Hezbollah’s Military History by Blanford: An Adversary’s Account?

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Hezbollah fighter at an undisclosed location in south Lebanon. (Photo: Haytham al-Moussawi)

By: Joe Dyke

Published Friday, December 9, 2011

Beirut correspondent for the UK-based The Times and the US-based Time Magazine, Nicholas Blanford, was summoned in front of Lebanese State Prosecutor Saeed Mirza and questioned about an alleged Time Magazine interview with one of the four suspects named by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). While the article was written by a “Time Magazine reporter,” it appeared alongside a commentary written by Blanford in which he draws on what the alleged interviewee said.

The debacle came shortly before Blanford released his new book Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel. The book focuses on the organization’s military development. Blanford spoke in person and later by phone about the book: the ‘inevitable’ next war, the kind of sources he relied on to investigate one of the most secretive organizations, and whether he regretted that article.

The Time Magazine test

Joe Dyke (JD): Your name earlier this year became notorious with Hezbollah and the STL, regarding an article in Time Magazine. Some claim that undermines your objectivity on the issue of Hezbollah. What’s your reaction to that?

Nicolas Blanford (NB): It doesn’t make any difference. I didn’t do the interview. I wrote an analysis and got dragged into the whole thing and Hezbollah knows that.

JD: Do you stand by the validity of the interview?

NB: All I can say is the editors in New York believed it was valid. It had nothing to do with this, they decided to run my analysis alongside it. All I can say is Time Magazine takes these things very seriously.

JD: Do you think it was sanctioned by senior figures in Hezbollah?

NB: I have no idea.

JD: Do you regret your name becoming synonymous with that article?

NB: It was a pain...but the article I wrote I have no problem with. It was an unfortunate set of circumstances but at the end of the day I didn’t do the interview, Hezbollah knows I didn’t do the interview and it hasn’t made any difference to my relations with them.

Inside Hezbollah: From within or by the shadows?

JD: A lot has been written about Hezbollah. What did you seek to do [with your book] that hasn’t already been done?

NB: It was a military history I wanted to do. You write to your strengths and what I have been covering is the military side of things; following what they were doing in South Lebanon in the 1990s and tracing that to the present day.

There are a number of good books on Hezbollah but most of them tend to be of an academic slant and explore ideology and structure, none that really dealt with military strategy at all. So I wanted to write a military history that really traced the evolution of the organization from its rather ramshackle routes in the 1980s to the highly sophisticated organization it has become today.

JD: You describe an internal conflict in Hezbollah between its political commitments to Iran and social commitments to the Shia community. How is that conflict manifested currently?

NB:This is something that has become more evident as the years go on. Ideologically Hezbollah is beholden to Iran and the leadership there. They have received a lot of material and financial support from Iran over the past three decades. But as time has passed Hezbollah has strengthened its position in Lebanon by moving deeper into Lebanese politics – not because they particularly want to move into Lebanese politics, but over time there have been potential threat[s, so] they have taken that extra step.

So now we have this situation where they have this sensitive alliance with Michel Aoun, an alliance with Nabih Berri, and are the dominant influence in the current government – which bestows all kinds of obligations on them. They are the main champion for the Lebanese Shia community. And at the same time they have been building up their army getting ready for the possibility of another war with Israel.

This is where you have the divergence because the Lebanese Shia don’t want another war with Israel – they want, like everyone else, to educate their kids, grow their tobacco, pick their olives and live in peace.

This is the problem for Hezbollah and where it really comes to a crunch is the debates over Iran’s nuclear ambitions...Hezbollah can get away with fighting a war with Israel where Israel is perceived as the aggressor, and that was essentially the case in 2006.

But it is going to be a very different ball game if Hezbollah was to initiate what is going to be a highly destructive war the next time around, for the sake of defending the nuclear ambition of a country that lies 650 miles to the east. The Lebanese Shia community is not going to thank Hezbollah for that and this is the dilemma for Hezbollah – if they get the order from Iran they have to fulfil it.

JD: Why did you decide not to contact Hezbollah in a formal capacity for the book?

NB: I didn’t need their help. At first I thought I would need their help for gaps in research but when I started I had such a huge database of information – I had interviewed all the leadership over the years, plus fighters and all the rest. The book was getting way too big. The final product was 520 pages, or something like that, but I had written over 700 pages before I started chopping, and I hadn’t even finished. The problem was not getting more information, it was what to exclude.

But I also knew that foreigners who had written books on Hezbollah had always gone to Hezbollah before for help. And I know of at least two occasions where Hezbollah has said “no, I am not going to help you.” Perhaps it was a bit of conceit but I felt that if I didn’t need Hezbollah’s help then I wouldn’t ask for it.

JD: How much time have you spent with rank and file members over the years?

NB: Quite a lot. You build up relations with these folk and some become friends and a bit more trusting on the advice of mutual acquaintances. A lot of the guys who talk to me are not supposed to but at the end of the day they are human beings. They tell me a fraction of what they know but it happens to be more than most people get.

JD: Given the secrecy surrounding Hezbollah, would you understand scepticism around claims that you spoke to Hezbollah members?

NB: No, not really. When you have been knocking around the subject for such a long time you make contacts. People tend to look at Hezbollah and think of them as a concrete wall but they are human beings. It is really because I have been here 16 years covering the issue.

JD: But in the book you claim to have talked to a number of foot soldiers, including “The Kid,” who would be thrown out of the party if their leaders found out – what’s in it for them?

