This is not an investigative report but an analytical one that seeks to showcase the downfall of an already weak state when it is governed by a hybrid actor. The Port of Beirut (PoB) apocalypse in Lebanon is a case study. Just like the explosion gave an opportunity for Lebanese to re-examine how their country
This is not an investigative report but an analytical one that seeks to showcase the downfall of an already weak state when it is governed by a hybrid actor. The Port of Beirut (PoB) apocalypse in Lebanon is a case study. Just like the explosion gave an opportunity for Lebanese to re-examine how their country is being governed, it is also an opportunity for the West and Arab Gulf states to better understand their adversaries and get familiar with the hybrid nature of future challenges.
On the 4th of August, Hangar 12 in the PoB which contained 2,750 tones of ammonium nitrate exploded, leaving more than 200 hundred people dead, injuring 7,000 residents and demolishing an entire capital.
Background on PoB and geostrategic location
The PoB’s importance for Lebanon’s national security cannot be understated as it is the driving force of Lebanon’s economy. The PoB acted as the main access point for imports. And, for a country that relies vastly on imports, there was a lot of dependence on the PoB.
Beirut port ranks(ed) in the top 10 most important seaports in the Mediterranean and was considered as the gateway to the Middle East[i]. For its efficient performance, the port of Beirut ranked 6th regionally on the index for UNCTAD Liner Shipping Connectivity, manifesting its importance for regional and international trading. Following the explosion, only 3% of the port capacity remains. Accounting for 78% of the country’s imports and exports, the explosion engendered an economic shock as the entire wheat supply and stock of medicine were destroyed. Already mired by a multi-fold of crises, residents were faced with the dooming prospect of a humanitarian disaster. The economic losses are estimated to range between 580$-710$ million in the port activities and transport sector, notwithstanding the reconstruction cost. Strategically, for the different regional and global actors (e.g., China, Germany, France, UAE’s DP World, Turkey) vying to reconstruct the PoB, winning the bid is a move for greater influence in the eastern Mediterranean’s geopolitical game and the “race to reset the Middle East’s maritime map”[ii].
A World Bank report indirectly attributed the 4th of august PoB apocalyptic explosion that devasted Lebanon’s capital, killed more than 200 people and injured 7,000 others, to the “Temporary Committee for Management and Investments of the Port of Beirut”[iii]. The absence of a coherent strategy, the overlapping mandates of key governmental agencies and actors and outdated systems, all represent inefficient management of a national public property of utmost strategic importance. This committee’s functions are in-land and not by sea.
Corruption in the form of bribery and extortion are the rules of the game at the PoB and companies, individuals, stakeholders and traders who do not play the game are left at a disadvantage. Unfair competition de-incentivizes good and legal behavior and pushes decent businessmen to act unlawfully or face the risk of bankruptcy. Many Lebanese political parties and governmental officials are a part of this rotten game which mirrors how Lebanon as a whole has been governed post-Taef agreement. While not yet proven, there are thousands of eye witness testimonies that heard and/or saw a missile heading to the PoB seconds before the explosion. Moreover, UNSC resolution 1701 assigned a UN maritime task force (MTF)since 2006 to be deployed to assist the “Lebanese Navy in monitoring its territorial waters, securing the Lebanese coastline and preventing the unauthorized entry of arms or related materiel by sea into Lebanon”[iv]. Many Lebanese are left perplexed over the lack of transparency of the (Western) international community especially given the failure of the UN MTF to prevent this.
The aforementioned explains the mismanagement of the PoB. However, it fails to establish a causal relationship between corruption, the storing of deadly amounts of ammonium nitrate and the 4th of august humanitarian and political magnitude earthquake. The following will seek to analytically and factually demonstrate that a hybrid actor- Hezbollah- that became the ruling governing body of this weak and corrupt nation-state is the most accurate explanation behind this quasi-genocide.
Who is hezbollah and why is it the quintessential hybrid actor?
Hezbollah was created, developed and is funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its allegiance is to Wilayat el Fakih in Iran (Jurist-Theologian’s jurisdiction)[v]. At its core it is an islamist jihad movement whose vision, purpose and activities are decided by and modeled from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hezbollah, in a coalition with the Free Patriotic Movement, is today Lebanon’s governing actor and enjoys unprecedent political influence through a parliamentarian majority, an ally as president and a cabinet of ministers under its diktat. While many Lebanese political parties engage in informal politics, Hezbollah is an outlier for its foreign politics and “nature as a terrorist or criminal organization”[vi] with tentacles all over the world.
