Wednesday, May 2, 2012


 Figure 1: Hezbollah flag.

In 1990, with the fifteen year Lebanese civil war coming to an end the fractured country began the process of putting itself back together.  Seizing this unique opportunity, Hezbollah, one of the most successful terrorist organizations of the 1980s, developed a political wing and won seats in the 1992 and 1994 Lebanese parliamentary elections.[1]  Hezbollah was able to do this with a combination of financial backing from Shi’a states and the political capital it had built via its resistance to the Israeli presence in Southern Lebanon. While these elections gave Hezbollah a legitimate face on the international stage, it did little to curtail their violent actions. This essay constitutes a brief overview of the formation and rise to power of “the most technically-capable terrorist group in the world and a continued security threat to the United States”[2]
Hezbollah formed in 1982 in Southern Lebanon, as a response to Israeli entrenchment in the area. Israel had invaded Southern Lebanon in an effort to combat Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) elements that had established a base in the area. The Sunni PLO were not welcome in this Shi’a area and clashes often happened. Such was the extent of these clashes that when the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) carried out its assault on the PLO many “Shia greeted [them] as liberators”.[3] However, this approval of Israeli military action did not sit well with all Lebanese Shia, The most notable exception being Muhammad Hussein Fadallah (1935-2010) a staunch anti-Israeli Shi’a cleric. The primary Shi’a group in Lebanon in the early eighties was Amal, which did not wish to contend with Israeli’s military might and thus sought a political resolution to the conflict. Fadallah “exhorted he significant number of disaffected Islamists affiliated to Amal to remain in the movement and seek to transform it from within”.[4] Many of these discontents made their way to the city of Baalbek, where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) had commanded deployed a unit of his Islamic Revolutionary Guard.
It is important to note that at this time the Iran-Iraq war was in full swing. Iraq under Saddam Hussein (1979-2003) had constructed one of the most technologically advanced armies in the Arab world. To counter this, Khomeini exhorted his army (and its civilian conscripts) into ecclesiastical fury establishing a “cult of martyrdom”.[5] This notion of self-sacrifice would be disseminated through the military officers training the Lebanese as well as various Shia clerics. It is unknown to what extent this led Hezbollah to innovate the use of suicide attacks, but at the very least it helped legitimize those attacks within the eyes of Muslims.
It is from this confluence of factors that Hezbollah formed. It believed, and the clerics preached, that they were operating to create an ideal Islamic state in Lebanon. They also steadfastly claim that Hezbollah is a nation movement and not an organization in the traditional sense. This is very important as it allowed the Shia clerics and Hezbollah’s Syrian and Iranian financers to have enough distance between them and any attack carried out that it is nearly impossible to not only trace to them much less justify retaliation against them directly.
Figure 2:  US Marine Barracks post bombing.
Shortly after its founding Hezbollah would have a major impact with attacks against Israeli military and intelligence targets as well as the “highly effective October 1983 suicide attacks against the U.S. and French contingents of the Multinational Force (MNF) in Beirut”.[6] In reaction to these attacks and the kidnapping of foreign nationals, both the United States and the French withdrew their forces from Lebanon.  This was a major coup for Hezbollah, as it had done what no other Islamist organization had been able to do, drive out the United States. The implications of which would pay huge dividends in allowing Hezbollah to span the Sunni Shia split garnering them more support, and manpower in their continued campaign against the Israelis.  
Hezbollah was not, however, able to achieve a true polity at this time.  1986 would see them join with the PLO against Amal in the War of the Camps. This conflict with Amal would continue, on and off until 1988, although it would be 1991 before a true accord between the two was reached.  This conflict continued despite the appeals of Fadallah for peace. This illustrates that while Fadallah was undoubtedly an important inspirational figure to Hezbollah he was not in any sense a factional leader. Hezbollah also proved it was willing to engage in armed conflict with Syrian forces highlighting that although Fadallah and Syria both were important in Hezbollah’s organization and funding Iran was the true power behind it.
Aside from the successful blows stricken against Israeli and there US allies Hezbollah also “has a vast network of foundations and charities that expand its reach throughout Lebanon”.[7] Through this network, Hezbollah is able to garner support amongst members of the population turned off by their violence.  By providing humanitarian support for the segments of society most impacted by the Israeli reprisals, Hezbollah is creating a steady line of voters, and recruits, for their cause.
Although the 1990s say the end of both the Iran-Iraq war and the Lebanese civil war along with the above-mentioned constitution of Hezbollah as a political party, the 90s saw an increase in the violence towards Israel. When their leader, Secretary General Sayyid Abbas Masawi (1952-1992) along with his family were killed in an Israeli strike the violence would reach beyond the Middle East. Hezbollah responded by bombing two Israeli targets in Argentina, the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the Jewish Cultural Center two years later. As Hezbollah became entwined with the Lebanese government, it also expanded beyond being a simple terrorist group. It was able to spread its religious-political message through its own TV station, it transformed from “rag-tag military organization . . . to a mini-Israeli army”.[8] Eventually the cost of staying in Lebanon became too high, and Israel withdrew its forces in 2000.  Hezbollah immediately declared a victory over Israeli. To date it is the only Islamic entity, terrorist group or state, which has such a claim. Add to that its previous success in driving out the MNF and its willingness to mix it up with other Islamic groups one sees their reputation for viciousness and success is well deserved.
Hezbollah now sits in a position of power within the Middle East. Its past successes have given it an impressive pedigree amongst all Islamic extremists. Since the 2000 withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon, Hezbollah has continued to support and organize terrorist movements within Israel and occasionally launches raids or rocket attacks across the border. However, its position as one of Lebanon’s premiere political parties has allowed it, much like the PLO, to avoid the label of terrorist organizations by many members of the international community. Exactly how Hezbollah chooses to use its political capital and what, if any role it will take in the political restructuring of those Islamic nations affected by the revolutions of the Arab Spring.  

Byman, Daniel. A high Price: The Triumphs & Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism. New York:
     Oxford University Press, 2011.
 Feltman, Jeffrey D, and Daniel Benjamin. Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, "U.S. Department of
    State." Last modified June, 08 2010. Accessed April 28, 2012.
Kramer, Martin. The Moral Logic of Hizballah. Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies,
     Theologies, States of Mind
. Edited by Walter Reich. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson
     Center Press, 2011.
Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. New York: W. W.
     Norton & Company, 2007.
 Sankari, Jamal. Fadlallah: The Making of a Radical Shi'ite Leader. London: SAQI, 2005.

[1]   Although there are several alternate spellings of the name Hezbollah, I have decided to go with this, more familiar westernized version. Jamal Sankari, Fadlallah: the Making of a Radical Shi'ite Leader, (London: SAQI, 2005).

[2]   Feltman, Jeffrey D, and Daniel Benjamin. Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, "U.S. Department of State." Last modified June, 08 2010. Accessed April 28, 2012.
[3]   Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007). P. 114.

[4]   Jamal Sankari, Fadlallah: the Making of a Radical Shi'ite Leader, (London: SAQI, 2005). P. 197
[5]   Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007). P. 133.
[6]   Martin Kramer, "The Moral Logic of Hizballah," chap. 8 in Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, ed. Walter Reich (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1998).p. 141

[7]   Daniel Byman, A high Price: The Triumphs & Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). P 230.

[8]   Ibid p. 225.

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