NB: It’s all down to personal relationships. They knew that I was writing a book and they like me, some of them have become friends, others talk warily on the advice of mutual acquaintances. When you spend 16 years covering the subject you develop inevitable contacts. Although all those that I speak to are devout followers, they do give me bits and pieces. What they tell me is really a fraction of what they know. I am much more likely to get no comment than information.

JD: The book is called “Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel” but uses sources from both sides, almost as many Israeli sources as Hezbollah ones, and talks about Israeli domestic politics possibly more than Lebanese domestic politics. Why did you pick that title?

NB: I don’t accept that. I disagree, there is a lot more on Lebanese politics, there is a certainly a lot more Hezbollah voices than Israeli voices. There is about three or four Israelis. Obviously because I lived in Lebanon, not Israel, then it is primarily Hezbollah’s account. I wanted to have Israeli voices in there, I would have liked a few more to counterbalance the Hezbollah ones, but essentially this is Hezbollah’s evolution and not the evolution of the Israeli army.

JD: On the issue of sources for estimates of Hezbollah weapons, it has been said that your figures are very close to Israeli estimates. What is your response?

NB: I don’t make much of the estimates that fly around. Hezbollah doesn’t talk about this, period. No Hezbollah figure has ever confirmed to me they have a particular type of weapon. When we go into statistics, I don’t play the numbers game. I think people who say I use Israeli claims haven’t read the book carefully enough. The Americans and Israelis say things like “they have 50,000 rockets” but I don’t use those claims. A lot of those statistics that get bounded around in the press are just for show. When it comes to the kinds of weapons a lot of this has been proven on the battlefield. This is all based on Western intelligence sources and published information.

JD: So your only sources are in the West and Israel?

NB: Hezbollah is a secretive organization. They have never spoken to me once, from the foot soldiers to the senior command, on details of the kinds of weapons that they have. Believe me I have tried to get it out of them but they say “wait and see."

JD: Your previous book about the death of Hariri led to criticism that you were too close to March 14 and the Hariri family. What is your reaction to that and do you think your name is associated with a particular side of Lebanese politics?

NB: The book was about Hariri, so there was always going to be more on him. But the March 8 folks didn’t want to talk, and if they don’t want to talk there is not much you can do about it. I wanted their voices equal to March 14. March 14 were willing to talk but the Siniora government [that] had just come in, the Syrians had just left, the STL had just begun and the March 8 folks were keeping a very low profile. I contacted just about all the leading March 8 figures and almost all of them said ‘the time is not right.’

When you write a book about Hariri you are going to get accused of writing pro-Hariri stuff, it goes with the territory. Back in the old days I was a Hezbollah apologist, then I wrote the Hariri book and then I was a Mustaqbal apologist, now I have written this book and I will probably be a Hezbollah apologist again. It just goes with the flow when you write about these subjects in this part of the world.

The next war

JD: You believe that Hezbollah are the primary aggressors currently?

NB: Currently there aren’t any aggressors. The Israelis are still doing the oversights but both sides are fighting each other on a low-key level – the spy wars. These are two devoted enemies so to say one is the aggressor and one isn’t kind of misses the point. They have been fighting each other, in one form or another, since 1982. So the overt fighting is over – Hezbollah hasn’t fired a shot over the border since 2006 – but the intelligence war continues apace.

JD: How big a blow is the closure of the CIA base in Beirut to Israeli and American interests?

NB: If it’s all true then it’s a massive blow. I would think that the CIA is incredibly clumsy to underestimate Hezbollah’s capabilities. They have a very strong and aggressive counter espionage department and the electronic warfare capabilities they have basically matches those of a nation, not just a guerrilla group.

I think that is one of the reasons they have been able to round up all these folks over the last two or three years. So for the CIA to think they can operate in the way that perhaps they operated in the past is naive.

JD: In the book you describe the spy wars in a similar manner to the Cold War – where mutual fear of the other’s capabilities prevents engagement. Do you believe that this will hold or is the next war inevitable? Are both sides looking for a war?

NB: Neither side is looking for a war because both sides know the next one is going to be very destructive, it is going to make 2006 look like a walk in the park. Nobody wants that but both sides have been preparing for it since 2006. The difference between Hezbollah and the Israelis prior to the 2006 war was that back then only Hezbollah was preparing for a war. The Israelis were preoccupied with the intifada.

The next war is going to be really bad. It is going to be the first war that encompasses the full territories of both countries, rather than being confined to the South Lebanon/ Northern Israel theater. The level of destruction that Israel can expect will be greater than anything it has experienced since 1948. So the Israelis are in no hurry to rush into it.

There is no rational analysis that says that war is inevitable, it is more a gut feeling that unless something major snaps in the region to change the broader regional dynamics I think these two are going to come to blows at some point. Someone will miscalculate, someone will think they can win easily, or something will happen in the region which triggers a chain reaction that leads to a confrontation. I just feel it is inevitable.

JD: Which side is better prepared for the coming war?

NB: I would say that Hezbollah is better motivated but beyond that I couldn’t say. Both sides have got their plans and know what they are going to do, but when wars start the best laid plans of mice and men go out the window. But the motivation levels are extremely high amongst the cadres and they are focused totally on it; on the next war and training and preparation. So all the political stuff, the STL, what’s happening in Syria, they kind of lock that out and concentrate on the job at hand. I don’t think there is the same level of motivation in Israel at all.


How very strange. Remind me, when was the last time Lebanon invaded some other sovereign state ?

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