Dr. Richard Burchill, Senior Research Fellow at the Bussola Institute in Brussels, Belgium
In April 2020 Germany passed legislation banning Hezbollah from undertaking any activities in Germany. The banning was significant as it covers the entirety of the organisation. Previously, Germany followed the European Union position in banning only the “military wing” of Hezbollah. The belief that Hezbollah has different wings is a fiction that many states continue to adhere to, even though Hezbollah itself says there is only one, fully integrated organisation under single leadership.
The Legal Situation in Germany
Germany’s ban on Hezbollah comes under the Association Act (Das Vereinsgesetz) of 1964 (as amended). In this legislation, it is possible to prohibit the activities of associations if those associations act contrary to the criminal law, the constitutional order, or the idea of international understanding (as set out in Article 9 (2) of the German Basic Law). The Association Act allows for prohibitions to be placed upon foreign organisations if their activities are contrary to Article 9 (2) of the Basic Law and will apply to any individuals associated with the foreign organisation operating within Germany. The prohibition of an organisation under the Association Act also allows for the confiscation of assets from entities believed to be associated with it, and the symbols of that organisation, including its flags, can no longer appear in public.
The ban on Hezbollah is the result of its ideology and overt actions that are contrary to the constitutional order of Germany and the idea of international understanding. The core of Hezbollah’s ideas and actions is the elimination of Israel. This ideology leads to uses of violence being justified by Hezbollah and antisemitic statements and positions are manifest in the activities of the organisation and its supporters; all of which is specifically contrary to the Basic Law. Furthermore, from the perspective of the protection of the German constitution, Hezbollah’s belief that government should be run according to absolute wilayat al-faqih—autocratic rule by Islamic scholars—runs contrary to any conception of popular sovereignty and accountability and therefore contrary to Germany’s constitution.
The main source of information about Hezbollah in Germany (and upon which much of this piece is built) comes from the Offices for the Protection of the Constitution at both the Federal (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz) and State (Landesbehörden für Verfassungsschutz) levels. These offices are part of the national domestic intelligence services and monitor the activities of extremist organisations in Germany. The Federal and State offices produce an annual report on the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutzbericht, hereafter VsB).
These reports are based on open source intelligence as well as other measures as approved by law and they have a legal responsibility to keep the public informed to ensure there is awareness about potential threats to the constitutional system of Germany. As these are intelligence services, the reports do not contain significant detail or specifics as confidentiality must be maintained to ensure the effectiveness of the work being undertaken. At the same time it is possible to extract significant levels of information about the operations of extremist groups in Germany.
The Ministry of Interior’s Office for the Protection of the Federal Constitution explains that Hezbollah is using Germany as a “retreat” (Rückzugsraum). This characterisation is used to explain how Hezbollah, while not formally operating in Germany, has been able to conduct supportive actions—such as raising money, organising activities, recruiting members, and gathering information in support of its cause—while not facing any substantive scrutiny. The organisation is able to take advantage of the open society that exists in Germany in order to generate support for their actions and extremist ideology. Hezbollah is able to exploit the political and economic freedoms of Germany, along with the generally tolerant attitudes in society to further a highly restrictive and oppressive ideology that holds none of the same values as Germany. A constant message in the reports from the intelligence services in Germany is that the supporters of Hezbollah in Germany are well-organised in ensuring their efforts do not come under scrutiny, allowing them to carry out activities with minimal pressure. To say Hezbollah uses Germany as a “retreat” is an accurate description.
Hezbollah’s History in Germany
Hezbollah, whose roots go back to the 1970s, has a history of activity in Germany and across Europe. In his study of Hezbollah, former U.S. Treasury intelligence analyst Matthew Levitt explains: “Hezbollah saw Europe in general and Germany in particular as a permissive operating environment”. In 1987, German authorities arrested Mohammed Ali Hammadi, an individual who was part of the hijacking of TWA flight 847. He was arrested attempting to transport chemicals from German in support of further terrorist attacks. It appears Hammadi was using Germany as a base for his actions and was part of criminal networks in Germany and Europe.
