Joining Hezbollah: An Insider's Account

A rare look at the group, from two members captured in Syria

In late December 2015, Lebanese journalist Carol Malouf held an in-depth interview with two Hezbollah captives of Jabhat al-Nusra. The interview appears to be the first of its kind: Hezbollah members speaking candidly about the group’s organization and methods. Naturally, the fact that their remarks were made in captivity means their testimony must be taken with a grain of salt. Their remarks nonetheless shed light on the Syrian Civil War’s effects on Hezbollah’s relationship with Lebanon’s Shiites, and its exploitation of that community as foot soldiers for its military goals.

Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has aroused popular discontent against the party in Lebanon, even within its Shiite base. As part of the organization’s battle to keep the Bashar al-Assad regime in power, the community has lost hundreds of its sons on Syria’s battlefields and suffered terrorist attacks by Sunni extremists—all with no tangible returns. Despite their anger, however, Lebanese Shiites have yet to collectively turn their backs on the party.

According to one of the captives, Hassan Taha, that’s because Hezbollah has skillfully employed social pressure to leave the Shiites little alternative. “The Shiite is obligated, ideologically and financially, to join Hezbollah,” he says. Those who choose political independence become social pariahs who “cannot go to their villages, and are hated by their community.” And while Taha says joining the rival Shiite movement Amal is an option, that party is a politically and financially spent force that today holds little appeal for Lebanon’s Shiites.

Hezbollah created this inextricable link by asserting control over all aspects of Shiites’ lives, establishing cultural and educational centers, charities, media and propaganda outlets, and professional societies, surrounding community members with its ideology from birth.

During the interview the second captive, Muhammad Shuaib, recounts growing up in one of those institutions, the Mahdi Scouts. He says that children as young as six are inducted and provided with increasingly sophisticated political and religious indoctrination as they grow older. At seventeen, those who prove themselves in the scouts become part of the ta’abia—a loosely organized and voluntary reserve pool of fighters—and undergo additional educational and military courses.

Hezbollah also runs its own private educational system, which graduates some two thousand competitive and well-trained university students a year. Though mixed with the party’s ideology, the education those schools provide far exceeds anything offered by the state and even rivals the country’s prestigious Christian missionary schools. As Shuaib reveals, the party is so eager to have Shiite children graduate from its system that it helps needy families with tuition—a luxury not available to them in other Lebanese school systems.

The indoctrination in both of these institutions construct the children’s identity so that their moral compass is based on the ideology of Wilayat al-Faqih, the Guardianship of the Jurist model that governs political life in Iran, Hezbollah’s main backer. And even if these institutions do not transform young Shiites into adult party ideologues, they make them more amenable to Hezbollah’s pressures, by force-feeding them the notion that they have no alternative to the party.