By Gal Luft
Commentary Magazine, July-August 2003.
When Israel pulled out of its security zone in southern Lebanon several years ago, it was widely predicted that the radical Shiite group Hizballah, whose forces had relentlessly attacked the occupying Israeli troops, would close up military operations and henceforth focus solely on Lebanese domestic affairs. In the event, the exact opposite occurred: promptly declaring that its next objective was the liberation of the entire land of Palestine and the destruction of the "Zionist entity," Hizballah seized control of the 350-square-mile area that had been occupied by Israel, turning it into a de-facto state within a state. In Hizballahland, as the area might now be called, the group has managed to amass an impressive stockpile of weapons, including 10,000 rockets and missiles capable of hitting a quarter of Israel's population, and it has continued to launch numerous armed attacks across the border.
Indeed, ever since the inception of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000, Hizballah has persistently tried to provoke Israel into opening a second front on its northern border. In addition to armed attacks, the terrorist organization has instigated a water dispute between Israel and Lebanon by pushing an initiative to divert water from a tributary of the Jordan River. It has fanned the flames of the intifada itself by delivering weapons and know-how to Palestinian terrorist groups. And it has openly propagandized for the destruction of Israel by means of its media and Web outlets and through such wildly popular Hizballah-sponsored video games as Special Force (available in English and French as well as Arabic and Farsi), whose aim is to show "the defeat of the Israeli army and the heroic actions taken by the heroes of Islam's resistance in Lebanon."
This might soon have to change. Just as in May 2000, when Hizballah defied expert opinion by refusing to enter into hibernation after Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, so today it continues to march to the beat of its own drummer, its political and military calculus influenced more by the strength of its implacable convictions than by considerations of "prudence." Together with Syria and Iran, the organization appears bent on creating a unified anti-U.S. front in the Middle East, a kind of Shiite "axis" spanning the region from Tehran to Beirut and including a number of its sectarians in newly liberated Iraq. With anti-Americanism running high in the Muslim world, the possible takeover of Lebanon by a terror organization of global reach is becoming a pressing threat.
Formed in 1982 by a group of young graduates of Shiite seminaries in Iran, Hizballah took as its main goal the exporting of Iran's Khomeini revolution to Lebanon. Although its primary aim was to drive Israel out of Lebanon--Israeli forces had invaded the country in 1982 in order to disrupt and destroy Yasir Arafat's PLO army, which had a death grip on the south--it was not Israel but the U.S. that became the first casualty of the organization and of its weapon of choice, the suicide attack. In 1983, a Hizballah activist killed 63 people at the U.S. embassy in Beirut; another drove a truck bomb into U.S. Marines headquarters, murdering 241 American servicemen.
That was just the beginning; since the 1980's, Hizballah has gone international. Its cells have been uncovered in Europe, Southeast Asia, and West Africa. In our own hemisphere, the so-called Triple Frontier or tri-border area along the junction of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil has offered a lucrative haven for the drug and arms trafficking, smuggling, counterfeiting, and other illicit activities that now provide a major source of Hizballah's funding. And then there is North America. Prior to last December, when Ottawa banned Hizballah, Canada was another major base of fundraising, primarily through a car-theft ring. One of Nasrallah's top men, Ayub Fawzi, who also appeared on the FBI's list of 22 most wanted terrorists after 9/11, operated from Canada for several years; so did Muhammed Dbouk, head of a clandestine cell in Vancouver that bought military equipment for the organization.
In the U.S. itself, Hizballah activists enjoy, as the FBI has warned, "the capability to attempt terrorist attacks." One operative, Muhammad Hammoud, led a recently uncovered cigarette-smuggling ring in North Carolina and Michigan. A graduate of Hizballah's training camps in Lebanon, Hammoud managed to gain entry to the country using forged immigration documents; once here, he married an American woman and established a false identity. His cell purchased and sent it on to Lebanon dual-use equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, while he himself functioned as a "sleeper" terrorist, i.e., one who could easily be activated to help carry out an actual armed attack. Hammoud's cell was discovered by sheer luck when an off-duty police officer, working as a security guard, noticed suspicious activity at a cigarette wholesaler in North Carolina. How many others like Hammoud are living in the U.S. is impossible to know.
Even if Hizballah has not committed any overt anti-U.S. terrorist acts in several years, its fingerprints have featured prominently in such acts and in many more plots that we have managed to thwart before execution. In the mid-1990's, Hizballah was involved in an aborted attack on American targets in Europe and Singapore, as well as in the successful Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in which 19 American servicemen were killed. Hizballah provided training in high-impact explosives to the terrorists who carried out the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. It also trained al-Qaeda operatives in connection with the 1998 bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. This latter episode is what finally brought the U.S. government to acknowledge the magnitude of the threat posed by Hizballah, and to put it on the official terror list.
