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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

COLUMN: Hezbollah’s Rising Terror Threat in the Wake of the October 7 Hamas Attacks

The October 7 terror attacks carried out by Hamas have had far-reaching consequences, particularly in terms of security dynamics and political discourse across the Middle East. Hamas employed terrorist tactics in these attacks, deliberately aiming at Israeli civilians. The toll of these assaults has been severe, with over 1,300 innocent civilians losing their lives as a result. In response to these attacks, Israel has implemented retaliatory and stringent counterterrorism policies aimed at thwarting future threats. However, these measures have not been without controversy, as they have resulted in thousands of civilian casualties, including women and children. This collateral damage has sparked widespread debate and condemnation both within Israel and internationally, prompting questions about the proportionality and effectiveness of Israel’s responses to Hamas aggression. 

In the aftermath of the October 7 attacks, there has been a notable reconfiguration in the regional landscape, particularly concerning security dynamics. One significant change is the increasing isolation faced by Israel within the region. Despite prior efforts to foster diplomatic relations and gain recognition from neighboring countries and the international community, Israel’s response to the Hamas terror attacks has backtracked on these initiatives. Adding to this shift, several nations, including Norway, Spain, and Ireland, have joined the ranks of countries extending international recognition to a Palestinian state.  

Moreover, Iran’s influence in the Middle East has become more conspicuous. Coordinated assaults on Israel by groups backed by Iran across various Middle Eastern countries underscore the extent of Iran’s power projection capabilities in the region. Notably, groups such as the Houthis in Yemen, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq (IRI) operating in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria have actively targeted both American and Israeli interests. These actions not only demonstrate Iran’s reach but also its intent to challenge regional stability and security.  

Among the groups backed by Iran, the IRI and Hezbollah hold a significant position. The IRI, formed shortly after the October 7 attacks by merging four Shia groups in the Middle East, has utilized drones and missiles provided by Iran. By the end of 2023, the group had conducted 112 attacks. Although the IRI continued its operations in 2024, the frequency declined during the first quarter. For instance, there were 61 attacks in January, 16 in February, and 3 in March. Despite the decrease in IRI attacks, Hezbollah has sustained its momentum, increasing assaults from Lebanon targeting Israel. 

Hezbollah Terror Attacks Before October 7 Attacks    

Hezbollah presents a complex security challenge, with varying perspectives among Western countries regarding its classification. While many Western nations, including the United States and some European Union members, officially designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, its political presence in Lebanon’s parliament lends it a degree of legitimacy in certain contexts. Furthermore, its involvement in global cocaine trafficking and cigarette smuggling has led many Western and Latin American countries to label it as a criminal organization, with documented instances of criminal and money laundering activities. 

The recent attacks by Hamas on October 7 have heightened concerns about terrorism, particularly in relation to Iran-backed groups like Hezbollah in the Middle East. According to the Global Terrorism and Trends Analysis Center (GTTAC) Records of Incidents Database (GRID) records, Hezbollah carried out three terror attacks in 2018, 10 in 2019, 15 in 2020, 9 in 2021, 8 in 2022, and two in the first nine months of 2023. However, there has been a notable surge in attacks since the Hamas October 7 attacks in 2023, with 243 occurring afterward and 268 in the first quarter of 2024. 

Figure 1: Hezbollah’s Terror Attacks (2018 – The First Quarter of 2024) 

In 2018, Hezbollah was involved in three attacks across Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. In Lebanon, it targeted a journalist critical of Hezbollah. In Yemen, its objective was to attack Saudi officials, while in Syria, it targeted the Syrian Arab Army, resulting in the death of 25 soldiers. In 2019, Hezbollah primarily collaborated with the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and focused on attacks against Israel. The group utilized rockets, anti-tank guided missiles, and armed assaults launched from Syria and Lebanon to target Israel. Additionally, Hezbollah engaged in armed confrontations with anti-Assad groups and targeted the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and public areas within Israel. In 2020, Hezbollah was involved in various confrontations and attacks across Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. These actions include damaging border fences, engaging in clashes with regime militia, attempting to plant explosives, targeting Israeli military equipment, and opening fire on Israeli troops or civilians. 

