Hezbollah: portrait of a terrorist organisation

Hezbollah, a political party and terrorist organisationHezbollah, a political party and terrorist organisation

On Monday, EU Foreign Ministers are expected to hear and discuss a report by  their Bulgarian counterpart, Nickolay Mladenov, on the findings of the investigation into the bus bombing in Burgas, a city on the Black Sea, which killed 5 Israeli tourists  and the Bulgarian driver and wounded 36 on July 19, 2012.

Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov announced last week that the   investigators had “a well-founded assumption” that the perpetrators of the deadly attack belonged to the military wing of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite organization.

The announcement has increased pressure on the EU to add Hezbollah to the list of terror groups.

Hezbollah (« Party of God ») has a 30-year history of terrorist activity in Lebanon, the Middle East and around the globe, directed against Israel, the Jewish people, the United States and the West, pro-Western Arab states and Hezbollah’s enemies in Lebanon.

Since its establishment in Lebanon 30 years ago, Hezbollah has, without interruption, carried out or planned a variety of terrorist attacks around the globe, using different methods.

Those terrorist attacks are part of Iranian policy, which uses Hezbollah as its main proxy through the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force and other governmental institutions. The targets and emphases change from time to time according to Iranian and Hezbollah considerations and interests.

In recent years Hezbollah has been involved in terrorist (an occasionally guerrilla) activities in different arenas using various methods against its targets. At the same time, with Iranian and Syrian support, it has been upgrading its military-terrorist infrastructure in Lebanon, which far surpasses those of other terrorist organizations in the Middle East and beyond.

Here is a short summary of Hezbollah’s terrorist and guerrilla activity and its military build-up:

  • In Lebanon Iran and Syria have enlarged and upgraded Hezbollah’s military terrorist infrastructure since the Second Lebanon War. Its main military asset is an arsenal of an estimated 60,000 rockets and missiles which threaten Israel’s civilians. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, boasted that he had precise rockets and a bank of targets, and could turn the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians into a living hell. Hezbollah also carries out personal terrorism against its opponents in Lebanon, mainly senior figures. The objective is to scare and deter Hezbollah’s opponents, mainly after the erosion of its status following its support for the Syrian regime.
  • In the international arena, Hezbollah participates in the global terrorist campaign carried out by the Iranian Qods Force, whose main targets are Israeli diplomats and tourists. The attack was on the Israeli tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, is the most recent example. It was considered successful (by Iran and Hezbollah), after a series of failed attacks abroad in previous years.
  • In the Palestinian arena, Hezbollah helped Iran upgrade the military-terrorist infrastructure of the terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, mainly Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. On the eve of Operation Pillar of Defense the terrorist organizations had many thousands of rockets, among them long-range Fajr-5 rockets manufactured in Iran (eight of which hit or were intercepted in the greater Tel Aviv area).  In addition, Hezbollah encourages terrorist attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. During the second intifada, Iran and Hezbollah provided the Palestinian terrorist organizations with financial and military support and handled terrorist squads in the Palestinian territories.
  • Inside Israel Hezbollah carries out intelligence and subversive activities. Hezbollah, with Iranian aid, recently sent an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to collect intelligence and to send Israel a deterrent message (UAVs could also be used for offensive purposes). Hezbollah also attempts to smuggle weapons into for terrorist attacks (exploiting its ties to criminal networks) and to use Israeli Arabs for intelligence missions supporting its terrorist activities.
  • In Syria Hezbollah is part of the Iranian effort (led by the Qods Force) to prevent the topple of the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad, the central member of the so-called “resistance camp.” Hezbollah provides the Assad regime with guidance, military training, intelligence and weapons, and hundreds of its operatives are present in Syria. In recent months several Hezbollah operatives died in the battles and  others were taken prisoner by the rebels. However, Hezbollah does not admit to its military involvement in Syria and claimed that its operatives died while “fulfilling their commitment to jihad.”
  • In the Arab states Iran uses Hezbollah for subversion, terrorism and guerrilla activities: in Iraq Hezbollah operatives trained and handled the Shi’ite militias operated by the Qods Force against the United States and its allies (until America withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011). In Yemen Hezbollah helped train the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels; and in Bahrain Hezbollah was recently publicly accused by Bahraini authorities of involvement in a series of explosions in the capital city of Manama. Its objective was to destabilize the Bahraini regime, against which Iran is waging a years-long campaign of terrorism and subversion. Hezbollah does not admit to involvement in terrorism and subversion in Arab countries.

In the terrorist campaign conducted abroad, Hezbollah serves as an Iranian proxy handled by the Qods Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRG), which spearheads Iran’s foreign terrorism. Even before the founding of the Qods Force, in the summer of 1982, the IRG established Hezbollah in Lebanon and has provided it with massive military and financial support.

