By Matthew Levitt, Special to AJC

In recent years Hezbollah has come under increased international scrutiny. In 2013 the European Union blacklisted its military wing and the Gulf Cooperation Council designated the entire organization a terrorist group. And yet the group continues to  operate around the world. Even after  the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran deal), when one might have thought that Hezbollah’s patrons in Tehran would be less likely to promote international terrorism, Hezbollah operatives continue to engage in a wide range of activities around the world.

Less than a week after the Iran deal was completed, Israeli officials arrested a Swedish-Lebanese man, Hassan Khalil Hizran, at Ben Gurion Airport for attempting to gather intelligence on Israeli targets for  Hezbollah.[1] And just days before the signing, a Lebanese-Canadian man confessed his ties to Hezbollah and said the group had directed him to attack Israeli targets.[2] He was jailed in Cyprus after authorities seized nine tons of a chemical compound used in bomb making from his home there. Indeed, Hezbollah has remained on the same bloody path  before, during, and after the Iran deal.

Nor were such activities limited to targeting Israel. Hezbollah continues to flex its muscles at home in Lebanon as well, including bombing BLOM Bank in Beirut in 2016[3] and tightening its hold  on the Lebanese government after the May 2018 elections. In February 2017, the Treasury Department designated Beirut-based IRGC Qods Force officer Hasan Dehgah Ebrahimi, who served as an Iranian moneyman for Hezbollah working out of Lebanon. Several Hezbollah-affiliated companies in Lebanon were also designated at that time, underscoring the extent to which Hezbollah uses and abuses  Lebanese businesses and financial institutions  to facilitate its financial activities.[4]

Treasury’s May 24, 2018, designation of nine individuals and entities associated with Iran’s Mahan Air only further highlights Hezbollah’s reach in the region.[5] According to Treasury, the designated facilitators “have been procuring parts and providing services for the fleets of Iranian airlines… [I]in doing so, they extend a lifeline to the IRGC-QF and enable the Iranian regime to transport weapons, fighters, and money to its proxies, including Hizballah….”

Beyond Lebanon, Hezbollah has in recent years become still more active across the region and around the world, building and maintaining networks in regions as far afield as Africa, Southeast Asia, North and South America, and Europe.

Hezbollah and the Syrian Civil War

Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has made the group a regional actor and has brought it closer to Iran. By siding with the Assad regime, its Alawite supporters, and Iran, and taking up arms against Sunni rebels, Hezbollah has placed itself at the epicenter of a sectarian conflict that has nothing to do with the group’s purported raison d’être: “resistance” to Israeli occupation.

Speaking in late May 2013, Hezbollah Secretary General Nasrallah declared that the battle in Syria was Hezbollah’s fight: “We will continue along the road, bear the responsibilities and the sacrifices. This battle is ours, and I promise you victory.”[6] To that end, Hezbollah went ”all-in” fighting alongside Assad regime loyalists and Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen against Syrian rebels. The impact of Hezbollah’s involvement cannot be overstated, as was seen most clearly in the 2013 battle for Qusayr, where Hezbollah gunmen reportedly fought house to house, took significant losses, and played the decisive role in turning the tide against the rebels.[7] That battle also laid bare the myth that Hezbollah was not fighting in Syria. Although Hezbollah had already admitted it was fighting there, it insisted that it was only operating  along the border to protect ethnic Lebanese living on the Syrian side of the border, or protecting Shi’a shrines, specifically the Sayyeda Zeinab shrine in Damascus. These narratives, used by Hezbollah and its allies in Iran and Iraq, have pervaded its propaganda since the beginning of its involvement in the regional conflicts.[8]

Hezbollah’s destabilizing activities in Syria date almost to the beginning of the country’s uprising in 2011. Within weeks, Nasrallah himself called on all Syrians to stand by the regime.[9] As reports emerged in May 2011 that Iran’s Qods Force was helping the Syrian regime crack down on anti-government demonstrators, Hezbollah denied playing “any military role in Arab countries.”[10] But by the following month, Syrian protesters were heard chanting not only for Assad’s downfall, but also against Iran and Hezbollah. Video footage showed protesters burning posters of Nasrallah.[11] According to a senior Syrian defense official who defected from the regime, Syrian security services were unable to handle the uprising on their own. “They didn’t have decent snipers or equipment,” he explained. “They needed qualified snipers from Hezbollah and Iran.”[12] Over time, Hezbollah increasingly struggled to conceal its on-the-ground support of the Assad regime. In August 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted Hezbollah, already on its  terrorism list, this time for providing support to the Assad regime. Since the beginning of the rebellion, Treasury explained, Hezbollah had been providing “training, advice, and extensive logistical support to the Government of Syria’s increasingly ruthless efforts” against the opposition.[13] Hezbollah’s ”resistance” rhetoric notwithstanding, U.S. officials informed the UN Security Council in October 2012 that “the truth is plain to see: Nasrallah’s fighters are now part of Assad’s killing machine.”[14] Two months later, a UN report confirmed Hezbollah members were in Syria fighting on behalf of the Assad government.[15]

