Hezbollah was founded in Lebanon in the 1970s by the Islamic revolutionaries who took power in Iran in 1979. The same milieu out of which Hezbollah formed created the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that protects the Islamic Republic in Iran and exports its Revolution by setting up IRGC clone forces in various countries across the Middle East, such as Ansar Allah or “the Houthis” in Yemen. (Just this morning, it was reported six IRGC and Hezbollah operatives were killed in Yemen at an Ansar Allah camp.) Hezbollah rode the “Shiite Islamic Awakening” in Lebanon that began in the 1960s, though there was always a split within the movement represented by its two leaders, Imam Musa al-Sadr on the more quietest wing and the activist-revolutionary cadres gathered around Grand Ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah, an Iranian-born cleric who had lived in southern Lebanon since the 1950s.
Hezbollah released its first manifesto in 1985 and had emerged in public largely after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to clear out the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorist camps on its northern border, thus the party presents itself as a “resistance” movement to Israeli occupation. But Hezbollah had been involved in the first suicide bombing in the modern era in 1981, an attack on the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut, and it would go on to carry out two even more infamous atrocities in 1983, against the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that April, killing 49 people, and against the barracks of the U.S. and French peacekeepers in October, killing 305 people: 241 Americans, 58 Frenchmen, and six civilian bystanders. Iran’s terrorism through Hezbollah has gone global since then, particularly targeted Jews, notably blowing up the AMIA Jewish Community Centre in Buenos Aires in 1994, killing 85 people, and more recently a Hezbollah suicide bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012, murdered six Israeli tourists and wounded nearly three-dozen.
The intimate relationship between Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolution has never been hidden. The 16 February 1985 statement that made the existence of Hezbollah public stated that the party “is committed to the orders of a wise and just leadership embodied in Wilayat al-Faqih [the ruling ideology of Iran’s regime], and embodied in the spirit of God, [Iran’s first Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Mousavi Khomeini, the trigger of the Muslim revolution and the initiator of their glorious renaissance.” Many of the party’s members are Lebanese Shiites, but the party does not in any case recognise nationality based on the borders of the modern Middle East and its loyalty is to Iran’s Islamic government. They consider Iran’s Supreme Leader, first Khomeini and now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to be their commander. Hezbollah’s original military leader, Imad Mughniyeh, was an IRGC officer, and the party’s current leader, secretary-general Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, is likewise an agent of Iran’s revolutionary state.
Hezbollah has also long received support from Syria, on a strategic rather than an ideological basis, because the Assad family that runs Syria is closely aligned with Iran. This has given Hezbollah a hinterland—and access to ports that can avoid scrutiny in Lebanon for its criminal transactions—but, under Hafez al-Assad’s rule, Syria firmly kept the upper-hand in this relationship. After Hafez died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son, Bashar, the dynamics have reversed, especially after the outbreak of rebellion in Syria in 2011, when Iran and Hezbollah had to step in to rescue Bashar.
Proving that Hezbollah’s presentation as a “resistance” group was opportunistic rather than reality, after the withdrawal of the Israeli army from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah refused to disarm, and used its weapons to consolidate control of the Lebanese state. For example, there have been frequent assassinations in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990, most “spectacularly” Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. As one scholar slightly mischievously put it, “there is a pattern to the assassinations: [the victims] are usually a critic of Syria … [or] Iran or Hezbollah”.
Hezbollah has always helped Iran’s expansionist agenda in the Middle East, capturing the state of Lebanon decades ago, and more recently bringing Iraq and Syria under Iranian domination through the same Islamic revolutionary model. Hezbollah’s has expanded beyond the northern Middle East, most prominently in Yemen, where Ansar Allah allows Iran to threaten Saudi Arabia and the international sea lanes.
Hezbollah has spread all over the world—to Europe, Africa, Latin America, and beyond—strengthening the group’s ties with other local actors, creating a vast international criminal networks that provides revenue to support the group, and spreads the ideology of Iran’s regime.
