Matthew Levitt describes Hezbollah

Matthew Levitt’s Hezbollah

10/17/2013 12:40   By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

On September 30, 1985, four Soviet diplomats were captured by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

At some point, perhaps to send a message or because of a dispute, one of the hostages was executed and his body left on a street in West Beirut. The Soviets were furious and mobilized an elite counterterrorism unit to hunt down the kidnappers.

According to Matthew Levitt, author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, a compelling account of the global terror group’s operations, reports differ as to what the Russians did next. “In one retelling, the KGB kidnapped a relative of the hostage-taking organization’s chief, cut off the relatives ear and sent it to his family.” In another story, the KGB castrated a relative of the kidnappers. Either way, the Soviet hostages were soon released. “Never again would Hezbollah or any other militant Shi’a group target Soviet officials in Lebanon.”

The story of the Russian revenge against Hezbollah stands in stark contrast to the behavior of other countries that have become the deadly playground for these terrorists. Argentina, France, Germany, Thailand: time and again Hezbollah has struck, killing local citizens, and even when its operatives were captured they were almost always subsequently released.

This book is a testimony to the victims of terror, but it should also be a wake-up call to any government that is pondering whether Hezbollah is a “resistance” and “political” movement, as it claims to be, or a global threat.

Levitt decided to write a book on Hezbollah in 2003, when he attended a conference on Lebanon sponsored by the US government. “Strikingly, when participants on several panels insinuated that Hezbollah had never engaged in an act of terrorism or that there was no such person as [leader] Imad Mughniyeh, both concepts being American or Israeli fabrications – the US officials chairing the respective panels said nothing.” This was only the tip of the iceberg of global blinders to Hezbollah. In Europe, “many governments have resisted international efforts to designate the organization as a terrorist group.”

The “party of God” was born in the 1980s as a breakaway of the larger Shi’ite political and paramilitary movement called Amal, which represented the Shi’ite community in Lebanon. It received extensive backing from the Iranians, as it still does, to the extent that its operations were often almost inseparable from acts carried out by Iran’s intelligence service. Its first attacks were aimed at foreigners in Lebanon. It bombed the US marine and French army barracks in Beirut in 1983, and bombed the US embassy and kidnapped numerous people – including CIA station chief William Buckley, who was brutally tortured and killed.

Then it branched out to other countries, aiding an attack in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It also moved into Europe, hijacking airliners and targeting the French, Americans and Jews. What is fascinating is the degree to which its members always seemed to slip through the net. Bassam Gharib Makki, for instance, moved to Germany as an “asylum-seeker” from Lebanon in 1985. He was caught in 1988 shipping photos of Israeli targets to his handlers in Lebanon. When his apartment was searched, codebooks and instructions on bomb-making were revealed.

He was sentenced to two years in prison and deported in 1990.

In another case, a Hezbollah operative named Marwan Kadi was connected with operations in Latin America, including the bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 in 1994. He had been convicted in Canada of smuggling cocaine and escaped from prison. According to Levitt, Kadi obtained a US passport under a false name and was then arrested by the Brazilians for cocaine possession.

“Amazingly, he escaped from jail again and fled across the border to Paraguay… police arrested him at his apartment in Ciudad del Este, where they found explosives, firearms, counterfeit Canadian and American passports, and a large quantity of cash.” Despite all these crimes and the fact that he was caught with evidence showing he was part of a plot to bomb the US Embassy in Paraguay, he was deported to the US and only charged with passport fraud.

Such incidents demonstrate the degree to which governments seem incapable of prosecuting terrorists who are also caught up in other illegal activity. In another instance, operatives in Miami were arrested but the prosecutors were only able to charge them with “conspiring to violate US export law.” One Hezbollah member fled and the other received six months of home confinement.

Levitt’s account is as rich in detail as it is in storytelling. From exploits such as a heist of jewels from a Saudi to the story of how Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and his business partners used hackers to gain access to credit card numbers, the rise of the group’s global network of terror and criminal activity is extraordinary. The compelling narrative leaves readers wondering how it is possible that this organization has grown so powerful and influential with few repercussions. With the exception of the assassination of Mughniyeh in 2008, few Hezbollah members have paid the price for their activities.

Perhaps with the organization’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, it will begin to reap what it has sown.

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