In the spring of 2013, Hezbollah became  more public  in the fight against the Syrian rebels by placing  martyrdom notices for fallen Hezbollah fighters  on the group’s official and unofficial websites, forums, and Facebook pages.[16] Given  Hezbollah’s organization structure and disciplined messaging, it is likely these notices were sanctioned by the leadership even though  they did not publicly admit to being involved in Syria until late May 2013. Experts generally agree that 6,000 to 9,000 Hezbollah fighters are currently in Syria,[17] with 3,000 more available as needed.[18] Some reports estimate  the number  currently deployed is as high as 20,000 fighters.[19] Hezbollah has proven to be an invaluable fighting force for Iran and the Assad regime. Yet the losses have been heavy – Hezbollah has lost at least 1,000 fighters in Syria, along with senior Hezbollah leader Mustafa Badreddine, reportedly killed in an explosion in Damascus in May 2016.[20] Given Badreddine's role as head of the group's External Security Organization and its forces in Syria, his death represents Hezbollah's biggest loss since the 2008 assassination of former "chief of staff" Imad Mughniyah. The strongest indicators of Hezbollah’s transformation since the beginning of its involvement in Syria are structural. Since 2013, the group has added two new military commands—one on the Lebanese–Syrian border, another within Syria itself—to its longstanding military commands in southern and eastern Lebanon.[21]

With so many operatives deployed  in Syria, and the group’s financial and logistical resources also going primarily to support that fight, Hezbollah’s militia, is—for the time being—somewhat distracted from its traditional objective of battling Israel. At the same time, Hezbollah’s terrorist wing—the Islamic Jihad Organization or External Security Organization—is also preoccupied and less capable of carrying out operations abroad. Key ESO leadership has been redirected to the fight in Syria, including the late ESO chief, Mustapha Baddredine.

And yet, Hezbollah remains a regional and international security threat—beyond its destabilizing role in the war in Syria.

Hezbollah’s Pivot to the Gulf

Next to Syria, Hezbollah’s regional reorientation is most obvious in its increased operational tempo in the Gulf.[22]

In Yemen, a small number of Hezbollah operatives have been training Houthi rebels for some time, but in early 2016 the Gulf-backed Yemeni government claimed to have physical evidence of “Hezbollah training the Houthi rebels and fighting alongside them in attacks on Saudi Arabia's border.”[23] Three years earlier, the U.S. government revealed that Khalil Harb, a former special operations commander and a close adviser to Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, was overseeing Hezbollah's activities in Yemen. He has also traveled to Tehran to coordinate Hezbollah’s operations in Yemen with Iran.[24] Harb, however, is not the most senior operative dispatched to Yemen by Hezbollah. In the spring of 2015, Hezbollah sent Abu Ali Tabtabai, a senior Hezbollah commander formerly stationed in Syria, to upgrade the group's training program for Yemen's Houthi rebels, which reportedly involves schooling them in guerilla tactics.[25] In early 2018, the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen reported that weapons smuggled to the Houthis were being sent by Hezbollah directly from a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut.[26] And in June 2018, the coalition reported that eight Hezbollah fighters were killed fighting alongside Houthi rebels in Yemen.[27] Nasrallah denied the killings,[28] and Yemen’s foreign minister issued a formal letter of protest to his Lebanese counterpart in July 2018, objecting to Hezbollah’s active backing of Houthi rebels.[29]

Beyond Yemen, Hezbollah’s support for terrorist groups in the Gulf region also continues unabated. In January 2017, authorities in Bahrain arrested six members of a terrorist cell tied to Hezbollah and blamed for a July 2015 explosion outside of a girls’ school in Sitra. [30] In August 2015, Kuwaiti authorities raided a terrorist cell of 26 Shi’a Kuwaitis. The cell was accused of amassing “a large amount of weapons, ammunition, and explosives.” [31] After media outlets reported alleged links of the cell to Iran and Hezbollah, the public prosecutor issued a media gag order on the investigation. [32] In January 2016, a Kuwaiti court sentenced a Kuwaiti and an Iranian national to death for spying on behalf of Iran and Hezbollah.[33] In June 2016, a court in Abu Dhabi found the wife of a “prominent Emirati” guilty of spying for Hezbollah.[34] The following month, a Kuwait court sentenced a Shi`a member of parliament in absentia for issuing statements deemed insulting to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and for calling on people to join Hezbollah.[35]

According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Hezbollah has also invested in commercial front organizations to support its operations in Iraq.[36] Treasury reported that Hezbollah member Adham Tabaja, the majority owner of the Lebanon-based real estate and construction firm Al-Inmaa Group for Tourism Works, has exploited the firm’s Iraqi subsidiaries to fund Hezbollah, with the assistance of Kassem Hejeij, a Lebanese businessman tied to Hezbollah, and Husayn Ali Faour, a member of Hezbollah’s overseas terrorism unit. The U.S. Treasury has also designated money launderer Mohamad Noureddine and his partner Hamdi Zaher El Dine, noting that Noureddine is "a Lebanese money launderer who has worked directly with Hezbollah's financial apparatus to transfer Hezbollah funds" through his companies while maintaining "direct ties to Hezbollah commercial and terrorist elements in both Lebanon and Iraq."[37]

This past May, the U.S. Department of Treasury imposed sanctions on Valiollah Seif,  governor of the Iraq-based Central Bank of Iran,  its chairman Aras Habib, and key Hezbollah affiliate Muhammad Qasir.[38] All of these entities and individuals helped facilitate the movement of millions of dollars on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) to Hezbollah, demonstrating Hezbollah’s continued presence in the Gulf.