Hezbollah’s current targets for terrorist attacks are primarily Israeli diplomatic missions abroad and groups of Israelis on vacation throughout the Mediterranean basin and other tourist destinations. Some of the attacks and attempted attacks were carried out by Hezbollah, directed and supported by the Qods Force (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Azerbaijan and Turkey) and some were carried out by the Qods Force without Hezbollah involvement (Azerbaijan, India, Georgia, Thailand and Kenya).

The terrorist campaign, from the Iranian perspective, is a Iranian response to the “soft war” being waged against Iran and the “resistance camp,” and is also intended to strengthen Iran’s strategic bargaining capabilities and show the United States, the West and Israel that it can harm their interests around the globe.

As far as Iran and Hezbollah are concerned, the terrorist campaign is also a way of getting revenge for the death of senior Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh and the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists (for both of which Iran and Hezbollah blame Israel), thus deterring Israel from taking other actions, especially in its war against terrorism and the Iranian nuclear program.

According to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, “today we are dealing with a different war, a soft war…and it is being waged by the United States, not only Israel (Al-Manar TV, Lebanon, July 25, 2012).

Nasrallah publicly reiterated the threat of deterrence in his speeches. For example, on July 18, 2012, on the anniversary of the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, he said that Hezbollah was deployed for a comprehensive war against Israel and that it would respond with a “great surprise” to any Israeli military strike.

During the past four years (2008-2012) Hezbollah attempted to carry out six terrorist attacks, some of them in Mediterranean countries popular with Israeli tourists. One proceeded according to Hezbollah’s plans and the others were either prevented or failed. In our assessment, they were carried out by Hezbollah’s foreign operations unit.

These attacks included:

  • Blowing up an Israeli tourist bus in Bulgaria (July 18, 2012): An IED (Improvised Explisive Device) weighing about 3 kilos blew up the back of a tourist bus about to take Israeli tourists from the Sarafovo airport to their hotel in the Black Sea resort of Burgas. According to the Bulgarian minister of the interior, the IED had been assembled in Bulgaria. The terrorist attack was carried out by a Hezbollah operative who, according to information from the Bulgarian authorities, had a local supporter who has not yet been detained. The terrorist was killed by a technical fault which caused the IED to explode prematurely. The blast killed five Israeli tourists, the Bulgarian bus driver and the terrorist. In addition, 36 Israeli civilians were wounded, three of them seriously.
  • An Attack targeting Israeli tourists in Cyprus was prevented on July 7, 2012: the local authorities in Limassol detained a 24-year old Lebanese Hezbollah operative who was collecting information about Israeli tourists arriving on the island by air. He was carrying a Swedish passport (the Hezbollah terrorist operative involved in the attack in Thailand also carried a Swedish passport). He was collecting information in preparation for an attack on Israeli tourists visiting the island, possibly the same sort of attack carried out in Bulgaria.
  • A terrorist attack on Israelis at a tourist center in Bangkok, Thailand, in January, 2012: Hezbollah, instructed by the Qods Force, attempted to attack sites visited by Israelis using IEDs. A Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist operative named Hussein Atris, carrying a Swedish and a Lebanese passport, was detained at the Bangkok airport. Another Hezbollah operative, also carrying a Swedish passport, managed to escape. Hussein Atris’ interrogation led the police to a commercial building in Bangkok where they found a large quantity of chemicals used in the manufacture of explosives (about 4,400 kilograms, or 4.85 tons, of nitrogen and about 40 litres, or 10.5 gallons, of ammonium nitrate). In the 1990s Atris married a Swedish woman and received a Swedish passport, which he used for his activities in Hezbollah’s foreign operations unit. The presence of such a large stock of potentially dangerous chemicals indicates the existence of a long-standing, well-established Hezbollah network in Thailand. A month later, on February 14, 2012, the Qods Force attempted another attack in Bangkok, this time using a magnet to attach an IED to the car of an Israeli diplomat. The attempt, like the Qods Force attacks in India and Georgia in the former Soviet Union, was prevented by the local authorities.
  • On January 5, 2012, the Israeli media reported that Hezbollah was planning to carry out terrorist attacks on Israeli tourists in Europe, especially Bulgaria. The Bulgarian news agencies also reported concerns about attacks on Israeli and/or Jewish targets in Bulgaria or Greece. On January 8 the Israeli media reported that a suspicious object had been found on a bus that entered Bulgaria from Turkey and was going to be used to transport Israeli tourists.
  • An unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the Israeli consul in Istanbul using an IED (May 26, 2011): the blast injured eight Turkish citizens.
  • In July 2011 the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that three Hezbollah operatives from Beirut had often followed the Israeli consul from his home to the consulate. According to Sky News (April 2012), the Qods Force’s Unit 400, responsible for attacks beyond the borders of Iran, was behind the attack. The attack was preceded, in 2009, by a joint Iran-Hezbollah attack on an Israeli target, and in 2010 by an Iranian attempt to attack an Israeli target, indicating Turkey as a favoured location for Iran and Hezbollah’s terrorist campaign.
  • An attempted attack on the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan (May 2008). It was carried out by Hezbollah with support from the Qods Force. The terrorist cell was composed of two Hezbollah operatives, Ali Karaki, from Hezbollah’s foreign operations unit, and Ali Najem al-Din, an explosives expert. The two underwent training in Iran before they were sent to Baku. They carried Iranian passports, and the Iranians also furnished them with a translator. Preparations for the attack, which had almost reached the final stage, were exposed when the Azeri security forces stopped a car carrying the two Hezbollah operatives. In the car they found guns with silencers, explosives, cameras, binoculars and pictures of the Israeli embassy. The two Hezbollah operatives were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to 15 years in prison (October 2009). During the first half of 2012 an attempted Qods Force assassination of two prominent Jewish figures in Baku was prevented. The attack was planned to be carried out during the Eurovision song contest, without Hezbollah participation.