In general terms, hybrid actors are defined as actors that are simultaneously state and non-state. Specifically, Hezbollah is a state-like organization and the most influential political party in Lebanon encompassing and interconnecting social, religious, political, military elements and activities. Hezbollah is both national and transnational, and blends “conventional and irregular warfare approaches, across the full spectrum of conflict”[vii]. Actually, prior to the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006, hybrid warfare was only a theoretical notion baffling core security actors, such as NATO[viii]. Among others, the GCC, the U.S and Germany designated Hezbollah’s political and military wing as a terrorist organization while other countries and supranational organizations (e.g., EU) still differentiate between the two and consider only its military wing terrorist.
Hybrid actors are a wicked problem for policymakers and core security actors in the West since their foreign policies and strategies are supposed to distinguish between state and non-state armed actors and face real challenges when governing actors are hybrid.
Who Controls PoB Hangar 12
Hezbollah plays a most prominent role in Lebanon’s security apparatus through its own security institutions such as Unit 900 which is engaged in close-monitoring of non-state and state institutions and “carries out functions of state intelligence and internal security agencies”  via agents in Lebanon’s various sectors. Hezbollah’s Unit 112 is the Transportation Unit and at the PoB, both Hangar 12 and 9 are under the control of this Unit and specifically the airport and port sub-units. These two hangars are not “subject to the authority of the Lebanese state”[ix]. The “yellow party guys”[x] [Hezbollah] were in the port the morning of the explosion and disallowed the entry of anyone to Hangar 12. This Hangar was “out of reach”[xi], and “if they were weapons there” nobody could do anything about it. He added that if they have blown the cover of Hezbollah “they would have been kicked out of their jobs”.
To coordinate with state entities, Hezbollah established Unit 927 (Liaison and Coordination committee). Since 1987, Unit 927 has been headed by Wafiq Safa. Any Lebanese citizen who closely follows Lebanese politics is highly aware of this name. In fact, CNN reported that Hezbollah, through Safa, “has threatened to “usurp” the Lebanese judge investigating the Beirut port blast in a verbal message to him”[xii] in the week of the 20th of September, 2021. Hezbollah’s criminal activities include drug production and trafficking, sharing smuggling routes, money laundering, counterfeiting medications, trade in stolen goods, frauds, smuggling of goods and weapons and arms and forgery in addition to terror operations. These activities take place within Lebanon but also all over the world[xiii] . They all require for it to have sway over Lebanese security agencies. Specifically, Wafiq Safa coordinates activities of Hezbollah’s Islamic jihad organization’s (IJO) Business Affairs Component (BAC) which was exposed by Operation Cassandra in 2008[xiv] and Operation Cedar in 2015[xv]. In particular, Safa coordinates “the BAC’s access to Beirut’s international airport and many ports”[xvi]. As an example, Safa informs port and airport officials of an arriving shipment at a specific time as to remove the shipment from official records and avoid scrutiny, in turn, Safa pays these state officials. Moreover, Hezbollah has been playing, since 2012, a prominent role in Syria, sending thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah soldiers to defend the Assad regime against opposition groups. Recently, it bought lands on Lebanon’s border to safeguard and expand its influence in Syria[xvii]. Importantly, Hezbollah has a well-documented history with transporting and storing ammonium nitrate in numerous countries such as Great Britain, Cyprus, Kuwait and Thailand[xviii]. Investigative journalists are gathering evidence alleging that the “explosives in Beirut may have been intended for Damascus”[xix]. In the grand scheme of things, corrupt officials in the PoB and in border security agencies are what we can call ‘useful idiots’ who benefit from their association with Hezbollah for financial considerations and/or politico-ideological ones.
Hybrid actors’ strategies and recommendations to develop more effective counter-policies: Case of Hezbollah
First, there’s the strategy of Human shield, exemplified by the storing of deadly explosives in the most populated Lebanese city, Beirut. Human shields are an unconventional and asymmetric strategy that relies on a strategy of lawfare aimed at deterring the enemy for fear of becoming delegitimized. In other words, storing weapons, missiles and other high-level military equipment in populated regions was meant to deter the enemy of dealing these stocks a deadly and pre-emptive blow and reducing Hezbollah’s military strength. Hezbollah’s urban missile factories “put civilian at risk”[xx] and since the PoB’s devastating explosion, new reports have emerged that Hezbollah has weapons warehouses such as “next to a school in Lebanon”[xxi].
