Across the Bay

Friday, February 15, 2008

Paging Norton and Other Hezbollah Experts

"It was difficult for them to be convinced that I am part of an organization."
Imad Mughniyeh, Summer 2006 (Al-Akhbar)

Martin Kramer's critique of mainstream Hezbollah scholarship, about which I posted yesterday, has spurred some curiosity about how academics have discussed Hezbollah's ties to Mughniyeh and terrorism more broadly. Kramer wrote:

Assassinations of terrorists can boomerang, and so might this one. But it’s already had the one merit of exposing the core of Hezbollah that lies deep beneath the schools, the hospitals, and all the other gimmicks the party uses to get support and pass in polite company.

One immediately hears the echoes of Hezbollah groupies -- the likes of Augustus Richard Norton, who, in a typically-titled 1998 article in Middle East Policy, asserted that

while it may be tempting to dismiss Hizballah as an extremist or terrorist group, this sort of labeling conceals the fact that Hizballah has managed to build an extremely impressive social base in Lebanon.

In his post, Kramer explicitly mentioned Judith Palmer Harik, who tried to stick to the official line (that Mughniyeh is not really affiliated with the organization) as much as possible after Mughniyeh's killing was announced, all to no avail.

But that line has a long pedigree well beyond Palmer Harik's book. In fact, it's quite pervasive in recent mainstream Hezbollah scholarship, which all too often acts as uncritical apologetics for the organization and unquestioning conduits of its propaganda and disinformation.

For instance, take this quote from card-carrying Hezbollah flack, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb. On p. 96 of her 2002 book, Hizbu'llah: Politics and Religion, she makes the single reference to Mughniyeh in the entire tome:

The party even claims to have intervened on behalf of the hostages so as to secure their release. As articulated by Husayn al-Mussawi: 'We would encourage someone [who held hostages] through a speech, or other means of exhortation, that it was in our interest for this hostage to be released.'

Jaber sees much truth in these repeated denials of involvement. Like Fayyad, she refers to the 'common ideology' shared by Hizbu'llah and the kidnappers, and even affirms that the party permitted them to operate in areas under its control. However, she does not believe that these factors alone implicate Hizbu'llah in the hostage crisis. According to Jaber, most of the kidnappings were actually masterminded by Iran and executed by individuals such as 'Imad Mughniyeh, but who were organisationally distinct from Hizbu'llah. These individuals were afforded military training by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and were accorded a number of privileges that were not granted to Hizbu'llah, which upon closer inspection was but one of the Guards' proteges in Lebanon.

Saad-Ghorayeb simultaneously toed the official line (represented by [Ali] Fayyad, a Hezbollah official) while placing it all on Hala Jaber, whom she footnotes four times in the above quote.

Jaber's 1997 book has multiple references to Mughniyeh. On p. 117, Jaber writes:

According to an analyst with close contacts to the Iranians, 'One must regard Mughniyeh as someone who is on the margins. In other words, he believes in Hezbollah's ideology and Iranian-styled goals, but he is not their agent. In fact, Mughniyeh does not report to Hezbollah, but to the Iranians. He is what would be described in the West as the hit man.'

You'll note the dubious nature of the source, which only adds to the existing evidence regarding an official policy to deny organizational ties to Mughniyeh. Academics repeated it and then others kept on recycling it. For instance, a propos the Jaber quote, the notion that Mugniyeh was a "rogue operative" is popping up once again.

But this is not a new phenomenon. The stress on the supposed independence of Mughniyeh's operations is obviously part and parcel of the official line. It's usually formulated through turns of phrase emphasizing Mughniyeh as an "individual," almost lone actor.

Even sharp journalists weren't immune. Take this characteristic line from an article by Nicholas Blanford in 2003:

[I]t has never been proven categorically that Hizballah, as an institution, ordered these attacks and kidnappings. ... The weight of evidence thus far collected has clearly implicated Iran as the initiator behind most incidents, though Lebanese individuals, such as the elusive Imad Mughnieh, were instructed to carry them out.
...
Mughnieh is often described as Hizballah's security chief. But no firm evidence has been produced that he takes his orders from Hizballah or has any established organizational link with the group. Mughnieh is generally believed by Western intelligence services to work directly under Iranian intelligence and to use a small circle of trusted Lebanese Shiites to carry out the instructions of hardliners in Tehran. (Emphasis mine.)

Another example along the same lines is Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh's 2004 book, In the Path of Hizbullah. Again, Hamzeh repeats the official line -- which dovetails with the ones sampled above -- by quoting none other than Nasrallah himself -- also stressing the "individuality" meme:

Also, Hizbullah has denied any relationship with the Islamic Jihad (al-Jihad al-Islami), which was the main organ of Hizbullah's security apparatus in the 1980s. Reportedly, Imad Mughniyyah and Abdel Hadi Hamadeh were said to be the masterminds of the Islamic Jihad suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy and the marine barracks in 1983, and later in the kidnapping of Western hostages. According to Nasrallah, "There was an organization other than Hizbullah called al-Jihad al-Islami. It was made up of honest mujahiddun individuals. They executed the operations against the U.S. Marines and the French, and kidnapped the Western hostages." He adds, "Whether it is still in existence or not, to know we have to search." (p. 74)

As per the pieties that pervade Hezbollah scholarship, this was hardly questioned. Hamzeh maintains a skeptical tone when discussing Mughniyeh's ties to the organization:

The Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for kidnapping dozens of Americans, British, and French in March 1984. Whether Imad Mughniyyah controlled these operations or whether he is still active and in charge of Hizbullah's external security apparatus is still speculative. (p. 85)

The award for most creative buffoonery, however, has to go to Mohammad Bazzi, who is now apparently a Hezbollah expert, with an upcoming book on the organization. In this interview today, he declared that Mughniyeh "hasn't really been active since the 1980s" and that it was "debatable whether he still had a leading position in Hezbollah up to this day." I guess that's why Nasrallah made sure to include him in the Party's triumvirate along with Raghib Harb and Abbas Musawi -- because he was "an old, symbolic Hezbollah cause." For you see, "The reports that list him as an active senior leader of Hezbollah at the time of his death are mistaken. He might have had some contact with some people in Hezbollah leadership but he wasn't giving out orders and he wasn't in the position to do that." Right. Apparently Bazzi also didn't hear the news that a successor was appointed to take Mughniyeh's seat in the organization's Jihad Council.