In March 2016, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) labeled Hezbollah a terrorist group.[39] Since then, the Gulf States have cracked down on Hezbollah supporters and financiers within their borders.[40] The GCC designated Hezbollah  a terrorist organization over the “hostile actions of the militia who recruit the young people [of the Gulf] for terrorist acts.”[41] The Arab League and the OIC followed suit within weeks.[42]

In May 2018, the U.S. Department of Treasury, in partnership with seven GCC members of the Terrorist Finance and Targeting Center (TFTC), designated members of Hezbollah’s Shura Council. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin noted Hezbollah’s destabilizing presence in the region in the Treasury’s press release: “Under the dictates of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), Secretary General and head of the Shura Council Hasan Nasrallah is prolonging the human suffering in Syria, fueling the violence in Iraq and Yemen, putting the Lebanese state and the Lebanese people at risk, and destabilizing the entire region.”[43]

Hezbollah in the Western Hemisphere

Hezbollah's global footprint, however, is broader still, with support networks in  Africa, Southeast Asia, North and South America, and Europe.[44] Hezbollah receives significant financial backing from the contributions of supporters living abroad, particularly from Lebanese nationals living in Africa, South America,, and other places with large Lebanese Shi’a expatriate communities. Over time, these communities developed into a global support network available not only to raise funds, but also to provide logistical and operational support for Hezbollah operations. Such support networks, sometimes comprising a few individuals and in other cases larger, more organized cells, have developed in Latin America, North America, Europe, Africa, and in Middle Eastern countries with minority Shi’a populations such as Saudi Arabia.

North America

Hezbollah maintains a sizeable network of supporters and operatives in North America. In October 2015, authorities in the United States and France coordinated law enforcement actions leading to the arrests of Joseph Asmar in Paris and Iman Kobeissi in Atlanta. Kobeissi informed a DEA undercover agent posing as a narcotics trafficker that her Hezbollah associates sought to purchase cocaine, weapons, and ammunition. Asmar, an attorney, discussed potential narcotics deals with a DEA undercover agent and suggested he could use his connections with Hezbollah to provide security for narcotics shipments. In the DEA recording of the conversation, the two discussed their money-laundering network and the services they provided to drug traffickers, terrorist organizations, and other criminal groups in Lebanon, Iran, France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Benin, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Cyprus, and cities across the U.S..[45]

In October 2017, a joint FBI-NYPD investigation led to the arrest of two individuals who were allegedly acting on behalf of Hezbollah’s terrorist wing, the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO).[46] At the direction of their Hezbollah handlers, one person allegedly “conducted missions in Panama to locate the U.S. and Israeli Embassies and to assess the vulnerabilities of the Panama Canal and ships in the Canal,” according to a Justice Department press release. The other allegedly “conducted surveillance of potential targets in America, including military and law enforcement facilities in New York City.” In the wake of these arrests, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center warned: “It’s our assessment that Hezbollah is determined to give itself a potential homeland option as a critical component of its terrorism playbook, and that is something that those of us in the counterterrorism community take very, very seriously.”[47] These cases, one official added, are “likely the tip of the iceberg.”[48]

Hezbollah, the U.S. intelligence community determined  as recently as February 2018, is clearly committed to stoking the flames of regional conflicts: “Lebanese Hezbollah has demonstrated its intent to foment regional instability by deploying thousands of fighters to Syria and by providing weapons, tactics, and direction to militant and terrorist groups.” But that is not all: “Hezbollah probably also emphasizes its capability to attack U.S., Israeli, and Saudi Arabian interests.”[49]

South America

Today, Hezbollah is more invested in South American operations than ever before. Not only are counterterrorism officials tracking the group's operational plotlines there on a regular basis, but one of the most prominent perpetrators behind the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires has  risen in the organization's ranks and is personally overseeing its operations in the region.[50] Salman al-Reda, whose true name is reportedly Salman Raouf Salman, was the on-the-ground coordinator of the AMIA bombing. A dual Lebanese-Colombian citizen who at various times lived in Colombia, Buenos Aires, and the Tri-Border area, he fled the region after the bombing before being indicted by Argentine authorities for his role in the attack. But in the years that followed, he served as an active member of Hezbollah's Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO)/External Security Organization (ESO). He was especially active in Southeast Asia and South America in the 1990s, including a flurry of missions in 1997 with three visits to Panama, two to Colombia, and one to Brazil. After  Mohammad Hamdar was arrested in Peru, he identified Reda as the Hezbollah operative who served as his handler and with whom he met on three different occasions in Turkey to plan the Peru operation.[51]

What is less well known about Hezbollah’s presence in South America, however, is that Hezbollah is also active in Chile, Venezuela, Cuba, Panama, and Ecuador. Of particular concern to law enforcement officials throughout South America is Hezbollah's increased activity in free-trade zones, often  under the cover of import-export companies.[52]

Consider the arrests by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Europol that targeted what U.S. law enforcement now refer to as the Business Affairs Component (BAC) of Hezbollah’s terrorist wing, the IJO/ESO. BAC, which engages in drug trafficking and drug smuggling, was founded, according to U.S. officials,  by deceased Hezbollah Senior Leader Imad Mughniyah and currently operates under the control of senior Hezbollah official Abdallah Safieddine and recently  Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) Adham Tabaja.[53]

The BAC established working relationships with South American drug cartels that supplied cocaine to drug markets in both the U.S. and Europe. It would then launder the drug proceeds through the well-known Black Market Peso Exchange. In late January 2016, the DEA and Customs and Border Protection coordinated with multiple foreign counterparts to arrest top leaders of Hezbollah’s BAC, including U.S.-designated SDGT Mohamad Noureddine, who has worked directly with Hezbollah’s financial apparatus to transfer Hezbollah funds via his Lebanon-based company Trade Point International S.A.R.L. and maintained direct ties to Hezbollah commercial and terrorist elements in both Lebanon and Iraq.[54] The U.S. Department of Treasury similarly targeted Noureddine,  his accomplice Hamdi Zaher El Dine, and their company Trade Point International S.A.R.L.[55]

The extent of Hezbollah’s drug connection was underscored once more in the wake of the U.S. Treasury designation of Panama-based narcotics kingpin  Waked Money Laundering Organization in May 2016.[56] The press release tied to this action mentions neither Hezbollah nor Iran, but the action reportedly proved  particularly damaging for both Hezbollah and Iranian illicit financial conduct in the region. When this  money-laundering organization was targeted, it tied up illicit finances linked to various Iran Threat Network entities, including Hezbollah, and forced them to find other money- laundering channels in the region. Much of that activity reportedly shifted to the Tri-Border Area, and to Paraguay in particular.

