The inner workings of Hezbollah
Shiite Muslim pilgrims affiliated to Hezbollah take part in rituals on January 25, 2011.
November 3rd, 2011
03:22 PM ET

The inner workings of Hezbollah

Nicholas Blanford's new book , Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel takes an exclusive look at the group - based on over ten years of reporting in Lebanon and what he says is unprecedented access to Hezbollah’s leaders, commanders, and fighters.   A resident of Lebanon since 1994, Nicholas Blanford is a regular contributor to Time magazine and IHS/Jane's Information Group publications as well as the Beirut correspondent for The Times of London and Christian Science Monitor.

Blanford spoke with CNN's Nicole Dow about his new book.

SECURITY CLEARANCE: How did you gain such exclusive access to Hezbollah?

BLANFORD: It's the result of following the organization for 16 years, specifically their military activities from the mid-1990s, when they were confronting Israel's occupation of south Lebanon, and on to the present day. Over time, it's natural that you build contacts. Technically, Hezbullah members should not talk to foreigners, let alone foreign journalists without authorization. But over the years, trust developed and they became accustomed to me. Mind you, what grassroots cadres reveal to me is a fraction of what they really know, but it's still more than they give to other people.

SECURITY CLEARANCE: Through your reporting, what did you learn that was surprising?

BLANFORD: Because I have been covering Hezbollah since the mid-1990s, I have been on a steady learning curve. It has been fascinating to see the organization evolve militarily and politically in real time during this period. I think if anything took me by surprise during these years, it was learning the extent of their underground facilities – the bunkers and tunnels – that they built in total secrecy between 2000, when Israel withdrew from south Lebanon, and 2006, when war broke out between Hezbollah and Israel. The scale and sophistication were astonishing, particularly as no one – not U.N. peacekeepers, Israeli reconnaissance aircrafts, nor nosey journalists – had spotted a thing. In 2007, I was lucky enough to independently find and explore some of Hezbollah's bunkers which they had abandoned after the 2006 war. The largest one had lighting, water pipes, a hot water boiler, kitchen, bathroom, dormitory, latrine, and sewage system beneath the concrete floor, all dug inside the middle of a mountain two miles north of the border with Israel and no one knew it existed before the 2006 war.

SECURITY CLEARANCE: What do you think people need to know/should know about Hezbollah?

BLANFORD: Hezbollah is probably the most formidable non-state military force in the world. The array of weapons believed to be at its disposal and the level of technology it utilizes these days are quite extraordinary. In the next war with Israel, Hezbollah will have the missile capability to strike specific buildings in Tel Aviv and attack shipping as far south of Lebanon as off the Gaza coastline. The next war between Hezbollah and Israel will be devastating for Lebanon, but also will probably be the most destructive for Israel since 1948.

Hezbollah does not share the nihilism of Al-Qaeda and does not see itself at the vanguard of an anti-Western jihad. Hezbollah's focus, under Iranian guidance and assistance, is chiefly the struggle against Israel. But it also serves as a component of Iranian deterrence. Anyone considering an attack against Iran and its nascent nuclear facilities must also take into account the reaction of Hezbollah.

SECURITY CLEARANCE: You mention another war between Hezbollah and Israel. What could potentially spark this?

BLANFORD: I think that another war between Hezbollah and Israel is all but inevitable. The previous war in 2006 ended inconclusively and since then both sides have been undertaking enormous military preparations in readiness for the next encounter. That said, neither side is seeking a conflict at this time. The consequence of another war is so huge that its acts as a form of deterrence. The Lebanon-Israel border is enjoying its longest period of calm in more than 40 years, yet none of the drivers that led to war in the past have been addressed and the balance of terror between Hezbollah and Israel remains inherently unstable. There are a number of scenarios that could trigger another war, but assessing which is impossible at this stage. It could be related to the uprising in Syria or an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities or a simple miscalculation by one side.

SECURITY CLEARANCE: Much has been written about Hezbollah's religious and military training practices. What is unique about these processes and how do they differ from those of its counterparts?

BLANFORD: Hezbollah's leaders believe that it is the psychological quality of the combatants more than the sophistication and number of weapons at their disposal that makes their fighters so formidable. Certainly, military training is important, from the fitness and basic weapons handling skills new recruits learn at camps in Lebanon to specialized training in missiles, explosives, sniping, communications etc in Iran. But the new recruits also undergo intensive religious courses in which they are taught the importance of jihad and martyrdom and Hezbollah's ideological doctrine. The religious and ideological instruction is intended to help Hezbollah combatants overcome the material shortcomings in weaponry compared to Israel. Israel might have tanks and jets, but Hezbollah's combatants are taught that God is on their side, guaranteeing the sanctity of their cause and eventual victory.

That said, Hezbollah fighters are not mindless drones, and you will find some whose religious commitment and desire to achieve martyrdom in combat is much stronger than others.

SECURITY CLEARANCE: How does the organization recruit its members and fighters? Do they fit a particular profile?

BLANFORD: Hezbollah employs recruiters whose job is to look out for potential new candidates for the organization. The recruiters will watch young men in their neighborhoods, sometimes for years, to see if they have the right qualities for membership. Essentially, they are looking for healthy, pious, and modest individuals. Those that drink, smoke, chase girls and drive fast cars stand little chance.

Each new recruit is vetted for security to make sure his background is clean. There then begins the process of religious education and basic military training which can last for a couple of years, although the military training never stops. There is no compulsion to join Hezbollah. If a recruit decides after several months that Hezbollah is not for him, he is free to leave.

SECURITY CLEARANCE: Hezbollah has grown and evolved since its inception in 1985. What is the future outlook for Hezbollah in Lebanon and in the Middle East overall?

BLANFORD: Hezbollah is the strongest political and military force in Lebanon and the power behind the Lebanese government. But its determination to keep its weapons has polarized the Lebanese and lies at the heart of the country's festering political divide. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Israel was occupying southern Lebanon, Hezbollah had broad concensus among Lebanese to pursue its resistance campaign. But Israel withdrew from south Lebanon 11 years ago and Hezbollah has not fired a shot at Israel since the 2006 war. The Lebanon-Israel border is at its quietest in more than four decades even as Hezbollah has grown militarily stronger. Hezbollah's Lebanese opponents fear that the organization's hostility toward Israel and ideological ties to Iran will drag Lebanon into another destructive war.

Other than attempting to defend its military status in Lebanon, Hezbollah faces problems elsewhere. Four Hezbollah members have been indicted by an international tribunal for their alleged role in the 2005 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister and Sunni leader, a deeply damaging accusation for a Shia organization and one that is rejected by Hezbollah's leadership. More crucially, the uprising in Syria threatens to collapse a regional anti-Israel alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah that has endured for decades.

Hezbollah has shown great skill in the past two decades at adapting to shifting political circumstances, but today it faces probably its greatest set of challenges since it first emerged in the early 1980s.

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Filed under: Author • Hezbollah • Iran • Israel • Lebanon • Middle East • Syria
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