Hezbollah has walked a long path since its emergence in 1982. What started as a terrorist organization that, apart from other objectives, was focused in overthrowing the Lebanese government by force, it has transformed itself into a terrorist organization that wants to achieve the same goal of taking control of the Lebanese government but through legitimate means from within the Lebanese political system. Hezbollah has become a hybrid terrorist organization, which acts on three spheres: first, the dawa, social welfare and religious education; second, the military-‘resistance’ jihad; third, the political sphere. These three spheres act in synergy, interconnected with one another. Hezbollah’s maturation into a hybrid terrorist organization has happened throughout the years as a result of the combination of the following factors: ideology, popular base of support, leadership and the society in which it is inserted. (GANOR, 2012; AZANI, 2013).
Hence, Hezbollah’s evolution from a small Islamic group in the fringes of Shia society into a dominant organization in Lebanon is the result of its relationships inside and outside the country along with its transformation into a hybrid terrorist organization.
Ganor (2012) and Azani (2013) describe a hybrid terrorist organization as the one that stands on at least two legs: first, the classic terrorist organization that is aimed at perpetrating terrorist attacks and, second, the political leg, represented by its ideology and its quest for legitimacy by taking part in democratic elections. There is also a third additional and very effective possible leg, which is the provision of what would be state-sponsored services; in which the organization provides welfare to its constituency.
Since its inception, Hezbollah has begun acting in two out of those three legs: the terrorist one and the welfare one. In 1985 Hezbollah revealed for the first time its platform and ideology through its seminal document, published in the Lebanese press and read aloud by its spokesman in a mosque. That document laid the foundations on which Hezbollah would operate throughout the eighties and beyond. Apart from other important issues, the letter declared that Hezbollah considered its military activities intertwined with its popular social welfare structure. (WIEGAND, 2009; GANOR, 2012; AZANI, 2013).
The origins of Hezbollah as a hybrid organization go back to its birth when it was constituted as an umbrella for pro-Iranian Shia organizations in Lebanon that shared a common obedience to the former Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Since its inception the Iranian Islamic model was based in the military action associated with welfare and political dominance. (WIEGAND, 2009; AZANI, 2013; DEVORE; STAHLI, 2014). However, it should be noted that by 1982 Hezbollah still did not have a political wing since Lebanon was facing a devastating civil war and its political establishment had been shattered. (AZANI, 2013). Nevertheless, Hezbollah was able to simultaneously establish its military and welfare infrastructure that in the end would help the group enter Lebanese politics.
At the time of Hezbollah’s emergence, the living conditions for many of the Lebanese Shia was appalling. Since Lebanon was undergoing a long civil war, the government was impaired in providing the needed welfare services. That fact created a vacuum, which the Islamists soon took advantage and filled in. Even before Hezbollah was born, the Islamists had already put up a network of religious, medical, charitable and education institutions to aid the desperate Shia. (NORTON, 2009; AZANI, 2013). Later, Hezbollah used the same network to disseminate its Islamist platform and also to bring the Shia to its side and recruit members to its ranks. We should take into account that the social services provided by Hezbollah were heavily funded by Iran or provided by Iranian institutions, as follows: medical care, schooling, cultural activities, indoctrination and military training. (WIEGAND, 2009; AZANI, 2013; BYMAN; SAAB, 2014). Hezbollah also used extensively its media channels to promote its principles and goals, broadcast its messages and create its myths. (AZANI, 2013; BYMAN; SAAB, 2014). Nowadays, Hezbollah leans heavily on Internet communications. It constantly communicates innumerous messages across the World. Consequently, the group boosts its recruitment capacities and expands its funding capabilities. Hezbollah is able to capitalize through the Internet since it is an effective communicator. (ARMSTRONG; MATUSITZ, 2013).
On the military field, Hezbollah outlines its operations to accomplish the goals shared by the Shia community. The group exploits Shia’s rage and frustration and thus it constantly uses a religious narrative together with a nationalist one to bring the Shia to its side. Many Shia are opened to the message of radical Islam and are eager to engage in a collective action to promote Islamic aspirations. (WIEGAND, 2009; NORTON, 2009; ARMSTRONG; MATUSITZ, 2013; AZANI, 2013). The civil war and the presence of foreigners in Lebanon (especially Israeli troops, the UN multinational force, fleeing Palestinians and the PLO – Palestine Liberation Organization) shaped a violent environment in which Hezbollah’s military actions were in concert with its long-term strategies. The major terrorist attacks in Lebanon in 1983 (US Embassy and the bases of UN forces) carried out by Hezbollah (although the group claimed it did not take direct responsibility) caused multiple casualties and persuaded the multinational forces to leave Lebanon in 1984. Those attacks made the group increasingly popular among Lebanese Shia, since it demonstrated Hezbollah’s jihad resolve in ejecting foreigners from Lebanon. (MILLER, 1994; HARIK, 2005; NORTON, 2009; AZANI, 2013; DEVORE; STAHLI, 2014).
