By Michael B. Kraft
Matthew Levitt's new book: "Hezbollah, The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God" is a real eye opener, both for readers with a general interest in the Middle East as well as those with some knowledge of this major player.
In addition to sending snipers and other gunmen to help Assad's government battle the rebels, Hezbollah has been involved in major attacks against American embassies and engaged in numerous terrorist activities in far flung areas of the world. It has worked often with Iran, its sponsor. Indeed, although "Hezbollah: The Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God" lives up to its title, it also provides a great deal of detail about Iran's terrorist warfare against the United States.
The well-researched book is organized in chapters describing Hezbollah's activities in various regions of the world, ranging from the Middle East (including Iraq) to Africa, Latin America and the Far East as well as the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. It describes not only the group's terrorist operations, successful and foiled, but also the world wide criminal and financial activities of this group that calls itself a resistance organization against Israel.
With many small brush strokes, describing in often minute detail and including many names of Hezbollah relatively little known operatives, Dr. Levitt paints a huge canvas, illuminating Hezbollah's wide ranging terrorist and criminal activities. Although the book could have benefited from some diagrams, it is fast paced. Dr. Levitt and his researchers draw from court cases, declassified intelligence documents, interviews, and a variety of sources ranging from New Zealand and Africa to the usual ones in the United States and various close allies such as Canada.
Dr. Levitt's book provides impressive new details about Hezbollah's attacks on Americans, including the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing in 1983 that killed 241 servicemen. This attack led to President Reagan's withdrawal of the U.S. Peacekeeping Force from Lebanon, a move that Obama Bin Laden cited as a sign of American weakness. The book also cites a CIA report that says Iran's leaders drew a similar conclusion.
Of particular human interest is the book's detailed discussion of the kidnappings of dozens of Americans and other westerners in Lebanon during the 1980's. The book makes clear that the motives for the kidnappings were attempts to obtain the release of imprisoned terrorists, not U.S. policy toward Israel or other policy issues as some political figures with an agenda falsely asserted at the time. (I was one of the State Department officials working on the problem in the late 1980's and can attest to Dr. Levitt's accuracy on this point.)
Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group, of course is best known for its wars against Israel, first leading the effort to get Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon and, despite the withdrawal in 2000, launching hundreds of missiles against Israel in 2006. Rather than elaborating on the well publicized resulting battles with the Israeli Defense Forces, the book focuses on Hezbollah's too often overlooked terrorist operations in other parts of the world. It does contain a chapter on Hezbollah's attempted terrorist attacks within Israel, in conjunction with Palestinian terrorist groups.
Dr. Levitt also illuminates in sharp detail Hezbollah's bombing of the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1994 that killed 85 persons and wounded another 50. The book also describes a series of smaller attacks in other countries, more recently the July 2012 bombing of Israeli tourist bus in Bulgaria that killed 7 people. The book also describes the 1996 attack tanker truck bomb attack of the U.S. Air Force living quarters in Kobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 airmen and wounded nearly 500 Saudis and others. Investigators concluded Iran was also involved in that operation.
Despite some of Hezbollah's spectacular attacks in the 1980's and 1990's many of its recent operations have been poorly planned and executed and often foiled by local authorities(some of them trained by the U.S. anti-terrorism training programs). In short, despite potential future threats, especially if acting at the behest of Syria or Iran, Hezbollah should not be regarded as 10 feet tall.
Hezbollah is formally designated by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization under a 1996 U.S. law that makes it a criminal offense for American persons to knowingly provide funding or other forms of material support. Nevertheless, Hezbollah has engaged fund raising activities through front "charities." It also has operated a number of illegal scams in the U.S., including shipping cigarettes from North Carolina, selling them in high tax states such as Michigan and pocketing the difference, and even selling counterfeit Viagra.
These illegal activities are not just an American problem. The book also describes in detail Hezbollah's criminal activities in Canada and Latin America, including involvement in drug trafficking.
Dr. Levitt is well qualified to delve into these issues, having served as the deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Treasury Department, and as an FBI counter- terrorism analyst. He is a senior fellow and director of the of the counter-terrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a prominent Washington think tank. In addition, he teaches at Georgetown University.
Some countries, including those in the European Union, have been loath to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group on the grounds that it also provides some social welfare services in Lebanon and is a political party in that fractured country. "Hezbollah, The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God" makes it clear that whatever social services Hezbollah may provide, it is primarily a terrorist group that, to paraphrase the State Department definition of terrorism, conducts acts of violence against noncombatants for political purposes. Finally on September 9, 2013, after many efforts by the United States, Dr. Levitt and others, and the investigation into the Bulgarian bombing last year, the European Union finally declared Hezbollah's military wing a terrorist group, thus imposing some sanctions. However the EU stopped short of designating the entire organization as a terrorist group, maintaining the fiction that the two wings were separate.
This ignores an important goal in formally labeling a group as a terrorist organization; that is to criminalize its fund raising activities. As Congress says in the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (Section 301):
"Foreign organizations that engage in terrorist activity
are so tainted by their criminal conduct that any contribution
to such an organization facilitates that conduct."
Dr. Levitt's valuable and insightful book makes it crystal clear that Hezbollah is indeed a heavily tainted terrorist organization.
The reviewer, a retired State Department Counterterrorism official, is a consultant and co-author of "U.S. Government Counterterrorism, A Guide to Who Does What."