Six years ago Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated when the headrest in his car was detonated in Damascus. While Israeli intelligence neither denies nor confirms its involvement, the Mossad is generally believed to have been responsible for his death. And yet there is no shortage of Western as well as Arab intelligence services that wanted Mughniyeh dead—including the CIA, whose station chief William Buckley Hezbollah abducted, tortured and killed in 1985. Moreover, Mughniyeh was responsible for the April 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut that killed 17 Americans, and the Marines barracks bombing in October of that year that killed 244 American marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen. As founder and director of Hezbollah’s terrorism apparatus, Mughniyeh left a long wake of blood across the world. And even six years after his death, Mughniyeh’s legacy of terror lives on, as Hezbollah has recently plotted operations on several continents, including Europe, Asia and Africa.
To get a better sense of Hezbollah’s capabilities and goals, I spoke with Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury Department official and now the Fromer-Wexler Fellow and Director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Levitt, who spoke on Hezbollah in a panel sponsored earlier this week by the Israel Project, is the author of the recently published Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, the most thorough account of the organization’s campaign of international terrorism.
Why focus on Hezbollah’s activities abroad rather than in Lebanon, where it serves as an eastern Mediterranean outpost of the Islamic Republic of Iran?
There’s a gaping hole in our knowledge of Hezbollah’s criminal and terror activities around the world. Lots of people think it is a terror group that did lots of bad things a long time ago, like the Beirut bombings of the US embassy and the Marine Barracks; or its bombings of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires 1992 and then the bombing of the Jewish community Center there in 1994; Bangkok bombing in 1994, attempted assassination on the emir of Kuwait in May 1985. People believe these were sporadic things, efforts by rogue individuals, or past events and now Hezbollah is primarily a Lebanese political party.
I started the book because there was nothing on this and there was a need for it. There was no serious conversation on this issue, and I wanted to spark debate. Some of the scholars who work on Hezbollah have not focused on this issue, and they are going to need to take close look at it. It’s not meant to be a polemic, I just went out finding what evidence there was—it took nine years on and off to finish.
But it was a fun project to research. I did interviews with people who came through Washington, where I live and work, but I did a lot of travel for it around the world. Of course there’s a lot from American sources, and Canadians, Aussies, Israelis, the Brits, the French and Western Europeans. But I also have tremendous information from the Chileans, Jordanians, Romanians. I was warned that the evidence I was looking for was not only not Google-able, but it was also, as many insisted, not doable. Frankly, I was surprised at how much I was able to uncover.
What surprised you most in your research?
The extent of Hezbollah’s reach was surprising to me, but the biggest surprise was the extent of Hezbollah’s activities Southeast Asia. I knew about the 1994 the failed attempt to bomb the Israeli embassy in Bangkok, but I learned there are two different southeast Asian networks engaged in logistics and operations in the region (Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia) that also aimed to infiltrate operatives into Israel to carry out surveillance and/or operations. One Malaysian operative made his way into Israel undetected twice within one year. I was able to put the story together not just from the Aussies, Americans and Israelis, but also the Filipinos and Singaporeans as well. Most telling was the joint operation, code named ”Co-plan Pink Poppy” that followed the disruption of the 1994 Bangkok plot and involved multiple intelligence agencies from around the world. Together, they exposed an alarmingly entrenched and well-developed Hezbollah network across the region.
Remember a few years ago when Iranian officials had to intervene to prevent Hezbollah gunmen from turning on their Syrian patrons? Few people do. Today, the "axis of resistance" is as strong as ever, with Iran and Hezbollah fully committed to fighting for the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, despite battlefield losses and the political costs of siding with a brutal dictator who gasses and bombs his own people.
A car bomb detonated today in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold. So far, four are reported dead and over 50 have been injured. With rumors spreading that the bombing may have been the work of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Sunni jihadist group with ties to al Qaeda, it seems that this was the latest in a series of moves indicating that the regional conflict with Syria as its red-hot center is growing ever wider, now encompassing all the Levant, from Baghdad to Beirut. In the Lebanese capital alone, within a one-week span a former Sunni minister was assassinated, Saudi Arabia bought a $3 billion share of a national army heavily infiltrated by Hezbollah, and then today the Party of God was targeted on its home turf.
In the wake of the interim deal that the White House signed with Iran Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry said on the Sunday talk shows that nothing has changed, not with the American position in the Middle East, or with the U.S. alliance system in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is screaming his head off, but Israel has nothing to worry about says Kerry.
The cartoon above is from the Great Game era in Central Asia, when the British and Russians were in a contest for places like Afghanistan and Iran. It's strongly (perhaps perversely) suggestive given current events.
Thirty years ago last month, Hezbollah blew up the barracks of the U.S Marines and French paratroopers stationed at the Beirut airport, killing 241 U.S. servicemen and 58 Frenchmen. It wasn’t Hezbollah’s first terrorist operation, but this attack, the most memorable in Lebanon’s vicious and chaotic 15-year-long civil war, marked the Party of God’s entry onto the world stage.
Lebanese authorities have arrested two suspects affiliated with a pro-Syrian regime group in the bombing of two Sunni mosques in Tripoli on Friday. Forty-seven people were killed in the attack in the northern Lebanese city, likely retaliation for a bombing the previous week in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, that killed another 27.
The Obama administration is heralding a conference later this month in Geneva where representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s regime will ostensibly sit down with the Syrian rebel forces opposing them. The effect will be to prop up Assad. Sen. John McCain, on the other hand, is committed to the Syrian people. We commend him for the courage he showed last week when he became the most senior American official to visit Syria since the shooting started, entering from the Turkish border.
For over a week now, the Syrian town of Qusayr in Homs Province has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the two-year conflict. The struggle for Qusayr, says besieged President Bashar al-Assad, “is the main battle” in all of Syria.
Are we watching Hezbollah closely enough these days? Probably not. Given events in Syria and the Balkans, it appears that we’re in for a whole new set of problems to be presented by Iran’s favorite proxy.
Yesterday the Bulgarian government announced the results of its investigation into the July 18, 2012 bus bombing that killed 5 Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver in the city of Burgas. At least two members of what appears to have been a three-man team belong to Hezbollah. More specifically, explained Bulgaria’s interior minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, they were part of Hezbollah’s “military wing”—a peculiar turn of phrase that hints at the political implications of the Bulgarian investigation, which may have a major impact on European Union foreign policy as well as Hezbollah’s ability to operate on the continent. And yet the most serious repercussions may be felt inside Lebanon, where Hezbollah is already feeling the pressure.