The lineup would not be complete without a quote from the above-mentioned Augustus Richard Norton.

Norton, whose punditry during the 2006 summer war was nicely deflated by (who else?) Kramer, is the author of a 2007 short book on Hezbollah.

His handling of Mughniyeh is dictated by his mission to minimize, if not whitewash, Hezbollah's terrorism record, especially the issue of its "global reach," which is part and parcel of his "Lebanonization of Hezbollah" theory that he peddled in the 90s.

Here's some of what he said about Mughniyeh on p. 42 of his book:

Perhaps the signal act of the period was the June 1985 skyjacking of TWA flight 847 to Beirut, masterminded by the infamous Imad Mughniyah, who continues to be linked to Hezbollah's External Security Organization.

The linking of Mughniyeh to Hezbollah's ESO sounds reasonable enough at first, but as one reads on, things become murkier, falling back on the official line, intentionally distancing Mughniyeh from, or at least fudging his ties to the Party. Take the following quote for instance:

It is generally easier to trace much of the terrorism of the 1980s and early 1990s to Iran than to Hezbollah.
...
Following Israel's 1992 assassination of Hezbollah Secretary-General Abbas Musawi, two terrorist attacks occurred in Argentina that many knowledgeable observers believe were the joint work of Iran and Hezbollah's external security organization, which apparently operates autonomously from the party and is widely believed to be closely linked to Iranian intelligence. (Emphasis mine. p. 78)
...
The Argentinian authorities issued an arrest warrant for Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyeh, one of the two hijackers of TWA flight 847 in 1985, a man believed to have regularly collaborated with Iran in acts of terrorism. (Emphasis mine. p. 79)

And so, presto, Mughniyeh's relationship to Hezbollah, and indeed the whole function of the ESO, changes to fit the official line. Mughniyeh's terrorist activity is now more Iranian, autonomous, and "individual." It makes little difference that a mere couple of pages before (p. 77), Norton wrote:

there is no question that Hezbollah has engaged in acts that do, indeed, constitute terrorism in its more precise and generally understood sense. one such clear instance was the 1985 skyjacking, by two Hezbollah operatives, of TWA flight 847, en route from Athens to Rome, Robert Stethem, a U.S. sailor on leave and traveling on the flight, was mercilessly beaten and shot in the head. The hijackers, Imad Mughniyah and Hasan Izz al-Din, [TB: this is actually an error. Neither of them was a hijacker. As Martin points out, the two hijackers were Muhammad Ali Hamadi and Ali Atwa] who remain close to the top of the FBI's 'wanted list,' disgracefully dumped his body on the tarmac of Beirut airport.

All it takes is two pages to fudge things and conform to the Party line.

But like I noted earlier, this is part of Norton's agenda (or, if you prefer, "thesis"), the so-called "Lebanonization" of Hezbollah. It's similar to the quote from Exum that I critiqued yesterday, that Hezbollah has "evolved" to being a "nationalist insurgent group" and a "political party."

It's captured in this quote from the same Norton article referenced earlier:

In recent years, especially since the signing of the Taif accord in 1989, Hizballah has been transforming itself, preparing for life after resistance while simultaneously exploiting its commitment to liberate the South in order to gain political support.

Similarly, in his book Norton is at pains to ensure that we view Hezbollah only as a nationalist resistance and political party, with no "global reach":

Terrorist" is a useful rhetorical bludgeon that many states have wielded to outlaw or de-humanize radical or revolutionary groups.
...
Terrorism can be defined as the intentional use of political violence against civilians and civilian sites such as schools, hospitals, restaurants, buses, trains, or planes. Putting aside for the moment that Hezbollah promotes activities and performs services in Lebanon that have nothing to do with terrorism, such as running hospitals, the organization has engaged in forms of violence that fall outside the rubric of terrorism as it is generally understood.
...
The primary reason why the United States has not succeeded in convincing most European states to endorse its blanket designation of Hezbollah as 'terrorist' is because many of those states insist on a more precise conception of terrorism than the U.S. habitually employs. Of course, once Israel withdrew unilaterally from Lebanon, in 2000, Hezbollah found itself on far weaker normative ground. (pp. 75-77).

Clearly, Hezbollah and Mughniyeh (who now is openly confirmed as always having been a senior Hezbollah commander) have had a global reach, part of which Matthew Levitt and Dave Schenker profile here (for more you can read Thomas Joscelyn's study, here).

That this remains the case is evident from Nasrallah's threat to wage an open war "anywhere" with Israel, outside the theater of the Lebanon-Israel border (which is also now off limits, as per UNSCR 1701), which would only confirm Hezbollah's involvement in global terrorism. And so, the canard of Hezbollah's "Lebanonization" ought to be shelved once and for all, along with the rest of the misinformation cataloged in this post.

Maybe this is why Norton has yet to make a peep since the Mughniyeh assassination. The latest entry on his blog dates to Feb. 14, but it only talks about March 14's rally.

Perhaps, like Hezbollah, he's quietly trying to figure out how to respond.