Until 9/11, no terrorist organization had killed more Americans than Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group: From the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, which killed 241 Marines, to the 1996 detonation of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. airmen, Hezbollah’s anti-American curriculum vitae was long and bloody. Today it remains an efficient global terror operation, having executed bombings on four continents, built a presence on six and even branched out to drug trafficking.
Despite this record, Hezbollah (the «Party of God» in Arabic) is still viewed in some quarters as little more than a parochial Lebanese political party with an armed wing charged solely with resisting an Israeli occupation that ended 13 years ago, on May 25, 2000. It’s this myth that Matthew Levitt explodes in «Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.» The author, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former FBI counterterrorism analyst, narrates the full history of the organization in absorbing detail with an emphasis on its 30-year history of terrorism. While scholarly in tone and approach, Mr. Levitt’s book delivers suspenseful and even terrifying blow-by-blow accounts of the most infamous of Hezbollah’s attacks. He can’t dramatize all of them, though, because there are too many—far more than most people realize, because until now no one had bothered to document them in one place.
Hezbollah traces its origins to Iran’s 1979 revolution. The mullahs knew that unless they aggressively exported their theocratic ideology after the revolution, Iran risked becoming, in the words of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, just «an ordinary country.» So the regime created Hezbollah as the overseas branch of its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—the tip of an Iranian imperial spear.
The group first coalesced in 1982 in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, as a loose confederation of Shia Islamist cells under various names. By the mid-1980s it had become a more formal organization. Lebanon, with its large Shia population, was the perfect place for Tehran to export its revolution, and the early 1980s, in the midst of civil war and Israeli occupation, was the perfect time.
Hezbollah cut its teeth in Beirut, first by destroying the U.S. Embassy in 1983, then by deploying suicide truck bombers simultaneously against American Marines and French soldiers on peacekeeping missions in October of the same year.
«The Marine barracks bombing,» Mr. Levitt writes, «was not only the deadliest terrorist attack then to have targeted Americans, it was also the single-largest non-nuclear explosion on earth since World War II.»
Some of Hezbollah’s subsequent operations are well-known: truck bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, respectively, that together killed more than 100; the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome in 1985; the suicide bombing last year of a bus full of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, which killed six and injured 32.
Most aren’t so well known: seven near-simultaneous attacks in Kuwait in 1983; 15 separate bombings in Paris alone in 1985-86; the hijacking of Kuwait Airways Flight 221 to Karachi in 1984 and Flight 422 out of Bangkok in 1988; the assassination of Iranian-Kurdish dissident Sadegh Sharafkandi at a Greek restaurant in Berlin in 1992; the downing of a commuter plane on its way from Colón to Panama City in 1994; a wave of kidnappings in sub-Saharan Africa throughout the 2000s.
I could go on. Mr. Levitt does so for more than 400 pages. And yet Hezbollah is still often described, by itself and by its Western apologists, as an indigenous Lebanese «resistance» movement in a twilight struggle against the Jewish state. It is, in fact, a multinational terror operation with Iran as its funder and controller. «Hezbollah’s role in Iran’s shadow war . . . has cast the group as a dangerous terrorist network capable of operating everywhere from Europe to Africa and Asia and to the Americas,» Mr. Levitt writes. Indeed, aside from the brief war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, almost all Hezbollah activity during the past decade has taken place outside Lebanon. And that’s before factoring in its heavy involvement in the Syrian civil war—on the side of Iran’s ally Bashar Assad.
The Iranian regime supports Hezbollah with hundreds of millions of dollars annually, but the organization itself raises as much with overseas criminal enterprises. These activities range from mafia-style racketeering and the sale of African conflict diamonds to cigarette smuggling and credit-card fraud in the U.S. The Party of God is particularly active in South America’s tri-border region, where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil converge. Its base of operations there is Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este, a lawless and corrupt counterfeiting capital. Hezbollah has also been active in northern Latin America, forging ideologically promiscuous ties with Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups and communist guerrillas and digging tunnels for drug cartels on the Mexican-American border—the same kinds of tunnel networks it has spent years perfecting along the geographically similar Lebanese-Israeli border.
Its operatives and sleeper cells are certainly in America. «Law enforcement officials across the Southwest,» Mr. Levitt writes, «are reporting a rise in imprisoned gang members with Farsi tattoos,» including some with Hezbollah imagery. Another official he quotes puts it this way: «You could almost pick your city and you would probably have a [Hezbollah] presence.»
Hezbollah has yet to mount an attack on U.S. soil, but the Iranian regime itself is no longer reluctant. In 2011, Tehran tried to hire a drug trafficker in Mexico to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in a Washington, D.C., restaurant (the would-be assassin turned out to be a federal agent). And Iranian diplomat Mohsen Rabbani, who masterminded Hezbollah’s attacks in Argentina in the 1990s, assisted a (foiled) plot to bomb JFK Airport in New York City in 2007. Whether Hezbollah would strike the American homeland is an open question. But as Matthew Levitt’s well-researched book makes clear, it isn’t an outlandish one.
Mr. Totten, a contributing editor of World Affairs and City Journal, is the author of four books, including «The Road to Fatima Gate,» which won a 2011 book award from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
A version of this article appeared October 9, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Tip of the Mullahs’ Spear.
By Matthew Levitt
(Georgetown, 407 pages, $32.95)