Paul Pillar

Hezbollah and the Simplistic School of Counterterrorism

The simplistic view tends to disregard the circumstances leading to the use of terrorism and to the emergence of groups that have used the tactic.  Hezbollah was born in the early 1980s in the midst of a civil war in Lebanon.  A major cause of both the war and the birth of the group was strong sentiment among Lebanon’s growing Shia population that it was underprivileged and unfairly underrepresented in Lebanese politics.  A more immediate circumstance underlying the emergence of Hezbollah was Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  The invasion was intended to chase the Palestine Liberation Organization to the ends of the earth—or at least to Tunisia, to which it decamped.  A salient episode in the Israeli military expedition was the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which Israel’s army aided its Phalangist militia allies in the slaughter of hundreds and probably thousands of civilians, including Palestinian refugees and Lebanese Shia—Hezbollah’s constituency.  Any reference to Hezbollah’s hostility toward Israel needs to recall these events for a full understanding.

Hezbollah terrorism against U.S. interests consisted of opposition to a foreign military presence.  This was the case with the anti-U.S. terrorism in Lebanon in the 1980s (following a U.S. military intervention there, which came after the Israeli intervention), as well as with the one later attack against U.S. forces in which Hezbollah played a role: the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996.  These events are consistent with Robert Pape's research finding that suicide bombings are motivated by opposition to the presence of foreign military forces.  It is not consistent with any notion that Hezbollah is determined to kill Westerners or to attack U.S. interests in perpetuity.

Policy Implications

Failure to take into account the actual motivations, methods, objectives, and standing of a group such as Hezbollah leads to poor policy on problems that involve such groups.  It leads to lack of awareness of how others perceive such groups and thus to what is or is not feasible as a U.S. policy objective.  These patterns are reflected in much of what is said in the United States about Hezbollah’s most important ally, Iran.  “Number one state sponsor of terrorism” is part of the litany of labels that routinely are affixed to Iran in American discourse.  But consult the State Department’s official justification for continuing to designate Iran as a state sponsor, and the gruel one sees is thinner than the discourse would suggest.  Most important, it is hard to see feasible changes from any Iranian regime that really did not want to be a state sponsor of terrorism.  Much of what is in the U.S. official statement reflects history, which cannot be changed.  Much of it involves Iran’s support, along with Russia, for the incumbent regime in Syria against a rebellion in which terrorist groups have played prominent roles.  And much of it involves nonstate groups with which Iran does business, and especially its most important nonstate ally, Lebanese Hezbollah.

Whether we like it or not, Hezbollah is a well-established political actor in Lebanon, with its participation in Hariri’s government being part of that position.  Most other political actors in Lebanon, even the group’s rivals, consider Hezbollah to be a legitimate and established actor that is here to stay, as do many other political actors elsewhere in the region.  There is no way any Iranian regime would abandon its relationship with the group, which Iran sees as a major defender of Shia interests, let alone to try to justify to its Iranian constituents such a move as necessary to fight terrorism.

There cannot be, nor should there be, any forgiving or forgetting what Hezbollah did to Americans in the 1980s.  The bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983 was, until 9/11, the deadliest terrorist attack ever against U.S. citizens.  But not forgetting and not forgiving does not imply adopting the simplistic approach toward any group that is on our terrorist list. 

The current arrangements in Lebanon are probably the least bad way to keep that country from succumbing to full-scale civil war of the sort that afflicted it in the past and that afflicts Syria today.  Prime Minister Hariri put it this way: “My job and my task as prime minister of Lebanon is to shield Lebanon from any instability like in Syria or Iraq or any other country that surrounds us. . . The political positions between us and Hezbollah are very well known. They don’t agree on my policies, and I don’t agree on their policies. But when it comes for the sake of the country, for the economy, how to handle those 1.5 million refugees, how to handle the stability, how to handle the governing our country, we have to have some kind of understanding, otherwise we would be like Syria. So, for the sake of the stability of Lebanon, we agree on certain things.”

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