Getting to know Iran’s proxies in the region: This series looks at radical Iran-linked organizations and militants in order to better understand the threat they pose. See here for a link to the entire series of Citizens for Bahrain dossiers on Militancy in Bahrain.
Hezbollah is the best known and most sophisticated of the various Iranian proxy forces across the region, with a long paramilitary history going back to at least the early 1980s, and increasingly coming to have a regionalized role in supporting other Shia militant groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere.
Hezbollah is seen as a model for other Shia militant groups to follow because, as well having a long record of paramilitary and terrorist activity, it also successfully made the transition into Lebanese politics, while also using welfare, social and theological networks to exert and ideological stranglehold upon its own communities, further enriching itself through narcotics smuggling and international criminal networks. It has gone from being a state within a state, to arguably being the most powerful force in Lebanon with a controlling position in the Lebanese Government.
Although Hezbollah once portrayed itself as exclusively a Lebanese institution, its deployment at the orders of Tehran’s theological leadership for use in fighting in Syria, while training militants elsewhere, makes it clear that it acts almost entirely at the behest of its principle source of funding.
Rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon
During the 1980s and 1990s, Iran’s most fruitful theatre for exporting revolution was Lebanon. However, the meteoric emergence of Hezbollah as the world’s most feared terrorist movement was in part attributable to efforts by Khomeini’s allies during the 1970s in laying the groundwork for the Lebanese jihad. At the outset of the 1975 Lebanon civil war Musa al-Sadr, from the prominent Sadr clerical family, succeeded in mobilizing the marginalized but quiescent Shia of southern Lebanon into a politically active movement.
Lebanon in the mid-1970s was awash with a confusing range of left-wing and Islamist movements, with various revolutionary agendas. Several of these groups used Lebanon as a base from which to plan uprisings in their home countries across the Arab and Islamic world. The most hardline tendencies came together around a group of partisans loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini, the dissident Iranian cleric who at the time was based in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf. Many of these Iranian pro-Khomeini militants would achieve prominence in the Revolutionary Guards and “Office of Liberation Movements” after Khomeini’s victorious Islamic revolution in Iran 1979.
The Khomeinists indoctrinated and unified this diverse network of militants who were to become the nucleus of Hezbollah. The Khomeinists and Sadr’s Amal movement rivalled each other in their efforts to win converts. This Hezbollah/Amal division would endure among Lebanese Shia to the present day. The presence of branches of Iraqi Shia Islamists (particularly from Da’wah and the Islamic Action Organization) further complicated the political picture, although many would be pulled into Hezbollah’s orbit.
In August 1978, Musa Sadr disappeared during a trip to Libya. The Khomeinists enjoyed a close relationship with the Libyan leadership (sponsors of the PLO), and so Sadr’s followers had good reason for accusing the Khomeini loyalists of complicity in Sadr’s presumed assassination. Syria’s 1976 intervention in Lebanon against the Palestinian movement and radical nationalists; Sadr’s disappearance; and the 1979 Iran revolution were instrumental events in realigning Lebanese militia movements. The Khomeinists liquidated moderate rivals and consolidated their hold over Shia communities.
Imad Mughniyah and his cousin Mustafa Badruddin had been members of Yassir Arafat’s elite Force 17 within the Fatah movement. By 1981 they had distanced themselves from the Palestinians and were among the founding elements of Hezbollah. Mughniyah also founded the Islamic Jihad Organization (not to be confused with other similarly-named entities), which claimed responsibility for operations perpetrated by the nascent Hezbollah.
Hezbollah reportedly received Ayatollah Khomeini’s formal blessing as a recognized organization in 1982, after which Iran reportedly sent 1,000 Revolutionary Guard soldiers to provide paramilitary training. The 1982 Israeli invasion and subsequent occupation of southern Lebanon helped create a radicalized climate in which Iranian diplomats and agents could quickly consolidate support for this new entity. Although 1982 and 1983 are seen as the years of Hezbollah’s inception, many of the key figures had been laying the ideological in Lebanon for nearly a decade; explaining why Hezbollah was able to emerge so rapidly and spectacularly.
The group’s 1985 manifesto explicitly states, “We are the sons of the umma (Muslim community)—the party of God (Hizb Allah) the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran.”
Hezbollah reinvents the techniques of terrorism
Hezbollah was the first organization to use suicide bombings as a military tactic since the Second World War. On 18 April 1983 a lorry laden with explosives was driven into the US Embassy compound killing 63. Then came the simultaneous attacks of 23 October 1983, targeting the US Marines and French army barracks, leaving 241 Americans and 58 French dead.
Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyah coordinated these operations and reportedly watched them through binoculars. The attack against the US Marines was not only the deadliest terrorist attack against Americans to date; it was also the largest non-nuclear explosion on earth since World War II: 18,000 pounds of explosives, leaving a crater four metres deep and nine metres wide. On 20 September 1984, the US embassy annex was bombed, killing 24. Over the coming decade Hezbollah would receive notoriety for plane hijackings and abducting dozens of Westerners.
Hezbollah was also behind a complex plot targeting multiple strategic sites in Kuwait City on 12 December 1983. Kuwait was lucky to have avoided mass carnage. The truck rammed into the US Embassy contained 45 gas cylinders and plastic explosives and a lorry with 200 gas cylinders targeted the National Petroleum Company. Faulty wiring and imperfect planning resulted in casualties being relatively low. Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, a key Iraqi protagonist in the attacks, succeeded in fleeing Kuwait. Muhandis’s name would later be linked to a 1985 attack in which a bomb-laden vehicle was rammed into the motorcade of the Kuwaiti Emir.
Hezbollah’s seizure of over 100 Western hostages between 1982 and 1992, overseen by Imad Mughniyah, were used as leverage to seek the liberation of the Hezbollah-linked militants detained in Kuwait. Hezbollah’s leadership acknowledge that the Kuwait attacks were “the starting point for the idea of hostages”. The death sentences imposed on the detained Lebanese and Iraqi militants were never carried out and the standoff only resolved itself when these terrorists escaped in 1990 during Saddam Hussain’s invasion.
Mughniyah’s cousin Mustafa Badruddin was one of those militants picked up by the Kuwaiti authorities. Following his 1990 escape, Badruddin became head of Hezbollah’s external operations branch in 2008, after Mughniyah was killed in an Israel-sponsored assassination (a car bomb in Damascus). Badruddin fled to Iran in 2011 after being indicted for the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri; and died fighting in Syria in 2016.
According to CIA calculations, over nine months in 1985 Iran’s Lebanese proxies were responsible for 24 international terrorist incidents. The CIA warned that “Iranian-sponsored terrorism” presented the greatest threat to US interests in the region. Ayatollah Muhammad Hussain Fadlallah was Hezbollah’s spiritual leader with his virulently anti-Israel sermons. However, Fadlallah never fully embraced Khomeini’s theological position. While Fadlallah desired to see an Islamic state in Lebanon, he also perceived the damage that Iran’s untrammelled influence could to this tiny and diverse nation.
Hezbollah as a political movement
The 1992 decision by Hezbollah to participate in elections was blessed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, but nevertheless led to a split in the movement between those who preferred ideological purity and shunning the dirty business of politics – and those who were more pragmatic about using all means at their disposal to increase their political influence. This initial flirtation with politics was judged to be a success, with Hezbollah and its allies capturing 12 of the 128 parliamentary seats. In the wake of Hezbollah’s 2000 proclaimed victory in forcing Israel out of southern Lebanon, this increased to 23 seats.
Hassan Nasrallah, who took over as secretary-general in 1992, exemplified Hezbollah’s new pragmatic and ruthless approach to regional dominance. Throughout the 1980s Nasrallah had promoted a vision in which an Islamic republic in Lebanon would act as a stepping stone to a global revolutionary movement. “In our view Nasrallah does not represent the mainstream of the movement;” CIA analysts wrote in 1988. Four years later Nasrallah became Hezbollah’s secretary-general, moving the group more firmly within Iran’s sphere of influence.
On 14 February 2005 former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated in a massive explosion, and by 2011 the special tribunal investigating this and other political killings indicted several senior members of Hezbollah. These events, along with the 2006 conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, created an increasingly polarized and tense atmosphere in Lebanon, resulting in the formation of two major political blocs; the anti-Hezbollah March 14 alliance (headed by Saad al-Hariri), and Hezbollah’s March 8 alliance.
Although the anti-Hezbollah forces performed better than expected in the 2009 elections, Hezbollah and its allies in January 2011 managed to collapse the government by resigning en masse in the wake of Special Tribunal indictments against Hezbollah members. The succeeding government under Najib Miqati was firmly within the Hezbollah camp. In the 2014 Tamim Salam government, both Saad Hariri and Hezbollah won government portfolios. Hezbollah’s stature was reinforced in 2016 when its ally Michel Aoun became president, following a period when a prolonged political standoff had left the presidency vacant. The May 2018 elections under a new electoral law, saw Hezbollah, Aoun and their affiliates reinforce their parliamentary position, with Saad al-Hariri emerging the net loser.
