Danny Citrinowicz, senior research fellow at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy in Israel
Hezbollah’s military strength is a well-known fact. The Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group which operates as “a state within a state” has a massive weapons arsenal that includes thousands of advanced missiles aimed at the most strategic facilities in Israel. Hezbollah’s advanced military capabilities make it one of the most powerful terrorist organizations today. However, recent events in Lebanon and Iran have weakened the group’s political influence. Former US President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and growing anti-government sentiment in Lebanon over the past few years have loosened the group’s grip on power, despite its military might.
Several countries around the world have already designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization due to its track record of committing acts of terror worldwide. However, it’s important to note that Hezbollah’s activities are not limited to building terror cells to commit violent attacks. Its covert and illicit activities around the world — such as drug trafficking, money laundering and inciting local Shiite populations — help support its operations domestically in Lebanon. Most measures countries have taken against Hezbollah have been directed at the group’s operations in Lebanon. Internationally, while there are attempts to thwart terrorist attacks, there is very little action taken to combat the group’s illicit and criminal activities.
The Role of Religious Centers
Recently, authorities raided Shiite religious centers in France and Germany and arrested the centers’ leaders on suspicion that they aided Hezbollah financially, recruited for the group and helped it hide weapons. This highlights the strong link between Hezbollah’s global illicit activities and Shiite religious centers, and the need to act against these very institutions that provide fertile ground for the religious radicalization of Shiite communities around the world. At these religious centers, clerics deliver seditious pro-Hezbollah sermons and express solidarity with the group’s policy and commanders. They encourage Shiites to go study at religious centers in Iran where they are properly indoctrinated into the ‘Khomeinism’ ideology.
Over the course of the past few years, Hezbollah saw its popularity in Lebanon increasingly wane and following the Beirut blast in August 2020, there has been a growing enmity emerging from the Lebanese against the group — even amongst segments of the local Shiite population. Hezbollah draconian grip on the country’s failing political system, has pitted Lebanese against it. They have rightfully blamed the group for the abysmal state of affairs in the country, including an unprecedented economic crisis.
Hezbollah itself is feeling the economic pinch because of effective international sanctions against Iran — the prime financial backer of the group — as well as the fact that the nearly decade-long Syria war drained Iran’s coffers. As a result of financial problems and its diminished credibility, the group is finding it very difficult to maintain its grip on power. Given Iran’s reduced capability to fund the group, Hezbollah is actively trying to look for international sources of funding through Shiite communities around the world. Therefore, “innocent” fundraising campaigns led by such religious centers to aid victims of war in Syria or Yemen, are being hijacked to serve as a channel to finance Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon. Additionally, the group has upped its illicit and criminal activities around the world, adding tens of millions of dollars to Hezbollah’s coffers.
An Opportune Time
Therefore, it is important to step up international efforts to combat the group’s illicit activities around the world. This is the opportune time to go after the group while it is facing widespread unpopularity inside Lebanon. Acting against the group’s illicit activities will also send a message to the Lebanese that Hezbollah cannot take part in any political discourse and cannot participate in the political system. Without an extensive international campaign against the group’s activities, it cannot be significantly weakened — even though it is facing unprecedented unpopularity inside Lebanon.
Due to the complex and sophisticated structure of Hezbollah’s networks — which are designed to protect the organization’s assets even in the event that one of them is exposed — it is imperative to approach the matter in a calculated and unified way to undermine the group’s international infrastructure. The following steps are recommended and encouraged:
- Enlarging the scope of the Law Enforcement Coordination Group (LECG) that is led by the US State Department, so that it will have a mandate to deal with all illicit Hezbollah activity outside of Lebanon.
- Building an effective intelligence sharing mechanism under the task force regarding Hezbollah’s activities outside of Lebanon that are connected to the modus operandi of the organization.
- Building dedicated operational teams under the task force to disrupt the ways in which funds are transferred to the organization in Lebanon, based on intelligence gathered.
- Monitoring incitement and hate speeches by Hezbollah-affiliated clerics in religious centers around the world that provides a fertile ground for Hezbollah recruitment.
A combination of these steps could significantly weaken Hezbollah — which is at least politically and economically in one of the worst periods since its inception — and improve conditions for political change in Lebanon. It is evident that Hezbollah’s strength in Lebanon is largely dependent on the support it receives from Shiite centers globally. Therefore, only a “pincer movement” will be able to substantially weaken the organization and bring about long-awaited change to Lebanon.
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