One of the group’s  recently foiled plots was in Peru and involved a Hezbollah operative married to a U.S. citizen. Peruvian counterterrorism police arrested the Hezbollah operative in Lima in November 2014, the result of a surveillance operation that began several months earlier. In that case, Mohammed Hamdar, a Lebanese citizen, arrived in Peru in November 2013 and married a dual Peruvian-American citizen two weeks later. When he was arrested in October, police raided his home and found traces of TNT, detonators, and other inflammable substances. A search of the garbage outside his home found chemicals used to manufacture explosives.[57]

In the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, Brazilian authorities arrested former Hezbollah member Fadi Hassan Nabha. According to police, Nabha served in Hezbollah’s special services and had weapons and explosives training.[58] September 2016 saw two more arrests of key Hezbollah operatives in the region: Khalil Mohamed El Sayed and Mohammed Jalil. El Sayed, a Lebanese naturalized Paraguayan, was arrested while trying to enter Argentina using counterfeit documents. The U.S. has investigated El Sayed for six years for his involvement in Hezbollah, and Brazil has accused him of  involvement in drug and arms trafficking for over eight years.[59] Jalil, also a Lebanese-Paraguayan attempting to enter Argentina on false papers, was arrested on similar charges, including affiliation with Hezbollah, drug and arms trafficking, and  credit card fraud. Jalil is wanted in the U.S., Brazil, and Paraguay.[60]

Most recently, on May 17, Lebanese citizen Mohamed Nader Farhat and his partner, Yu Pei Wu, from Taiwan, were captured in a series of raids carried out in Cuidad del Este, Paraguay.[61] Nader Farhat is the brother-in-law of Walid Sweid, a prominent businessman who has been accused of money laundering for Hezbollah.[62] During this raid, undercover Paraguayan agents seized cash in a variety of currencies that amounted to more than $1 million (U.S.)  from two exchange houses. According to the investigation, money was apparently laundered from both  exchange houses to finance Hezbollah. Public prosecutor Marcelo Pecci said that money from the exchange houses was sent abroad in several cases, and that the owners of the houses have been issued arrest warrants.[63]

Across the border, Argentina’s Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) froze the assets of 14 members of the so-called Barakat network, led by U.S.-designated Hezbollah operative Assad Ahmad Barakat.[64]  Assad Barakat has long been known to “use every crime in the book…to generate funds for Hezbollah.”[65]  According to the FIU, these individuals were reportedly laundering the proceeds of criminal enterprises through a casino in Iguazu, Argentina, to finance Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s ties to certain governments in Latin America have also raised  concern. Of note, the current vice president of Venezuela, Tareck al-Aissami, was designated by the Treasury Department in February 2017 under a counter-narcotics authority[66] and is also reportedly close to Hezbollah.[67]

Hezbollah in Africa

Alongside its clandestine foreign operatives, Hezbollah also maintains a more public international presence through its Foreign Relations Department, which has representatives around the world. FRD activities in Africa have been particularly disconcerting.

According to U.S. intelligence, “Hezbollah maintains several front companies in sub-Saharan Africa.”[68] In May 2009, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Kassim Tajideen as “an important financial contributor to Hezbollah who operates a network of businesses in Lebanon and Africa,” and in March 2017, he was arrested in Morocco and charged with evading U.S. sanctions. [69] According to the U.S. Treasury’s fact sheet, Tajideen contributed tens of millions of dollars to Hezbollah and funneled money to the group through his brother, a Hezbollah commander in Lebanon. Tajideen, a dual citizen of Lebanon and Sierra Leone, was joined by his brothers in running “cover companies” for Hezbollah in Africa, the Treasury revealed.[70]

In fact, Tajideen had already been under investigation six years earlier. In May 2003, after a four-month international investigation by Belgium’s Economic Crimes Unit, Belgian Judicial Police raided the Antwerp offices of Soafrimex, a Lebanese export company owned by Kassim Tajideen, arrested several of its officials, and froze its bank accounts on charges of “large-scale tax fraud, money laundering, and trade in diamonds of doubtful origin, to the value of tens of millions of euros.” Tajideen and his wife were also arrested. A few months later, Belgian authorities informed officials from the Congolese Embassy that an investigation conducted on the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) demonstrated that “the company systematically undervalued its imports, shipping and insurance costs and that it filed false customs declarations.”[71]

In December 2010, the Treasury Department targeted two more Tajideen brothers—Ali and Husayn—as Hezbollah financiers, designating them and several of their companies, including Arosfram.[72] Described as “two of Hezbollah’s top financiers in Africa,” the two brothers ran a multinational network that generated millions of dollars for Hezbollah, according to the U.S. Treasury. The businesses targeted by the Treasury Department were located as far afield as  The Gambia, Sierra Leone, the DRC, Angola, the British Virgin Islands, and Lebanon. The Treasury added that Ali alone provided huge cash payments to Hezbollah, in amounts as large as $1 million r. And while he was apparently a major donor to Hezbollah, Ali Tajideen was no mere fundraiser, the Treasury stressed; he was also “a former Hezbollah commander” in Lebanon.[73]