One of the recommendations to counter the use of human shield would be for the adversary and high-level civil society organizations to reveal, through thoroughly documented evidence, their adversary’s use of civilians in combats. Further, as to increase the credibility of those exposing Hezbollah’s warehouses, the KSA and the UAE should join other actors in publicly exposing Hezbollah’s hidden stockpiles that will increase pressure on this paramilitary organization especially that Lebanese public opinion is increasingly turning against it. Lebanon’s historical Arab friends have greatly suffered from Iran’s expansion and military adventurism. Also, Hezbollah’s violation of Lebanon’s dissociation policy endangers decades long of good and reciprocal relations with these Arab gulf states. There is a repeated mantra by western politicians that there are no military solutions to political conflicts. However, other actors are implementing them with no regards to ethics and legal considerations. With Precision weapons systems and precision guided munitions, Hezbollah’s adversaries could target Hezbollah’s warehouses as pre-emptive strikes that would reduce the security threat it poses on Lebanese and the region as a whole.
Second, Hezbollah’s ‘Golden Triangle- Army, Nation, Resistance’ is emblematic of the hybridity of Lebanon’s security architecture. Ipso facto, therefore, for Hezbollah to retain its raison d’être it needs to protect this special status/formulation which implies the necessity of competing with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and making it look as weak. As a case in point, in the two offensives against ISIS and HTS in the summer 2017, Hezbollah controlled-media claimed that they were cooperating with the LAF, which the LAF denied[xxii]. Hezbollah has influence within the LAF from generals and commanders and more specifically in the Directorate of Military Intelligence[xxiii].
Importantly, this golden triangle demonstrates the paradoxicality of military cooperation, agreements and strategic partnerships between western governments and/or supranational organizations and the Lebanese Armed Forces while having a Lebanese parliamentary majority governed by a ‘terrorist’ organization and a defense strategy devised in Tehran.
The U.S is the biggest financial, technical and operational donor of the LAF. However, it also contributes to Hezbollah’s repeated chanted slogan that the LAF is weak because U.S military foreign policy is committed to U.S qualitative military edge (QME) policy. QME “commits the United States to helping maintain Israel’s military superiority against its neighbors and adversaries”[xxiv]. In fact, Hezbollah is the “world’s most heavily armed non-state actor”[xxv], more powerful than most North Atlantic Treaty organization members”[xxvi] . In the (Eastern) Mediterranean, the EU and NATO’s southern flank are witnessing Russia’s re-emergence as a superpower which would not have happened without its entrenchment and role in Syria which would not have happened without Russian cooperation with Hezbollah in Syria, at both the tactical and operational level coupled with a sort of political harmony. Through this relationship of convenience, Hezbollah can be used by Russia to fiddle with U.S and western interests in the region and Lebanon more specifically. Therefore, one of the recommendations in that regards is for the LAF to obtain advanced weapons from other sources that have an incentive to strengthen the LAF. In that way, they would indirectly weaken Hezbollah. Arab friends of Lebanon and western powers can collaborate to devise a defense and military cooperation scheme with the LAF, impose sanctions on members of the LAF that collude with this militia. Strengthening the sovereignty of weak states and monopolizing the use of force only in the state’s hands would contribute to regional stability which is needed for cooperative projects in all aspects (e.g., technology, energy).
Thirdly, many western countries, international organizations (e.g., UN) and supranational organizations (EU) fell in Hezbollah’s trap that seeks to differentiate between its political wing and military wing. Yet, Hezbollah is a holistic organization with a hierarchical pyramid structure. It is a sophisticated machine that operates under a single leadership – the Shura Council- headed by the Secretary-General who is also the head of the Jihad Council and that decides and manages all activities. Hezbollah has, therefore, one leadership and one administration responsible for its socio-political activities on one hand and its military-terrorist activities on another. As we saw from the PoB case, the head of Hezbollah’s security apparatus is also the same actor who coordinates Hezbollah’s IJO and BAC. Thus, it is illogical to designate only its military wing as terrorist, for it could not operate without its political (social, religious) wings.
Hezbollah is an unfamiliar actor and its complexity hindered the development of creative policies. Improving core western security and geopolitical actors’ approach to Hezbollah will help them a long way with policy learning. Dealing more effectively with hybrid actors and warfare is urgent since hybrid actors became prominent players in the MENA following the so-called Arab uprising and Hezbollah is “probably the best indicator of the direction of future conflicts and warfare in the world”[xxvii].
