Book Review: Matthew Levitt, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Georgetown University Press, 2013)

Pictured above is the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.  Levitt explains that Nasrallah functions as Hezbollah’s leader under the authority of the “Jurist Theologian,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomenei

When foreign policy books cover topics such as terrorism or an on-going conflict provide information and insight on people and events that arise in the news and useful to refer long past its publication date, it becomes a must have for one’s library.  Matthew Levitt’s latest work, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God  (Georgetown University Press, 2013) is one of those books.  Although published in September 2013, it has been a terrific resource for background on recent events in the news such as the death the death of Hussane Laqees of the Hezbollah’s military wing in Syria, the identity of David Salahuddin, who lured missing former FBI agent and errant CIA operative, Robert Levinson to Iran, and new revelations about Iran’s Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani’s role in the Iraq War.  

In Hezbollah, Levitt sets out to provide a strong background on Hezbollah’s effort to create a global network for terrorist activity.  Given his credentials, he was highly qualified to undertake that task.  Levitt currently serves as a fellow and director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Stein Program on Counter-terrorism and Intelligence.  Formerly, Levitt served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the US Department of Treasury; as an FBI counter-terrorism analyst, and an adviser on counter-terrorism to the US Department of State.  He previously authored, Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorrism in the Service of Jihad (Yale University Press, 2006). 

Through his initial government service at the FBI, Levitt cut his teeth in the intelligence field, working through mounds of data on terrorist groups to uncover family ties, financial networks, media sources, disgruntled employees, imminent threats, homeland plots, foreign sales, health status, financial resources, tradecraft, and recruiting tactics.  Levitt uses those same skills to breakdown Hezbollah in the same manner that served to help US law enforcement and intelligence community develop profiles on the organization.  Thus, in reading Hezbollah, one gets to look at the organization through the prism of a US intelligence analyst.   Overlaying each chapter, is a presentation of Hezbollah’s tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods.  While Levitt does not always point directly to Hezbollah’s strengths that need to be overcome such as Iran’s training and support, and weaknesses that need to be exploited such as its inability to establish stable and sustainable funding sources outside of Iran, much can be extrapolated from the text.  US officials have long-acknowledged, respected, and feared Hezbollah’s terrorist networks, not only due to its attacks on US interests abroad (such as the early 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut or the attack on US military personnel at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia), but also because of Hezbollah’s active presence in the US.  The organization was placed on the US terror blacklist in 1997 and its military-wing was placed on the EU’s terror blacklist in 2013.

Since Levitt was an intelligence analyst, he does not offer any personal stories of contacts or tangling with Hezbollah.  However, viewing Hezbollah from the perspective of an analyst that does not mean the book is not filled with excitement and intrigue.  There is enough in the true stories of Hezbollah’s terrorist activities including money laundering, bribery, kidnappings, airline hijackings, torture, car, hotel, barracks, and embassy bombings, and assassinations to satiate the wettest of appetites for action.  Levitt manages to give one a sense of what it would mean to engage the grim faced fighters who exude religious fervor and revolutionary zeal, and hold in contempt anything representative of what members call “the Western oppressor.”  Hezbollah’s lethal capacities in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East have been well-discussed.  Levitt also covers the activities that helped to establish that reputation.  Indeed, as the book is outlined Levitt begins his discussion with Hezbollah’s genesis.  He then looks at the organization’s expansion throughout the Middle East to Western Europe, from Latin America to North America, and from Southeast Asia to Africa.  He presents Hezbollah’s activities with detailing both successful and unsuccessful plots.  What might have seemed unbelievable becomes believable as Levitt reveals the lengths Hezbollah would go to strike at Western interests.  While  doing so, Levitt also highlights the success US and other Western intelligence agencies have had tracking Hezbollah anywhere it goes worldwide. 