After our campaign to drive al Qaeda from Afghanistan, it was suggested by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage that Hizballah may have become "the 'A team' of terrorists," while "al Qaeda is actually the 'B team.'" This might or might not be the case. But it is certainly true that Nassrallah's terrorists now enjoy three distinct advantages over Osama bin Laden's.
First, Hizballah possesses the single most important asset lost by al Qaeda with its expulsion from Afghanistan: control over territory. With Syrian and Lebanese acquiescence, Hizballah has carved itself a piece of real estate amounting, so far, to nearly 15 percent of Lebanon. Its fighters occupy dozens of villages, bases, and outposts, where they can conduct military training and routine patrols. Defying both the Lebanese army and the 2,500 peacekeepers of the United Nation's Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Hizballah has declared these training areas off limits, and has even proclaimed a no-fly zone to prevent UNIFIL from conducting its mandated daily helicopter patrols.
In Hizballahland, the movement's fighters have much more than a safe haven. Its training camps have become a hub of international terrorism, a convention center for some of the world's most dangerous men. Here they can experiment with new weapons, practice their tactics, and collaborate with fellow terrorists from groups like al Qaeda, Hamas, Ansar al-Islam, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Kurdish Workers' Party. From Lebanon, similarly, Hizballah's agents and associates can easily export their skills to destinations around the world.
The second advantage Hizballah enjoys is sophisticated weaponry. Al Qaeda's arsenal is now limited to small, easily smuggled arms. When it comes to anti-aircraft capabilities, it possesses (as far as we know) only antiquated Soviet SA-7 Strella missiles, part of roughly 50,000 that were sold to third-world countries during the cold war; such missiles--they may have figured in last November's attack on an Israeli passenger plane in Kenya--are largely ineffective against the counter-measures routinely employed by modern planes. By contrast, Hizballah has accumulated an impressive stockpile of weapons, including, as I mentioned at the outset, thousands of rockets, artillery pieces, and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. In the latter category, it has reportedly equipped itself with SA-18 missiles, whose substantially improved range and speed enable them to shoot down almost any aircraft.
Owning more weapons than it knows what to do with, Hizballah has also helped procure arms for other groups. It played a key role in the January 2002 attempt to smuggle 50 tons of weapons to the Palestinian Authority aboard the Karine-A. Its external-operations commander, Imad Mughniyeh, one of the world's most wanted terrorists, arranged to purchase the ship, and Mughniyeh's deputy Haj Bassem personally supervised the loading operation at the Iranian island of Kish.
How did Hizballah develop a military capability surpassing that of some Arab countries? This is where its third advantage over al Qaeda comes in--state patronage. Since the fall of the Taliban, al Qaeda has been disavowed, at least formally, by almost every country on earth, and its leaders are being hunted down. Global rejection has meant denial of training facilities, weapons, and a financial base. For Hizballah, things are quite different. From Iran it gets funding, weapons, training, and political guidance; from Syria, political clout and more weapons; and from Lebanon, tacit approval to run its mini-state and to tax the population under its control.
Hizballah's status vis-à-vis each of its sponsors is different, and so is its approach. Viewing Lebanon's current political system as an aberration, the organization plans to turn that country into a satellite of Iran. The project may take many years, but Hizballah's leaders are optimistic. After all, they already control not only the entire south but also the crowded Shiite suburbs of Beirut--not to mention eleven out of the 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament. In Lebanon, Hizballah runs schools, community centers, and hospitals and operates an independent media outlet. As such, it enjoys the power to pursue its own foreign policy--which is to say, its vision of a Middle East free of Western influence.
Syria, the de-facto ruler of Lebanon, operates there through many terrorist organizations, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and different Fatah offshoots in the Palestinian refugee camps. But of all the groups under Syria's umbrella, Hizballah enjoys special privileges. It alone has integrated elements of its military units into the Syrian army in Lebanon and received weapons directly from Syria's arsenal. In return, Hizballah provides valuable services for Damascus--money laundering, weapons smuggling, drug trafficking--while also securing the allegiance of the country's Shiite Muslims. Most importantly, Hizballah's ability to keep Israel's northern front hot serves Syria's purposes by constantly reminding the Israeli government and people that peace on this border will not be possible as long as Israeli tanks continue to sit on the Golan Heights.
