Hezbollah: History, Organization, and Ideology

Hezbollah supporters wave flags during a ''Victory over Israel'' rally in Beirut's suburbs on September 22, 2006 in Beirut, Lebanon
Hezbollah supporters wave flags during a ''Victory over Israel'' rally in Beirut's suburbs on September 22, 2006 in Beirut, Lebanon. Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

Hezbollah, meaning the “Party of God” in Arabic, is a Shiite Muslim political party and militant group based in Lebanon. Due to its highly developed political structure and social services network, it is often regarded as a “deep state,” or clandestine government operating within the parliamentary Lebanese government. Maintaining close political and military alliances with Iran and Syria, Hezbollah is driven by its opposition to Israel and resistance to Western influence in the Middle East. Having claimed responsibility for several global terrorist attacks, the group is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and several other countries.

Key Takeaways: Hezbollah

  • Hezbollah is a Shiite Islamic political party and militant group based in Lebanon. It arose in the early 1980s during the Lebanese Civil War.
  • Hezbollah opposes the Israeli State and the influence of Western governments in the Middle East.
  • The group has been declared a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
  • Since 1992, Hezbollah has been led by secretary general Hassan Nasrallah. It currently holds 13 seats in Lebanon’s 128-member parliament.
  • Hezbollah is considered the world’s most powerful non-state military forces, with more than 25,000 active fighters, an extensive array of weapons and hardware, and a yearly budget of over $1 billion. 

Origins of Hezbollah

Hezbollah emerged in the early 1980s during the chaos of the 15-year Lebanese Civil War. Since 1943, political power in Lebanon had been divided between the country’s predominant religious groups—Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, and Maronite Christians. In 1975, tensions between these groups erupted into a civil war. In 1978 and again in 1982, Israeli forces invaded southern Lebanon attempting to drive out thousands of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrilla fighters that had been launching attacks into Israel.

In 1979, a loosely organized militia of Iranian Shiites sympathetic to Iran’s theocratic government took up arms against Israelis who had occupied the country. With funding and training provided by the Iranian government and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Shiite militia grew into a highly effective guerilla fighting force that adopted the name Hezbollah, meaning “The Party of God.”

Hezbollah Gains Terrorist Reputation

Hezbollah’s reputation as an effective extremist military force grew rapidly due to its many clashes with rival Shiite militias like the Lebanese resistance Amal Movement and, most visibly, terrorist attacks on foreign targets.

In April 1983, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed, killing 63 people. Six months later, the suicide truck bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut killed more than 300 people, including 241 U.S. service members. A U.S. court subsequently found that Hezbollah had been behind both attacks.

A crowd of soldiers and aid givers stand amid the destruction and damage at the scene of the suicide bombing of the American Embassy, Beirut, Lebanon, April 18, 1983.
A crowd of soldiers and aid givers stand amid the destruction and damage at the scene of the suicide bombing of the American Embassy, Beirut, Lebanon, April 18, 1983. Peter Davis/Getty Images

In 1985, Hezbollah issued a manifesto addressed to the “Downtrodden in Lebanon and the World,” in which it vowed to force all Western powers out of Lebanon and to destroy the Israeli State. While calling for the establishment of an Iranian-inspired Islamist regime in Lebanon, the group stressed that the people should retain the right of self-determination. In 1989, the Lebanese Parliament signed an agreement ending the Lebanese Civil War and granting Syria guardianship over Lebanon. It also ordered the disarmament of all Muslim militias—except Hezbollah.

Israeli policemen rush to the scene of a burning electricity pylon and damaged building moments after a volley of Hezbollah rockets struck July 13, 2006 in the northern town of Nahariya, Israel.
Israeli policemen rush to the scene of a burning electricity pylon and damaged building moments after a volley of Hezbollah rockets struck July 13, 2006 in the northern town of Nahariya, Israel. Roni Schutzer/Getty Images

In March 1992, Hezbollah was blamed for the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which killed 29 civilians and injured 242 others. Later the same year, eight Hezbollah members were elected to the Lebanese Parliament in the country’s first general election held since 1972.

