-Arab policy and a unification in opposing Israel. At the same time, the majority of Christians, or Maronites, favored Western policies which translated to peace with Israel and non-involvement with Arab aggression (Harik, 2005, p. 18). Conflicts notwithstanding, it nonetheless appears that the chief motivating element in Hezbollah’s organizing as a radically political, or terrorist, organization was the removal of Israel’s occupation forces in South Lebanon at the onset of the 1980s, an ambition clearly expressed in Sadr’s determination to create a Council of the South.
The trajectory of Hezbollah in the following years reveals both an adherence to Islam and facets of political and military interaction with other nations. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the rising presence of Hezbollah more aggressively dictated social policy in Lebanon, insisting upon the preeminence of a Muslim state over the perceived domination of the Maronites. At the same time, the organization allied itself with Iran and Syria due to shared religious emphasis and, not unexpectedly, the political interests of those nations supporting Hezbollah. In its 1985 Open Letter, Hezbollah declared to the international community its goal of achieving an Islam state in Lebanon free from Western influences of any kind. Iran and Syria, meanwhile, gave support to Hezbollah in these years simply because the nations found it highly useful to have a Lebanon base from which to launch attacks against Israel (Gleis, Berti, 2012, p. 88). It is important to note that in these years, and occurring today, Hezbollah acts in a manner consistent with definitions of terrorist groups; guerrilla warfare and randomized strikes against Israel, for example, were frequent in the 1990s. The organization also then gained its reputation as relying upon suicide bombings and assassinations, acts blatantly conveying a terrorist agenda and enhancing the component of fear fueling Hezbollah’s presence in the Middle East and internationally. The
conflicts were abetted as ongoing because Israel’s ambition was to restore Lebanon’s former rule through destroying the core of Hezbollah power and influence in South Lebanon (Roshandel, 2011, p. 116).
In July of 2006, the Hezbollah taking of Israeli prisoners launched the Lebanon War, an uprising simultaneously less destructive than prior Israeli/Lebanese conflicts and exemplary of the larger and ongoing struggles (Harel, Issacharoff, 2008, p. 75). Hezbollah launched assaults against Israel, Israel retaliated with air strikes, and the 34-day duration of the conflict brought with it repercussions vastly affecting Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the entire Middle East configuration. In broad terms, the war was ended when the United Nations Security Council compelled a ceasefire; pertinently, and based upon the international assessment of Hezbollah as a potent terrorist force, the UN action also demanded the disarmament of that organization (Lansford, 2012, p. 820). The injunctions have not been effective, if there was an initial compliance. Hezbollah remains today an active and vastly powerful force in Lebanese and Middle East conflicts, with the organization currently engaged in cooperation with Syrian rebels in driving Sunni forces from the Syrian – as Muslim – city of Qusair (Barnard, 2013). As will be seen in the following, this ongoing presence as a terrorist organization of singular impact and longevity is largely due to a combination of ideological forces generating complex and effective structure, and in ways removed from typical terrorist groups.
Structure and Organization
In fully comprehending the complexity of Hezbollah, it is necessary to observe that organizations of any kind tend to evolve as multifaceted when they exist for such lengthy periods. As noted, Hezbollah’s roots go back to mid-20th century religious conflict within Lebanon; consequently, the organization has had opportunities to develop and expand beyond those of other terrorist groups. Inherent in such expansion is the diversifying of forces and spheres of influence. Hezbollah is by no means strictly a group based on a Muslim agenda, nor a political presence. It is devoutly Shi’ite in nature and it exerts considerable political influence, but it has grown in such a way that its composition more reflects a militarily aggressive state than a band of organized terrorists. Even as its actions still very much rely on terrorist behaviors of extreme violence and covert assaults, and as a great deal of its formative history reflected the secrecy typically associated with terrorist groups, the actions of Hezbollah today nonetheless emanate from a uniquely layered entity, and one with influences extending to all cultural and social aspects of Lebanese society.
