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What Hezbollah’s African Operations Teach Us About Counter-Terrorism – Professor Hussein Solomon

May 1, 2014


What Hezbollah’s African Operations Teach Us About Counter-Terrorism

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 2 (2014), Number 5 (May 2014)

Few terror networks can compete with the operational range and depth that is Hezbollah in scope, magnitude and variety. There is abundant evidence which point to the fact that this Iranian funded and controlled[1], Shia-Lebanese group has gone global –operating in and beyond the territorial confines of the Lebanese state. In February 2003, the then Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet declared that, “Hezbollah, as an organization, with capability and worldwide presence, is [al Qaeda’s] equal, if not a far more capable organisation”[2].

Whilst Hezbollah’s activities have spanned the globe from the Americas to Asia, it is in Africa where a far fuller range of activities are exposed. These include ideological indoctrination, military training, criminal activities, the setting up of local proxies, the destabilization of existing regimes and support for other, more odious regimes. As Major James Love notes, Hezbollah’s tried and tested modus operandi is also used on the African continent to great effect. Fledgling Hezbollah cells use subtle infiltration techniques to gain access to an area without drawing attention. They gain the trust of the local populace by conducting charity fundraising activities and other social welfare programmes. This resonates very well amongst Africa’s poor whose own politicians seem unresponsive to the needs of their citizens whilst they themselves accumulate wealth. Having gained the trust of the locals, the Hezbollah cell commences to recruit from the local population, allowing the cell to begin operations. Cells would not be able to operate without building a popular support base[3].

Hezbollah’s support for local organisations in the form of radical Shi’ite cleric Shaykh Ibrahim Zakzaky’s Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) also serve to destabilize existing regimes. This was graphically illustrated when IMN members audaciously attacked the motorcade of the Emir of Zazzau, Alhaji Shehu Idri, who was on his way to a security meeting in Kaduna where the IMN was under discussion. It subsequently emerged that IMN members were instructed on religious and military matters in Iran. Military training by Hezbollah has also been undertaken on the African continent itself. As early as 1996, Israel lodged a complaint with the South African government regarding the existence of five Hezbollah training camps in the country[4].

Hezbollah’s support for Africa’s rogue regimes is seen in their proximity to Liberia’s warlord president Charles Taylor[5], Zaire’s (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) kleptocratic President Mobutu Sese Seko, as well as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe regime. In all three cases it was not ideological conviction but rather the criminal enterprise around diamond smuggling which was the cement which bound these parties together. Consequently conflict diamonds from West Africa via Hezbollah-aligned Lebanese dealers found their way to Beirut, Antwerp, Dubai, and Mumbai. Similarly a Partnership Africa Canada report suggested Lebanese involvement in the smuggling of rough diamonds to Dubai and Mumbai. Whilst ruling apparatchiks drew benefits from this illicit trade, their people languished in poverty and their democratic aspirations were suppressed[6].

Meanwhile, Hezbollah received tremendous economic largesse from these criminal endeavours. Whilst exact figures are unknown, it is said to accrue tens of millions of dollars per annum. Some insight into this occurred on 25th December 2003 when a charter flight – UTA 141- from Cotonou, Benin to Beirut crashed killing all the passengers including senior Hezbollah members. They were carrying US$ 2million in cash[7]. In recent years Hezbollah criminal activities have also encompassed drug-trafficking from South America to West Africa and from there into Western Europe[8]. Money from Hezbollah’s criminal arm then found its way to fund Hezbollah’s terrorist operations.

But, what are the implications of all this for counter-terrorism efforts? Several Western countries have attempted to beef up the security services in African states via training, the transfer of sophisticated equipment and joint exercises – all with minimal effect. What accounts for this failure? One cannot focus on one sphere of government, the security services, whilst the rest of the state lives against its citizens as opposed to being responsive to their needs. As Major Love notes in his brilliant study of Hezbollah, the organization capitalizes on grievances of locals whilst attracting the loyalty of citizens through its social welfare programme. Given the tremendous socio-economic needs on the continent, development assistance cannot be separated from broader counter-terrorism strategies. The overall aim of such developmental assistance would be to deny the organization a popular support base.

Second, Hezbollah’s criminal enterprises generate the funds allowing it to keep growing. Key then to disrupt Hezbollah’s activities on the continent is to focus on such criminal activities. Thus effective law and order and general policing, too, needs to be seen as part of a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. More specifically, the focus should be on the severing off ties between Hezbollah and local criminal networks. In addition, Africa’s political elites, as has been demonstrated, are not averse to working with terrorist organizations in exchange for financial rewards. Under no circumstances must this be countenanced by the international community. There needs to be real punitive measures to deter political elites from such actions.

To summarize then, counter-terrorism initiatives focused on security measures alone are bound to fail. A comprehensive approach would be one which focuses on broader issues of governance with special emphasis on meeting the basic needs of citizens (developmental assistance) and greater emphasis on policing (severing the ties between terrorist organizations and local criminal networks) as well as ensuring that punitive measures are of a sufficient nature so as to deter political elites from engaging in corrupt relations with such groups.

[1] Ely Karmon, “Iran and its Proxy Hezbollah: Strategic Penetration in Latin America,” Working Paper No. 18/2009. Elcano Royal Institute. Madrid, Spain, 8 April 2009. See following website:

[2] Quoted in Hezbollah: Financing Terror Through Criminal Enterprise. Testimony of Dr. Matthew Levitt, Senior Fellow and Director of Terrorism Studies. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, 25 May 2005, p. 3.

[3] James B. Love, “Hezbollah: Social Services as a Source of Power,” JSOU Report No 10-5. Joint Special Operations University. Florida. June 2010. Internet: Date Accessed: 1 November 2011.

[4] Hussein Solomon, “The Globalization of Terror: Hezbollah in Africa,” New Agenda, Issue 43, Third Quarter 2011, pp. 53

[5] Levitt, op.cit.,  p. 10.

[6] Solomon, op.cit., pp. 52-53.

[7] Levitt, op.cit., pp. 4-5.

[8] Lianna Sun Wyler and Nicolas Cook, Illegal Drug Trade in Africa: Trends and U.S..Policy. Congressional Research Service No. 7-5700, R40838. Washington, D.C. 30 September 2009; “Confronting Drug Trafficking in West Africa,” Testimony of Douglas Farah, Senior Fellow, International Assessment and Strategy Centre before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sub-committee on African Affairs. Washington, D.C., 23 June 2009.

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