Hezbollah’s overseas terrorist attack mechanism

To carry out terrorist attacks abroad, Hezbollah maintains a designated mechanism called the Unit for Overseas Operations, whose existence Hezbollah denies.

Overall responsibility for the unit belongs to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and his personal approval is required for overseas attacks. Since the death of Imad Mughniyeh, his second in command has been Mustafa Badr al-Din, head of the external operations networks. Badr al-Din is accused by the International Court of complicity in the assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Second to al-Din is Talal Hamiya, head of Hezbollah’s overseas operations unit and commander of terrorist operatives in Lebanon and the target countries.

Mustafa Badr al-Din, aka “Saab,” was both a cousin and brother-in-law of the late Imad Mughniyeh. Like Mughniyeh he served in Fatah’s Force 17 in Beirut (before 1982) and joined Hezbollah with him. At the start of his career he commanded the operation to assassinate the emir of Kuwait, which failed, and he spent five years in a Kuwaiti jail. In 2008 he became Imad Mughniyeh’s second in command. In June 2008, after Mughniyeh’s death, he replaced him as head of Hezbollah’s operational networks, which is involved in all the organization’s activities abroad.


Mustafa Badr al-Din had an important role in two major terrorist attacks, one abroad and one in Lebanon, carried out 20 years apart. In 1985 he headed an operation to assassinate the emir of Kuwait. The attempted assassination was prevented. He was detained in Kuwait but managed to escape in early August 1990, finding sanctuary in the Iranian embassy in Kuwait, exploiting the disorder following Iraq’s invasion of the country. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards brought him to Iran and from there he returned to Beirut at the end of 1990 (Globaljihad.net). In Beirut he re-established himself in the Hezbollah operational leadership.

Badr al-Din is the main suspect in the affair of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was killed on February 14, 2005. In early May 2010 the international tribunal which investigated Hariri’s death stated that Badr al-Din coordinated the assassination with Syrian support.

On August 11, 2010, the tribunal announced that Hariri’s assassination had been coordinated and carried out by senior Hezbollah operatives, one of whom was Mustafa Badr al-Din, who would be tried for his crime (in all probability in absentia).

Hezbollah’s overseas terrorist attack network and its military-terrorist apparatus were headed by Imad Mughniyeh, originally a Fatah Force 17 operative in Beirut who joined Hezbollah when it was founded. In the 1980s and 90s he was responsible for a series of deadly terrorist attacks against the United States and other Western countries and against Israel and the Jewish people (including the bombing of the AMIA Jewish center building in Buenos Aires, Argentina). In the United States he was on the list of the 22 most-wanted terrorists in connection with the murder of an American citizen aboard hijacked TWA flight 847 in 1985. In Argentina he was on the list of Iranian terrorists for whom international arrest warrants had been issued in 2006 at the request of the Argentinean district attorney, because of his responsibility for the bombing of the AMIA building.

Until his death, Imad Mughniyeh was Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s military second in command. He was responsible for all Hezbollah’s military-terrorist activities, both inside Lebanon and abroad. He headed what was called the Jihad Council, the institution within Hezbollah headquarters responsible for constructing a military force and preparing it for emergencies. Mughniyeh constructed the military terrorist infrastructure in Lebanon which was used against Israel during the Second Lebanon War, while at the same time he commanded many terrorist attacks carried out against Israelis, Westerners and Arabs in Lebanon and beyond.

