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Threat Primer: Hizballah

In early October 2023, the Palestinian political and militant group Hamas launched a large-scale attack into Israel from the Gaza Strip. Following the initial attack, the Lebanese political and militant group Hizballah immediately became involved in the conflict, primarily along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. This paper is not intended to address Hizballah’s ongoing involvement in conflict between Hamas and Israel, but rather is designed to provide historical context regarding Hizballah and its activities. In this paper, RMC’s Intelligence & Analysis Division will examine Hizballah’s origins, ideology, leadership, funding, organization, and strength. Additionally, this paper will provide an overview of Hizballah’s political and militant activities, and briefly review some of the group’s notable attacks.

Hizballah (which translates to “Party of Allah” or “Party of God”) is a Lebanese Shia militia. In 1943, Shia Muslims were among the groups within the National Pact (an agreement that designated different official positions among the many sectarian groups in the region as part of Lebanon’s state formation process). As the third-largest sectarian group and among the poorest, Shia Muslims frequently felt underrepresented. In the early 1960s, Imam Musa al-Sadr formed Amal, the Shia militant organization from which Hizballah would eventually split. Amal and other groups arose in the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, which pitted political, religious, and ethnic groups against each other in shifting alliances affected by outside influences and multinational peacekeeping forces. This includes Israel’s invasion of Lebanon following the Coastal Road Massacre of 1978, in which Palestinian militants based out of Lebanon murdered civilians near Tel Aviv. Following conflicts with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), several leaders of Amal, led by Husain al-Musawi, broke away to form a new, more militant organization called Islamic Amal, which recruited from other revolutionary Shia organizations. After its own revolution, Iran wanted an alternative to the original Amal, which refused obedience to Ayatollah Khomeini. In late 1982, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, 1,500 members of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) arrived to support and train Islamic Amal. It remains unclear whether a group of Islamic Amal members split away from the lager group to form Hizballah or whether Islamic Amal was simply an earlier iteration of Hizballah. Many date the formation of Hizballah in late 1982 (concurrent with these events), but the group’s official manifesto was not released until 1985. Led by religious clerics, including Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli and Sayyed Abbas al-Musawi, the group wanted to adopt Iranian doctrine in Lebanon, including the use of terror. Hizballah is often credited with being among the first groups to use suicide bombings, including the 1983 attack on the United States Marine Corps (USMC) barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. Iran helped develop the group to support its jihad against Israel. Located in Ba’albek in the northern Beqa’a valley, the combined forces that would become Hizballah brought Iranian-Islamic influences to the area and constituted the core of the organization in Lebanon.1,2,3,4

Hizballah follows a form of Shia Islam, which asserts that the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin (and son-in-law) should have been his successor. This belief evolved into Imamah, which holds that descendants of Muhammad are Islam’s rightful rulers. Shia Islam is the second-largest branch of the faith, with 10–15% of believers. Twelver Shi’ism is the largest, comprising about 85% of them. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran espoused a unique strain of Twelverism called Velayat-e-faqih, which calls for theocratic government in accordance with Sharia law. Hizballah continues to espouse similar politics to those of the Ayatollah, which drove the Iranian Revolution.

Despite its hardline stance, Hizballah has made common cause with other Islamic and secular Arab groups, along with left-wing organizations. Like Iran, it calls for the eradication of Israel. Its animosity towards the Jewish people is rooted in religious conflicts dating back to the ancient world. Hizballah officials have tried to distinguish between their hostility towards Israel and outright antisemitism. However, most observers doubt these assertions. In addition to operating as an armed militia, Hizballah also functions as an active political party within Lebanon. In 2009, the group updated its manifesto with language that called for “true democracy.” In 2022, Hizballah maintained its 13 seats in Lebanon’s 128-member Parliament. The U.S. Department of State still designates Hizballah as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).1

Hizballah’s organizational structure is composed of nesting committees and subcommittees. The Shura Council is at the top, with five (5) subordinate Councils. These include the Executive, Judicial, Parliamentary, Political, and Jihad Councils. Their respective chairs are five (5) of the seven (7) members of the Shura Council, along with the Secretary General and the Political Advisor to the Secretary General. The current Secretary General is Hassan Nasrallah, who has held the position since 1992, with Hussein al-Khalil serving as Political Advisor. Each member of the Shura Council oversees sub-entities within their own branch that handle Hizballah’s affairs across multiple domains.5

The Shura Council’s decisions (which can be made either unanimously or by majority) are final and religiously binding. The Council is subordinate only to the Supreme Leader of Iran, who has the authority to resolve deadlocks. The Shura Council first began convening in 1986. It was later integrated into Hizballah’s general reorganization. In 1989, a rule was adopted whereby the Council would have nine (9) members, each elected for a single year by Hizballah’s internal leadership. The Council’s membership was later reduced to seven (7) members serving two (2)-year terms, then extended to three (3)-year terms sometime between 1993 and 2003. There are rumors of an eighth member who remains anonymous, who may be the head of Hizballah’s military affairs. When the Council votes on matters of war and peace, it is presided by two (2) members of the IRGC.