In discussing Hezbollah’s beginnings, Levitt explains how the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was the impetus for, the organization’s emergence.  Many of its initial leaders first were members of Amal, the military arm of the political party founded by an influential Shi’a cleric named Musa al-Sadr, who disappeared in Libya in 1978.  He urged the Lebanese Shi’a community to improve itself socially, economically, and politically.  He also intended for the Shi’a militia he established to fight against Israel as part of the Lebanese Army.  After al-Sadr’s death, many Shi’a were disappointed by Amal’s moderate policies and the willingness of al-Sadr’s successor, Nabih Berri, to accommodate Israel politically rather than confront it militarily. 

Those disgruntled Amal members joined with other Shi’a militia groups including the Muslim Students’ Union, the Dawa Party of Lebanon, and others.  They formed their own umbrella group, Hezbollah.  Hezbollah declared its main objectives in 1985 in an open letter “to all the Oppressed in Lebanon and the World.”  Boiled down by Levitt, those objectives were: to expel all colonialist entities—the US, France, and their allies from Lebanon; to bring the Phalangists to justice for the crimes they had committed against Lebanese Muslims and Christians; to permit “all of the sons of our people to determine their future and to choose in all the liberty the form of government they desire.”; to encourage Lebanon to install an Islamic regime which Hezbollah saw as the only type of government that could “stop further tentative attempts of imperialistic infiltration into our country.”; and, to ensure “Our military apparatus is not separate from its overall social fabric. Each of us is a fighting soldier.”  As Levitt notes, at the center of the group’s insignia is not a map of Lebanon but a globe alongside a fist holding an AK-47 rifle.

Levitt makes crystal clear the connection between Hezbollah and Iran from the organization’s very beginning.  He discusses Iran’s deployment of 1500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) advisers to Lebanon to set up a base in the Bekaa Valley.  It was part of Iran’s effort to export the Islamic Revolution to the Arab World.  All of Hezbollah’s members were required to attend the IRGC training camps in the valley.  In 1985, Hezbollah proudly declared its linkage to Iran: “We view the Iranian regime as the vanguard and new nucleus of the leading Islamic State in the world.  We abide by the orders of one single wise and just leadership, represented by the ‘Waliyat el-Faqih’ and personified by Khomeini.  Levitt states that over the past three decades, Hezbollah has remained Iran’s proxy.  The US Department of Defense estimates that Iran has provided Hezbollah with weapons, and spends up to $200 million a year funding the group’s activities, including its media channel, al-Manar, and operations abroad.  He mentions others claim Iran provides Hezbollah as much as $350 million a year.  Levitt also discusses how Iran’s Quds Force fostered the emergence of Hezbollah’s branches in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait from 1994 to 1996. 

When discussing Hezbollah’s military-wing, Levitt quotes a Western government report that stated: “Little is known about [the Hezbollah military wing’s] internal command hierarchy due to its highly secretive nature and the use of sophisticated protective measures.”  Levitt notes that Hezbollah’s formal militia activity is known as the Islamic Resistance.  Its external operations wing, known as the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), is responsible for its financial, logistical and terrorist operations abroad.  While IJO activities are well-concealed, Levitt provides as much information as possible, making it the real focus of his examination of Hezbollah’s overseas activities.  Levitt explains how IJO was formed by a Hezbollah commander Imad Fayez Mughniyeh after he fled into Iran following his operation that resulted in the bombing of US Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Lebanon.  Mughniyeh, who was described by the CIA as “cunning, resourceful, coldly calculating adversary for whom virtually any act of violence or revenge performed in the name of Shiism is permissible, ” would direct IJO until he was killed in February 2008. 

Regarding Hezbollah’s overall leadership, Levitt gives attention to Hezbollah’s first leader, Iraqi born Ayatollah Mohammad Husayn Fadlallah, for whom Mughniyeh was initially a body guard.  Fadlallah sought to establish the power, prestige, and authority of Hezbollah.  In following, Hezbollah developed its reputation for ruthlessness under him.  Levitt cites CIA report on Fadlallah that explained: “Fadlallah aims to bring forth defenders of the faith who are indifferent to intimidation, contemptuous of foreign influence, devoted to Shi’a Islam, and whose self-control borders on fanaticism.”  Mere contact with Hezbollah was considered a risky undertaking.  In an early chapter, Levitt points to reputation, by providing American kidnap victim’s account of being driven by his Hezbollah captors through a checkpoint held by the Amal militia group.  When the rebels asked the driver why there was a Westerner in the backseat, he simply replied “We are Hezbollah!”  The Amal militia men waved the car through.  The kidnapped American recalled how that merely claiming to be Hezbollah sounded like a threat.  

