Hizbullah holds a dominant position in Lebanese politics, but is also an international terrorist organisation responsible for spectacular violence. In Part I of a backgrounder on the group, Matt Levitt explains their ideology, and how they grew to hold the position they do today. See Part II here.
From 1975-1990 Lebanon was engulfed in a civil war that created an enormous sectarian divide among its people. In 1982 Israel invaded and occupied southern Lebanon, creating tension through which Iranian agents were able to unify a motley crew of Shiite militia into a new organisation: Hizbullah (The Party of God). The group has three core aims: resistance to the West, resistance to Israel, and the establishment of a Shia Islamic Republic. These three facets of Hizbullah's presence in Lebanon are allied with the group's dependence on Iran to create a powerful political force, buttressed by its provision of social services to cement its domestic position.
Thirty years ago, three spectacular attacks in Beirut over an 18-month period announced the debut of a potent new force in Lebanon. The U.S. embassy was bombed on April 18, 1983, killing 63, including 17 Americans. The embassy bombing was followed by the two simultaneous attacks on the Multinational Force base in Beirut in October of 1983, which took the lives of 241 Americans and 58 French. The latter two attacks were coordinated by Imad Mughniyeh, a Hizbullah operational leader killed in 2008, and his brother-in-law Mustapha Badreddine, a current Hizbullah leader. Among other suspects were Subhi al-Tufayli, the organisation's first secretary general, and Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.
In 1986, the CIA reported that Fadlallah "has long been recognised as the spiritual leader of and political spokesman for Lebanon's Shia Hizbullah." Inspired by the Iranian revolution of 1979 to seek an Islamic state in Lebanon, Fadlallah valued his ties to the country, in large part because of the significant military, financial, and political assistance Tehran provided. But he never fully embraced the Iranian revolutionary concept of velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurist), which holds that a Shia Islamic cleric should serve as the supreme head of government. This meant that the group was left simultaneously subject to various tensions: the decrees of Iranian clerics, the Lebanese state, its sectarian Shia community and fellow Shia abroad. Despite Fadlallah's desire to establish an Islamic State in Lebanon, he also recognised the need to maintain the country's religious diversity within an Islamic context.
As Fadlallah's relationship with Iran changed, so did his relationship with Hizbullah. Iran did not appreciate Fadlallah's interference in operational planning, such as his obstruction of Iranian orders for Hizbullah to attack Syrian security forces after their 1987 takeover of West Beirut. In response to such defiance, Tehran decided to circumvent Fadlallah and deal with other Hizbullah officials through their Iranian embassies in Beirut and Damascus. Iran even established the Council of Lebanon, a nine-member body including the Iranian ambassadors to Beirut and Damascus and the local Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander as well as several Lebanese clerics, but not Fadlallah. He responded by holding informal meetings with Shia clerics and security officials without Tehran's knowledge. However, even as Fadlallah's ties frayed with Iran and Hizbullah, he was revered by Lebanese Shia. His charities remained sources of financial revenue for Hizbullah, but in March 1985 he was killed by a car bomb while leaving his mosque.
Other, more radical voices within Hizbullah would rise in his place, such as the up-and-coming security official Hassan Nasrallah, who sought an Islamic republic in Lebanon that would presage a movement spanning the entire Muslim world. In 1988, CIA analysts reported that "Nasrallah does not represent the mainstream of the movement." But four years later Nasrallah seized leadership of Hizbullah, moving the group's mainstream sharply to a more hardline position.
Nasrallah, born in 1960, first joined the new Shia "Amal" (hope) militia as a teenager in 1975. Three years later he left for Najaf in Iraq, a major center of Shia religious studies, where he studied under future Hizbullah leader Abbas Musawi. After eighteen months they were forced to return to Lebanon when the Iraqi regime cracked down on the seminaries. By the early 1980s, Nasrallah was teaching his own religion classes to recruits for the nascent Hizbullah organisation. He spent a few more months studying in the Iranian religious center of Qom in 1989, only to return again to address domestic political troubles.
Nasrallah's charisma and organisation won over many followers
Nasrallah's charisma and organisational skills won over many followers. According to a CIA report at the time, "Nasrallah was directly involved in many Hizbullah terrorist operations, including hostage taking, airline hijackings, and attacks against Lebanese rivals." In 1992, Hizbullah's consultative council unanimously elected him to lead the group as secretary-general. Nasrallah's election also reinforced the relationship with Iran, as he was committed to the principle of velayat e-faqih. As recently as 2009, he asserted that "the subject of the velayat e-faqih and the Imamate is at the heart of our religious doctrine, and any offence to it is an offence to our religion."
Indeed, Hizbullah's ideology closely mirrors Iran's in other respects too, including its ingrained anti-Semitism. As a running theme, anti-Semitism can be found at all levels of the Hizbullah enterprise: leaders and members, formal organisations and individual followers, alike. Hizbullah defines itself as "a pure Islamic resistance fighting Israel." This aim at the core of Hizbullah's ideology strikes a strong resemblance to Hamas' commitment to the destruction of Israel and provides the foundation of a relationship between Hizbullah and Hamas. It is known that on more than one occasion the two groups have jointly coordinated attacks against Israeli interests throughout the region. Take, for instance, the "Passover Massacre" suicide bombing that occurred on March 27, 2002, at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel. Not only did Hamas rely on the guidance of a Hizbullah expert to build an extra-potent bomb, but according to a former Clinton administration official, "Mughniyeh himself received orders from Tehran to work with Hamas."
Aside from Hizbullah's military aspect, the group plays a fundamental role in Lebanese politics and society. For example, Jihad al-Bina, also known as "Construction for the Sake of the Holy Struggle," helped raise grassroots support for Hizbullah by conducting an accelerated reconstruction campaign following the 2006 war with Israel. Flush with money from Iran and operating under the guidance of senior Hizballah leadership, Jihad al-Bina was used to raise funds for future terror operations and to bolster the group's standing. When the group's intended solicitation targets were thought to oppose Jihad al-Bina's association with Hizballah and Iran, the organisation employed deceptive practices, applying in the name of proxies not publicly linked to Hizbullah.
Jihad al-Bina was used to raise funds for future terror operations
But whatever the means and aims of Hizbullah's provision of social services were to the Lebanese people, their objective of creating a strong grassroots support base was successful. In June 2011, Lebanon's new Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, announced the formation of a government dominated by members and allies of Hizbullah. This came just six years after the "Cedar Revolution," which placed the group on the defensive and forced its Syrian patrons to leave the country. For a limited period, Hizbullah's provision of social services and the group's electoral success limited its willingness to openly engage in terror activities abroad. But according to senior State Department officials, while "Hizbullah attempts to portray itself as a natural part of Lebanon's political system and a defender of Lebanese interests...its actions demonstrate otherwise. While Hizbullah leads the governing coalition government in Lebanon and is well known for providing much-needed social welfare support to its constituent communities, it has long complemented these public and legitimate activities with a laundry list of clandestine and criminal pursuits, including acts of terrorism abroad and raising funds through criminal enterprises worldwide."
In fact, it would be a grave mistake to try and argue that there is a distinction between Hizbullah's political wing and its military branch. Indeed, in the words of Hizbullah's Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem, speaking in October 2012: "We don't have a military wing and a political one; we don't have Hizbullah on one hand and the resistance party on the other.... Every element of Hizbullah, from commanders to members as well as our various capabilities, are in the service of the resistance, and we have nothing but the resistance as a priority." It is this remaining commitment to its pan-Islamic, Shia ideology which in the maelstrom consuming the region sets it on a collision course with rival movements across the Middle East.
For more on Hizbullah's international influence, see Part II.