In May 2018, Morocco severed diplomatic ties with Iran over evidence that Iran used Hezbollah to support the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, a Western Sahara independence movement. Morocco’s foreign minister stated that Iran and Hezbollah were helping train Polisario fighters and shipping weapons through the Iranian embassy in Algiers.[74] Senior Hezbollah military officials have reportedly been making visits to Polisario refugee camps since March 2017[75] and the  relationship has been ongoing for two years.[76]

In late May 2018, Treasury designated Hezbollah financier Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi and five companies he owns or controls, some of which have ties to West African countries.[77] For example, Bazzi’s Global Trading Group NV, a global energy products and services company, has locations in Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Ivory Coast, and Benin. Euro African Group LTD, for which Bazzi is the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director as well as majority shareholder, is located in The Gambia. In fact, Global Trading Group and Euro African Group claim to have been “the exclusive importer of all fuel products into [T]he Gambia since 2003.” Through these and other companies, Bazzi has provided millions of dollars to Hezbollah.[78]

Hezbollah and Israel’s Northern Borders

Even as Hezbollah has poured considerable weaponry and manpower[79] into the conflicts in Syria and Iraq,[80] it has also directed third-party actors to carry out terrorist attacks. In January 2016, Israeli authorities arrested five Palestinians for planning an attack "organized and funded by Hezbollah."[81] According to Israeli officials, the leader of this West Bank cell was recruited by Hassan Nasrallah's son Jawad. Hezbollah trained and directed the group to surveil Israeli targets, giving the men $5,000 to carry out suicide bombings and other attacks. Based on these and other cases, a senior Israeli official warned in February 2016 that Iran was "building an international terror network" of cells with access to weapons, intelligence, and operatives to carry out attacks in the West.[82]

Hezbollah Weapons Buildup

Since at least January 2017, Iran has been establishing rocket factories in Lebanon that are fully controlled by Hezbollah.[83] According to one of the deputy heads of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the factories are underground and are protected by layers of defense to shield against Israeli bombing.[84] Each factory only produces certain rocket parts, all of which are ultimately collected and assembled into complete rockets.[85] The decision to produce rockets inside Lebanon came after Israel bombed weapons facilities in Sudan and supply routes for Iranian rockets through Syria.

According to Israeli assessments, Iran wants to increase its production efforts as well as improve the accuracy of Hezbollah’s missiles and rockets.[86] After discovering the facilities, Israel  threatened to attack them.

Last September it appeared that  Iran had stopped construction of the facilities. However, this past January, IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, in a rare article published in Arabic publications, wrote that Israel believes that Iran has resumed building weapons facilities in Lebanon. General Manelis reported:  

Through the actions and inaction of the Lebanese authorities, Lebanon is turning into one big missile factory while much of the international community looks the other way. It's no longer about transfers of arms, money or advice. De facto, Iran has opened a new branch, the Lebanon branch -- Iran is here... Iran and Hezbollah are currently trying to build a precision missile factory.[87]

Manelis also warned that Hezbollah is storing weapons in villages and towns in southern Lebanon, noting that “One of every three or four homes in southern Lebanon is a command post, position, weapons warehouse or hiding place for Hezbollah.”[88]

 Furthermore, the Israeli Navy has warned that “the next war with Hezbollah could see a focus on the sea.”[89] The former deputy chief of Israel’s naval operations, Shaul Chorev, has warned that Israel “must assume they will use asymmetric warfare to challenge Israeli technology like land to sea missile or suicide ships like you see in Yemen.”[90] While Hezbollah does not necessarily want to start a war with Israel, should  war  break out Hezbollah’s strategy would be to target Israeli strategic assets, such as its maritime power.[91] This could be particularly dangerous for Israel as the country is highly dependent on sea imports, with over 90 percent of Israel’s imports arriving by ship, and Israeli leaders may be less attentive to the maritime domain relative to other threats.[92]

Shia Militias and Hezbollah leaders on Israel’s Border

Beyond the weapons buildup on Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah and Shia militia leaders have made several visits to Israel’s borders. This past December, the leader and founder of Shia militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali, along with several others in military uniform, visited the Israeli-Lebanese border. One of those guiding al-Khazali showed him the areas overlooking Israeli towns and villages. The video of the visit, which was aired by Asaib al-Haq al-Ahd TV station, showed al-Khazali standing on the border near the Fatima Gate in the Lebanese village of Kfar Kila. In the video al-Khazali can be heard saying: “We declare our full readiness to stand united with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause in the face of the Israeli occupation.”[93]

In a rare article published on Arab websites,  IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis wrote:

If I had to choose my picture of the year on the Lebanese front, I would go back to the joint tour by the commander of the southern Lebanon front of Hezbollah and his friend, the commander of one of the Shi’ite militias loyal to Iran, Qais al-Khazali…. The picture expresses, better than anything else, Iranian involvement in Lebanon and lifts the curtain over the increasing reality of closer Iranian control in Lebanon. It’s clear that ”terrorist tourism” is the tangible expression of the danger to the future of Lebanon and of the entire region— danger of a takeover by those doing Tehran's bidding.[94]

In addition to the visits that Shia militia leaders have paid to Israel’s northern borders, Hezbollah members dressed in civilian clothing continue to patrol the border with Israel. According to Manelis, Hezbollah has even invited journalists for special tours of the border, showing “its ‘scorn’ for Lebanon sovereignty and UN Security Council resolutions.”[95]