EER has previously covered the Iran-Hezbollah network in Europe that radicalizes Shi’ites, creating ideological loyalists that constitute a risk to the stability of the continent. For instance, in Germany there are thirty mosques and cultural associations linked to, or aligned with, Hezbollah. In Berlin there are mosques such as the Imam Riza mosque and the Al-Irschad mosque that show strong support for Hezbollah through fund-raising and other supportive activities.
Iran has used Hezbollah to infiltrate the African continent. Like other jihadist groups, Hezbollah has taken advantage of the poor socioeconomic conditions, state fragility, and the vast uncontrolled spaces to embed itself. Hezbollah has built criminal networks that smuggle arms and created other sources of financial revenue. Laundering this money, Hezbollah has penetrated African economies and got involved in business structures. The social and economic infiltration is designed to underwrite the expansion of Iran’s ideology in Africa, a continent Tehran considers for various reasons advantageous. Hezbollah has sought to make inroads for Iran’s revolutionary Shiite ideology in areas where there are African Muslims from the Sunni and Sufi branches of the faith. Iranian-controlled Shiite institutions have offered to Africans, who have limited income, financial benefits and free education for children, a deliberate plan to convert them to Iran’s version of Shi’ism. One of the most important and influential institutions for Shia indoctrination is Al-Mustafa University, which is present in East African countries such as Tanzania (the main Hub), as well as further west, in Ghana, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast, and there is a Hezbollah presence in South Africa.
The social, economic, and ideological offensive by Iran in Africa through Hezbollah is linked to military and terrorism aspects. Al-Mustafa University, for example, is classified by the U.S. as an institution that facilitates the recruitment process for the Quds Force, the foreign wing of the IRGC. In Morocco, Hezbollah supports separatist groups such as the Polisario Front. In 2017, Hezbollah began sending weapons and military units to train Polisario elements, form commando teams, and prepare hostile operations against the Kingdom of Morocco.
Perhaps even more than Europe and Africa, Hezbollah has spread and acquired power in Latin America, utilising the close relations Iran (and Russia) have with Left-wing governments in the Western Hemisphere, for the longest time in Cuba and Venezuela, and more recently in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Honduras, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Chile, and Colombia. There is significant evidence of cocaine smuggling and money laundering by Hezbollah in Latin America, which gives profits to Iran’s international network. In 2017, Colombian authorities, before the recent turn to the Left, arrested and deported Venezuelan-Lebanese Hezbollah financier Abdala Ramel Rada, after he was accused of drug trafficking, smuggling, and money laundering. The latter admitted that his supervisor was Salman Raouf Salman (Samuel Salman El Reda), a senior member of Hezbollah’s External Security Organization (ESO) or Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO) in Latin America. The ESO/IJO is the terrorism unit of Hezbollah that was involved in various actions in the Hemisphere, including the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 in Buenos Aires and the above-mentioned atrocity at AMIA in the same city two years later.
In recent years there has been some progress in recognizing the danger Hezbollah poses. In 2019, the United Kingdom dispensed with what the group itself says is a false distinction—between its “political” and “military” wings—and designated Hezbollah in total as a terrorist entity. Argentina and Paraguay joined the U.K. that year. Germany designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in 2020, as did Colombia. The “pink wave” in Latin America—the takeover of multiple states by Leftist governments close to Iran—challenges this trendline: at best, a number of these states may become laxer in enforcing their laws; some may remove Hezbollah formally from their terrorism lists. Africa remains a permissive environment for Hezbollah, with only two states—Egypt and Sudan—having blacklisted the group. Europe is better in a legal sense, but confronting the group’s subversive and ideological work among communities on the Continent has not been raised to a priority. And there is still an insufficient global focus on disrupting Hezbollah’s illicit revenue streams. There has been some progress over the last half-decade, but much remains to be done in protecting states and societies around the world from the infiltration of Iran’s revolutionary ideology and its terrorism apparatus.