In 2021, Hezbollah’s activities included border violations, with attempted breaches or operations near the borders of Lebanon-Israel and Syria. Armed confrontations and exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and security forces were frequent occurrences. Rocket attacks toward Israeli territory, kidnapping incidents targeting military personnel, and the use of UAVs for reconnaissance or attacks also characterized Hezbollah’s activities during this period. It is worth noting that Hezbollah’s first UAV attacks were recorded in 2021. Interactions with other armed groups in Syria, such as clashes with Russian-backed factions, indicated Hezbollah’s complex network of alliances and adversaries. In 2022, Hezbollah continued UAV attacks into Israeli airspace. These drones were intercepted or shot down by the IDF, resulting in no reported casualties or damages. Importantly, in most cases, there has been no official claim of responsibility for these drone attacks, although, in some instances, Hezbollah has claimed responsibility for launching UAVs into Israel. Up until the October 7 attacks in 2023, Hezbollah was involved in two attacks targeting opposition forces aligned against the Bashar al-Assad government. 

 Hezbollah Threat After October 7 Attacks 

The October 7 attacks signaled a significant shift in Hezbollah’s terrorist activities, with the group ramping up its offensive actions. From October 8 until the end of the month, 72 recorded attacks occurred, and this trend continued to increase steadily throughout the following months of 2023. This momentum persisted, with a similar number of attacks occurring in the first quarter of 2024, as shown in Figure 2 below. 

Figure 2: Hezbollah Attacks Six Months After Hamas’ October 7 Attacks (October 2023 – March 2024) 

The incidents involving Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel reveal a consistent pattern in its approach. Firstly, Hezbollah consistently operates from southern Lebanon, which serves as a launchpad for their offensive actions against Israel. This geographical consistency indicates a strategic base of operations for the group’s activities. Additionally, the targets of these attacks are predominantly IDF positions located in the districts of HaZafon/Northern District and Upper Galilee. This deliberate focus on military targets suggests Hezbollah’s aim to confront Israeli security forces rather than civilian populations directly. 

In terms of tactics, Hezbollah employs a diverse array of weapons, ranging from projectiles and missiles to rockets and combat drones. This variety in their arsenal underscores their capability to adapt their tactics to different situations and exploit various vulnerabilities. Despite the range of weapons used, the outcomes of these attacks often result in minimal or no casualties and little to no material damage. In 2024, Hezbollah executed complex attacks, with an increased focus on using bomb-laden UAVs and guided missiles. Some attacks involved the simultaneous use of multiple explosives. For instance, in March 2024, Hezbollah deployed two explosive drones and three guided missiles to target IDF positions in Hanita, Israel. 

Moreover, Hezbollah’s willingness to claim responsibility for most of these attacks demonstrates a brazen approach, where the group openly acknowledges its role in perpetrating violence against Israel. This public acknowledgment serves multiple purposes, including signaling strength to its supporters, intimidating adversaries, and potentially garnering sympathy or support from certain audiences. The intermittent nature of these attacks, occurring over several months, suggests a sustained campaign of aggression rather than isolated incidents, indicating a concerted effort by Hezbollah to assert its influence and challenge Israeli security along the border. 

Furthermore, the repeated targeting of specific locations, such as Kiryat Shmona and Shebaa Farms, indicates strategic considerations or vulnerabilities perceived by Hezbollah in these areas. This strategic targeting underscores Hezbollah’s efforts to assert control or influence over certain territories or to exploit perceived weaknesses in Israel’s defense infrastructure. 

To conclude, the patterns observed following the October 7 attacks illustrate Hezbollah’s intricate strategy in confronting Israel, characterized by consistent tactics, targets, and results, amidst the broader regional tensions and geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East. It appears that Hezbollah’s escalating attacks will reinforce its association with terrorism, potentially eclipsing its reputation as either a legitimate political party or a global transnational trafficking organization. 

author avatar
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.
Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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