If Syria is Hizballah's landlord, Iran is the sugar daddy who pays the rent. Hizballah's relations with Iran transcend convenience: culturally, ideologically, and politically, the two are cut from the same cloth. Like Syria, Iran provides weapons to Hizballah, but the quality is generally superior, including Fajr-5 rockets with a range of 45 miles. Iran also supplies funds, estimated at $100 million per year, which allow Hizballah to finance its military operations as well as to buy the hearts and minds of the Lebanese population. Training and political guidance come through Iran's Revolutionary Guards, stationed in Lebanon's Beqa' valley. Finally, and most usefully, Tehran's official representatives throughout the world offer logistical support to Hizballah's overseas operations. In return, Hizballah operatives undertake various illicit missions promoting instability and strife in the world's trouble spots without further darkening Iran's image as a state sponsor of terrorism.
One such international trouble spot is Iraq. The U.S.-led war on terrorism has put both of Hizballah's main state sponsors on the defensive. Iran, already included in President Bush's "axis of evil," is now surrounded by American forces in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq. The noose around Syria is likewise tightening: in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom, President Bashar Assad has found himself more isolated than ever, with U.S. forces to his east, Israel and Jordan to his south, and Turkey to his north. Had he exercised better judgment in March and April, Assad would not have allowed war materials and Islamic fighters to cross into Iraq, or have hosted fleeing Ba'ath officials. But he has proved a reckless leader, which suggests that he is also unlikely to crack down on Hizballah, at least voluntarily. Besides, Syria is more than ever in need of Lebanon, its only territorial cushion, and Hizballah is a critical tool in enabling Damascus to maintain a grip on its neighbor.
To break out of their current isolation, Syria and Iran, together with remnants of Saddam's regime, are hoping to foment a general Islamic revolt against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, mainly using guerrilla and terror tactics similar to those faced by the U.S. in Lebanon in 1983. (In the words of Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, "Syria has a national interest in the expulsion of the invaders from Iraq.") Meanwhile, Iran has begun to recruit radical Shiite clergymen inside Iraq and to broadcast religious-tinged anti-American propaganda in Arabic. One particular theme has to do with the American occupation of the holy city of Najaf, where Ayatollah Khomeini spent years as an exile shaping his revolutionary doctrine, and where many of Hizballah's senior leaders, including Nassrallah and Sheikh Muhammad Fadlallah, the movement's founder, received their religious education.
By virtue of its success in driving the U.S. out of Beirut in the 1980's and Israel from south Lebanon in 2000, no group is better fitted to carry the banner of Iraqi resistance and "liberation" than Hizballah, and no individual better than Nassrallah. With Osama bin Laden weakened and displaced, Saddam Hussein defeated, and Yasser Arafat confined to quarters, Nassrallah remains the only Arab general in modern times who can plausibly claim to have led his people to victory in the battlefield. Under his leadership, Hizballah, a non-state actor, has prevailed where state actors failed, transforming itself from a local gang into a pan-Islamic symbol of pride, courage, perseverance, and valor.
No wonder, then, that in recent months Hizballah's leaders have shifted their focus from the "little Satan," Israel, to the "great Satan," America. Nassrallah has called for a campaign of millions to eradicate the American presence in the heart of the Arab world. "'Death to America' was, is, and will remain our slogan," he proclaimed just days before the invasion of Iraq, while Hizballah's satellite TV channel al-Manar, ("Lighthouse"), steadily broadcasts music clips with lyrics like: "America is the mother of all terrorism. / Let the mother of terrorism fall. / America is the army of evil. / An invading aggressive occupying army. / There is nothing left but rifles. / There is nothing left but martyrs."
The rhetoric does not fall on deaf ears. Hizballah has already started recruiting fighters around the Muslim world as well as local political leaders and militia chiefs in Iraq itself. With the American invasion, suicide volunteers, among them hundreds of Hizballah fighters answering Nassrallah's call for "martyrdom operations," began flowing into Iraq to help Saddam's "holy war." The discovery of hundreds of bomb-laden leather jackets in an elementary school near Baghdad, each lined with several pounds of plastic high explosives laced with ball bearings, was only one sign that his call was enthusiastically heeded.
In the Middle East, gratitude is short-lived. While many senior Shiite clerics are indeed grateful to the U.S. for ending Saddam's dictatorship, and hope to work for a new and democratic Iraq, others have greeted the U.S. occupation with bitter silence. From this group, many volunteers will be found to re-create the Lebanese experience in Iraq. Hizballah's mode of operation has always been to deliver a blow through a proxy--fictitious groups like the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, or anonymous individuals who preserve the deniability both of Hizballah itself and of its state sponsors. If and when the U.S. is attacked, either at home or abroad, there may not be a business card attached to the bomb.