In 1994, car bombings at the Israeli Embassy in London and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires were attributed to Hezbollah. In 1997, the United States officially declared Hezbollah to be a foreign terrorist organization.

On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon launched rocket attacks on Israeli border towns. The attacks not only caused extensive civilian casualties, but also served as a diversion while other Hezbollah fighters attacked two armored Israeli Humvees on the Israeli side of the border fence. The ambush left three Israeli soldiers dead and two others held hostage. The incidents resulted in the month-long Israel–Hezbollah War of 2006, which left more than 1,000 Lebanese and 50 Israelis dead.

Wounded are taken away after a Hezbollah missile strike July 17, 2006 in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Wounded are taken away after a Hezbollah missile strike July 17, 2006 in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

When the Syrian Civil War began in March 2011, Hezbollah sent thousands of its fighters to help the authoritarian government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in its battle against its pro-democracy challengers. In the first five years of the conflict, an estimated 400,000 Syrians were killed, and over 12 million were displaced.

In 2013, the European Union reacted to the suicide bombing of a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria by designating the military arm of Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

On January 3, 2020, a United States drone strike killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force—designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Also killed in the strike was Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, commander of the Iran-backed Kata'ib Hezbollah militia. Hezbollah immediately promised to retaliate, and on January 8, Iran fired 15 missiles into the Al Asad Air Base, an installation in Iraq housing U.S. and Iraqi troops. While there were no casualties, more than 100 U.S. service members were eventually diagnosed with traumatic brain injury as a result of the attack.

Hezbollah’s Organization and Military Capability

Hezbollah is currently led by its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who took over in 1992 after the group’s previous leader, Abbas al-Musawi, was assassinated by Israel. Overseen by Nasrallah, Hezbollah is made up of a seven-member Shura Council and its five assemblies: the political assembly, the jihad assembly, the parliamentary assembly, the executive assembly, and the judicial assembly.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaks at a rally September 22, 2006 in Beirut, Lebanon.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaks at a rally September 22, 2006 in Beirut, Lebanon. Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

With the armed strength of a medium-sized army, Hezbollah is considered the world’s most powerful non-state military presence, stronger even than Lebanon’s own army. In 2017, military information provider Jane’s 360 estimated that Hezbollah maintains an average year-round troop strength of more than 25,000 full-time fighters and as many as 30,000 reservists. These fighters are trained by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and partially financed by the Iranian government.

The U.S. Congressional Research Service calls the Hezbollah military arm a “hybrid force” with “robust conventional and unconventional military capabilities” and an operational budget of about one billion dollars per year. According to a 2018 State Department report, Hezbollah gets about $700 million worth of weapons yearly from Iran, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars from legal businesses, international criminal enterprises, and members of the worldwide Lebanese diaspora. In 2017, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported that Hezbollah’s extensive military arsenal included small arms, tanks, drones, and various long-range rockets. 

Hezbollah in Lebanon and Beyond

In Lebanon alone, Hezbollah controls most Shiite-majority areas, including most of southern Lebanon and sections of Beirut. However, Hezbollah’s manifesto states that the targets of its military jihadist arm extend far beyond Lebanon, particularly to the United States, “The American threat is not local or restricted to a particular region, and as such, confrontation of such a threat must be international as well.” Along with Israel, Hezbollah has been accused of planning or carrying out acts of terrorism in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Hezbollah’s political arm has been an official part of the Lebanese government since 1992, now holding 13 seats in the country’s 128-member parliament. Indeed, one of the group’s stated goals is the emergence of Lebanon as a “true democracy.”

Perhaps conscious of its generally negative international image, Hezbollah also provides an extensive system of social services throughout Lebanon, including health care facilities, schools, and youth programs. According to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, 31% of Christians and 9% of Sunni Muslims in Lebanon viewed the group favorably.