In October 2017, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Military Intelligence identified Munir Ali Naim Shaiti, also known as Haj Hasham, as Hezbollah’s new commander on the Syrian-held side of the Golan Heights.[96] Shaiti, from southern Lebanon, spends most of his time in Syria, where he oversees  security and operations for Hezbollah. He is also responsible for preparing Hezbollah’s military infrastructure for a possible future war with Israel. According to Israeli Intelligence sources, Shaiti receives his orders from Major General Qasem Suleimani.[97]

Prior to assuming this role, it is believed that Shaiti was the deputy chief of Hezbollah Bader Brigades, which is responsible for Hezbollah’s terrorist operations north of the Litani River in Lebanon.[98] He assumed his current role in June 2016, replacing Samir Kuntar who was killed in December 2015.[99]

Most recently, opposition forces in southern Syria arrested eight suspected Hezbollah members, one of whom said he was waiting for orders to fire rockets into Israel, including four grad rockets with a range of 40 kilometers.[100]


Speaking in 2016, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah was crystal clear on his plans for  Hezbollah’s future: “If Hezbollah emerged from the 2006 war a regional force,” Nasrallah declared, “it will emerge from [the] Syria crisis an international force."[101] Less than two years later, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that  Hezbollah was indeed following that path: “Iran and its strategic partner Lebanese Hezbollah also pose a persistent threat to the U.S. and its partners worldwide.”[102]

And yet, despite this strategic partnership, Hezbollah is also part of the fabric of Lebanese politics, as  Secretary of State Tillerson noted the very next day. Tillerson recognized Iran’s “unhelpful influence” over Hezbollah and Lebanon, but added, “We also have to acknowledge the reality that they [Hezbollah] also are part of the political process in Lebanon.”[103]

Therein lies the key to understanding Hezbollah: As an organization, Hezbollah has a well-defined, hierarchical structure, but it also has multiple parts, and multiple interests and objectives. At times, different interests and objectives are prioritized over others, as in Hezbollah’s military deployment to Syria despite the domestic political cost to the group at home in Lebanon. What drives this calculus, however, especially in recent years, has been Hezbollah’s close ties with, and commitment to, Iran.

The good news is that the international community is coming together to address the threat from Hezbollah and Iransometimes referred to as the Iran Threat Network. For example, the Law Enforcement Coordination Group (LECG) has met six times in various locations around the world to address Hezbollah’s terrorist and criminal activities.  The latest meeting, held in Quito, Ecuador, was convened by the U.S. and Europol and held under the auspices of Ameripol.[104] The LECG will next meet in Europe, where more than 30 governments—along with officials from Europol and Interpol—will convene to compare notes on Hezbollah activities in their far-flung jurisdictions and strategize on how to best cooperate to counter Hezbollah terrorist and criminal operations.


Dr. Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler fellow and director of the Reinhard program on counterterrorism and intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Georgetown University Press, 2013)


[3] Nathan Sales and Nicholas Rasmussen, “Briefing on U.S. Efforts to Counter Hezbollah,” U.S. Department of State, October 10, 2017,

[4] “Treasury Sanctions Supporters of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force,” February 3, 2017,

[5] “Treasury Targets Procurement Networks and 31 Aircraft Associated with Mahan Air and Other Designated Iranian Airlines,” U.S. Department of Treasury, May 24, 2018,

[6] Khashan, Hilal, “The Rise and Growth of Hezbollah and the Militarization of the Sunni-Shiite Divide in Lebanon,” Middle East Institute, January 26, 2016,

[7] Khashan, Hilal, “The Rise and Growth of Hezbollah and the Militarization of the Sunni-Shiite Divide in Lebanon,” Middle East Institute, January 26, 2016,

[8] U.S. Cong., Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Statement by J. Matthew McInnis, Iranian Deterrence Strategy and Use of Proxies, 114th Congress, 2nd sess., 2016, 

[9] “Nasrallah calls on Syrians to support Assad,” Aljazeera, May 25, 2011,

[10] Thomas El-Basha, “Nasrallah Blasts Obama, Urges Arabs Withdraw Peace Initiative,” Daily Star [Beirut], May 25, 2011,

[11] “Syrian Protestors Turn on Iran and Hezbollah,” France 24, June 3, 2011.


[12] Nate Wright and James Hidler, “Syrian Regime ‘Importing Snipers’ for Protests,” Australian, January 26, 2012.


[13] “Treasury Designates Hizballah Leadership,” U.S. Treasury Department, September 13, 2012.

[14] Edith M. Lederer, “US Says Hezbollah is Part of Assad’s War Machine,” Associated Press, October 15, 2012.


[15] “Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syria Arab Republic Established Pursuant to United Nations Human Rights Council Resolutions S-17/1, 19/22 and 21/26,” UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, December 20, 2012.

[16] Phillip Smyth, “Hezbollah’s Fallen Soldiers,” Foreign Policy, May 22, 2013.

[17] Mona Alami, “Hizbollah’s evil hand continues to stir Syria’s war,” National, April 18, 2017,

[18] Daniel Byman, “Hezbollah’s growing threat against U.S. national security interests in the Middle East,” Brookings, March 22, 2016.

[19] Daniel Byman, “Hezbollah’s growing threat against U.S. national security interests in the Middle East,” Brookings, March 22, 2016.

[20] Mroue, Bassem and Sarah El Deeb, “Lebanon's Hezbollah most senior commander killed in Syria,” Associated Press, 13 May 2016,

[21] U.S. Cong., House of Representatives, Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, Statement by Matthew Levitt, Major Beneficiaries of the Iran Deal: IRGC and Hezbollah, 114th Cong., 1st sess., 2015.

[22] Levitt, Matthew, “Hezbollah’s Pivot Toward The Gulf,” CTC Sentinel, 22 August 2016,

[23] Angus McDowall, “Yemen government says Hezbollah fighting alongside Houthis,” Reuters, February 24, 2016,

[24] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Press Release: Treasury Sanctions Hizballah Leadership.”

