Hezbollah: Government Within a Gang

Hezbollah is a Shiite Islamic group, beginning as a loose connection of terrorists, and has now become a dynamic organization which is intertwined with the structure of Lebanese society. When Lebanon gained its independence in 1943, the Shiite population was economically and politically excluded. A man named Musa al-Sadr began mobilizing segments of the Shiite community in the early 60s. This led to the emergence of a new Shiite organization in 1975, called Amal. This is the group from which Hezbollah was created.

Hezbollah is now an internationally recognized terrorist group and has been operating out of Lebanon since the early 1980s. Despite its claim of unified control, there are two parts, one being its military wing and the other its political. This is tricky because some countries recognize the entire organization as a terrorist group, whereas others only consider its military wing terrorist. Hezbollah appears to be an Islamic-nationalist group utilizing its political power in Lebanon in order to keep its military wing powerful and functioning.

An important question to ask about Hezbollah; What are its motives? Ideologically, the group has always sought to promote a strict Islamic way of life. In its earlier days the group’s leaders implemented harsh codes of Islamic behavior on various towns and villages. Despite this strict focus on Islam, the group insists that they do not intend to force Lebanese to be a part of an Islamic-only society. Hezbollah officially published it’s manifesto in 1985. It included key goals for the group, such as: destroying Israel, expelling Western influences from Lebanon and the wider Middle East, and combatting their enemies within Lebanon, particularly the Phalanges Party. Along with these goals, the manifesto also identified the USA and the Soviet Union as Islam’s main enemies. It also claimed that the international system and 1985 Lebanese government were subject to imperial influences and thereby hostile to Islam. However, more recently in the 2009 Lebanese elections Hezbollah won ten parliamentary seats. Months after this, the group’s leader. Hassan Nasrallah, gave an updated manifesto for the group, essentially shifting the group from it’s Khomeinist roots towards an Islamist nationalist approach.

Hezbollah’s rise in the government hasn’t been a cakewalk, in fact it has had to use military force in order to not get squashed by the Lebanese government. In 1989 Lebanon’s civil war ended, and an accord called for all militias to disarm. Hezbollah, however, re-branded itself to be an “Islamic Resistance” force focused on ending Israeli occupation, allowing it to stay armed. After this, the group became more active with Lebanese politics, participating in it’s nation elections in 1992. When Israeli forces withdrew in 2000, the group was credited for this success, but once again received pressure to disarm. However, again they resisted and held their military presence near Israeli occupied areas in the south. In 2008 Lebanon’s government attempted to shut down Hezbollah’s private telecommunications and specifically remove an airport security chief as a result of believed ties to the group. Hezbollah retaliated to these actions and seized a large part of the capital and began fighting other opposing Sunni groups. This retaliation led to 81 deaths and almost caused a new civil war in the country. To end this conflict, the government conceded some of its power by agreeing on a power-sharing agreement. This is how the group’s veto power came to be.

Despite these military means, Hezbollah has demonstrated its professionalism and effectiveness in times of crises and in general for the Shiite Lebanese. The group provides crucial social services, including the management of schools, hospitals, and news and agricultural services. After the country’s civil war ended, the group rebuilt homes and businesses of Christian families returning to southern Beirut. Also, after a 1996 Israeli bombing campaign, Hezbollah led the rebuilding effort. The group rebuilt 5,000 homes, helped repair roads and infrastructure, and provided compensation to over 2,000 farmers in the area.

Despite the good that this group has been able to do through its political power, almost all of it has been specifically for Shiite Lebanese. Although some countries only recognize its military wing as a terrorist group, due to the many notable terrorist attacks carried out by Hezbollah, its use of military force to maintain political power, and events such as the country’s anti-Hezbollah Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigning and fleeing Lebanon due to supposed assassination attempts, Hezbollah appears to be an Islamic nationalist terrorist group effectively feigning its political aptitude to stay active and dangerous.

al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: The Making of an Islamic Caliphate

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a militant group that operates in the Sahara and Sahel regions in Africa. It is a Salafi-jihadist group, though its ideology also includes regionally resonant ideas, such as those that allude to the Islamic conquest of Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula.

AQIM branched out from a guerrilla Islamist movement called the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) that, in the 1990s, opposed and revolted against Algeria’s secular leadership. Some members of the organization disapproved of the group’s indiscriminate methods and the killing of civilians and decided to split from the group and form the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). This organization was initially popular due to its intentions of rebelling without harming civilians, though it failed to move away from this type of killing. The GSPC became an al-Qaeda affiliate in 2006 and was then renamed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Even with this new affiliation, AQIM’s original interests and goals were safeguarded.

AQIM has its roots in the Kabylie Mountains of Algeria, though the group has expanded into other countries in the recent past. Its businesses of smuggling, trafficking, and kidnapping for ransom are carried out within communities that stretch across the Maghreb region. The group has been very successful and is considered al-Qaeda’s wealthiest affiliate.

Although AQIM’s tactics qualify the organization as a guerrilla group, it acts as a gang and its recent activities demonstrate the group’s aspirations to become the government of a caliphate within the Maghreb region of Africa.

AQIM’s operations include raids, assassinations, suicide bombings, executions, and kidnappings, all of which are guerrilla-style actions. The majority of its funds come from kidnapping for ransom and trafficking various items, including people, vehicles, weapons, cigarettes, and narcotics. This behavior suggests that AQIM acts as an institutional gang. Its activities go beyond guerrilla warfare to money-generating activities for the sake of sustenance and influence.

The immense wealth of the group alone is appealing to possible members, though its association with al-Qaeda boosted its numbers as the affiliation widened AQIM’s audience to the massive number of online jihadists who now see the group as fighting on behalf of al-Qaeda. AQIM became more of an international presence and was able to boost recruitment.

