Hezbollah’s Turning Point Came in 1992

Hezbollah’s Turning Point Came in 1992

While Hezbollah had existed for nearly a decade, the group did not take its modern incarnation until Nasrallah took the helm.

1992 was the year of denim jeans, Nirvana, and Bill Clinton. It was also the year in which Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group, became the deadly force it is today.

Thirty years ago this March, Hezbollah launched an attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The bombing took the lives of twenty-nine people. It also presaged more deadly attacks to come, setting a grim model for other terrorist organizations.

Indeed,1992 is the year that made Hezbollah. In addition to the bombing, the year witnessed the assassination of the organization's head, Abbas al-Musawi, and his replacement by a young and dynamic Shi’ite cleric named Hassan Nasrallah. While Hezbollah had existed for nearly a decade, the group did not take its modern incarnation until Nasrallah took the helm.

Hezbollah’s origins are murky. The group was founded amidst Lebanon’s civil war by Iranian agents and diplomats out of a “motley crew of Shi’ite militias and groups” as Matthew Levitt, the director of counterterrorism and intelligence for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has noted. The sectarian conflict and Israel’s 1978 invasion to deter Palestinian terrorists had helped “create a situation ripe for external manipulation,” Levitt observed.

Israel entered Lebanon as part of Operation Litani, an attempt to thwart Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorists who were using the country as a base. Yet, the PLO was doing more than just training fighters to attack Israel. Since the late 1970s, the group had also been using Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to train Shi’ite terrorists opposed to the rule of the Shah of Iran—many of whom would eventually form the nucleus for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an entity that would help train and equip Hezbollah in the decades to come. Indeed, one former member of Fatah, the movement that has dominated the PLO for decades, was Imad Mughniyeh. He would go on to be a star operative for Hezbollah.

Magnus Ranstrop, a noted terrorism analyst, has noted that from the very beginning Hezbollah “operated under Iranian supervision.” As many as 1,500 IRGC advisers set up shop in the Bekaa Valley, running terrorist training camps that all Hezbollah members were required to attend.

Iran also encouraged activists to infiltrate Amal, a Shi’ite militia that had been founded in 1974 by Musa al-Sadr, an Iranian-born Lebanese cleric, who was likely murdered in 1978 by Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, potentially in collusion with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Eventually, tensions between original Amal members and those backed by Iran reached a breaking point, and members like Hussein Abbas al-Musawi broke off to join Hezbollah, “Party of God.”

In its early years, Hezbollah was a loose confederation, with many operatives agreeing on long-term strategic goals like the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Lebanon but differing on strategy and tactics. As Matthew Levitt observed, there has been some controversy over when Hezbollah was initially founded, with many analysts citing the group’s February 1985 public announcement of its existence and “program.” However, “since-declassified evidence points to several Shi’ite militia groups coalescing into Hezbollah … as early as 1982.” Hezbollah began carrying out suicide car bombings as early as November 1982, with an attack on an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) headquarters in Tyre that was “the first Islamist suicide terrorist attack outside of Iran,” as the historian and journalist Ronen Bergman has noted.

To an untrained observer, however, Hezbollah might have been hard to distinguish from the myriad of terrorist groups that were operating in war-torn Lebanon, kidnapping Westerners and skyjacking airliners. Hezbollah added to the confusion by using various names, partially as an attempt to conceal its Iranian patronage. Yet U.S. investigators weren’t fooled—and there were early signs that Hezbollah would one day become something more.

On April 18, 1983, a suicide bomber attacked the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, murdering more than sixty people, including seventeen Americans. Despite attempts at obfuscation, U.S. courts would eventually rule that Hezbollah was responsible. Another suicide bombing on Oct. 23, 1983, targeting the U.S. Marine and French army barracks, murdered 241 American and fifty-eight French peacekeepers. According to FBI forensic analysis, the 1983 barracks attack was the single-largest non-nuclear explosion on earth since World War II.

More bombings and attacks would follow, including a September 20, 1984 attack on a U.S. Embassy annex. Within days, the CIA concluded that “an overwhelming body of circumstantial evidence points to the Hizb Allah, operating with Iranian support under the cover name of Islamic Jihad.”