In 1992, Hezbollah was responsible for an attack at the Myknonos cafe in Berlin where four Iranian-Kurdish exiles were killed. The attack was organised on behalf of Iran, Hezbollah’s primary backer. The primary organiser of the attack, Kazem Darabi, was an Iranian who had been living in Germany since 1980. Darabi had links with the Iranian intelligence services and Hezbollah. There was an attempt to deport him in 1982 but, through an intervention of the Iranian regime, the German government permitted him to stay, allowing him to pursue studies and start a family. He was active in student associations and in the activities of a Berlin mosque and it was here he was able to recruit four other individuals loyal to Hezbollah to carry out the attack.
Further evidence of Hezbollah’s presence can be seen in recruiting activity. Steven Smyrek converted to Islam and was recruited by Hezbollah in Hanover in the early 1990s. He travelled to Lebanon for further training by Hezbollah. He was arrested in Israel and convicted for supporting a terrorist organisation (Hezbollah) based on information he possessed that appeared to be in relation to potential terrorist attacks. There is also the case of Khaled K., a Palestinian with an Israeli passport, who was recruited by Hezbollah in early 2000 while he was a medical student in Gottingen. He returned to Israel and provided information to Hezbollah in relation to potential future targets.
Hezbollah in Germany Now
In more recent years it appears that support for Hezbollah has been increasing across Germany. The 2007 Federal VsB states there were 900 known Hezbollah supporters around the country. The 2019 Federal VsB puts the number at 1,050 supporters. At the State level the more significant numbers of Hezbollah supporters are in Berlin (250 members), Lower Saxony (160), and North Rhine Westphalia (115). There are also notable levels of support in Baden Wuttenberg (75 members), Rhineland-Palatinate (55) Bremen (50). These numbers are mainly indicative as they will be based on the methodology of security and intelligence assessments and may not necessarily include the wider networks of sympathisers or business associations that knowingly or not act on behalf of Hezbollah’s activities. It is also established that support for Hezbollah in Germany is part of the wider global networks of criminal and terrorist activities pursued by the group.
It is suspected that approximately thirty mosques and cultural associations are linked to, or aligned with, Hezbollah. These entities do have legal status in Germany and carry out a number of activities typical for such associations. It is through the local mosque associations that much of the support and sympathy for Hezbollah is generated. State VsBs further explain that the mosque associations reinforce Hezbollah’s and Iran’s ideology in relation to both religion and politics, with the objective of recruiting more supporters and generally attempting to regularise Hezbollah’s ideology.
In Berlin there are mosques such as the Imam Riza mosque and the Al-Irschad mosque that reportedly show strong support for Hezbollah. They are known as locations for fund-raising and other supportive activities, even if these activities are becoming less public. The Imam Mahdi Centre in Münster is a long-standing a platform and meeting place for Hezbollah supporters, as is Al-Mustafa association in Bremen, where sermons during prayer, along with community events praise the work of Hezbollah and reinforce antisemitic views and the association is known for its fund-raising activities in support of Hezbollah. The Islamic Centre Hamburg is considered one of the more important associations in the Hezbollah network in Germany being a leading voice in promoting Hezbollah’s and Iran’s interests.
While the overt and public activities of the mosque associations are likely to lessen following the ban, there will be continued support generated for Hezbollah through social media. There are reports regarding the Imam Riza Islamic Centre in Berlin, that speak of Imams and attendees to the mosques declaring support for Hezbollah on social media, including praise for Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah and posting images of the organisation’s flag. The VsBs of Bayern and Berlin also refer to the use of social media locally to promote the messages of the Hezbollah leadership and to venerate leading figures.
These mosque associations are also hosting Hezbollah leadership and supporters coming from Lebanon with various presentations and lectures are given. And there are indications that these events are attracting significant audiences. These activities demonstrate solidarity with the more overt statements and demonstrations of Hezbollah and Iran in the Middle East leading to assessment that this behaviour is part of an effort to further a growing sectarian divide in Germany between Shia and Sunni.
The VsB reports do not provide much more detail regarding what occurs at the mosque associations or indicators of a wider network of Hezbollah supporters beyond the mosque associations. As indicated above, much of the formal activities of the mosque associations fall within the law. Plus, it appears that the message from the Hezbollah leadership to supporters in Germany is to not to run afoul of the police and to keep outward manifestations of support for Hezbollah limited. This is likely a direct result of the 2014 closure of Farben für Waisenkinder eV. an NGO based in Essen that raised approximately €3.3 million between 2007-2013. The money raised was transferred to Hezbollah’s Martyrs (Shahid) Foundation in Lebanon, an organisation that openly supports Hezbollah’s ideology and glorifies the use of violence.
