TCS Daily

Hezbollah: Not Just Israel's Problem

By Rory Miller - December 20, 2004 12:00 AM

"9/11 has taught us that terrorism against American interests 'over there' should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against America 'over here'. In this same sense, the American homeland is the planet".

-- The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report, p.363.

"Our job is to instigate, and by the grace of God, we did that", Osama bin Laden told Time magazine in 1998. Indeed, it has been widely acknowledged that both prior to, and since, 9/11 al Qaeda has not only been a threat because of its ruthless ideology and the geographic spread of its cells and operations, but because it has provided the inspiration and momentum for numerous like-minded groups who share its Islamist agenda and commitment to jihad.

A perfect example of this interrelationship in action occurred in April 2004 when a little known Saudi Islamist group calling itself the al Haramain Brigades, claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Riyadh security office and explained that in doing so it was acting on behalf of al Qaeda principles while bin Laden's organisation was preoccupied with the war against crusaders in other places. Other, better-known groups that have been linked to al Qaeda include Pakistan's Jaish-e-Muhammad (the Army of Muhammed), Kashmir's Lashkar-e Taiba (Army of the Pure), south-east Asia's Abu Sayyaf Group, Algeria's Armed Islamic Group (known by its French acronym GIA) and Egypt's Al-Gama 'al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic Group or Egyptian Jihad).

One group noticeably absent from this list of shareholders in what Colin Powell once called al-Qaeda's "holding company for terror" is Lebanese Hezbollah. Rather, much of the international media and far too many national governments tend to view this organization purely in terms of the social services it provides to its constituency in Lebanon. At the very worst it is viewed as guerrilla groups born out of the struggle against Israeli territorial ambitions which limits its use of force to the defence of southern Lebanon from Israeli incursions.

It is true that since Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanese territory in the summer of 2000, Hezbollah has made significant strides in developing a political wing. It has participated in parliamentary elections and plays a key role in the areas of southern Lebanon that prior to 2000 it used as a base to carry out guerrilla operations against Israel. While it has also increasingly attempted to deal with social and economic challenges of its Shia' constituency through its representatives in parliament and its network of philanthropic organisations. Indeed, Hezbollah can claim over twenty non-military offshoots which deal with educational, medical and other social issues.

Moreover, since 9/11 Hezbollah has gone to great lengths to adhere publicly to the position that it has no interests outside Lebanese borders, and certainly no animus towards the US. As Lebanese commentator Haytham Mouzahem has recorded in November 2001, Hezbollah rejected its inclusion on the US terror blacklist, on the grounds that "what we practice now is fighting Israel in our land. We support the Palestinian struggle but in no concrete way. We do not fight against America". Nawaf Musawi, the head of Hezbollah's international department has said publicly that his first reaction to the 9/11 attacks was that this was "Ariel Sharon's lucky day" and that "I believe that those kinds of condemnable terrorist operations have done great damage to the struggling Palestinian people".

But despite its extensive involvement in domestic Lebanese politics and its protestations of non-involvement in the Islamist war against the west, Hezbollah remains a radical Lebanese based shi'ite umbrella organisation whose primary objective (first set out in 1985) may be the creation of a pan-Islamic republic in Lebanon headed by Islamic clerics. But it is also committed to promoting its Islamist agenda across the globe in both the Muslim and non-Muslim world as evidenced by the group's recent failed attempt to get a licence to broadcast its satellite television channel into France.

Indeed, though Hezbollah's spiritual father is Sheikh Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, the group takes its ideology from Iran's post- revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As the Hezbollah constitution stated "we obey the orders of one leader, wise and just, that of our tutor and faqih (jurist) who fulfills all the necessary conditions: Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini. God save him" and as such "we do not constitute an organized and closed party in Lebanon...We are an umma (Muslim community) linked to Muslims of the whole world by the solid doctrinal and religious connection of Islam".

However, while the US has classified Hezbollah as a terror group, the European Union has consistently refused to view the organization as part of the global Islamist struggle against the West or place it on its terror list. This despite calls from the US to do so, including a resolution (House Resolution 341) put forward in the House of Representatives Committee on International Relations in October, and a similar demand last month by Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot.

Rather, the view that British foreign minister Jack Straw put forward during his ill-fated trip to Iran in the immediate wake of 9/11, remains the majority view of the EU. As Straw explained, far from being an international terrorist organization under the patronage of Iranian hosts, Hezbollah was simply a group "active in south Lebanon and from time to time active in terms of violence in the occupied territories".

This statement is about as accurate as Yasser Arafat's 1986 claim in an Italian magazine interview that "the PLO condemns any terrorist activity and any military operation which does not take place in occupied Palestine". Indeed, in making this statement Straw was ignoring two recent Hezbollah attacks inside Israel in which a 42 year old Israeli woman was stabbed to death in Haifa and a 60 year-old Israeli man was stabbed to death in Kfar Ba'aneh, in Galilee. The following March, six Israelis died and seven were wounded in an Hezbollah ambush on the Israeli side of its northern border with Lebanon. While according to figures cited in Congress recently, between late 2003 and late 2004, Hezbollah was involved in some way or another in up to 75% of terror attacks against Israel.

