This week marks the one-year anniversary of the end of the 2006 Lebanon War. In strictly numerical terms, it was a tiny conflict. Fewer than 2,000 people died, a tiny fraction of the number killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor did the war result in any territory changing hands, or the regional balance of power shifting permanently in a significant way. But the battle will nonetheless be remembered as an important milestone in the Long War between the West and militant Islam. While the Taliban and al-Qaeda are alienating their would-be followers with nihilistic violence, Hezbollah has developed a far more complex strategy that combines terrorism with sophisticated guerilla warfare, state-of-the-art weaponry, savvy public relations, charismatic leadership and state sponsorship. In fact, the group’s surprisingly strong effort a year ago highlighted at least a half-dozen important innovations in Islamist war-making:
Public relations. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are shadowy organizations that occasionally emit videos full of rambling apocalyptic speechifying. Hezbollah, on the other hand, operates a full-function satellite channel, Al-Manar Television, that the Israeli air force was never able to put out of commission. Throughout the 2006 Lebanon War, Hezbollah’s charismatic chairman, Hassan Nasrallah, kept up his media profile from undisclosed locations. When Israeli bombs went astray and killed civilians — as they did, most tragically, in the town of Qana on July 30 — Hezbollah media handlers quickly descended on the scene to manage the way the story was reported. Thus was Hezbollah — which had started the war by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers — able to turn world opinion against Israel by the end of the conflict.
Massive state sponsorship. Since its creation in the early 1980s, Hezbollah has been armed, trained and financed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Even during the war itself, IRGC officers assisted Hezbollah, and ensured that supply routes through Syria remained open for the group’s fighters. At the United Nations, Iran exerted pressures on its veto-wielding trade partners, China and Russia, to water down any action against Hezbollah. Damascus and Tehran also constrained Israel’s strategy by threatening to bring the Jewish state into a wider regional war.
Missiles. Hezbollah’s use of thousands of Iranian-supplied missiles to bombard northern Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War represented an unprecedented tactic: Until this time, no guerrilla force had made use of such long-range weapons in waging a sustained campaign against enemy population centers. While the missiles had little military effect, they had enormous psychological impact, sending hundreds of thousands of Israelis fleeing southward.
Battlefield weaponry. Iran supplied Hezbollah with not only missiles, but state-of-the-art tactical weapons. Especially effective were guided, shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons, which Hezbollah ambush crews used to attack Israeli vehicles and troop concentrations. Hezbollah fighters were also equipped with modern night-vision equipment, erasing the night-time advantage that Western armies have come to take for granted.
The creation of a wholesale terrorist mini-state in southern Lebanon. This innovation permitted Hezbollah fighters to act entirely unconstrained by Lebanon’s army and government. It also complicated Israel’s response by turning the conflict into a three-way affair, in which Lebanon itself was cast as an innocent bystander being made to suffer for Hezbollah’s actions. By separating its jihadi cause from any particular sovereign, geographical entity, Hezbollah enjoyed the benefit of territorial control without the obligations and vulnerabilities that go with governance.
Cleverly concocted righteous fury. Hezbollah has always styled itself as a Lebanese “resistance” group.” When Israel evacuated its forces from Lebanon in 2000, this raison d’ętre was eliminated. But Hezbollah managed to keep its “resistance” campaign alive by insisting that the uninhabited Israeli-controlled Shebaa Farms border region is actually Lebanese territory. Unlike Islamist fanatics in other countries, moreover, Hezbollah has paid proper attention to domestic Muslim politics. From the beginning, the group has presented itself as the champion of Lebanon’s long-suffering Shiites. In the aftermath of last year’s war, Hezbollah turned the local destruction to its own advantage by funnelling Iranian cash into distressed Shiite areas.
Terrorists may be evil, but they aren’t stupid. As the migration of suicide bombers from Iraq to Afghanistan shows, they copy what works. And so in coming years, we should expect to see terrorists trying to import these Hezbollah innovations to Pakistan, the horn of Africa, Kashmir, Gaza, the West Bank and other parts of the Muslim world. As tiny as the 2006 Lebanon War was, it may have a gigantic impact on the defining struggle of our times.
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