There is no doubt that the known mosque associations supporting Hezbollah will come under greater scrutiny as overt acts and displays of support for Hezbollah are now banned. This may have a knock-on impact regarding the known criminal networks and business activities that support Hezbollah’s wider global presence, but as these illicit networks are well established the impact may be minimal.
It is hoped that the ban will limit the public displays of support for Hezbollah and the articulation of antisemitic views. At the same time, any immediate change to the operations and activities of the mosque associations is unlikely, given the entrenched presence of Hezbollah and the awareness amongst the leadership of the strategic necessity in not drawing attention to illicit activities.
The social media dimensions of support being expressed for Hezbollah is going to be a sensitive area for the intelligence services going forward as Hezbollah will be able to take advantage of the freedoms attached to social media and the internet. It is likely that face-to-face meetings and other activities will continue behind closed doors.
Extremist groups like Hezbollah are well organised and able to adapt to the circumstances they face. No doubt Hezbollah’s supporters will continue to exploit the constitutional framework taking advantage of the tolerance and freedoms that they enjoy in using Germany as a “retreat.”
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 Federal Verfassungsschutzbericht 2019, p.180. Links to the VsBs produced by the Federal Government and State Governments can be accessed from https://www.verfassungsschutz.de/de/oeffentlichkeitsarbeit/publikationen/verfassungsschutzberichte.
 Matthew Levitt, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, (2013), p. 62.
 Levitt (2013), p.59.
 Lower Saxony Verfassungsschutzbericht 2019, p. 239; North Rhine-Westphalia Verfassungsschutzbericht 2019, pp. 15-16.
 Federal Verfassungsschutzbericht 2018, p. 214.
 Lower Saxony Verfassungsschutzbericht 2019, pp. 237-239; North Rhine-Westphalia Verfassungsschutzbericht 2017, p. 177,
 Bremen Verfassungsschutzbericht 2019, p. 86; Counter Extremism Project, Germany: Extremism & Counter-Extremism, https://www.counterextremism.com/countries/germany.
 Hamburg Verfassungsschutzbericht 2018, pp. 50-53 Federal Verfassungsschutzbericht 2016, p. 206.
 Der Tagesspiegel, “How Hezbollah operates in secret in Berlin” 30 November 2019, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/themen/reportage/hetze-geldwaesche-rekrutierung-wie-die-hisbollah-in-berlin-im-verborgenen-agiert/25285418.html.
 Bayern Verfassungsschutzbericht 2019, p. 77; Berlin Verfassungsschutzbericht 2019, pp. 120-121.
 Lower Saxony Verfassungsschutzbericht 2019, p. 239.
 Bremen Verfassungsschutzbericht 2019, p. 86; Bremen Verfassungsschutzbericht 2017, p. 76.
 North Rhine-Westphalia Verfassungsschutzbericht 2018, p. 244; North Rhine-Westphalia Verfassungsschutzbericht 2016, pp. 204-205
 North Rhine-Westphalia Verfassungsschutzbericht 2019, p. 232; Rhineland-Palatinate Verfassungsschutzbericht 2019, p.117; Baden-Württemberg Verfassungsschutzbericht 2019, p. 94; Berlin Verfassungsschutzbericht 2016, p. 70, Hamburg Verfassungsschutzbericht 2018, p. 50.
 DW, “Germany outlaws support group with Hezbollah ties, raids offices nationwide” 8 April 2014, https://www.dw.com/en/germany-outlaws-support-group-with-hezbollah-ties-raids-offices-nationwide/a-17551285.
 Der Tagesspiegel, “How Hezbollah operates in secret in Berlin” 30 November 2019, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/themen/reportage/hetze-geldwaesche-rekrutierung-wie-die-hisbollah-in-berlin-im-verborgenen-agiert/25285418.html; Ioan Pop and Mitch Silber, “Iran and Hezbollah’s pre-operational modus operandi in the West – part 1” The Cipher Brief 27 May 2002, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/iran-and-hezbollahs-pre-operational-modus-operandi-in-the-west-part-one.