[25] U.S. Department of State, “State Department Terrorist Designation,” press release, October 20, 2016,

[26] “Arab coalition: Weapons smuggled to Yemen's rebels come from Lebanon's Hezbollah stronghold,” National, March 29, 2018,

[27] “Saudi-led coalition says Hezbollah fighters killed in Yemen battles,” Reuters, June 25, 2018,

[28] “Hezbollah denies 8 fighters killed in Yemen,” Agence France-Presse, June 29, 2018,

[29] “Yemeni FM protests against Hezbollah in letter to Lebanese counterpart,” Al Arabiya, July 11, 2018,

[30] “Bahrain says it dismantled Iran-linked terror cell,” Agence France-Presse, January 6, 2016,

[31] U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2015,” June 2016,

[32] Ibid.

[33] Yara Bayoumy, “Kuwait court sentences two to death for spying for Iran, Hezbollah,” Reuters, January 12, 2016,

[34] “UAE Jails Emirati Woman on Charges of Spying for Hezbollah,” Agence France-Presse, June 28, 2016,

[35] “Kuwait jails Shiite MP for insulting Saudi, Bahrain,” Agence France-Presse, July 27, 2016,

[36] “Treasury Sanctions Hizballah Front Companies and Facilitators in Lebanon And Iraq,” U.S. Department of Treasury, June 10, 2015,

[37] "DEA and European Authorities Uncover Massive Hizballah Drug and Money Laundering Scheme," U.S . Drug Enforcement Administration, February 1, 2016,

[38] “Treasury Targets Iran’s Central Bank Governor and an Iraqi Bank Moving Millions of Dollars for IRGC-Qods Force,” U.S. Department of Treasury, May 15, 2018,

[39] Anne Barnard, “Saudi Arabia Cuts Billions in Aid to Lebanon, Opening Door for Iran,” New York Times, March 2, 2016,

[40] “Saudi and UAE ban citizens from travelling to Lebanon,” Al Jazeera (Doha), February 23, 2016,

[41] “GCC declares Lebanon's Hezbollah a 'terrorist' group,” Al Jazeera (Doha), March 2, 2016,

[42] Rania El Gamal and Sam Wilkins, “Saudi Arabia blacklists four firms, three Lebanese men over Hezbollah ties,” Reuters, February 26, 2016,

[43] “Treasury and the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center Partner Together to Sanction Hezbollah’s Senior Leadership,” U.S. Department of Treasury, May 16, 2018,

[44] See Hezbollah in Europe paper for more details

[45] U.S. Department of Justice, Eastern District of New York – U.S. Attorney’s Office, Two Hezbollah Associates Arrested On Charges Of Conspiring To Launder Narcotics Proceeds And International Arms Trafficking, New York, 9 October 2015,

[46] U.S. Department of Justice, “Two men Arrested for Terrorist Activities on Behalf of Hizballah’s Islamic Jihad Organization,” press release, June 8, 2017,

[47] U.S. Department of State, “Briefing on U.S. Efforts to Counter Hizballah,” Special briefing, October 10, 2017,

[48] Bryan Bender, “Trump takes new aim at Hezbollah, part of tougher Iran stance,” Politico, October 5, 2017,

[49] U.S. Congress, U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Statement by Daniel Coats, Worldwide threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,”

[50] Author interview with counterterrorism officials, June 9, 2015

[52] Matthew Levitt, “Hezbollah Finances: Funding the Party of God,” in Jeanne K. Giraldo and Harold A. Trinkunas, eds.,Terrorism Financing and State Responses: a Comparative Perspective (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2007).

[53] “DEA and European Authorities Uncover Massive Hizballah Drug and Money Laundering Scheme,” U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, February 1, 2016,

[54] “DEA and European Authorities Uncover Massive Hizballah Drug and Money Laundering Scheme,” U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, February 1, 2016,

[55] “Treasury Sanctions Key Hizballah Money Laundering Network,” U.S. Department of Treasury, January 28, 2016,

[56] “Treasury Sanctions the Waked Money Laundering Organization,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, May 5, 2016,

[57] Mitra Taj, “Lebanese Detainee in Peru Denies Hezbollah Link, Says Police Coerced Confession,” November 14, 2014,

[58] “Brazil nabs former Hezbollah member wanted for drug trafficking,” Reuters, July 29, 2016,

[59] Rizzi, Maximiliano and Stauffer, Caroline, “Argentine detains terrorism suspect wanted in U.S.,” Reuters, September 7, 2016,

[60] “Argentina arrests Hezbollah official over money laundry,” Orient News, September 13, 2016.

[61] Edgar Medina, “Desmantelan una red de lavado de dinero que estaria ligada a Hezbollah,” Ultima Hora, May 18, 2018,

[62] Emanuele Ottolenghi, “The Enemy in our Backyard: Examining Terror Funding Streams from South America,” Hearing before the House Committee on Financial Services, June 8, 2016,

[63] Edgar Medina, “Desmantelan una red de lavado de dinero que estaria ligada a Hezbollah,” Ultima Hora, May 18, 2018,

[64] “Financiacion del Terrorismo,” Unidad de Informacion Financiera de la Republica Argentina (UIF-AR) July 13, 2018,

[65] “Treasury Designated Islamic Extremist, Two Companies Support Hizballah in Trib-Boirder Area,” U.S. Department of Treasury, June 10, 2004,

[66] “Treasury Sanctions Prominent Venezuelan Drug Trafficker Tareck El Aissami and His Primary Frontman Samark Lopez Bello,” U.S. Department of Treasury, February 13th 2017,

[67] Emanuele Ottolenghi, “Meet Venezuela’s New VP, fan of Iran and Hezbollah,” The Hill, January 3, 2017,

[68] U.S. intelligence official, interview by author, Washington, DC, July 2003

[69] U.S. Department of Treasury Press Center, “Treasury Targets Hizballah Network in Africa.”; “Lebanese Businessman Tied to Hizballah Arrested for Violating IEEPA and Defrauding the U.S. Government,” U.S. Department of Justice, March 24, 2018,

[70] U.S. Department of Treasury Press Center, “Treasury Targets Hizballah Network in Africa.”

