The Formation and Perpetuation of Hezbollah: Successful Politics and Successful Terrorism
The decade following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City has seen some dramatic changes in U.S. And global policy towards terrorist groups and terrorist action, and to public sentiment and attitude regarding these groups and their actions, as well. From the semi-official War on Terror to the recent "Arab Spring" and the attendant turmoil in the Middle East, the global context within which terrorism exists -- the way in which the world responds to terrorism and the way in which terrorist organizations present themselves to the world -- has changed dramatically in the recent past. This has necessitated certain changes amongst terrorist organizations, or those organizations labeled as terrorists by the international community, that hope to remain viable and relevant forces in the modern world. Though it can be impolitic to discuss these organizations as though they were legitimate and popularly-supported entities, the fact is this is often how these organizations view themselves and in certain instances how the countries/populations that serve as homes and support bases for such organizations view them, as well. The following pages will examine in some detail the origins of one such terrorist organization and the adjustments it has made in the last decade to remain viable and actually grow in prominence and legitimacy.
Al-Qaeda is probably the most well-known terrorist group operating out of the Middle East, due to it's association with Bin Laden and the 9/11 terrorist attacks and its entrenchment in Iraq and surrounding countries, which have been the focus of U.S. And global military interventions since the start of the "War on Terror." Al-Qaeda's importance on the world stage and in the politics of the Middle East has been diminished, substantially according to some source, by ongoing military, financial, and to some degree sociopolitical pressures, due in no small part to the focus of international anti-terrorism efforts on this particular organization. Instead of the fragmented and non-nationalistic nature of Al-Qaeda, successful terrorist organizations in the past decade have become somewhat more centralized and are often strongly nationalistic. Lebanon's Hezbollah is one such organization, and due to recent violence between the organization and Israel (or more accurately, due to a recent resurgence of long-running off-and-on violence between Lebanon and Israel) it has become increasingly prominent and recognizable in Western media. An examination of its origins and its growing power in Lebanon and the region during the past decade serve as useful windows into the changing face of terrorism in the modern world.
Birth of a Nation
Lebanon gained independence in 1943, and though Hezbollah would not come into its own as a terrorist organization until the 1980s its roots can be traced back to the political structuring of the nation and its population at the time of its inception. Based roughly on contemporary estimates of Lebanon's population and the many disparate ethnic/cultural/religious groups living within the new nation's borders, Lebanon's Shia Muslims were granted relatively few political posts and even less true political power, with legislative and executive power held by the nation's Christian Maronite and Sunni Muslim groups.
This created an imbalance of power that perpetuated the marginalization of the Shiite Muslims living in the country, who were already largely impoverished and living generally in rural areas in South Lebanon and certain areas of the Beqaa Valley, as well as in Lebanon's capital city of Beirut.
As is typical in such situations, this imbalance led almost immediately to a certain amount of infighting and political as well as social conflict within the new nation, and though this was not the only new nation in the Middle East to face the problem of disparate population segments the divisions in Lebanon would prove far more long-lasting and far more productive, though not in a positive sense, than most if not all others.
Problems and internal conflicts in Lebanon only grew as the nation's Shiite population did, and by the 1960s Shiite religious leaders, largely non-Lebanese natives, had come to the country and had begun to foment political support and agitation in a more organized and effective fashion.
Though this outside influence was viewed with great skepticism and mistrust by many, the largely disadvantaged and domestically friendless Shiite population, which was treated almost openly (entirely openly, in some instances) as a nuisance rather than a viable or relevant population segment or political force. Continued marginalization in the political and economic spheres of the nation, with the highly segregated geographic distribution of Shia within the nation's borders making it easy to sleight this population and to steer economic growth, infrastructure development, and other benefits of political power to the non-Shiite populations, created greater unrest and conflict amongst the Shiite Muslims and between the Shia and other ethnic/cultural/religious groups in Lebanon, setting the stage for the eventual emergence of political and paramilitary groups fighting explicitly and vociferously on behalf of this group.
This is, of course, precisely what happened, and though it would not be until 1982 that Hezbollah was officially founded many of the key players arrived in the country many of the key players in the organization's founding came to the country or otherwise became involved in the Shia political (as opposed to the purely religious) movement in the 1960s and 70s.
The marginalization of Shiite Muslims was not a problem unique to Lebanon, but was occurring throughout the Middle East in many different countries, and this also contributed to the situation enabling Hezbollah's emergence and growth. It was in Lebanon, however, that this marginalization was the most politically distinct and the most officially sanctioned, and thus though Hezbollah would emerge as part of an international movement and would itself develop international branches and partnerships it was also a firmly entrenched Lebanese organization at the time of its founding.
Lebanon's situation attracted many of the more powerful and prominent Shiite clerics and other leaders throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world, and as Lebanon became the center of the Shiite conflict Hezbollah would emerge as the most prominent Shiite group in the region (and indeed the world).
It took more than the internal political conflict in Lebanon to create a terrorist organization, though; although Hezbollah's roots can unquestionably be found in this political disruption -- and the political nature of its early development is of extreme importance in understanding the organization in recent years -- it would likely not have developed as a paramilitary/terrorist organization without outside intervention.
This intervention existed, of course, in the shape of Israel, and specifically in the shape of Israel's occupation of Southern Lebanon -- the region of the country that borders the Jewish state and, coincidentally (yet importantly), one of the areas of Lebanon heavily populated by the Shia. Violence between Israel added to the problems Shiites were facing and also began to add more legitimacy to Shiite complaints and agitations not only within Lebanon but also throughout the Middle East and the world at large, and yet the conflicts between the powerful and skilled Israeli military and this disjointed and guerilla-based tactics of non-military Lebanese fighters (with some Lebanese military involvement, as well) continued for decades before Hezbollah was formed.
As anti-Shiite sentiments in Lebanon began to wane somewhat due to the Shia population growth and increasing work by Shiite clerics and other leaders, and as anti-Israeli sentiments grew ever stronger in the Arab world at large, support for anti-Israeli military actions and other violence directed at Israeli targets by various elements within Lebanon grew. One more piece of external involvement -- heavy interest and subsidization from Shiite Iran -- provided Hezbollah with the funding, the expertise, the legitimacy, and other tangible and intangible resources it needed to develop into a viable and effective terrorist/political organization with the major explicit purpose of ejecting all Israeli forces from Lebanon but with broader goals of advancing the Shiite agenda within Lebanon as well as on an international basis.
Hezbollah: Then and Now
For years, Hezbollah persisted as a purely terrorist organization according to most international viewpoints, though the situation was viewed much differently by many Lebanese and Shiite Muslims throughout the region.
The basic situation that had proven conducive to the organization's emergence did not change for quite some time, nor did the organization itself: for the first two decades of its existence, from 1982 through the early years of the current millennium, the Shia generally remained politically marginalized in Lebanon (though this situation did change over this time period) while Israeli occupation of/intervention in Southern Lebanon -- whether retaliatory and defensive as Israel claims or not -- became a problem of increasing consternation and international attention and continued to add legitimacy to many of Hezbollah's terrorist acts in the eyes of many Muslims and Arabs.
With the ongoing conflicts throughout the Middle East regarding Israel, the United States and other Western powers, and between certain Muslim groups, Hezbollah continued to gain power and support from within Lebanon, Iran, and…