The dynamics of Lebanese politics over the past three decades have thus seen Hezbollah progressively strengthen its dominance of the political arena, by consolidating its own electoral base, while cleverly cultivating its allies and undermining rivals.
Hezbollah’s funding and international crime networks
Throughout the early 2000s Iran was contributing an estimated hundred million dollars each year to Hezbollah. The US Department of Defence estimated in 2010 that Iran provided Hezbollah with $100-200 million annually. Israeli intelligence estimated that Iran had provided Hezbollah with more than $1 billion between the end of the 2006 war up to 2009, allowing it to rapidly rearm and exceed its former strength. This is in addition to around $600 million that the Islamic Republic reportedly provides for Hezbollah’s political campaigns during major rounds of elections. In the years after its deployment in Syria, many reports allege that Hezbollah’s funding has mushroomed to around $800 million annually.
Hezbollah is also deeply complicit in narcotic smuggling and transnational crime, with a substantial hub of activity in Latin America, from which large amounts of additional funding also come from émigré Lebanese communities. According to a 2009 Rand Corporation report, Hezbollah receives around $20 million a year from its illicit activities in Latin America. Hezbollah and Quds Force were furthermore involved in two bombings in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s (the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish centre), killing around 114 people.
The late Imad Mughniyah is said to be behind the establishment of Hezbollah’s global network for moving cocaine and other narcotics in the US and Europe, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Among a number of arrests and indictments, in 2016 the DEA charged three Hezbollah members with laundering $500,000 through Miami banks in cocaine money for a Colombian drug cartel. In 2000, 18 people were charged with smuggling cigarettes between US states. According to authorities, the smugglers had been sending their profits to Hezbollah since 1996.
Numerous banks and institutions around the world have had measures taken against them for roles in smuggling and money laundering on behalf of Hezbollah. Hezbollah and the IRGC have also been highly active in arms smuggling across Africa on behalf of a large number of insurgent and terrorist groups.
Hezbollah’s role in regional militancy
As far as many observers were concerned, Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon removed any conceivable justification for Hezbollah continuing to be an armed group. However, for several years after this, Hezbollah continued to exploit the pretext of Israel’s continued presence in the Shabaa Farms district, a tiny strip of land in the Golan Heights, generally agreed to have belonged to Syria, but which Hezbollah alleged to be Lebanese. Nasrallah claimed that as long as Israel continued to hold on to a single square inch of Lebanese territory “the Islamic resistance” would continue in its paramilitary role.
Hezbollah’s expanded regional role took a step forward in the context of Iran’s funding of Shia militant groups in Iraq, which escalated markedly from 2005 onwards. This effort was largely masterminded by Quds Force’s Qassim Soleimani, with a major role for veteran Iraqi militants like Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis and Hadi al-Amiri. According to Muhandis, leading Hezbollah militants Imad Mughniyah and Mustafa Badruddin (deceased 2008 and 2016 respectively), played a major role in helping mobilize these Iraqi militants against the Americans.
Because of the common use of Arabic language (as opposed to Persian), Hezbollah operatives played a key role in training this new generation of Iraqi militants, with weapons flooding across the Iran-Iraq border being used to attack American troops. Entirely new militant forces like Asaib Ahlulhaq and the Hezbollah Brigades appeared, many feeling a close affiliation with their Lebanese patrons.
In 2007, Coalition forces captured Ali Daqduq, commander of Hezbollah’s Special Forces and senior aide to Hassan Nasrallah. To avoid giving away his Lebanese accent, Daqduq pretended to be a mute, but he eventually opened up about his role; and in any case, copious information captured along with Daqduq adequately documented his activities. According to the US Department of Defence, Daqduq “monitored and reported on the training and arming of special groups in mortars and rockets, manufacturing and employment of improvised explosive devices, and kidnapping operations. Most significantly, he was tasked to organize the special groups in ways that mirrored how Hezbollah was organized in Lebanon.”
Hezbollah from 2011 onwards was also closely involved in supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US Treasury designated Hezbollah for its role in training and arming rebels and transferring funds to them. Several Hezbollah personnel were singled out for subsequent US Sanctionary activities. According to the US Administration’s 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment: “Iran will continue to provide arms and other aid to Palestinian groups, rebels in Yemen, and Shia militants in Bahrain to expand Iranian influence and to counter perceived foreign threats.”
