In the Fall of 2002, as the Bush administration was focused overwhelmingly on pursuing al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in response to the September 11th attacks, no less senior an official than then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage suggested that the attention of the United States might actually be misplaced. "Hezbollah may be the 'A team' of terrorism," Armitage told a conference in Washington at the time. "Maybe al-Qaeda is actually the 'B team.'"
Armitage's assessment, it turns out, was well-deserved. The Shi'ite militia sustained by Iran and supported by Syria has become a terrorist powerhouse since its inception in Lebanon in 1982. Over the past three decades, it has transformed itself into a sophisticated international army of mercenaries while exporting Iran's revolutionary Islamist ideology abroad and claiming political hegemony in southern Lebanon. It likewise has mastered the art of media warfare, utilizing social media and a dedicated television station, Al-Manar (literally, "the beacon") to spread its corrosive ideological message throughout the Arab world, and beyond. And while Coalition operations over the past decade have eroded at least some of al-Qaeda's capabilities (although exactly how much is a matter of some dispute), Hezbollah has reclaimed international notoriety as a terrorist actor par excellence.
No one understands this better than Matthew Levitt, author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God. Levitt, a senior fellow and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the prestigious Washington Institute for Near East Policy, previously served as the deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Treasury Department, and before that as a counterterrorism analyst for the FBI. He now puts this extensive professional know-how to good use in his analysis of the terror group.
Levitt's exhaustive study successfully breaks down the organization's intricate web of activities, both in and out of the Middle East. His know-how of the Washington Beltway and the intelligence agencies that populate it allow Levitt to cogently and compelling make the case that the group poses a truly worldwide threat. Indeed, one of Hezbollah's key strengths is its comprehensive mapping of the militia's vast international network, and the companies, industries, charities and cutouts it has used over the years to further its jihadist objectives.
Undergirding Levitt's analysis is a holistic, bird's-eye view of one of the world's most notorious—and capable—terrorist organizations. As he explains, "Hezbollah should be judged by the totality of its actions. It cannot be forgiven its criminal, terrorist, or militant pursuits simply because at the same time it also engages in political or humanitarian ones." This constitutes a biting criticism of Western policy to date, which is all too often at pains to differentiate between the military and political "wings" of Hezbollah—and to punish the former while engaging the latter.
Hezbollah's leaders have helped fuel this policy confusion, insisting on the group's innocence. "We have not carried out operations anywhere in the world," Hezbollah's Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, maintained back in 2003. And at first blush, the picture is indeed confusing; unlike al-Qaeda, Hezbollah operates as a legitimate political party in the Lebanese parliament, as well as the de facto overlord of southern Lebanon, where it is in charge of a variety of social services.
But Levitt demystifies this dichotomy. In page after page, he lays out convincingly—via exhaustive documentation of the group's myriad plots and schemes—that Hezbollah's criminal and terrorist activities cannot be divorced from the larger political whole, and that it's "resistance" activities are terrorism, pure and simple.
Hezbollah, however, isn't just a terrorist group; it is also a geopolitical actor. Its month-long war with Israel in the summer of 2006 demonstrated significant military capabilities far beyond the norm for a typical terrorist group, while its global reach—cultivated by operators like Imad Fayez Mughniyeh, the group's shadowy former military chief, who was killed by Israel in Damascus in February of 2008—has made it the bane of law enforcement agencies the world over. Yet perhaps Hezbollah's most important role is how it factors into the larger international stand-off taking place with its chief sponsor, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Levitt writes, "Hezbollah's role in Iran's shadow war, along with its own interest in targeting senior Israeli officials, has cast the group as a dangerous terrorist network capable of operating everywhere from Europe to Africa and Asia to the Americas."
The threat that Hezbollah poses, Levitt warns, is very real—and it is growing. "As tensions continue to mount over Iran's nuclear program, Hezbollah's strategic relationship with Iran—the role it has already played in Tehran's shadow war with the West—gives officials worldwide ample cause of alarm." Therein lies what is perhaps Hezbollah's most trenchant message; with the danger of a nuclear Iran looming ever larger on the horizon, Levitt's book is a timely reminder of how dangerous and widespread the genie of Hezbollah truly is, and why there needs to be a concerted global effort to get it back into the bottle.
Asaf Romirowsky PhD is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum.