At an event to launch his new book Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, hosted by Quilliam, author Dr Matthew Levitt described how he set out to write the first in-depth study of the activities of the foreign wing of Hezbollah, a unit whose very existence is often shrouded in doubt.

In the event, chaired by Quilliam’s Political Liaison Officer Jonathan Russell, in discussion with Dr Craig Larkin, Lecturer in Comparative Politics of the Middle East at King’s College London, Dr Levitt described once attending a conference of specialists in the extra-national group, in which the existence of an international military wing, along with its leader Imad Mughniyeh, was roundly denied.

Dr Levitt, who is Senior Fellow and Director of The Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, set out not only to prove the existence of the international wing, but also to extensively document its activities around the world. In the course of his research, Dr Levitt held extensive meetings with security and intelligence officials, and uncovered lesser-known Hezbollah connections in Latin America, Africa and South-East Asia, leading to his conclusion that: “This is not another American Zionist conspiracy. If it’s a conspiracy, it’s a conspiracy of everyone”. Dr Levitt also described how he was shocked to uncover the extent of Hezbollah’s illicit financial dealings in Africa and South-East Asia, and the closeness of its cooperation with Iran in the execution of attacks against international targets since the inception of the organisation in the 1980s.

In giving his response to the book, Dr Larkin commented on the importance of specifying exactly what is meant by terrorism, and rejecting the tendency to conflate different forms of Islamist extremism, emphasising that Hezbollah do not exist as a terrorist group in the same way that Al-Qaeda exists. Unlike Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah developed as a response to a specific local context and do not hold an international Islamist agenda. In other words, “The global discourse on terrorism can obscure facts”. In response, Dr. Levitt affirmed that that Hezbollah’s existence is far from simply a response to the reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict, saying that in the event of a two-state solution, “Hezbollah will not disappear or become less of a danger – not one iota”, and that the organisation does indeed share characteristics with other international terrorist groups, for example in terms of use of violence, which is “no more or less legitimate than any other tactic to Hezbollah”.

Dr. Levitt was posed the question of whether he believed that the impact of sanctions on Iran and the recent softening of its stance towards the West might result in a scaling down of its relationship with Hezbollah. In response, Dr. Levitt stated that the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran remains what it has always been – a strategic partnership with Iran as a primary partner. “I don’t think” he said, “that Hezbollah loses a moment’s sleep on fear that Iran throws them out”.

The panel also discussed the potential effects of the ongoing civil war in Syria on the orientation and support-base of Hezbollah, and whether the role of Hezbollah as a Shia paramilitary group in Syria represented a move away from its primary objective of armed struggle against Israel, and to what extent this could reduce the cross-sectarian support the group receives in the region. Dr Levitt responded that the presence of Hezbollah in Syria is often over-exaggerated, estimating that only around four to five thousand Hezbollah fighters are present in Syria, far fewer than the number often reported. He also believes that the attitude of Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah, towards the civil war, is that it must be contained in Syria, and that paramilitaries should be given free rein to take part in the struggle on the condition that it does not come back to Lebanon.

In writing Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, the author set out to address the problem that “people aren’t talking seriously about Hezbollah’s international presence”. The research behind the book draws on the author’s extensive contacts within international intelligence and security agencies to provide a detailed picture of the international operations of the organisation and uncovers the surprising extent of their support base and interests abroad. However, as Dr Levitt pointed out, it isn’t always alarming reading, “For every story where they’re very dangerous, there are almost as many where they’re bumbling idiots”.