The Syrian battlefield
However, it was in Syria where it became most clear that Hezbollah had mutated into a genuinely transnational militant force. Hezbollah personnel were reported to be present in parts of Syria from early 2012. Unsurprisingly they played a particularly important role in securing areas adjacent to the Lebanese borders.
Hezbollah’s role significantly increased in profile with the major February 2013 offensive around Qusair, also near the Syrian border, which subsequently became a Hezbollah stronghold. Hezbollah also played a major role in the bitter fighting around Aleppo throughout 2016. By late 2016, Hezbollah had lost an estimated 1,500-2,000 fighters in Syria, corresponding to a third of its active forces. In comparison, Hezbollah lost 1,248 fighters in wars with Israel between 1985 and 2000. During the 2006 conflict with Israel, Hezbollah claimed to lose 250 fighters; IDF sources claim it was closer to 600-700. As of mid-2018, around 2,000-3,000 Hezbollah personnel were reported to have been lost in the Syria conflict.
Hezbollah’s role in Syria was massively controversial in Lebanon, including among pro-Hezbollah communities who questioned why so many of their sons were coming back in body-bags. In May 2015 Hezbollah reported losses of 35 fighters in a single battle in Qalamoun. To date, an estimated 2,000-3,000 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in the Syrian conflict.
Hezbollah is playing a major role in supporting demographic engineering operations in Syria, which have seen entire Sunni populations of major towns and cities displaced, while being replaced by regime loyalists. The Syria-Lebanon border region is seen as being of particular significance in ensuring a population compliant to Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian proxy allies.
Throughout 2017 and 2018 Hezbollah’s anti-Israel rhetoric notably escalated, with Israel also stepping up strikes against Hezbollah and paramilitary assets in Syria. There are fears that if Hezbollah and Israel trigger a conflict in the near future, it will be massively more destructive than in 2006.
Hezbollah in Bahrain and the GCC
After 2011, Hezbollah came to have a major role in training Bahraini militants who were in the process of waging an insurgency campaign primarily targeted against the security forces. Although it was initially relatively easy for militants to travel to Lebanon for training, measures by the Bahraini authorities sought to block this loophole, through imposing various travel restrictions. A number of Lebanese with connections to Hezbollah in 2016 were expelled from the Kingdom.
In February 2011at the outset of the Bahrain unrest, prominent militant leader Hassan al-Mushaima had stopped off in Beirut on his way back to Bahrain from exile in London. Mushaima held talks with senior Hezbollah figures, including Hassan Nasrallah, before returning to Manama to call for the establishment of an Islamic republic along Iranian lines. Hezbollah is also known to have supported militants known to have perpetrated terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and other GCC states.
Hezbollah’s leadership also escalated their rhetoric against Bahrain’s leadership and other GCC governments, Saudi Arabia in particular. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, and affiliated media outlets, at times broadcast round the clock incitement and propaganda against these states. There was widespread bemusement in 2013 when it was reported that Al-Manar TV had apologized to Bahrain for its biased and dishonest coverage of Bahraini affairs over the previous years. Of course it turned out that Hezbollah hadn’t apologized. However, a statement from Hezbollah later clarified that their delegation to the Arab States Broadcasting Union had made the apology “without referring to the party leadership”! This begs the question of why the Al-Manar delegation felt motivated to apologize and commit itself to “to objectivity in covering Arab news and events and abide by professional standards”.
The GCC designated Hezbollah as a terrorist group in March 2016 because of its “hostile acts” against GCC member states, recruitment for “terrorist attacks, smuggling weapons and explosives, stirring up sedition and incitement to chaos and violence,” as well as participation in the Syrian war. That same month, the Arab League also labelled Hezbollah a terrorist group. Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin-Ahmed Al Khalifa accused Hezbollah of exerting “full control” over Lebanon and called for accountability of “countries where Hezbollah is a partner in government responsible, specifically Lebanon.”
Getting to know Iran’s proxies in the region: Previous reports
Militancy in Bahrain series
Part 1: Beginnings of militancy – 1950-1990
Part 2: Evolution of militancy – 1990-2011
Part 3: Eruption of militancy – 2011
Part 4: Expansion of militancy – 2012-2016
Part 5: Exporting militancy – Iran’s role
Part 6: Confronting militancy – 2015-2017
Part 7: Conclusions & recommendations