To begin with, and in no uncertain terms, Hezbollah is Lebanon’s most powerful militia, a fact enhanced by its political authority being backed by Syria and Iran. The Islamic Resistance, which is the actual military wing of Hezbollah, continues to operate in covert fashion, but the political presence of Hezbollah is remarkably open, certainly in comparison with counterparts of terrorist character. Headquartered in Beirut, the organization engages in forms of authority and influence strikingly removed from typical terrorist group. It establishes and funds hospitals and schools, owns construction companies, and owns and operates newspapers, radio stations, and television networks (Gleis, Berti, 2012, p. 61). Consequently, and despite its persistence in employing terrorist tactics, it is helpful to assess Hezbollah more as the singular political, militaristic, and social force to which it has evolved.
In its earlier years, Hezbollah existed more as an umbrella label attached to differing Islamic cells and movements, most of which relied on Iran for support. Leadership was at best diffuse, and there was minimal control over international operations or cells, nor a unified central command structure. This underwent significant change after 1989; in that year, Hezbollah openly accepted the Lebanese Ta’if Accords, created to ease tensions between opposing religious factions. This acceptance brought Hezbollah “out of the shadows” and enabled the organization to take an active and public place as a legitimized political component (Chalk, 2012, p. 301). With the acceptance of the Accords came a unification which in turn resulted in Hezbollah splitting into two distinct components: there is the political being represented by the 15-member Majlis Shura, or Consultative Assembly, and the military arm of the Islamic Resistance. The twin components then cooperate in organizing a vast network of international cells, overseeing operations as their types of authority dictate. Most importantly, the political and military arms work in unison to ensure that no Hezbollah activities or operations proceed in an independent way. This is enabled by the overriding authority of the religious leaders within the central organization, who provide the supreme authority (Chalk, 2012, p. 301).
Moving to layers within Hezbollah, the Consultative Assembly, clerical as well as political in character, in turn oversees 7 subcommittees in place to investigate and propose tactics relating to all financial, judicial, social, and political matters. The decision-making is left to the Majlis al-Shura al-Kurar, or Deciding Assembly. This is the true head of the Hezbollah, as no actions are sanctioned without its review and consent. The clerical nature of this Assembly coexists with its political forces; in 2011, the Hezbollah held 12 of the 128 seats within the Lebanese Parliament, and two of the 30 Cabinet positions. The seemingly minimal political influence is deceptive, as the military wing of Hezbollah commands approximately 10,000 members. So too is its ordnance impressive, as Hezbollah possesses a wide variety and large number of missiles, including long-range, surface-to-air, and anitship. There are, in fact, concerns that Hezbollah’s structure is such that its military capabilities continue to expand. The United States received multiple reports in 2010 asserting that upgrades were ongoing, reports by no means contradicted by the Hezbollah leadership, which continues to maintain that its arsenal exists for defensive purposes only (Addis, 2011, p. 10).
Clearly critical to Hezbollah’s organizational success is funding. In addition to owning schools, hospitals, and a variety of businesses, Hezbollah also operates several large-scale agricultural enterprises. The bulk of its financial support, however, is provided by Iran, and estimates of Iranian financial support range between $100 to $200 million annually. Iran has also been helpful in providing guerrilla and military training to Hezbollah cells. Then, the organization receives extensive funding from expatriates worldwide and extremist Shi’ite factions and wealthy Lebanese communities. There is as well the factor of criminal activities funding the structure, as Hezbollah is known to traffic in “blood diamonds,” narcotics, arms, and various types of fraud. It is estimated the Hezbollah’s trade in drugs in South America alone generates $10 million per year (Chalk, 2012, p. 302). With significant and reliable financing, the organizational structure of Hezbollah has been enabled to evolve from a religious and social protest group in the 1980s to the vastly influential political entity it is today. Classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and perceived as such internationally, Hezbollah is nonetheless a complex and highly diversified organization, perpetually engaging in activities alternately within the spheres of accepted political practice and overtly terrorist in nature.