The 1980s, then, saw Hezbollah’s founding, its early attacks, and the beginnings of its global reach. The group was certainly formidable. Between 1984 and 1991, Hezbollah carried out no fewer than 3,425 operations against the IDF, although these were mostly in southern Lebanon and confined to the Middle East. It would be the following decade that would catapult Hezbollah into becoming the “A-Team” of terrorists, as former U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage would later put it.

Hussein Abbas Musawi had been involved with Hezbollah since its inception. Trained in the PLO’s camps, he later studied Shi’ite theology under the disciples of Ayatollah Khomeini. In May 1991, Musawi was named Hezbollah’s secretary-general, or leader. Israel had initially planned to seize Musawi while he was visiting southern Lebanon. However, the mission was changed after Islamic Jihad terrorists attacked an IDF field camp, murdering recruits with knives, axes, and pitchforks.

On February 16, 1992, Musawi and several members of his entourage, including his wife and son, were killed by an Israeli Hellfire missile. As Ronen Bergman recounts in his history of Israeli intelligence, Rise and Kill First, some IDF military analysts had opposed the strike for a variety of reasons, among them that “Hezbollah was not a one-man show, and Musawi was not the most extreme man in its leadership.” Indeed, they warned, he “would be replaced, perhaps by someone more radical.”

It is debatable if Musawi’s replacement, Hassan Nasrallah, is any more or less attached to the idea of an Islamic revolution. But it seems clear that Musawi’s successor is more capable and more charismatic. Hezbollah would grow substantially under Nasrallah’s leadership. And the terror group would immediately begin to flex its muscles and seek revenge for Musawi’s death.

A thirty-two-year-old Beirut-born cleric, Nasrallah was chosen by Hezbollah’s twelve-member Shura Council, the group’s religious leadership, who recommended him to Iran’s then-president Hashemi Rafsanjani. For a time, Nasrallah was Musawi’s “star disciple,” Bergman notes. But the two would eventually have disagreements, with Nasrallah opposing close ties with the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad and believing that “the guerilla war against Israel should be prioritized” over attempts to take control of the government in Lebanon.

But with Nasrallah at the helm, Hezbollah would both prioritize the war against Israel and eventually take over the levers of power in Lebanon. Ironically, the group would also forge even closer ties with both Iran and Syria, including taking part in the Syrian civil war to prevent the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s son and successor. Indeed, Bergman notes, “after the targeting killing” of Musawi, the “priorities shifted” and the IRGC “began to prefer Nasrallah’s approach.”

In early March 1992, Hezbollah carried out two attacks in Turkey, one aimed at an Istanbul synagogue and the other the car bombing of the chief security officer for the Israeli embassy, Ehud Sadan. And on March 17, Hezbollah used a car bomb outside the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The explosion murdered twenty-nine people and injured 242 others. Hezbollah had officially gone global in its attempts to murder and maim Jews. To be sure, Hezbollah had always been vociferously anti-Semitic, singling out Jewish passengers during its previous skyjackings. But March 1992 seemed to signal grander ambitions.

The sophistication behind the attacks, particularly the Buenos Aires bombing, showed that the group had planned them well in advance of Musawi’s assassination. A subsequent investigation by Israel and the CIA would determine that the bombing had been carried out by one of forty-five sleeper cells that Hezbollah had deployed all over the world. More attacks would follow.

In January 1993 and March 1994, Hezbollah attempted to carry out attacks in Turkey and Thailand, targeting the head of the Turkish Jewish community and the Israeli Embassy, respectively. And on July 18, 1994, Hezbollah perpetrated the bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires, murdering eighty-five people and wounding more than 300. The AMIA bombing stood as the worst terrorist attack in the Western hemisphere until Sept. 11, 2001.

Hezbollah also advanced in Lebanon. Empowered by Nasrallah, Imad Mughniyeh increased attacks on the IDF. “From month to month and year to year, Hezbollah’s performance improved and its daring increased,” Bergman noted. The group “employed increasingly sophisticated electronic systems” to monitor IDF radio communications, stepped up its operational tempo, and used finely tuned propaganda aimed at encouraging Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon—all to lamentable success. By 2000, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, handing Nasrallah’s Hezbollah a tremendous PR victory.