Since becoming affiliated with al-Qaeda, AQIM’s goal of overthrowing the Algerian government has expanded to include the governments of Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and Mali, and to the reclamation of the lost Islamic lands in Southern Spain. The group’s center has shifted progressively southward to the Sahara and Sahel regions. AQIM now has the potential to unite North African militant groups by bringing them together under the common umbrella of al-Qaeda.

The potential of this unification has already been displayed through AQIM’s efforts in Mali. Following the Arab Spring, Libyan Tuareg fighters ended up in Northern Mali, where AQIM and its various splinter groups allied with the Tuareg fighters and took control of much of Northern Mali. The group hoped to create an Islamic state in Mali and use that as a platform to launch a movement southward. Other countries intervened and forced AQIM out of some major strongholds, though the group continues to operate in Northern Mali, demonstrating that it hopes to reassert itself in the areas that it once controlled. Due to this setback, AQIM has turned to Libya, using its instability as an opportunity to expand eastward, and uses it as a new platform to strengthen its presence in the country and carry out powerful attacks in Algeria. AQIM’s ultimate goal is to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the Maghreb region, where the group would enforce Sharia Law. The group does not currently appear to be able to create such a state in the area, though it will presumably continue behaving as it has been, completing both jihadist and criminal operations to strengthen its finances and further its goals.

Schoolgirls, Shoot-outs, and Salafis, oh my!

Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates to “Western education is sin”, is a terrorist organization that has tormented Nigeria for the past decade. Beginning originally as a cross between a peaceful protestation of Nigeria’s corrupt government and a biker gang, Boko Haram has quickly grown into the deadliest terror organization in the world, having claimed over twenty-thousand lives and displacing approximately 1.5 million others. Boko Haram’s power is derived from unrest between Nigeria’s impoverished, Muslim north and the Christian south; having Africa’s largest economy and most populous country in conjunction with its 350 ethnic groups proves difficult for the Nigerian government to control on its own. Empowering the underrepresented Muslims of the north, Boko Haram easily amassed a following by promising prosperity for Nigeria through the establishment of a caliphate governed by Sharia law, which they believed would root out corruption from Nigeria’s government. Boko Haram also taps into general anger towards the remnants of Nigeria’s colonial past, most likely using the Sokoto caliphate of the early 20th Century as a model.

Founded by the overtly charismatic Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram quickly gained traction and incited many protests, some of which became violent. Worried that this new movement was undermining its authority as a government, the Nigerian government used these outbursts of violence as justification for the kidnapping and extrajudicial execution of Boko Haram’s leaders, forcing the group to go underground, as it had no real direction without Yusuf’s command. Despite the arguably aggressive nature of Boko Haram, the global community condemned the Nigerian government’s response to the uprising, with the Human Rights Watch condemning the barbaric fashion of the killings, in which the bullet-ridden corpses of the victims were publically displayed as a warning sign to other insurgents.

The death of Yusuf served as a turning point for Boko Haram, and fueled by revenge and the rising tensions between Nigerian Muslims and Christians, it was driven to Islamist violence. Beginning with a series of suicide bombings and lone wolf attacks, Boko Haram slowly gained more sophistication in 2013, orchestrating mass violence: murdering college students while they slept, beheading truck drivers on a Nigerian highway, and killing of hundreds of civilians on the roads of northern Nigeria. The savagery reached its climax in April, 2014 when Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from the rural village, Chibok, which attracted international attention and put even more pressure on the Nigerian government to quell the hysteria.

Teaming up with its neighboring countries of Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, the Nigerian government launched a successful military campaign against Boko Haram, pushing it out of urban areas into the rural North and forcing it to relinquish the majority of its territory by 2015. Tremendously weakened and in need of supplies and reinforcements, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, an Islamist insurgency in Syria, that same year, despite Boko Haram’s declaration of its own caliphate but a year prior. Many members of the global community believe that this merger is superficial; a way for Boko Haram to cling to some legitimacy, but it may in fact serve as a symbolic precursor to the emergence of a more globalized terrorist organization.

Boko Haram has lost the majority of its media attention, but still poses a threat to the Nigerian government and continues to terrorize its civilians, having killed more than twenty people this year so far, in a series of suicide bomb attacks. There are signs it is weakening, however, with the Nigerian military recovering the majority of the Chibok girls kidnapped nearly four years ago along with other victims of Boko Haram’s tirade.

It is truly difficult to categorize Boko Haram as an organization. It is comprised of numerous factions; all working ultimately toward the same goal, but also operating on separate fronts, whether it be increasing its territory into Nigeria’s neighboring countries or supporting other Islamist insurgences such as the one in Mali. Boko Haram relies heavily on its social hierarchy and rituals to maintain some sense of authority, enforcing titles and initiation rituals that mimic those of gangs. On the other hand, Boko Haram shows more sophistication than its Middle Eastern counterparts, utilizing firearms over crude pipe bombs as means of attack and focusing its attack predominantly on the Nigerian military instead of its civilians. Boko Haram can be most appropriately called an insurgency, for it fills the void of strong Islamic leadership that the northern part of Nigeria lacks, as well as for its combatting of a government that is nearly as violent and as corrupt as the organization itself. The future of Boko Haram is also uncertain, it had appeared to have almost completely died down, thanks in part to the joint efforts of the Nigerian government and its neighbors, even resulting in the release of 1,130 hostages. This weekend, however,  a story developed out of Dapchi, Nigeria, where approximately 100 schoolgirls were kidnapped on February 19th, 2018. Military might can only do so much when combatting an ideological warfare that stems from economic inequality and religious oppression, two factors which allow for fractured groups such as Boko Haram, to thrive.