There can be no underestimating of the faith-based components inherent to Hezbollah, and from its inception. More to the point, the emphasis on Islam driving the organization translates to the political and military agendas, as is common in scenarios of Middle East terrorism. The issues regarding faith, or more precisely the perceived denial of the correct faith, are seen as generating the political structures and actions of oppression requiring resistance. In plain terms, and regarding Hezbollah, this equates to the fundamentalist ideology of Iranian Islam as obligated to rebel against the secular forces of the West. Not unexpectedly, the U.S. is seen as the greatest oppressor of Muslim, just as Israel is held to be the regional satellite of U.S. interests (Harik, 2005, p. 16). This is an ideology blatantly at the root of the organization, and one which holds absolutely to Islam as the true faith. This in turn translates to Hezbollah as relying on a tripartite ideology, or professed impetus for being. Implacably Muslim in a nation largely Christian, it initiated and continues based upon the precept that it defies unjust oppression. Then, the Islamic core holds that only through abiding to Islam may justice be served to all the people. This then validates the necessity of jihad, or the Muslim armies of Hezbollah created to liberate the land from the ungodly (Avon, Khatchadourian, & Todd, 2012, p. 5). Consequently, the Hezbollah ideology as a whole may be seen as justifying its extremes in action, as the organization perceives itself as driven by profoundly critical spiritual, and ultimately humanist, objectives.
Inextricably linked to this ideology and simultaneously fueling it is the consistent element of what may only be termed intense hatred of Israel. This is not an aspect of the ideology concealed, as Hezbollah media frequently denounces Israel in the most emphatic and virulent language. Israel, the organization holds, is an inherently evil state, as Hezbollah damage to Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are referred to as “holy victories.” The “evil” of Israeli faith is perceived by Hezbollah as translating to the Israeli oppression of Lebanon, a point of view conveniently allowing Hezbollah to present itself as an aggrieved party, or victim. Not unexpectedly, the U.S. is potently associated with this immense injustice, and Hezbollah rhetoric has long identified the U.S. as an immoral and destructive agent. The organization typically asserts that it has no argument with the American people, but only with foreign policy and leadership supporting the evil forces at Lebanon’s borders. These assertions notwithstanding, Hezbollah’s fierce ideology presents the U.S. in its media using the images of hatred and death it attaches to Israel (Gleis, Berti, 2012, p. 134). The hatred, it very much appears, is by no means restricted to actual Western interventions, just as it reinforces the perceived need to assert Islam all the more.
It is necessary to observe that, the Open Letter of 1985 notwithstanding, no single document or offering exists defining the Hezbollah ideology. Examinations of speeches, media presentations, and official documents confirm the Muslim agenda and antipathy to Israel as central, but only in an incomplete manner (Cambanis, 2010, p. 298). Nonetheless, there is every reason to maintain those twin components, with the latter inevitably generating aggression to the U.S. and Western agents, as foundational. Complex in structure and evolving to meet changing demands in the theater of the Middle East, Hezbollah exists as a fiercely Islamic organization fueled by the determination to ensure a Muslim state in Lebanon and the elimination of Israel.
The modern threat potential of Hezbollah is clearly tied to its actual presence within Lebanon, and consequently to the degree of support it receives there. Efforts to reduce the power of Hezbollah in the past, in fact, have failed due to the longstanding and multifaceted influences of the organization. In plain terms, as Hezbollah evolved to become integral in Lebanese social and commercial concerns, its support is by no means based on militant and relatively factional enthusiasm. Lebanese Shiites generally are in favor of Hezbollah, and its popularity does not appear to be waning among the people. Part of this arises, again, from the immense network of social service Hezbollah wisely provides. Then, the organization is viewed, and even by its detractors, as centered on nationalist interests. Religious divisions notwithstanding, Hezbollah represents an ideal of Lebanon highly attractive to the people. It exalts the state, just as this factor then enhances its popularity in asserting Israel as the enemy. In no uncertain terms, Hezbollah’s threat to neighboring or distant nations is rendered all the stronger by its increasingly legitimized standing within Lebanon, just as many Lebanese supporters dismiss its military and/or terrorist actions as removed from its political and ideological platforms (Addis, 2011, p. 14). It bears repeating that, as Hezbollah has developed beyond the capabilities and identity of most terrorist groups, it takes on a unique character reflecting party foundations. This in place, then, its potentials as a threat are virtually inestimable.