The pressure to adopt more adequate foreign policies to deal with Hezbollah would not be that urgent if Hezbollah’s criminal tentacles stayed out of Europe, but they didn’t. One of the recommendations in that regards is for the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy to follow its own EU Commission 2019 report and adopt a more unified and assertive stance on the international scene and especially towards hybrid and transnational actors. While Hezbollah has domestic legitimacy, this should not act as an independent variable in the decision and formulation of foreign policies. The reason for that argument is that Hezbollah is not a domestic player, confined to the boundaries of Lebanon, but a transnational one, and a very effective one at that.
It would be better if the decision to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in its entirety is not politicized. It is understandable that foreign policies vis-à-vis Hezbollah is completely contingent on the West’s relationship with Tehran. While the nuclear program is of great urgency, the ballistic missiles program and Iran’s role in the region should not be understated. Importantly, Iran’s most important card in both, its ballistic program and regional role, is Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s military arsenal is and could be further used by Iranian foreign legion of people who can act in asymmetric ways all around the world. Notwithstanding the many crimes to which Hezbollah affiliates were convicted of in Europe, North America, Latin America, Africa and Asia, cyberwarfare is Russia’s forte and it can quickly become Hezbollah’s if it learns it from Russia. From a security perspective, Hezbollah should be regarded as a non-state actor mainly and be treated as such. It is a non-state actor by design, nature and purpose and uses its political wing and its entry in Lebanese politics because it benefits them to do so. From a law enforcement point of view, some make the case to designate BAC as a terrorist organization, yet that would not be fruitful since it relies on social welfare activities, religious organizations and political senior officials such as Abdallah Safieddine. EU is considering blacklisting Hezbollah in its entirety, yet many oppose such idea for fear of closing lines of communication with this militia transnational party thereby becoming dependent on other actors. However, one should really ask how effective have these lines of communication between the EU and Hezbollah been? I would argue, not effective at all.
Fourthly, Hezbollah’s hegemony and monopoly over Lebanon’s territorial, maritime and spatial borders works in the service of its human trafficking endeavors .Therefore, another recommendation stems from instrumentalizing the U.S and EU’s normative politics which concentrates on human rights. Hezbollah’s human trafficking network and sex trafficking of Syrian women is a gateway to lobbying for the designation of this hybrid actor as a criminal organization, in its totality. One of the ways it can do so is by targeting what we call Iran-Hezbollah super facilitators which are top-tier targets. Further, and also from a human rights perspective, Hezbollah does not allow for other voices in the Shia community. While not legally proven, the death of Lukman slim should have made headlines just like Khashooghji’s or the killing of Putin’s political opponents. The killing of Slim and a Hezbollah’s official sex trafficking crimes are lost opportunities that the West and its media should have better utilized as a soft power tactic. This criminal political organization is known for its crack down on journalists, business people and activists whose influence disadvantages Hezbollah. Another soft power strategy that can be recommended in that regards is to develop a reliable, durable and effective approach with the Shia community via Lebanese Shia citizens who are disenchanted with Hezbollah in addition to providing economic alternatives to this community.
Regional Instability and securitized relations
The instability and chaotic nature of Lebanon pushes regional actors, namely those that formed a Mediterranean front, to find ways to enhance cooperation on a multifold of security issues as to insulate themselves from threats jeopardizing the region and develop a sort of security architecture, albeit exclusive for now. The role that Hezbollah has played in Lebanon and the region hindered, significantly, regional connectivity which negatively affects the investment climate. In turn, profit maximization models’ expectations and predictions are departed from and political purposes are prioritized (e.g., energy, IcT etc. ). When that is the case, projects that require regional stability are left untouched or at best, progress very slowly. The most prominent case in that regards in the untapped offshore natural gas reserves in the vicinity of eastern Mediterranean countries, including in contested areas between Lebanon and Israel. In that regards, Lebanese governmental officials should not allow Hezbollah to impose its strategy that entangles the negotiations surrounding the delimitation of Lebanon’s maritime boundary with Israel with the land boundaries which are yet to be established.
The importance of Lebanon’s geostrategic location for regional security is historic as turmoil and instability in Lebanon directly increases the threat to security at the regional level for it constitutes a highly strategic, military and political point for many countries in the region.
Multilateralism and inter-intra-agency cooperation to tackle the Hezbollah.
Today, reports are emerging that Hezbollah is devising a restructuration plan to increase the distinction between its military and political wings with the aim to “improve its warfare capabilities into a new advanced level”. This reflects strategic pragmatism and flexibility from the part of a hybrid actor and its ability to foresee and adapt to the West’s approach.