Hezbollah and the United States

The United States officially designates Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization along with other radical groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Also, several individual Hezbollah members, including its leader Hassan Nasrallah are recognized as designated global terrorists, making them subject to the U.S. counterterrorism economic and trade sanctions ordered by President George W. Bush in reaction to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

In 2010, President Barack Obama persuaded Congress to provide $100 million in weapons and other assistance to Lebanon’s armed forces in hopes of lessening Hezbollah’s position as the country’s predominant military power. Since then, however, the collaboration of Hezbollah and the Lebanese military in defending Lebanon from Syrian-based Al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters has left Congress hesitant to fund further aid, for fear that it could fall into the hands of Hezbollah.

On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act, imposing significant sanctions on foreign entities—such as governments, businesses, and individuals—that use accounts held in U.S. banks to finance Hezbollah.

In July 2019, the Donald Trump administration, as part of its “maximum pressure” initiative against Iran, placed new sanctions against senior members of Hezbollah and announced a $7 million reward for information leading to the capture of 25-year fugitive terrorist Salman Raouf Salman. In June 2020, President Trump imposed additional economic sanctions against Hezbollah members inside the Iranian parliament.

The Future of Hezbollah

As one of the world’s oldest Middle Eastern militant jihadist groups, Hezbollah has also proven to be perhaps the most resilient. Despite being supported only by Lebanon and Iran, Hezbollah has managed to defy its many international opponents for over four decades.

While Hezbollah’s global terror network continues to expand, most experts in international affairs suggest that the group lacks both the military capability and desire for a conventional war with the United States or Israel.

This assumption is illustrated by Lebanon’s restrained response to an August 2019 Israeli-launched drone strike targeting Hezbollah supporters living in a Beirut suburb. While Lebanon’s president called the strike a “declaration of war,” no military response by Hezbollah was forthcoming. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah stated only, “From now on, we will confront the Israeli drones in the skies of Lebanon.”

In the future, the greater threat to Hezbollah is expected to come from within Lebanon itself. In mid-2019, Lebanon became the scene of anti-government protests against the joint Hezbollah-Amal coalition that had ruled for decades. The protestors accused the sectarian government of becoming corrupt and doing nothing to address the stagnant Lebanese economy and soaring unemployment.

In the face of the protests, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who had been supported by Hezbollah, resigned on October 29, 2019. The formation of a new Hezbollah-backed government in January 2020 failed to silence the protestors, who saw the move as a continuation of rule by Lebanon’s “entrenched elites.”

While experts do not expect the protest movement to convince Hezbollah to disarm and create a new politically independent government, it could eventually undermine Hezbollah’s influence over Lebanon.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Addis, Casey L.; Blanchard, Christopher M. “Hezbollah: Background and Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Service, January 3, 2011, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/R41446.pdf.
  • Ernsberger, Richard, Jr. “1983 Beirut barracks bombing: ‘The BLT Building is gone!’.” Your Marine Corps, October 23, 2019, https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2019/10/23/1983-beirut-barracks-bombing-the-blt-building-is-gone/.
  • “Concerns about Islamic Extremism on the Rise in Middle East.” Pew Research Center, July 1, 2014, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2014/07/01/concerns-about-islamic-extremism-on-the-rise-in-middle-east/.
  • “The Military Balance 2017.” International Institute for Strategic Studies, February 2017, https://www.iiss.org/publications/the-military-balance/the-military-balance-2017.
  • “The Future of U.S.-Israel Relations Symposium.” Council on Foreign Relations, December 2, 2019, https://www.cfr.org/event/future-us-israel-relations-symposium.
  • Naylor, Brian. “Trump Administration Announces More Economic Sanctions Against Iran.” NPR, January 10, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/01/10/795224662/trump-administration-announces-more-economic-sanctions-against-iran.
  • Cambanis, Hanassis. “The Uncertain Future of Hezbollah.” The Atlantic, December 11, 2011, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/12/the-uncertain-future-of-hezbollah/249869/.
  • “Lebanon protesters and Hezbollah, Amal supporters clash in Beirut.” Reuters, November 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-protests/lebanese-protesters-clash-with-supporters-of-hezbollah-amal-in-beirut-idUSKBN1XZ013.