Hizballah has its own investment portfolio, and it receives donations from individuals, companies, and organizations. It also operates a global organized crime network of illegal drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, and money laundering. It reportedly has hubs in Europe, Africa, and Latin America. Of particular interest is its trafficking of an amphetamine-type stimulant, sold as “captagon,” along the Syria-Lebanon border. It is a popular recreational drug among the young affluent populations of the Middle East. 3,6,7

Iran has spent billions to fund Hizballah’s activities, in addition to other militant groups such as Hamas. Some, like Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), act as proxies for Tehran’s efforts to destabilize the Middle East and target Israel and American assets in the region. Iran’s funding reaches groups such as Hizballah through shell companies, front groups, fake charities, virtual currencies, real estate, investments, money laundering, and hawala networks. Between August 2021 and June 2023, Hamas and PIJ reportedly raised over $130 million in cryptocurrency and moved millions among themselves. This reportedly included $12 million in cryptocurrency from PIJ to Hizballah.7

In May 2022, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned an “oil for terror” network between Iran and Syria that benefitted Hizballah and other proxies. The scheme involved the shipment of Iranian oil to Syria via Russian companies. Syria would furnish the profits to the IRGC, who would distribute the funds to Hizballah and Hamas. This arrangement enabled Russia to evade U.S. sanctions and allowed Iran to fund terrorism.7

Organization and Strength
Hizballah’s Executive Council manages the day-to-day operations of the group (with the exception of military operations). The Executive Council’s activities are all designed to support the Jihad Council’s military operations in some form or fashion. The Executive Council oversees a social unit which supports infrastructure projects, programs for wounded and deceased (“Martyred”) Hizballah fighters, and other social projects aimed at garnering support and good will towards the organization. The Islamic Health Unit operates several hospital systems complete with local clinics, dental facilities, and other social health programs. The Education Unit provides scholarships and financial aid for college and technical programs, as well as operating multiple primary and secondary schools for children. These educational opportunities coincide with the need for technical skills for Hizballah operations. The Executive Council also oversees numerous companies which are deeply rooted in the Lebanese economy providing an appearance of legitimacy while providing funds for Hizballah operations. Many of these companies are currently under economic sanctions by the U.S. and other countries.5,8,9

Hizballah’s Political Council operates both independently of, and intertwined with, the Lebanese government. Lebanon’s poor economic conditions and multiple factions within the Lebanese political system leaves the legitimate government relatively weak and disjointed. Hizballah actively participates in this system and continues efforts to increase influence in the Lebanese government. Hizballah will act alone, without support of the Lebanese government, when opportunities arise to further Hizballah’s political, social and militant goals that otherwise would not find support or consensus within the Lebanese government.5,10

Hizballah’s Judicial Council operates independently of the Lebanese government in Hizballah-controlled areas, especially in Shia communities. This council is made of tribunals responsible for the implementation and enforcement of Sharia Law and can impose fines, imprisonment, and corporal punishment including sentence of death. The structure of the Judicial Council includes local courts, regional courts and a Supreme Court appointed by the Shura Council.5,11

Hizballah’s Parliamentary Council is responsible for the selection of the group’s candidates running for election in Lebanon and ensuring that Hizballah’s elected representatives follow the will of the Shura Council. Hassan Nasrallah has made public statements explaining that Hizballah’s elected leaders are subordinate to the Shura Council’s authority. Under the Parliamentary Council is the Governmental Committee, which advises Hizballah’s ministers and seeks to improve Hizballah’s presence in Lebanese internal affairs.5,12

Hizballah’s Jihad Council is also known as the External Security Organization or Unit 910. The Jihad Council is responsible for military operations including the planning, coordination and execution of terrorist attacks, operations supporting the war in Syria, intelligence operations along the Israeli border, and the coordination of logistical support from Iran. The commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force routinely attends meetings of the Jihad Council. The structure of subordinate units closely resembles a military structure consistent with foreign nation-state militaries and including headquarters, training, logistics, intelligence, communications, infantry, armor, air defense, special operations, and specialized units such as electronic warfare.3,5,13