Nor should one forget that prior to the al-Qaeda August 1998 attack on the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar as-Salaam, Tanzania which left 224 dead and 4,500 injured, Hezbollah had the distinction of being responsible for the largest suicide attack on the US, when it killed 241 US servicemen in the October 1983 attack on the Beirut base of the US Marines. Not surprisingly, by the end of the 1980s the FBI was describing this group as the "greatest international terrorist threat to US interests".

Indeed, by the mid-1990s, while al-Qaeda was only commencing its global terror operations, Hezbollah, at times in partnership with its Iranian patron, had already claimed responsibility for attacks in Ankara, Turkey against the Saudi military attaché in the city and in Brussels, when it assassinated the Saudi-born Imam of a local Mosque for his perceived refusal to condemn Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses (1989), as well as in Tehran against the French Embassy and Air France offices (1993). It was also responsible for the two car bomb attacks in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that destroyed the Israeli embassy killing 29 (1992), and the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA), a social center catering for the city's large Jewish population that killed 100 and wounded more than 200 (1994).

Thus it should have surprised no-one when Jamal Ahmed Mohamed al Fadl, a former al Qaeda member who began working with the US government in 1996, claimed that al Qaeda received specialist terror training from Iranian officials and co-operated with Hezbollah during its time in Sudan in the mid 1990s. In June 2002 The Washington Post reported that al Qaeda was increasingly working with Hezbollah in preparing logistics and training for terrorist operations. While in late February 2004 it was reported that Hezbollah, in the company of representatives from Palestinian and Islamic terror groups including al Qaeda, Hamas, Ansar-al Islam, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, attended a summit in Lebanon to discuss future operations. Israeli sources have also claimed that Hezbollah has cooperated with al Qaeda and other Jihad groups in training volunteers, collecting arms and gathering intelligence.

As terror expert Rohan Gunaratna has pointed out, the willingness of Hezbollah and al Qaeda to work with each other is a "major shift in terrorist thinking". For Hezbollah is a Shi'te Muslim group which owes allegiance to the party (shi'a) of Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law, while al Qaeda follows an extreme version of Sunni Islam which stresses adherence to the path (sunna) of the Prophet. Indeed, the fact that al Qaeda and Hezbollah may well have been cooperating with each other for almost a decade despite significant religious differences is evidence that both share a belief that their common goal of promoting jihad against non-Islamic and western enemies takes precedence over doctrinal disputes. As Bin Laden stated in 1996 the "Jihad [is] against the ... fierce Judao [sic]Christian campaign against the Muslim world,...nothing deserves a higher priority after faith....its is crucial to overlook many of the issues of bickering in order to unite our ranks so that we can repel the greatest Kufr".

Like al Qaeda, Hezbollah has a deep hatred of the US. Its 1985 constitution described the US as "an arrogant superpower" and a Hezbollah communiqué of the same year referred to the US as the "original root of depravity". More recently, following Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in March 2004, and his successor Abdel Aziz Rantisi the following month, Hezbollah released statements arguing that "the American administration, which provides cover, both moral and political, as well as material support to the murderous government in Tel Aviv, has direct responsibility for this crime".

Even prior to 9/11, Hezbollah's links with al Qaeda caused the US administration serious concern. The 9/11 Commission Report notes that in 1999 senior US anti-terror officials were expressing concern over possible attacks on the White House by not only by al-Qaeda but also by Hezbollah (as well Palestinian Hamas). By early 2002, the FBI had concluded that between 50 and 100 Hezbollah (and Hamas) operatives had infiltrated the US. Though primarily involved in fund-raising and logistics it was believed that most had received terror training in the Middle East prior to arriving, and thus had the potential to quickly transform themselves into operational terror cells.

No less worrying from the perspective of the global war on terror is the fact that Hezbollah is also believed to have a number of cells working in Europe and Africa, and has also stepped up its efforts in Latin America, especially in the "triple border" -- the triangular area connecting Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. This is the home of a vibrant international drugs, forgery and money laundering operation. It is estimated that more than 20,000 Arab immigrants live in this region especially around the Paraguayan city of Cuidad Del Este. Indeed, the region has been described as a "focal point for Islamic extremism in Latin America". In 2003 the US offered the three countries help in reducing widespread fund raising efforts by Hezbollah. While in January 2004 the State Department's senior counter-terrorism official Cofer Black, urged an increase in Latin American regional counter terrorism measures and announced that the US would give US$1.6 million to border controls in Latin America.

Hezbollah's radicalisation of Lebanon, its opposition to any Arab-Israeli peace, its propagation of an Islamist agenda among Muslim communities in the West and its track record of involvement in anti-Israel and international terror all make this group deserving of consideration in any discussion of the global al Qaeda network and its supporters. For as Shimon Peres wrote in a June 2002 op-ed piece in the New York Times in the post 9/11 era "the presence here [in the Middle East] of terrorist cells with trans-national reach means that their activities in the Middle East are a global danger, rather than just a regional problem".

The author is Lecturer in Mediterranean Studies, King's College, University of London. His main areas of research and teaching are US & EU involvement in the Middle East. He is the author of two books Divided Against Zion: Opposition to a Jewish state in Britain, 1945-48 (London, 2000) and Ireland and the Palestine Question, 1948-2004 (London, Dublin, 2005).


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