At the tail end of November, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced sanctions against 12 Hezbollah members and institutions that engage in business with the party and finance its activities across the Middle East. “The kingdom will continue to combat Hezbollah’s terror activities with all the available means, and will continue to work with the partners across the world [in this regard],”the statement said.
Riyadh’s decision came a week after the US Senate passed a bill to block Hezbollah’s financing activities by imposing sanctions on all international financial institutions that knowingly engage with Hezbollah and its enablers. The bill also aims at identifying Hezbollah’s satellite and Internet providers, which support its television network, Al-Manar. US government agencies have been trying to curb Hezbollah’s finances for years by blacklisting businessmen who funded the party. Gulf countries have also been deporting Shiite businessmen and confiscating their assets for years. But analysis say that the Syrian war and the emergence of the Islamic State, as well as the recent attacks in Paris and Beirut, might have increased Hezbollah’s popularity as well as the donations reaching its pockets.
Analysts say that while the war in Syria seemed to have overstretched Hezbollah and made recruitment a struggle, the war effort was counterbalanced by enthusiasm raised by the framing it as a holy war. The enthusiasm was not just seen in Lebanon, but also among the youth in the Shiite Lebanese diaspora. Many young men have returned to Lebanon to join Hezbollah’s troops in Syria — some allegedly using their Westrern passports in planned attacks against Israeli targets on foreign soil while others continue to donate and finance the Party of God.
The holy war against takfiris
Hezbollah does not have an obvious strategy to recruit youth from the Shiite Lebanese diaspora in order to fill its ranks of troops in Syria. However, analysts say there are young men who do come back to Lebanon to join the fight against thetakfiris. The reason is that Hezbollah, just like ISIS, its Sunni enemy on the ground, has been framing its involvement in Syria as the holy war of the end of days.
“Logically, I believe that, just like there are people born in France or America or Europe who are attracted by the idea of fighting alongside ISIS, there are definitely other people who belong to the Shiite community who are attracted by the idea of fighting alongside Hezbollah,” Lebanese analyst Ali al-Amin told NOW. “The idea of sectarian struggle creates this environment and attracts people who do not currently live in the Middle East, where the direct fight occurs. But they respond to the call to the sacred war — Hezbollah and ISIS base their propaganda on religious slogans to justify their involvement in the war in Syria. The sacred war attracts many people who are relatively far away, but feel that they are concerned by the fight,” he said.
Al-Amin says that in European communities, specifically, Muslims have not been able to feel integrated and have continued living in closed groups, which has made them more vulnerable to radical discourse and to cling to group identities, he said.
According to Mohamad Haidar, an analyst whose name has been changed for security reasons, Hezbollah has used the term “jihadist duty” in the past to justify youth joining the fight in Syria. “But later the war became holy. They were defending the shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab,” said Haidar. “This line of propaganda also helped raise enthusiasm among the youth. Hezbollah is counting on the importance of the holy sites and religious shrines related to the Shiites. The party started to organize trips to the holy places in Iraq: the southern town of Nabatiyeh was empty last week because all its inhabitants were on a Hezbollah-organized pilgrimage to Karbala.”
Haidar added that this enthusiasm within the Shiite supporters of Hezbollah in Lebanon is matched by the enthusiasm among the supporters in the diaspora. “I know a Lebanese family from Australia that arrived in Karbala a few days ago to commemorate the 40 days since Imam Hussein’s death.”
The alleged plots
Expatriates are never full members of Hezbollah, according to Haidar. But he says the diaspora is very valuable to Hezbollah in terms of business and finances, as well as freedom of movement. “They are official members of the party only when they’re foreign agents. But their number is very small and they are under very tight surveillance from the party,” Haidar said. “The freedom of movement for the members of Hezbollah is limited. They cannot travel wherever they want; they need prior authorization by the leadership of the party and they always travel with a mission.”
A man with a mission was Hussein Bassam Abdallah, sentenced to six years in prison for plotting a terrorist attack in Cyprus after being caught with 8.2 tons of fertilizer in Larnaca. Abdallah had a Canadian passport and admitted in front of the court that he was part of Hezbollah’s military wing. The 26-year-old pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and said he repented and cooperated with the investigation, according to AFP reports. His defense was based on the argument that the man was only in charge of keeping the bomb-making fertilizer safe, and not to carrying out the attacks. Abdallah was arrested in May 2015, but according to the Cypriot investigators he had been stockpiling ammonium nitrate since 2012. Coincidentally, 2012 was the year that Cypriot authorities arrested another Lebanese young man with a Swedish passport who was gathering intelligence on the Israeli tourist charters landing in Larnaca. Housam Taleb Yaacoub also admitted to having been recruited by Hezbollah as a courier and was sentenced to four years in prison in Limassol.
Donations and fundraising
Hezbollah is not the only Lebanese party that receives donations from supporters in the diaspora. “Whoever is ready to participate in a fight and maybe get killed supporting a political party is definitely ready to transfer money to people who are fighting these sacred wars. Therefore, financial donations are always sent to Lebanon, but it’s really difficult to quantify these remittances,” Al-Amin said. He also said that such donations increased after the Syrian conflict because of the religious aspect of it. While the fight against Israel was a political struggle, the war against the Sunni radicals in Syria and Iraq is sectarian — it has a stronger religious echo.
“After the Syrian war, Hezbollah became a representative of the sectarian Shiite nerve. The party is now attracting people because of the war between Shiites and other sects. Lately, Hezbollah abandoned the idea of Muslim unity and started fighting as a Shiite party. This is very similar to ISIS or Al-Qaeda’s strategy and this definitely draws more support.”