May 15, 2020 — Paris, France
By Bruno Tertrais
The State of Play
Hezbollah has emerged from the Syrian war both weaker and stronger. Weaker because it has endured a significant loss of fighters—about 2,000 of its 10,000 available troops. In addition, the financial cost of the war and sanctions on Iran have decreased available funds for personnel costs, social services, and support to families.
But the war has also made Hezbollah stronger. It has gained significant experience in joint military combat operations (with Iranian and Russian air forces). It has proven a reliable partner for Damascus and reinforced the idea of a “strategic partnership” between equals. And it has been able to portray itself as a guarantor of Lebanese sovereignty and borders.
Hezbollah has become the dominant political party in Lebanon, winning13 seats in the 2018 election. With a total of 29 seats, Shi’a movements reinforced their positions. As a result, Hezbollah and its political allies (the March 8 Alliance) control a majority of the Parliament. Hezbollah itself received three portfolios in the government formed in 2019, including for the first time a health ministry with a significant budget.
In violation of UN resolutions, Hezbollah has refrained from disarming and has continued to engage in military activities in Lebanon. This is one reason it decided to seriously invest in the Lebanese political scene after 2006 -- to ensure that it would not be subjected to the UN provisions.
In addition to acting like a “quasi-State”, Hezbollah is an organization with a global reach. It is present in several dozen countries, notably where Lebanese diasporas have a longstanding implantation such as Latin America.
Iran remains a significant donor to the organization and traditionally has provided up to $900 million a year – two-thirds of Hezbollah’s budget – until 2018. But Iran has reduced its transfers due to sanctions and U.S. pressures on banks. As a result, Hezbollah has considerably diversified its sources of income through money laundering, as well as arms, tobacco, and drug trafficking.
The idea that there are at least two different wings in the movement, including one “political” and another “military”, is acknowledged by most experts to be largely a fiction or at least an irrelevant distinction. As is well-known, the same “Shura Council” heads both activities, or branches, under the direction of the same person, Hassan Nasrallah. The Shura Council oversees lower-level Shura councils including the “Political council” and the “Jihad council”. Numerous statements by Hezbollah representatives have disputed or even mocked the distinction between the two. A recent example is Hezbollah spokesperson Ibrahim Mussawi who told Spiegel Online that “Hezbollah is a single large organization, we have no wings that are separate from one another. What’s being said in Brussels doesn’t exist for us” Dutch intelligence acknowledged this reality by stating in 2004 that “Hezbollah’s political and terrorist wings are controlled by one coordinating council”. In sum, Hezbollah is more like a matryoshka doll than a many-headed serpent.
Hezbollah and Europe
Over the past two decades, Europe has been rightly obsessed with terrorism perpetrated by Sunni jihadist groups. The memories of Iranian and Hezbollah attacks and abductions of the 1980s are largely gone. There is also a disposition in certain European political and intellectual quarters to buy the Iranian narrative that is presented as contrary to Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Republic, Iran claims, “represents an ancient civilization,” has “a highly educated middle class,” which is eager for opening to the West and “has never started a war against its neighbors.”
These factors explain in part why European activities by Shi’a jihadist movements tend to be dismissed except by the intelligence and security services.
However, European interests are clearly threatened by Hezbollah, in three respects: presence and propaganda on the continent; activities of funding and procurement in Europe or by European nationals; and attacks and threats of attacks.
Presence and Propaganda on the Continent
The organization is reportedly present one way or another in at least a dozen European countries. Such presence includes propaganda and operations inside Europe. Hezbollah also uses the continent as a staging area and recruiting ground for operations outside Europe.
Germany's domestic intelligence agency has reported that Hezbollah at one time had nearly 1,000 active operatives in the country.
In 2004, France banned Al-Manar television. Earlier this year, it closed down one of the largest Shi’a propaganda centers in Europe, the Zahra Centre France, and clamped down on three affiliate organizations (the Anti-Zionist Party, the Shi’a Federation of France, and France Marianne TV), on the grounds that all three sympathized with Hezbollah’s terrorist activities.