In his discussion of Hezbollah’s current secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, Levitt asserts that he maintains overall control of the political and military wings of the organization.  Nasrallah heads the Shura Council which develops the overall vision and policies, oversees the general strategies for the Party’s function, and takes political decisions. It wields all decision making powers and direct several subordinate functional councils.  However, Nasrallah presides over the Shura Council and functions as Hezbollah’s leader under the authority of the “Jurist Theologian,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomenei.  Much as his predecessor Fadlallah, Levitt proffers that Nasrallah enhanced Hezbollah’s military-wing at the request of Iran to train and advise groups overseas, including Iraqi militant groups. 

Certainly, Levitt set firm parameters for his book.  Given the degree of information he possesses, it seems he could have written much more on Hezbollah’s organization and activities.  However, what might have been useful in the text would have been a discussion of Hezbollah’s operations in the Bosnia War (1992-1995) and the Lebanon War (2006).  That might have provided a sense for the development of its tactics, how Hezbollah performed, who were the leaders in the field, and what the nature of their contacts with the Quds Force were.  Reference is made to the creation of Unit 3800, which were Hezbollah Brigades that Nasrallah formed at Iran’s request.  Unit 3800 was given to mission of targeting multinational forces in Iraq for terrorist action.  The only reference to the mustering of a similar force was Unit 1800, which was dedicated to supporting Palestinian terrorist groups targeting Israel.  It would have been interesting to know if a similar Hezbollah Brigades were ever established in Bosnia. 

Additionally, as Hezbollah is an ethno-religious, nationalist organization, a more in-depth look into the impact of the devotion to Shiism, their revolutionary zeal, and the culture of its fighters on the planning of conventional military and clandestine operations seemed required. Great risk and sacrifice are regular features of Hezbollah actions.  Some have reviewed Hezbollah and have gleaned from it that the thrust behind the organization’s moves are destroying Israel, driving the US out of the Middle East, and avenging the killing of Imad Mughniyeh.  However, through Levitt’s book, itself, it is very clear that Hezbollah thinking is far more complex.  Understanding Hezbollah means acquiring the rhythm in its actions.  That may allow for better predictions and perhaps even intimations as to its future plans. 

Further, one current event which Levitt does not give much attention is Syria.  It would have been interesting to see the extent to which the experience and lessons learned by Hezbollah over the past thirty years coalesced in its activities in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  It would be interesting to know what types of connections were made between Hezbollah and the Quds Force, the interaction between Hezbollah and Syrian militias, which Iran has organized into the National Defense Forces, and whether Hezbollah Brigades have been organized in to units such as Unit 1800 or 3800 to engage in terrorist attacks against the Syrian opposition’s Supreme Military Council and Free Syria Army, as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, and Jabhat Al-Nusra.  Levitt could have explained what accounts for the significant number casualties Hezbollah has suffered in Syria despite its many years in various war zones.  Surely, that would have been invaluable in understanding the continued evolution of the organization’s military-wing.

Nevertheless, Hezbollah, overall, is an outstanding appraisal of the organization’s worldwide operations and a significant contribution to the policy debate and public understanding of state-sponsored terrorism.  Hezbollah’s capacity for global terrorism, as explained by Levitt, makes the book one to think about when one cannot continue to read it.  Indeed, it will be hard to put down after reading the first page.   It is greatcharlie’s mission to provide commentary and advice for foreign and defense policy makers, political and business leaders, and policy aficionados worldwide.  Regardless in which category one might consider oneself, greatcharlie highly recommends Hezbollah to you.  It is a must read.  Make certain that this book is on your reading list for 2014.

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