European Eye on Radicalization’s first webinar was convened on the issue of Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy organization in Lebanon. The participants were:
- Ksenia Svetlova was born in the Soviet Union, before emigrating to Israel and becoming a journalist covering inter alia terrorism, then a member of parliament, where she worked on defence matters. She has remained deeply engaged on security issues since leaving parliament.
- Mariana Diaz works with United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), under the framework of the Knowledge Center Security through Research, Technology and Innovation (SIRIO).
- Richard Burchill has been involved in Middle Eastern affairs for a long time and is currently a senior fellow at the Bussola Institute in Brussels
Ms. Svetlova noted that often Hezbollah had been considered a problem for Israel alone, but of late many states have added Hezbollah to their terrorism lists and recognized the group as a menace to the whole international order. Part of the reason for this recognition has been Hezbollah’s “strangling” of Lebanon as a cat’s paw of Iran’s, preventing the necessary reforms for the Lebanese state that the international community has been pushing for. European and Latin American governments have also been realizing the problems related to Hezbollah’s transnational criminality—from the drug trade to “legal” contraband like cigarettes.
The peace deals between Israel and the Gulf states have strengthened security in the region, Svetlova notes, but with Hezbollah dominating the country and building up its massive rocket arsenal it prevents proper security setting in. Still, the United States has made a good start in cutting off the group from its financial sources.
Ms. Diaz pointed out Hezbollah’s role in shifting its image over time to maintain its legitimacy, especially in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s legitimacy is then used to spread its radicalism, defined as “creating an approval of violence” through ideology. Justifying the intervention in Syria to assist the regime in suppressing the uprising is a recent case of Hezbollah altering its symbols and messaging to fit a new situation, while retaining its core, by adding “takfiris” to the U.S. and Israel as the main enemies. Likewise, the 2009 manifesto that redefined Hezbollah by abandoning an Islamic state as a primary goal, yet the document kept the group continuous in all important respects.
Hezbollah portrays itself as the only viable option to protect the Shi’a of Lebanon and indeed all of Lebanon, notes Diaz, and it has a vast media enterprise to convey this message to the Lebanese. In addressing international audiences through its diffusion channels, it is notable that Hezbollah has started using War on Terror language to defend its violent policies in Syria and elsewhere, even as its 2009 manifesto officially condemns the use of “terrorist” to describe Islamist militant groups.
Burchill said that Hezbollah should be regarded as a transnational criminal group with multiple identities that are deliberately confusing and overlapping, allowing, for example, its political identity to obscure its terrorist activities. This should not be allowed: governments should treat Hezbollah as it is—as a terrorist organization, and none of the political or social dimensions of Hezbollah should be allowed to overshadow this. Terrorism designations are not a panacea; cutting Hezbollah—or any other group—off from financial systems is difficult, especially when a lot of their activities are legal, albeit with the proceeds used for illegal activities. But terrorist designations give governments tools to limit these activities.
The radicalization aspect of Hezbollah does not get the attention it deserves, Burchill notes, and there is little effective counter-radicalization efforts. Approaching this is difficult, among other reasons because the “return address” for Hezbollah is ambiguous: it is based in Lebanon, it works for Iran, and it protects the government in Syria. Hezbollah has been very good at manipulating its image as a bringer of goods to Lebanon and a necessary actor that has to be engaged, and Western foreign ministries tend to buy this idea, but Western intelligence knows better and the focus should be kept specifically on the actions of Hezbollah that are individually criminal.
In terms of Hezbollah’s possible activities to strike at the Gulf states or Israel over the peace accords, Svetlova noted that this was a hollow threat: the capacity of Iran and its proxies is quite limited, and more to the point Hezbollah is already doing all it can to foment instability on the Gulf and in the Palestinian areas and among the Arab communities of Israel. The signing of the peace deal changes little.
Burchill says that Hezbollah’s ability to act as the tip of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the region is because its operating methods of training and directing are not labour- or resource-intensive, yet they have a major force-multiplying effect. This makes it difficult to contain Hezbollah, but it is to be hoped that the new Arab-Israeli accords will permit better cooperation to counter the Hezbollah/IRGC threat.
Hezbollah has long defined itself against various enemies and of late, Diaz points out, Hezbollah has begun combining these enemies, so that the Islamic State, Israel, and the United States are presented as coordinating with one-another against Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has a large presence in Latin America, Burchill explains, but it is unlikely Hezbollah will engage in direct, Syria-style interventions; rather, Hezbollah will continue to engage in its illicit activities in the “tri-border area” and elsewhere to raise funds. Diaz adds that between the situation in Lebanon, the Syria file, and the Palestine issue, Hezbollah is too stretched to be engaging in a large-scale operation in Latin America.
Burchill and Diaz both underlined the importance of abandoning the pretence that Hezbollah has a “military wing” and a “political wing”; it is a unitary organization—as Hezbollah is the first to point out. The issue now is what to do after the designations.