Dr. Richard Burchill, the Director of Research and Engagement for TRENDS Research & Advisory
In March 2019, the United Kingdom Government included Hezbollah (The Party of God) on its list of proscribed terrorist organisations. The UK became only the second state—the other being the Netherlands—within the European Union to designate the entire Hezbollah organisation as a terrorist entity. At present the EU, and a number of the Member States, designate Hezbollah’s “Military Wing,” defined as including the Jihad Council of Hezbollah and the External Security Organisation, as a terrorist organisation, but do not extend this designation to the whole of Hezbollah. The attempt to disaggregate Hezbollah’s internal structure is based on the notion that conflating the components that engage in terrorist violence with the politico-social “wing” would create unity around the more radical elements of the organisation, hinder constructive engagement, and possibly upset the politics of Lebanon. None of these reasons stand up to scrutiny.
So far from engagement with the political “wing” working to “moderate” the group, the evidence is clear of ever-increasing Hezbollah terrorist activities, transnational criminal networks, the illegal use of military force on the territory of other states, and its responsibility for war crimes and other atrocities in Syria. Moreover, Hezbollah itself is very clear that there are no distinct organisational units. In 2012 a Hezbollah spokesman said, in a tone of some exasperation, that “Hezbollah is a single, large organization. We have no wings that are separate from one another.” The entire organisation, including all of its operations—terrorism, organised criminality, military, political, social outreach—are undertaken through the central authority of the Secretary General, currently Hassan Nasrallah. The EU and others continuing to work on the idea that there are different wings of Hezbollah is not just an analytical mistake. It allows Hezbollah the space to continue its criminal and fund-raising activities in Europe and around the world in support of its illegal behaviour.
When undertaking any discussion of Hezbollah, the difficulty begins with categorising the organisation. Depending on time and place, Hezbollah is a terrorist group, a political actor, a transnational criminal actor, or a social welfare provider. Most controversial is the argument over whether Hezbollah is an armed non-state actor or a part of the state apparatus of Iran.
Hezbollah’s record of terrorist activity in support of its extremist ideology is uncontested, and more recently attention has exposed the vast transnational criminal enterprise Hezbollah runs, primarily involving the drug trade and money laundering to support its other activities. Hezbollah is a political actor in Lebanon: it participates in elections, has members of parliament, and holds cabinet seats. Hezbollah is well-known to be a provider of social welfare in Lebanon in areas where the official state does not reach. Hezbollah’s presence, concentrated in southern Lebanon, has been described as a “state within a state”, but this is less accurate as Hezbollah extends greater overt control over the official government system.
Despite much obfuscation, Hezbollah is part of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s state structure. By Hezbollah’s own admission it receives the bulk of its financial support from the Iranian state, and it is an organic component of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a state entity in Iran designated as terrorist by the United States. In this capacity, answering to Tehran, Hezbollah has intervened, contrary to international law, in the conflict in Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of people, as well as providing advice and support in a range of other conflicts around the world.
Hezbollah’s actions around the world demonstrate it is not a political actor committed to peace and security or adhering to the norms of the international system. Hezbollah has not been coy in expressing its beliefs and objectives. In speeches of its leaders there is a strong rejection of the norms of the international system and support for Iran’s belief system, which places authority in a religious ideology that recognises no borders. Hezbollah is part of Iran’s “axis of resistance”, determined to end what are in their view the imperialistic tendencies of the USA and Israel. Hezbollah goes even further in calling for the complete destruction of Israel. Violence and other illicit actions in support of this cause are deemed legitimate.
Hezbollah is increasing its criminal activities, a process driven by recent reports that Hezbollah is facing a funding crisis. Hezbollah’s main funding has historically come from Iran. However, it appears that the increase in sanctions on Iran have impacted Hezbollah through reinforcing its efforts at fundraising activities alongside further development of its transnational criminal networks. This is a leading reason for the EU to designate the entirety of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation so that further action can be taken to shut down the criminal activities, or at least frustrate the creation and transfer of resources from illicit behaviour. Hezbollah’s Secretary General has indicated that an EU-wide designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation would have an impact on their support networks in Europe.
The need to expand the EU’s terrorist designation of Hezbollah to cover the entire organisation is long overdue. Hezbollah’s record of terrorist acts, and the central leadership’s direction of same, means there is substantial evidence supporting such a designation. Hezbollah’s terrorist actions in Europe extend back to 1985 with the hijacking of an aircraft on a flight from Athens to Rome. In 2012, a tourist bus in Bulgaria was subjected to a terrorist attack that killed six civilians and injured more than 30 others. In 2013, a court in Cyprus found guilty an individual who was preparing terrorist attacks in Cyprus and this individual admitted to being a member of Hezbollah.
It has been recently revealed that there was the discovery in 2015 of large caches of material for explosives in the UK, Cyprus, other European states and overseas. It has been reported that British intelligence believed this material was intended for future terror attacks. The material in question was over three metric tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound commonly used in homemade bombs, making it difficult to conclude the material was being stockpiled for other purposes. Recent reports from the German intelligence services have provided extensive information on Hezbollah’s activities in Germany and Europe. These reports cover a range of illicit activity from an ever-growing criminal network that has infiltrated into EU member states in support of its terrorist and illegal activities.
A designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation by the EU would impede the ongoing development of illicit behaviour. A designation would bring about travel bans and limitations on economic activity. This will not prevent the EU from engaging with Hezbollah. A designation cuts off a range of Hezbollah fund-raising initiatives across Europe, but is unlikely to affect the humanitarian situation in Lebanon. The financial aspects of designation would also prevent the proceeds of crime from going to Hezbollah and hopefully reinforce criminal justice efforts to end Hezbollah’s transnational criminal activity in Europe and globally.
As is being shown through its involvement in Syria, Hezbollah is only increasing its violent and destabilising activities while the EU pursues a conciliatory approach. By not responding to Hezbollah’s illicit activities, the EU keeps a funding option open. Any belief that Hezbollah participating in a democratically-elected Parliamentary system of government in Lebanon will work to moderate the terrorist and criminal activities of the rest of the organisation is highly misguided. There is no chance of Hezbollah taking a different political position. As with the myth that Hezbollah has different wings, it is necessary to listen to Hezbollah itself. Hezbollah is plain that the organisation is only concerned with furthering the extremist aims of the “axis of resistance” — whether through licit or illicit activities.
Hezbollah’s “anti-imperialist” stance against the USA and Israel perhaps explains why European politicians are attracted to the organisation, have sympathy for it, or are willing to overlook their actions. But this needs to be thought through by anyone claiming that Hezbollah is somehow legitimate or that is serves a positive contribution to peace and security globally. Any such claim relies on accepting that criminal activity, terrorism, and the illegal use of force are somehow acceptable norms of behaviour, which they are not. The most effective way in disrupting terrorist and transnational criminal organisations is by targeting their financial activities. An EU-wide designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation would be a step in the right direction.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 A useful overview of recent actions is found in Daniel Odin Shaw, (2019) “Beyond necessity: Hezbollah and the intersection of state-sponsored terrorism with organised crime.” Critical Studies on Terrorism https://doi.org/10.1080/17539153.2019.1592074.
 Reports from the UN International Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic provide extensive information regarding violations of international humanitarian law in the Syrian Conflict. In these reports the Commission does not differentiate between the Syrian Government, Iran, or Hezbollah as it charts out violations by “government forces.” As Hezbollah has had up to 80,000 fighters in the Syrian conflict it is highly probable it has played a direct role in violations. Reports are available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/Documentation.aspx.
 Shaw, 2019, p. 12.