With its enormously unpopular involvement on the side of President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war against the regime’s primarily Sunni opposition, the Shiite-based Lebanese Hezbollah now finds itself facing the most severe existential crisis since its creation in the early 1980s. Matthew Levitt’s “Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God,” a meticulously detailed examination of Hezbollah’s origins as an Iranian proxy in Lebanon and its forays into terrorism, could not come at a better time. The book sheds new light on the targeting of Western and Israeli interests in Lebanon and abroad (where Hezbollah also runs extensive criminal enterprises), and the consolidation of its power among Lebanon’s Shiite population and the country’s political system — all of which are now being threatened by its controversial involvement in Syria’s civil war.
Mr. Levitt is a former deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of the Treasury who currently serves as a senior fellow and director of a program on counterterrorism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. To research his book, he accumulated a vast collection of Hezbollah-related documents, including indictments and transcripts of the trials of its members around the world about their illicit activities, which provides the book with important details about how Hezbollah’s far-flung terrorist and criminal networks operate.
Hezbollah (“Party of God” in Arabic) has multiple identities, Mr. Levitt writes. It is a social and religious movement representing the country’s Shiite community and one of the dominant political parties in Lebanon. It is also Lebanon’s largest and most powerful paramilitary force, which was created by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the early 1980s to serve as its Lebanese Shiite proxy, and has since carried out numerous terrorist attacks on behalf of its Iranian patron, which has provided it with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. Hezbollah is also a proxy of the Syrian regime, and allegedly carried out an assassination in February 2005 on its behalf of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, who had opposed the Syrian government.
What is so significant about Hezbollah’s current predicament, which Mr. Levitt discusses toward the end of the book, is that over the years the party has branded itself as the primary Islamic resistance to Israeli “aggression” in Lebanon — although with Israeli forces withdrawing from south Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has been left with demanding that Israel withdraw from the relatively inconsequential Shebaa Farms, which constitute a tiny uninhabited territory along the common border claimed by Lebanon but occupied by Israel.
Mr. Levitt’s manuscript was completed prior to the recent conflagration between Hezbollah’s forces and the Sunni rebels in Syria, which has turned Lebanon’s Sunni community against the Shiite party (including a series of bombings by Sunni militants against Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods in Beirut). Now the party has lost its brand as the spearhead of Islamic resistance against Israel, with Hezbollah forced (in the most awkward way) to rationalize its new mission of fighting fellow Muslims on behalf of an unpopular Syrian tyrant.
Much of Mr. Levitt’s book focuses on Hezbollah’s international activities. These consist of criminal and logistical support networks that raise funds for the organization in geographically disparate regions such as the United States (including cigarette-smuggling and money-laundering enterprises), South America’s Tri-Border, Venezuela and Mexico (narcotics trafficking) and Africa (diamond smuggling), with Hezbollah’s operatives exploiting Lebanon’s Shiite diaspora communities in those countries as their safe haven. There are also numerous accounts of the activities of its military-procurement agents in the United States and Canada — many of whom have been arrested and convicted for such crimes. Mr. Levitt’s accounts of these wide-ranging illicit enterprises are riveting. Hezbollah’s most notorious terrorist operation was the October 1983 suicide truck bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, in which 241 American servicemen were killed. This was followed by numerous other large-scale terrorist attacks, such as the bombings of Jewish and Israeli targets in Argentina in 1992 and 1994. It also had a role in the June 1996 bombing by Saudi Hezbollah (its Saudi Arabian counterpart) of the Khobar Towers housing complex in Dhahran, in which 19 U.S. servicemen were killed, with several hundred others wounded.
Not all of Hezbollah’s terrorist operations have succeeded, however, and Mr. Levitt discusses numerous plots against Israeli and Jewish targets in faraway regions such as Azerbaijan, Turkey and Thailand that were thwarted, as a result of either successful preventative measures or incompetence by the plotters. Such plots have been on the increase in recent years, especially in retaliation for Israel’s alleged assassination in February 2008 of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s longtime terrorist mastermind, with the most recent attack taking place on July 18, 2012, at Sarafovo Airport in Burgas, Bulgaria, when a bomb allegedly placed by a Hezbollah operative killed several Israeli tourists (while injuring others) who were boarding their resort-bound buses.
Especially intriguing is Mr. Levitt’s account of Hezbollah’s efforts to recruit Israeli Arabs to spy on its behalf against potential Israeli targets, with some of these individuals recruited during their stays in European countries.
Mr. Levitt concludes that “it is high time the international community conducted a thorough and considered discussion of the full range of Hezbollah’s ‘resistance’ activities, and what to do about them. With this book, I hope to kick-start that discussion.” This book’s astute documentation of Hezbollah’s criminal and terrorist enterprises should do just that.
Joshua Sinai, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on counterterrorism, is the author of “Active Shooter: A Handbook on Prevention” (ASIS International, 2013).