Mughniyeh was killed in an explosion in Damascus on February 12, 2008.

During Hezbollah’s 30-year existence as a terrorist organization, much evidence has accumulated about its terrorist activities, which are integrated into Iran’s policy of exporting terrorism and subversion. The evidence includes reliable intelligence information possessed by the security services of the United States, European countries and Israel, all of which have been targets of Iranian and Hezbollah terrorism over the years. In addition, the judicial systems of those countries have also acquired a great deal of information by interrogating captured terrorist operatives, information proving that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization directed by Iran (such as the case of the bombing of the AMIA building).

Hezbollah itself has issued announcements and visual materials boasting that Israeli civilians and population centres are targets in for its Iranian- and Syrian-supplied rocket arsenal. Based on the evidence, which unequivocally indicates Hezbollah responsibility for terrorist attacks, among them attacks on the United States which killed hundreds of Americans, the United States added Hezbollah to its list of international designated terrorist organizations.

The distinction made by the Europeans between Hezbollah’s military and political wings has no basis in fact. In reality, no such distinction exists; they are one and the same. Its military might reinforces its political power while its political and social activities are exploited to reinforce its military terrorist wing and ensure justification within Lebanon for its existence.

Moreover, Hezbollah’s upper institutions and leaders, especially Hassan Nasrallah, determine the use of the organization’s military force, deliberately targeting non-involved Israeli civilians with a variety of means and methods (rocket fire, IEDs, suicide bombing attacks, etc.). Senior Hezbollah leaders have themselves said that no distinction can be made between Hezbollah’s political wing and its military-terrorist wing.

Asked “who makes the decision for action, the fighters on the ground or the political leadership,” Hassan Nasrallah answered “the Hezbollah leadership.” The issue is not only up to the fighters in the field. The leadership of the organization is the leadership of the resistance [i.e., of its military-terrorist apparatus] and it examines all the data, the interests of resistance and its policies for action. The brothers in the field [i.e., the terrorist operatives] are those who carry out those policies” (Al-Majalla website, March 24, 2002).

Muhammad Fneish, senior Hezbollah figure and member of the Hezbollah faction in the Lebanese parliament, said that “attempts are made to induce Hezbollah [to act] in order to halt it. The objective is not to damage it politically but rather to impair the capabilities of its military wing. However, I can tell you, that no distinction can be made between Hezbollah’s military wing and its politician wing (Al-Manar TV, Lebanon, January 19, 2002).

For Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, preserving the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, its main ally in the “resistance camp,” is of supreme strategic interest. However, Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah has interests of its own for wanting the Assad regime to survive: it is Hezbollah’s closest ally, providing it with strategic and logistical depth as well as its being an important prop. Along with Iran, Syria is vital to Hezbollah’s military build-up and to maintaining its ability to deter Israel. Syria also provides Hezbollah with advanced weapons and it is the main conduit for the weapons and ammunition Iran sends to Lebanon. In addition, Syria gives Hezbollah political and military backing in its struggle in Lebanon against its opponents..

Beyond that, Hezbollah’s involvement in suppressing the Syrian uprising is meant to give Hezbollah (and Iran) political influence in Syria the morning after the fall of the Assad regime and the ability to respond to what they consider the negative scenarios which might develop from the collapse: serious Western and pro-Western Arab-Muslim intervention in Syria’s internal affairs, the strengthening of the Al-Qaeda and global jihad groups participating in the fighting against the current regime, and increasing danger to the Syrian Shi’ites and Alawites, for whom Hezbollah has a strong religious-sectarian affinity.

In the face of the Syrian regime’s continuing decline, Iran and Hezbollah have focused their efforts on bolstering it, deterring its rivals and preventing the collapse of both the regime and the so-called “resistance camp.”

Because both Iran and Hezbollah assume that the Assad regime may possibly survive, and that with sufficient support the clock can be turned back. Iran and Hezbollah doubled their efforts in recent months as the threat to the regime grew, with Hezbollah prepared but having no choice but to pay the price, both politically and to its image: Hezbollah’s image as an Iranian-Syrian agent has become more defined inside Lebanon; its opponents have raised disputed issues, especially by questioning the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s weapons, the so-called “weapon of the resistance” (including by figures which were previously pro-Syrian, such as Lebanese President Michel Sulaiman); an increase in demonstrations of hatred for Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, from Syrian rebels and the local Sunni population; and severe criticism of Hezbollah from the Arab world, most of which stands behind the opponents of the Assad regime.

Source: The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center