Activities of Funding and Procurement in Europe or by European Nationals
In recent years, a number of arrests have testified to the growing extent of Hezbollah criminal activities in Europe, mostly related with money laundering, trafficking, and arms procurement.
- In 2013, two Lebanese passengers at a Brussels airport were caught with nearly 770,000 Euros in their possession. Europol suspected that some of this cash was intended for Hezbollah.
- Also, in 2013, Germany raided the offices of the Orphan Children Project Lebanon in Essen, accusing the group of serving as a Hezbollah fundraising front organization.
- In 2014, the U.S. Treasury blacklisted a network of individuals centered around a Lebanese firm (Stars Group Holding), which allegedly functioned as a key Hezbollah procurement network to acquire drones and was active in Europe.
- In 2015, Hezbollah weapons procurer Ali Fayyad was detained in the Czech Republic, and later expelled to Lebanon after the disappearance of five Czech citizens.
- Also in 2015, a French-Lebanese national, Iman Kobeissi, was arrested in Paris and arraigned on money-laundering conspiracy charges, unlicensed firearms dealing, conspiracy for laundering funds believed to be drug money, and for arranging the sale of thousands of firearms, including military assault rifles, machine guns, and sniper rifles.
- In 2016, a major international operation led to the arrest of several Hezbollah members in France, Italy, Belgium, and Germany, on suspicions of criminal charges involving drugs and money laundering to fund the organization’s weapons procurement. The operation revealed the existence of a massive Hezbollah drug and money laundering scheme operating largely in Europe.
- In 2016, Colombia-based Hezbollah associate Mohammad Ammar was arrested in the United States for laundering narcotics from or through several countries, including the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
- In 2016, French-Lebanese national Ali Ahsoor was arrested in Cote d’Ivoire. Authorities caught him trying to smuggle 1.7 million Euros to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
- In 2018, the U.S. Treasury designated Hezbollah financier Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi and five companies he owns or controls. Bazzi had provided millions of dollars to Hezbollah from the businesses he operates, inter alia, in Belgium. One of the designated companies was Global Trading Group NV, a Belgian energy services conglomerate.
Attacks and Threats of Attacks
In the 1980s, Hezbollah (acting at least partly as an instrument of Tehran) was responsible for major terrorist acts against European countries, notably France, which actively supporting Iraq during its war against Iran. This included, notably, the deadly attacks against French soldiers in Lebanon in 1983 (58 deaths) and 1986 (4 deaths), a number of abductions of European citizens in Lebanon, and a bombing campaign in France in 1986.
Since then, Hezbollah had limited its attacks against Europe (even though its Iraqi equivalent was responsible for a number of attacks against British soldiers in Iraq).
However, in 2012, Hezbollah was responsible for the bombing of a bus carrying Israeli tourists at Burgas airport (Bulgaria), which killed six persons as well as the perpetrator, a dual Lebanese-French citizen. The Burgas bombing was a somber reminder that Hezbollah had not given up deadly operations on the continent.
Other incidents pointed to that as well. In 2012, several plots were disrupted in Cyprus and Greece. Days before the Burgas bombing, Cypriot authorities arrested Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, a Lebanese-Swedish man traveling on a foreign passport, who later testified that he was an active member of Hezbollah sent to Cyprus to conduct surveillance. In 2015, Hussein Bassam Abdallah, a Lebanese national (with a forged British identity), admitted stockpiling 8 tons of ammonium nitrate in Cyprus. It was learned in 2019 that this was part of a broader effort to stockpile ingredients to make explosives throughout Europe, in preparation for a massive campaign of massive attacks.
The French presence in UNIFIL has been the subject of many Hezbollah threats. As early as 2000, a Hezbollah parliamentarian warned “God help you, the French, if you come to South Lebanon!”. In 2008, a political adviser to the Socialist Party was abducted by Hezbollah for a few hours. In 2011, two small-scale unsigned attacks against French soldiers in South Lebanon took place. Notable also was the warning contained in an article published by a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper in April 2018, in case Paris was to join in the United States in striking Syria after it used chemical weapons: “What are the French doing? Do they realize how foolishly they are behaving? Do they need someone to refresh their memory and remind them of the scenes of severed soldiers’ limbs and [military] headquarters destroyed?”