Estimates of Hizballah’s military strength range 20,000 to 40,000 from various sources. According to Israel Defense Forces estimates, Hizballah has a total strength of 30,000 of which 15,000 are active fighters. Hizballah also has an international network of supporters and operatives engaged in various political, social, financial and criminal activities estimated by the U.S. Department of State to number in the tens of thousands.3,5,14

Political Activities
Domestically, Hizballah is part of the elected Lebanese Parliament. Hizballah does not hold enough seats in the Lebanese Parliament to elect their nominee to the Presidency but has enough votes to prevent any other political faction from electing their Presidential nominee. The presidency has remained vacant since October 2022 due to the political deadlock and caretaker government with limited powers is maintaining governmental operations. This allows Hizballah to continue operations without government interference and to use their influence within the Lebanese government to further their goals.15

Internationally, Hizballah has expanded its influence beyond Lebanon, particularly supporting militant operations in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Iranian influence is the driving factor behind Hizballah’s expansion. This expansion leaves Hizballah weaker domestically in Lebanon as precious resources and funding are being used abroad during a time of turmoil at home. Hizballah has established operations in the U.S., Europe, South America, and Asia. Much of this activity is focused on spreading their ideology, as well as criminal enterprises, particularly narcotics, to raise funding for the larger organization.14,16

Militant Activities
Hizballah was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State in October of 1997, followed by more than 60 other countries since. Notably, the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council also consider Hizballah a terrorist organization. While Hizballah is known for bombings, aircraft hijackings, kidnappings, and narcotics smuggling, it also resembles a nation-state military. In recent years Hizballah has participated and supported conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Approximately 1,700 Hizballah fighters have been killed and 6,000 injured in these conflicts since 2011. While these losses are significant, the extensive combat experience gained potentially makes Hizballah a more potent paramilitary force. Coupled with training and logistical support from Iran, Hizballah is capable of operating military equipment not typically associated with terrorist organizations. Hizballah fighters have experience with a variety of older Soviet tanks, anti-tank missile systems, artillery, rockets, and explosive devices. Hizballah also has a robust intelligence collection network to support their kinetic capabilities. Since Hamas’ attack on Israel on 07 October 2023, Hizballah has conducted limited attacks that have led to skirmishes with the IDF along the Israel-Lebanon border. These attacks include Hizballah’s first use of Burkan missiles and attack drones.4,14

Notable Attacks
Hizballah has conducted several attacks in Beirut that brought the organization to the forefront of terrorist activity, including the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon, the aforementioned October 1983 bombing of the USMC barracks, and the September 1984 bombing of the U.S. Embassy annex. Since then, Hizballah has conducted multiple attacks, often targeting Jewish interests and political rivals in Lebanon. Hizballah has been credited with the July 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which killed 95 people, and the July 2012 bombing of a tour bus carrying Israeli tourists, killing six (6) and wounding 33. Examples of political attacks include the February 2005 bombing, which killed the Lebanese Prime Minister and 21 others, and the October 2012 bombing, which killed the Lebanese Internal Security Forces Information Bureau chief and eight (8) others. Recently, attacks of this nature have been sparce due to Hizballah’s involvement in Syria and support for operations in Yemen and Iraq.2,17,18

An understanding of Hizballah, its origins, its structure, its capabilities, and its historical activities are fundamental to understanding the group’s role in the ongoing conflict in Israel. RMC’s Intelligence & Analysis Division continues to monitor the ongoing conflict and relevant geopolitical developments. Additionally, the Intelligence & Analysis Division continues to analyze potential threats to the U.S. and its interests as a result of the conflict, to include Iran-backed militia attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East, as well as potential terrorism, hate crime, and protest activity/civil disturbance concerns in the U.S. homeland. Finally, the Intelligence & Analysis Division acknowledges the potential for Iranian involvement to escalate the current situation into a wider conflict.

Additional White Papers regarding the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict and associated developments may be produced as the situation continues to unfold.


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13. Beeri, T. (2023, November 27). Hezbollah’s General Staff – The Jihad Council and its main subordinate units. Alma Research and Education Center. Retrieved from

14. Israel Defense Forces. (2017, February 13). Hezbollah: Get to know our most complicated adversary. Israeli Defense Forces. Retrieved from

15. Kotrikadze, E. (2023, November 03). Hezbollah’s record on war and politics. The Wilson Center. Retrieved from

16. Byman, D. (2022, November). Hezbollah’s dilemmas. Brookings Institute. Retrieved from

17. U.S. Director of National Intelligence. (n.d.). Lebanese Hizballah: Select worldwide operational activity, 1983-2017. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Retrieved from

18. U.S. Director of National Intelligence. (2022, September). Counter terrorism guide – Lebanese Hizballah. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Retrieved from ftos/lebanese_hizballah_fto.html.

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