This factor of larger identity aside, however, there are more defined and very real concerns regarding the dangers posed by Hezbollah in today’s world. To begin with, and as noted, there is no lessening of Hezbollah aggression towards Israel, nor any diminution of its potent alliances with Iran and Syria. The ongoing cooperation with Syria reflects the consistently strong bonds between the three nations, as Iran’s backing is securing Hezbollah’s efforts in aiding the Syrian rebel forces (Barnard, 2013). Whatever else Hezbollah is engaged in, this relentless and unified partnership presents a continuing menace to any hope of middle Eastern stability, and reinforces the commitment of those responsible in maintaining a violent antipathy toward Israel.
Then, there are serious concerns regarding the extensions of Hezbollah’s international criminal operations, both as actions intrinsically threatening and as providing a broader base of power. In a 2013 report to the Subcommittee on Terrorism of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, disturbing evidence was revealed in these regards. The persistent and strong ties between Iran and Hezbollah have resulted in the latter’s having an immense presence in South American drug trafficking. Venezuela is central to Hezbollah’s narcotics agenda, but the organization has in recent years extended its operations to encompass at least half a dozen other South American countries and, greatly supported by Iranian forces, is increasingly engaged in large-scale smuggling and money-laundering activities. What this enables is “narcoterrrorism,” as Hezbollah has now established terrorist training networks and facilities in these countries. Investigations have revealed thousands of authentic Venezuelan travel documents provided to Lebanese individuals traced to Hezbollah operations, reinforcing the presence of Hezbollah agents as occupying senior positions in in that government. This in turn enables untold levels of smuggling, and of arms as well as narcotics (Noriega, 2013).
The same report indicates a threat of another kind, in that Hezbollah’s South American ventures are bringing the organization into increasingly near, if not direct, contact with the U.S. Mexican drug cartels are now identified as operating with Venezuelan organizations, and the complete pictures reveals a complex and vast degree of international cooperation; as Iran is a major partner in Venezuelan drug trafficking to Mexico and the U.S., and as Hezbollah is expanding its narcotics trade through Iranian assistance and a mutual strategy of infiltrating government agencies in these countries (Noriega, 2013). Ultimately, this translates to Hezbollah as actually interacting on a criminal level with the U.S., an agenda in keeping with Iran’s noted intent to directly attack the U.S. through terrorism. In 2011, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, disclosed a recent – and thwarted – Iranian plan to bomb Washington, D.C., one engineered in concert with a Mexican drug cartel (Noriega, 2013). These tides of criminality, even when removed from actual terrorist strikes motivated by political reasons, clearly point to Hezbollah as being an enormous, and growing, threat to U.S. security, as well as a continuing threat within the Middle East.
To properly examine and assess the entity known as Hezbollah is to go beyond any such approach to other terrorist organizations. Hezbollah does indeed reflect what may be termed the attributes of the usual terrorist group. It is based on an extremist and fiercely religious foundation, just as it has established its presence through terrorist assaults. Then, as with other such organizations of Middle Eastern origin, it is implacably hostile to Israel and perceives the U.S. as an oppressive force in league with Israeli interests. At the same time, and plainly, there is no terrorist organization quite like Hezbollah. On one level, its history stretching back decades separates it from the norm. On another, that same history has allowed the organization to develop in ways fusing political party status with overt terrorism, and Hezbollah may be said to be a hybrid entity. Its ideology relies on Islam and its power base is both solidly commercial and political. At the same time, it consistently expands its criminal enterprises and engages in acts of violent terrorism based on its perception, or presentation, of itself as an oppressed party. This hybrid nature, in a sense, then empowers the organization to be all the more threatening in today’s world, as it employs any avenue available to reinforce its own standing and power. More than anything, its presence as a threat is confirmed by its overt hostility to Israel and to the U.S. as potentially acted upon through its significant resources. In Hezbollah, and through a unique and evolving organizational structure and agenda, a new and more potent terrorist force exists than has been faced before.
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