What Should Europe Do?
Europe recognized the nefarious nature of the grouping by designating its “military wing” a terrorist entity in 2013 (something the United Kingdom had already done in 2008) through Common Position 931. But this has not deterred it from continuing its activities on the continent.
In addition, the absence of any common European reaction to major events such as those which happened in Bulgaria (2012) and in the Czech Republic (2015), inter alia, may have projected an image of weakness to Hezbollah.
Three European countries have designated Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization: the Netherlands, the United Kingdom in 2019 and Germany on April 30, 2020. In 2018, 60 European lawmakers urged the EU to blacklist the entire organization.
A designation of Hezbollah in toto as a terrorist entity would reconcile the law with the facts, might ease the prosecution of its members, and would project an image of toughness. The EU’s definition of terrorist acts is “intentional acts which, given their nature or context, may seriously damage a country or international organisation and which are defined as an offence under national law”. This certainly applies to Hezbollah activities on the continent.
There are also, however, arguments in favor of the status quo, which can be discussed:
- A traditional argument is the hope that a movement like Hezbollah would become more “moderate” as it becomes more inserted in Lebanon’s political life. While not entirely invalid – it has accepted the Lebanese rules of the game and refrains, for instance, from abductions on the national territory – one can hardly say that the movement has morphed into a peaceful and benign political party.
- Another one, quite in vogue in France, is that a designation of the whole movement would risk “destabilizing” Lebanon. This is dubious: the political play in the country hardly depends on the legal status of some of its components abroad. It could equally be said that a designation might, at least marginally, help delegitimize the organization and reduce its domestic weight.
- The idea that a designation would endanger the lives of Europeans, for instance, of soldiers serving in UNIFIL, is unconvincing, given Hezbollah’s record. It is also hardly supported by precedents (such as the designation of Hamas).
- A more important argument is that a designation would prevent any dialogue with Hezbollah as a political force. However, this would be true only if the designation specifically forbade contacts. (For instance, the EU’s common position on Hamas does not, in itself, preclude contact with the group’s members.) Also, Western governments know how to use intermediaries to communicate with terrorist movements if needed.
- Perhaps the most significant argument relates to the current geostrategic environment. If relations between the United States and Iran were to degrade significantly, it might be useful for certain European countries (France in particular), to maintain a credible ability to speak with all parties.
In any case, a common EU position on Hezbollah’s designation, assuming it was desirable, is likely unattainable at this point. But this does not mean that Europe can do nothing. A possible way forward could include the following elements:
- European countries that have not designated Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization should seriously assess, and regularly (say, annually) reassess, the real costs and benefits balance of doing so.
- EU members which are seen as “softer” or “weaker” by Hezbollah should harden their national stance by unilateral declarations.
- Any “next” event involving the Hezbollah in Europe or about Europe should be the occasion of a firm common EU declaration.
- The designation of Hezbollah should also be seen as a card in European relations with Iran and with Syria – especially since those two countries, more than Lebanon, hold the keys to the movement’s future.
The question of the designation of Hezbollah by European countries and by the EU is partly a question of reconciling the law with the facts. But it will remain ultimately a question of politics. As such, any decision regarding its status should be part of a broader diplomatic and/or counterterrorism strategy.
Bruno Tertrais is Deputy Director of the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (Foundation for Strategic Research), in Paris.
 Also of note is the death of a French national working at the Eilat Club Med when a rocket was fired from
 Quoted in François d’Alençon, ”Le Hezbollah met en garde la France”, La Croix, 5 June 2000.
 Quoted in “After France Indicates Willingness To Join Attack On Syria, Pro-Hizbullah Lebanese Daily 'Al-Akhbar' Warns That French Troops Could Be Targeted”, MEMRI Special Dispatch 7427, 12 April 2018, https://www.memri.org/reports/after-france-indicates-willingness-join-attack-syria-pro-hizbullah-lebanese-daily-al-akhbar
 Common Position 2001/931/CFSP.