What, then, can be done? One initiative is the Syria Accountability Act (SAA), a draft congressional bill proposing economic sanctions if Syria does not cease its sponsorship of terrorist organizations, stop its development of weapons of mass destruction, and close down its military occupation of Lebanon. Although sanctions are admittedly an instrument of limited utility, the Bush administration has so far refused to embrace this legislation on the grounds that it would hamper U.S. maneuverability in the region.
As for Lebanon, the official home of Hizballah and other terrorist organizations and host to some of the FBI's most wanted terrorists, it has not been held in the least accountable for misdeeds initiated on its territory. It does not suffer sanctions, and it does not appear on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. To the contrary, Lebanese leaders pocket $40 million a year in U.S. aid while brushing off demands to rein in Hizballah--"they are not terrorists but facts of resistance," in the words of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. Would it be too much for the United States to warn that acquiescence in Hizballah's takeover of Lebanese land will eventually bring upon the Lebanese themselves another round of destruction and suffering? Or to demand that the government of Lebanon assert its sovereignty in the south in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 520, evicting all terrorist and foreign forces from the area?
Another possible mechanism for curbing Hizballah is, believe it or not, UNFIL--but only if its mandate were changed. UN peacekeepers in Lebanon have not lifted a finger to stop Hizballah's unprovoked attacks against Israel. In fact, nowhere in UNIFIL's reports to the world body is there any mention of the thousands of rockets and missiles Hizballah has deployed or of the activities of its training bases. In its present form, UNFIL has no function other than to obstruct Israel's efforts to defend itself, but one could imagine ways in which its annual budget of $120 million, mostly funded by American taxpayers, could be put to better use. This, however, would require a determined U.S. push to expand its responsibilities, beef up its capabilities, and demand that it fulfill, and be seen to fulfill, its official mandate of restoring international peace and security.
Other nations might also play a part. Unlike the case of al Qaeda, Hizballah leaders and activists travel the globe with relative ease. Many countries still see Hizballah as a legitimate resistance movement, and the European Union in particular has refused to include it in its list of terrorist groups. Others draw a distinction between a putatively "good" Hizballah, the charitable organization taking care of Lebanon's sick and elderly, and its less virtuous military branch commanded by Imad Mughniyeh.
Of course, a similar and not less artificial distinction is regularly drawn between the "good" Hamas and its military branch, the Izzedine al-Qassam brigades, or between Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement and the al-Aqsa Martyrs brigades. The suggestion in each case is that the charitable and political organization is somehow disconnected from the terrorist activity it itself initiates and sponsors. This is utter nonsense. Terrorist organizations are not cholesterol, divisible into good and bad kinds. Their benevolent activities earn the support and raise the money needed to sustain their terrorist activity, and nations that decline to ban the entire organization are only conferring on terrorists the freedom of movement they require to hit those nations harder.
Diplomatic pressure, sanctions, and other non-belligerent actions can only take one so far, however. Time after time, the U.S. has had to learn the hard way that threats and ultimatums leave little impression on dictators. On the other hand, as recent events have vividly demonstrated, the U.S. can use military means when necessary to defend its interests and its principles, and can do so without inflicting massive casualties. Whether or not talk of "Operation Lebanese Freedom" is likely to be well received in the current international environment, the idea of armed strikes on an organization that calls day and night for martyrdom operations against the U.S. surely falls within the parameters of the Bush doctrine. At the very least, now that U.S. forces are in Iraq and control its airspace, it should be possible to intercept weapons shipments for Hizballah from Iran, and/or to lean on Turkey and Jordan to block such flights over their territory.
In the end, though, nothing short of a complete disarmament of Hizballahland will do. As Bob Graham, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has suggested: "We should tell the Syrians that we expect them to shut down the [Hizballah] camps within x number of days, and, if they don't, we are reserving the right to shut them down ourselves." Among other advantages, such a go-it-alone campaign would be far easier to execute than any of America's recent military operations. Hizballahland is small enough to fit 400 times into Iraq and 700 times into Afghanistan, requiring very little force to clean up.
If September 11 taught us the danger of allowing terrorist organizations (like al Qaeda) to establish themselves in comfortable homes (like Afghanistan), it also reminded us that terrorists mean what they say and say what they mean, and deserve to be taken at their word. Administration officials have promised that Hizballah's "time will come," but unless we adopt an aggressive and preemptive approach to their sworn determination to bring "Death to America," that time may come too late.
Gal Luft is co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) in Washington, D.C. His article, "Who is Winning the Intifada?," appeared in the July-August 2001 Commentary.
Copyright 2003 Commentary Magazine