Hezbollah Since the 1983 Beirut Barracks Bombings: Adapted but Unrepentant
On the morning of October 23, 1983, Imad Mughniyeh and Mustafa Badreddine perched atop a building in south Beirut, binoculars fixated on the four-story U.S. Marine barracks attached to the International Airport. After months of meticulous planning, the attack that would launch them into international infamy as Hezbollah’s most storied – and lethal – commanders was about to unfold. At 6:22 AM, a truck laden with six tons of explosives slammed into the building, collapsing it to rubble and killing 241 American servicemen. Calmly watching the explosions, the duo smiled with satisfaction at their plan’s success. Minutes later and four miles away, another truck detonated at French Paratrooper headquarters, leaving 58 dead.
Present-day Hezbollah shies away from claiming such spectacular terror attacks, preferring pragmatic finesse over belligerency and confrontation. However, it remains a deadly terrorist group in service of Iran.
A History of Pragmatism
When the Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990, Lebanon’s warring factions had reunited around the secular republic, and then-hostile Syria became Beirut’s new master. Realizing it could not confront this united front and survive, Hezbollah adapted to the new reality. It opted for pragmatism and cosmetically rebranded from a confrontational terror group – an enemy of the West and the secular Lebanese republic alike – to a Lebanese nationalist group ostensibly focusing its energies on its common enemy with Beirut and Damascus: Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon.
Hezbollah thus avoided the fate of other Lebanese militias – disarmament or dismantlement –and maintained its ability to attack at least one of its foes. Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s guise of “resistance” earned it the imprimatur of every Lebanese government and president since 1989. This even gave its attacks against Israelis an undeserved acceptability in the West, which has only belatedly began proscribing its military activities. It also afforded Hezbollah a decade – until Israel’s withdrawal in May 25, 2000 – to grow its military strength and support among Lebanese Shiites, becoming much harder to destroy.
Yet Hezbollah refused to disarm after Israel’s withdrawal, because – as the Barracks Bombings had already demonstrated – liberating Lebanese territory was never its ultimate goal. Unlike the Israelis, Hezbollah’s American and French targets were not occupying Lebanon in 1983. To the contrary, they were part of a Multinational Force of peacekeepers, tasked with restoring Lebanese sovereignty by overseeing the withdrawal of Israeli, Syrian, and PLO forces. Hezbollah attacked the Americans and French as punishment for supporting Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, upholding Iranian – not Lebanese – interests.
Hezbollah’s flexibility—adapting to the needs of the moment while remaining committed to its founding principles and Iran’s interests — continues to the present.
The Last Decade: Global Terrorism by Smarter Means
After 2000, Hezbollah rebranded again to suit the international and domestic landscape at the time. Particularly since the start of the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah has presented itself as a counterterror group fighting the scourge of Al-Qaeda and ISIS’ takfiri-inspired brutality in the name of religious and ethnic pluralism. This was necessary propaganda, at least for its own base, who would be discomforted by the former anti-Israel “resistance group” shedding fellow Muslim and Arab blood. Additionally, by positioning itself against the common ISIS threat, it perhaps hoped to avoid being targeted in the West’s anti-terror dragnet.
But the moderation was a façade. Hezbollah remained the deadly foe of its early days, and not just when it comes to its arch-enemy Israel. In fact, since Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, most of the group’s victims have been non-Israelis.
Even after 1983, the group continued to target Americans. In 2003, Hezbollah deployed its Unit 3800 to Iraq, where it trained and aided the Shiite militants responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. servicemen. But its favorite targets, by far, have been fellow Arabs and Muslims. For the past four years, it has been overtly spearheading the Iranian-led campaign in Syria to defend Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad. The group continues operating covertly in Iraq – where, last year, it reportedly deployed 1,000 fighters against Kurdish Peshmerga forces on Iranian orders. Ditto in in Yemen against Saudi Arabia. It has also recruited operatives from among local and Lebanese expatriate Shiites in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
None of this has been in service of Lebanon. In fact, the group has also not shied from turning its guns on Lebanon, unsurprising given Hezbollah’s declared intention to dismantle the secular Lebanese Republic. The reality of post-civil war Lebanon forced it to do so gradually and largely through non-violent means from within the system. But Hezbollah responded with force whenever its interests were endangered, and has even been implicated in the assassination of Lebanese officials, thinkers, and politicians – including former prime minister Rafic Hariri – who threatened its ascendancy.
Outside of the Middle East, several Hezbollah operatives have been arrested in Europe and – in June 2017 – in the United States. According to U.S. officials, the operatives were part of a larger effort by the group to establish the groundwork for a “homeland option” to attack American interests domestically and abroad.
In addition to spearheading Iran’s interests through international terror campaigns, Hezbollah also acts as a hub for money-laundering, document-forgery, and exporting cocaine to Latin America and Europe and Captagon to the Gulf States. Meanwhile, legal gaps in Europe and elsewhere failing to proscribe Hezbollah’s “political wing,” allow it to legitimately fundraise there unhindered. The fungibility of money and – per its own leaders – indivisibility of its political and military organs means all of these funds will be used to fuel Hezbollah’s global militant activities.
Hezbollah is no exception to the classical adage that old habits die hard, and its image of public moderation is mere smoke-and-mirrors. It remains a terrorist organization that uses violence and crime to accomplish its and Iran’s goals, despite its public refinement. The Beirut Barracks attack is a reminder that Hezbollah, already a formidable foe in the 1980s, is a threat to international security. The only genuine change it has undergone in the last three decades is considerably expanding its global reach.
David Daoud is a research analyst with United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) focusing on Lebanon and Hezbollah.