[71] “Coin in the Congo: The Moral Bankruptcy of the World Bank’s Industrial Logging Model,” Green-peace, April 11, 2007, 34, available at <>.

[72] U.S. Department of Treasury Press Center, “Treasury Targets Hizballah Financial Network,” press release, December 9, 2010, available at

[73] U.S. Department of Treasury Press Center, “Treasury Targets Hizballah Financial Network,” press release, December 9, 2010, available at <>.

[74] “Morocco Severs Diplomatic Ties With Iran Over Hezbollah's Support For Local Rebels,” Reuters, May 1, 2018,

[75] Mouzahem, Haytham, “Morocco-Algeria tensions flare over claims of Hezbollah support to Polisario,” May 22, 2018,

[76] “Morocco cuts Iran ties over alleged Hezbollah arms delivery to separatist group,” AFP, May 1, 2018,

[77] “Treasury Targets Key Hizballah Financing Network and Iranian Conduit,” U.S. Department of Treasury, May 17, 2018,

[78] “Treasury Targets Key Hizballah Financing Network and Iranian Conduit,” U.S. Department of Treasury, May 17, 2018,

[79] Phillip Smyth, “The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects,” The Washington Institute, February 2015,

[80] Matthew Levitt and Nadav Pollak, “Hizbullah Under Fire in Syria,” Tony Blair Faith Foundation, June 9, 2016,

[81] Steven Erlanger, “Israel Arrests 5 on Suspicion of Planning Attack for Hezbollah,” New York Times, January 20, 2016,

[82] “Israeli Defense Minister: Iran Setting Up Global Terror Network, ‘Including in Europe and America,” Haaretz, AP, February 24, 2016,

[83] Avi Issacharoff, “Iran sets up underground rocket factories in Lebanon report,” Times of Israel, March 13, 2017,

[84] Avi Issacharoff, “Iran sets up underground rocket factories in Lebanon report,” Times of Israel, March 13, 2017,

[85] Avi Issacharoff, “Iran sets up underground rocket factories in Lebanon report,” Times of Israel, March 13, 2017,

[86] Amos Harel, “Iran Resumes Building Missile Plants in Lebanon, Israeli Army Warns in rare Article in Arab media,” Haaretz, January 30, 2018,

[87] Amos Harel, “Iran Resumes Building Missile Plants in Lebanon, Israeli Army Warns in rare Article in Arab media,” Haaretz, January 30, 2018,

[88] Amos Harel, “Iran Resumes Building Missile Plants in Lebanon, Israeli Army Warns in rare Article in Arab media,” Haaretz, January 30, 2018,

[89] Anna Ahronheim, “Hezbollah may use suicide ships in next war, former naval officer warns,” Jerusalem Post, January 28, 2018,

[90] Anna Ahronheim, “Hezbollah may use suicide ships in next war, former naval officer warns,” Jerusalem Post, January 28, 2018,

[91] Anna Ahronheim, “Hezbollah may use suicide ships in next war, former naval officer warns,” Jerusalem Post, January 28, 2018,

[92] Anna Ahronheim, “Hezbollah may use suicide ships in next war, former naval officer warns,” Jerusalem Post, January 28, 2018,

[93] Agencies, “Lebanese PM slams visit by Iran-backed Iraqi militia chief to Israeli border,” Times of Israel, December 9, 2017,

[94] Amos Harel, “Iran Resumes Building Missile Plants in Lebanon, Israeli Army Warns in rare Article in Arab media,” Haaretz, January 30, 2018,

[95] Amos Harel, “Iran Resumes Building Missile Plants in Lebanon, Israeli Army Warns in rare Article in Arab media,” Haaretz, January 30, 2018,

[96] Anna Ahronheim, “Israel unmakes new Hezbollah commander on Syrian Golan,” Jerusalem Post, October 25, 2017,

[97] Anna Ahronheim, “Israel unmakes new Hezbollah commander on Syrian Golan,” Jerusalem Post, October 25, 2017,

[98] Anna Ahronheim, “Israel unmakes new Hezbollah commander on Syrian Golan,” Jerusalem Post, October 25, 2017,

[99] TOI Staff, “Samir Kuntar said killed in Israeli strike, Times Of Israel, ,” December 20, 2015,

[100] Judah Ari Gross, “Nabbed Hezbollah member says he was awaiting orders to fire rockets at Israel, Times Of Israel, May 7, 2018,

[101] “Hezbollah will emerge victorious in any war against Israel: Nasrallah,” Al-Masdar News, August 8, 2016,

[102] Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Daniel R. Coats Statement for the Record for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” May 11, 2017,

[103] U.S. Department of State, “Remarks at Memorandum of Understanding Signing and Press Conference,” February 14, 2018,

[104] U.S. Department of State, “Sixth Meeting of the Law Enforcement Coordination Group Focused on Countering Hizballah's Terrorist Activities in the Americas,” media note, June 14, 2018,

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