Saturday, January 24, 2015

A review of Matthew Levitt's "Hezbollah, The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God"

There are many good reasons to read Matthew Levitt’s excellent book Hezbollah, The Global Footprintof Lebanon's Party of God, but perhaps one of the most compelling is the portrait he paints of a global terrorist entity not only bent on directing murder and mayhem toward Israel, the west and Jewish communities around the world, but whose ideology and operations are deeply tied to the tyrannical regime in Iran. So complete and damning is Levitt’s documentation of the intricate role that Tehran, and specifically the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has played in the murder of innocent people by employing Hezbollah as its proxy Hezbollah, that this text should be required reading for any world leader inclined to give Iran leeway when it comes to their behavior on the world stage.

As Levitt describes it, the partnership that exists between Iran and Hezbollah is symbiotic, with each one providing the other with something vital needed at the operational level in their joint effort to wreak havoc. The author’s discussion of terrorism in South America illustrates this point well, as he explores the cooperation of Iran and Hezbollah in the July1994 bombing of the Asociacon Mutual Israelita Argentina, or AMIA, as it is more commonly known. Levitt points out that in this case Iranian leaders were intimately involved, writing, “A subgroup of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the Committee for Special Operations , made the final decision to approve the attack.” He later adds, “... once the committee reached its decision, Supreme Leader Khamanei issued a religious edict – a fatwa – sanctifying the operation as a sacred duty aimed at exporting the revolution. Intelligence chief Ali Fallahian was then given overall operational responsibility for the attack …”

This terrorist incident, which targeted a major center of Jewish life in the country, was particularly traumatic for world Jewry, and I’m glad to see the author devote an entire chapter to this incident, as well the context surrounding it. Furthermore, given the recent death (likely murder) of Alberto Nisman, an Argentine special prosecutor investigating the AMIA attack, Levitt’s discussion of Iran’s role in supporting terrorism in South America is all the more relevant today.

Beyond providing a thorough analysis of the ties between a Lebanese terrorist group and the Persian hegemon, this book is also a careful, thought-provoking study of the ways in which Hezbollah has evolved and spread, from its roots within the Lebanese civil war and family clans to a global network of operatives, murderers, supporters and sympathizers more than happy to take innocent lives when ordered or asked to do so. It further documents the consistent targeting of Israeli civilians both abroad and inside Israel by the group, as well as the dangerous role that Iran and its agents have played in Iraq following the US invasion, fomenting instability in Iraqi politics and targeting American military personnel.

Given the pervasive threat that Hezbollah presents around the world, it is no surprise that a wide range of intelligence and security agencies are working hard to limit the impact of the group, but as Levitt makes clear in his book, this is no easy task. As the author describes the efforts of the United States, Israel and other western powers to disrupt Hezbollah networks and prevent attacks it is clear that there are two main obstacles to achieving this goal, neither of which seems easy to overcome.

The first is the extensive and varied support that Iran supplies to the group, making significant financial, diplomatic, communications and intelligence resources available to those within Hezbollah who are planning and executing terror attacks. This combination of a brazen willingness to put the full resources of a nation state behind a terror group, and the eagerness with which Tehran employs Hezbollah as a proxy, do not bode well for those looking to limit the effectiveness of the group. Commenting on the ways that Hezbollah has served Iranian interests in particular in the Persian Gulf, Levitt writes , “…Tehran has traditionally seen Hezbollah as a strategic tool with which to project power without having to contend with the consequences of such activities.”

The second major challenge that Levitt outlines in his book is that in addition to actual Hezbollah operatives and emissaries, there are many individuals who are supportive of the group's ideology and are very willing to assist indirectly in an attack if called upon to do so. The scary thing about these people is that they may otherwise give no indication of support for radical Islamism, but if asked to provide a fake passport, purchase explosive precursors or rent an apartment in their own name to use as a safe house, they have no problem whatsoever doing so. On every continent except Antarctica it seems that the terror group has managed to establish itself in one way or another, probing for vulnerabilities in its enemies, procuring weapons, raising money and recruiting individuals for indoctrination and training.

Given this reality, the situation that Levitt describes is daunting, but ultimately, perhaps, not without possible remedies. For one thing, international consensus could be achieved that despite its charitable work and role in Lebanese politics, Hezbollah is not a force for good in the world. If anything, these other activities are a bid for legitimacy and political cover that no nation-state should be willing to grant them. No matter what the stated purpose is, no representative of the group should be able to raise money anywhere on the planet – in lawless regions such as parts of Africa and South America this will be hard to enforce – but in Europe and Asia there is no excuse not to prevent them from access to terror funding. Levitt also demonstrates in his book that Iran is willing to go to extraordinary lengths in order to hide its connection to Hezbollah, so perhaps shining a brighter spotlight on this relationship could also cause Tehran to pull back a bit, reducing the flow of funding and support to Hezbollah, if only temporarily.

For readers less familiar with the ins and outs of regional conflict in the Middle East or international terrorism, the book may be a bit intimidating at first, but it still offers a highly readable, well-paced introduction to the cancer that is Hezbollah and Iranian state-sponsored terrorism. For those who come to the book with some background knowledge on the topics covered they will find a meticulously researched, erudite and engaging account of the ways in which Hezbollah and Iran are making the world less safe for everyone, and for these readers, this book is likely to find a valuable place on their bookshelf.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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