Critically, the more the West acquiesces to Tehran the more it proves that coercive diplomacy (e.g., hostage diplomacy and threats) are the rules of the geopolitical game. And the more that is the case, the less strong and credible are the principles on which the West relies on in its foreign policies and strategies. Becoming more assertive and stronger towards Hezbollah would contribute to the fight against Westlessness, to the fight against the decay of the Westphalian order and to the fight against the existential threat to the liberal international order.
Multilateralism is one of the EU’s most important principles. Interagency cooperation with the U.S would go a long way in improving strategies that contain and ultimately minimize this criminal group and its criminal activities worldwide. Another case for multilateralism and cooperative security strategies stems from following the chain of money that funds Hezbollah. Lebanon’s economy and market (or market economy) heavily relies on remittances. Even in that regards Hezbollah is an outlier, for the international extensive links that it established with the Shia diaspora serves Hezbollah’s projects which are far from Lebanon’s national interest. This is another reason to enhance policies and international interagency that tackle Hezbollah’s financial network. Based on congressional testimonies[xxviii], one of the weaknesses in the strategies of core geopolitical and security actors such as the DoD, NATO and the EU is the lack of information sharing both on the domestic level (national agencies) and bilateral level between them. Secondary sanctions via HIFPA especially in the tri-border area (Latin America) would hurt the financial institutions backing Hezbollah, for example.
Based on the aforementioned, the port of Beirut explosion- a political earthquake of huge magnitude- was bound to happen. The hybridity of Lebanon’s security apparatus is unable to protect citizens and residents alike from existential threats. Given the internationality of Hezbollah, the international community should work together to better their foreign policies and security strategies. It is time to move away from incentivizing good behavior and go back to de-incentivizing bad behavior.
“These articles reflect research completed by the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Strategy International”
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[ii] Tanchum (2021) “The race to reset the Middle East’s maritime map”, Middle East Institute https://www.mei.edu/publications/race-reset-middle-easts-maritime-map
[iii] The World Bank (2020) Reforming and Rebuilding Lebanon’s Port sector: lessons from global best practices p.15 https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/823691609795908583/pdf/Reforming-and-Rebuilding-Lebanons-Port-Sector-Lessons-from-Global-Best-Practices.pdf
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[xii] CNN, Qiblawi, Tamara “Hezbollah threatened top judge probing Beirut port blast, source says” https://edition.cnn.com/2021/09/23/middleeast/hezbollah-beirut-blast-probe-threat-intl/index.html
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[xiv] Operation Cedar, 2015: Europe–Middle East–South America. Authorities discovered a second network in 2016 in which 16 members of the organization’s criminal network in Europe – France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy – were arrested after laundering up to 1 million euros from international drug deals by buying and selling luxury goods worldwide.
[xv] Operation Cassandra in 2008: The investigation began in May 2008 when at the Frankfurt Airport custom agents arrested two Lebanese nationals holding 8.7 million Euros on which traces of cocaine were found. German authorities also exposed the involvement of two Hezbollah members with ties to Nasrallah and other Hezbollah officials in cocaine trafficking on behalf of Hezbollah. “A year later, two other ring members were arrested for their involvement in drug trafficking from Beirut to Europe, in a raid on their home in the German city of Speyer”.
[xvii] Al Arabiya https://english.alarabiya.net/News/middle-east/2021/08/30/Hezbollah-expands-its-influence-in-Syria-by-buying-land-on-Lebanon-s-border
[xix] Foreign Policy “Syria’s hidden hand in Lebanon’s port explosion
[xx] Ghaddar, Hanin and Levitt, Matthew (2018) “Hezbollah’s Urban missile factories put civilians at risk” Washington Institute
[xxi] Lazkani, Souad (2021) “Israel reveals alleged Hezbollah weapons warehouse next to a school in Lebanon” https://www.the961.com/israel-reveals-alleged-hezbollah-weapons-warehouse/
[xxii] Blanford, Nicholas (2018) “The United States-Lebanese Armed Forces Partnership: Challenges, risks and rewards” The Atlantic Council
[xxiii] Khatib (2021) “How Hezbollah holds sway over the Lebanese state” Chatham House, Middle East and North Africa program
[xxiv] Blanford, Nicholas (2018) “The United States-Lebanese Armed Forces Partnership: Challenges, risks and rewards” The Atlantic Council.
[xxv] Shaikh, Shaann and Williams, Ian (2018) “Hezbollah’s Missiles and Rockets: an overview” Center for Strategic and International Studies.
[xxvii] Piotrowski, Marcin A (2015) “Hezbollah: The Model of a hybrid threat” PISM 24(756).