Hezbollah was keen on emphasizing military innovation when confronting Israel. Hezbollah’s military audacity echoed abroad and became a great propaganda tool for the group. (AZANI, 2013; BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; DEVORE; STAHLI, 2014). However, not all Hezbollah’s military innovations were praised by its constituents or became a source of good propaganda abroad. One very controversial one was the abduction of foreigners and locals. (AZANI, 2013). Although on the onset it was a very profitable tool for bargaining with its enemies, it was damaging Hezbollah’s image both overseas and inside the Shia community. Hassan Fadllalah himself opposed strongly to the abduction operations. He used to say that it discredited Hezbollah worldwide. (AZANI, 2013). Nevertheless, the group’s leadership supported the abductions saying that it helped promote the group’s pan-Islamist goals. In early nineties, however, Hezbollah gave up its abduction actions; one reason for this was the growing influence of Fadllalah in the group and also the perception that the abductions were no longer paying off. But, that was too little too late, given the fact that Hezbollah had already been labeled a terrorist organization not only by several Western countries, but also regionally. (AZANI, 2013). Despite this fact, Hezbollah’s overall military achievements, as well as its innovation in terrorism attacks and the spread of its forces from Beqaa Valley, through Beirut onto Southern Lebanon helped advance its influence, consolidate its power and create a ‘society of resistance’. (WIEGAND, 2009; AZANI, 2013; BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; DEVORE; STAHLI, 2014).
Another key aspect concerning Hezbollah lies in its financing capabilities. Hezbollah not only receives funding from Iran but it also relies heavily on criminal enterprises overseas to fulfill its budget objectives, with the help of a worldwide network of facilitators. Hezbollah is considered the most proficient and organized terrorist organization in the World in respect to its criminal funding operations. (FARAH, 2011; REALUYO, 2014). In 2010, the US government regarded Hezbollah as the most technically proficient terrorist organization in the World. (CFR, 2014). The group funds itself through a myriad of illegal businesses and criminal enterprises, such as drug trafficking, arms trafficking, diamond smuggling, counterfeiting, among others. (FARAH, 2011; REALUYO, 2014).
As a hybrid organization that already operated in the two previously mentioned legs, from early nineties, Hezbollah implemented its third leg: the group’s political presence. Hezbollah’s political position was built on its extensive social welfare, Islamist education and civilian aid infrastructure that the group had gradually erected since its foundation in 1982. Hezbollah quickly seized the opportunity to capitalize politically on its social welfare network thus becoming the most dominant entity in the country. (WIEGAND, 2009; AZANI, 2012, 2013). The group’s debut in the Lebanese political system happened in 1992. The group drafted its political wing on the premise that it would act within the boundaries of the country’s political system and it would abide to its rules in all its levels: government, parliament and municipal. At the same time the organization would keep its independence. (WIEGAND, 2009; AZANI, 2012, 2013). But, in fact, whenever convenient the group has acted outside the political system, creating its own alliances and using political violence to change political decisions in its favor in order to achieve its dominance goals. Hezbollah’s entry in parliament in 1992 actually was the beginning of a long-range strategy to control Lebanese politics. (NORTON, 2009; AZANI, 2012, 2013).
Nevertheless, the group’s decision to enter the political arena at the end of the civil war was not consensual. The radical elements within Hezbollah’s leadership strongly opposed this move arguing that the group should have kept its revolutionary stance that aimed to topple the Lebanese government from outside the political system. On the other hand, the group’s more pragmatic leaders (Abbas Al-Musawi and Hassan Nasrallah) favored Hezbollah’s coming into the political arena while keeping the Islamic ‘resistance’. (WIEGAND, 2009; AZANI, 2012, 2013). In order to decide over this question, a special committee was set up to examine the pros and cons of joining the parliament and its implications for the ‘resistance’. At the end the committee decided that Hezbollah should indeed take part in the Lebanese political system. The committee realized that the participation in the political arena would invest the Islamic ‘resistance’ with a legal status. Lastly, Hezbollah’s decision to join the Lebanese political system was endorsed by its foreign sponsors: Iran and Syria. (AZANI, 2012, 2013).
Ever since its inception Hezbollah has survived numerous challenges. It has been capable to overcome them because of internal and external factors, among them: leadership, organizational coherence, discipline, military tactics, political violence, competent criminal-based funding, worldwide network of facilitators, proficient military training, and certainly Iranian and Syrian support. But, all these would not have been enough without the backing of its Shia constituency. Hezbollah has made it a top priority to seed good relations with the Lebanese Shia, knowing that such base of support would be its very last line of defense. Hezbollah made that possible when it became a hybrid organization firmly erected on its three strong legs.
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Christian Azevedo é Doutorando em Relações Internacionais pela Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais – PUC Minas.