Examining Extremism: Hezbollah

Since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas on October 7, 2023, violence between Israel and Hezbollah has sharply increased. Functioning as both a militant group and a Lebanese Shia political party, Hezbollah has based its existence on its opposition to Israel, but it also seeks influence in Lebanon, works with other Iranian clients in the Middle East, and played an important role in keeping the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria afloat. As the war in Gaza continues, fighting between Israel and Hezbollah around Lebanon’s southern border has increased while each side has struck deeper into the other’s territory. An all-out war between Hezbollah and Israel would risk drawing more of the region into the conflict and further destabilizing the Middle East. This entry in Examining Extremism explores the origin and ideology of Hezbollah and assesses the current threat level posed by Hezbollah in light of the rising conflict in the Middle East.



Over its nearly 40-year history, Hezbollah has undergone significant organizational, technical, and political transformations as the group attempted to navigate both domestic Lebanese developments and the tumult of the Levant. While Hezbollah emerged amid the chaos of the Lebanese civil war as a guerilla terrorist group, it has grown to become a national political entity, a social welfare provider, and a state-like military organization.

Hezbollah (“Party of God”) was founded in the 1980s as a Shia Islamist militant group. The Lebanese civil war (1975–1990), the 1982 Israeli invasion, and the Israeli occupation of the “security zone” in southern Lebanon beginning in 1985 led to the proliferation of non-state armed groups in Lebanon. Hezbollah developed as a rival to the more moderate Afwaj al-Muqawama al-Lubnaniyya, known popularly as Amal (“Hope”), a Shia militia group created by Imam Musa al-Sadr in 1974. Comprised of defected Amal members, members of small Islamist groups, and newly politicized local groups inspired by the Iranian revolution and angered by the Israeli invasion, Hezbollah swiftly gained support through its wholesale rejection of Israeli occupation and use of violent tactics to obtain its aims. In all this, Iran played an important role in nurturing, funding, arming, training, and organizing the group.

Hezbollah rose to international prominence following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Hezbollah quickly established its strength and prominence through a string of major terrorist attacks in the region, including the suicide truck bombings of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, the 1984 car bombing of the U.S. embassy annex in Beirut, and the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985. Hezbollah, often working with Iran, also launched terrorist attacks on France and U.S. Arab allies. Hezbollah also drove Israeli forces out of much of Lebanon, confining them after 1985 to a security zone along the Israel-Lebanon border.

Hezbollah consolidated power within Lebanon in the 1990s and early 2000s. With the end of the civil war in 1990, Lebanon came under de facto Syrian control. The postwar Taif Accords ordered all armed militia groups to be dissolved except Hezbollah. The group continued its resistance to Israeli occupation in the southern security zone and carried out a string of international terror attacks throughout the 1990s. Hezbollah made its foray into politics in the 1992 elections, capturing 12 seats in the Lebanese parliament.

Following the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon on May 24, 2000, Hezbollah had come to resemble a state military. Syria pulled out of Lebanon in 2005, leaving a power vacuum. A full-scale war broke out in July 2006 after Hezbollah militants captured two Israeli soldiers. The 34-day war concluded with a UN-brokered ceasefire and the approval of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which established a zone in southern Lebanon that Israeli and Hezbollah forces were not allowed to enter, though UN forces and Lebanese Armed Forces were permitted. When Syria descended into civil war in March 2011, Hezbollah moved to support the sitting Assad regime, sending troops across the border to assist the Syrian army in 2012 as Assad started to lose ground. In Syria, Hezbollah fighters gained on-the-ground experience and acquired advanced weapons systems, transforming the group into what many describe as a “professional army.” 

Hezbollah began drawing down its presence in Syria around 2019 amid increasing backlash from the Lebanese public and, probably more importantly, because the Assad regime had consolidated control of much of the country. By that time, Lebanon entered an economic crisis, leading to anti-government protests and the eruption of violent clashes between Hezbollah supporters and opponents across the country. 

After almost two decades of relative quiet between Israel and Hezbollah, the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7, 2023, has led to a dramatic increase in fighting around Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, sparking fears of a full-scale conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. In the 15 weeks following the October 7 attack, 4,400 violent incidents took place between Israel and Hezbollah. Violence around the Israel-Lebanon border has displaced more than 150,000 people from northern Israel and southern Lebanon. 


Hezbollah is a radical Shia organization, embracing the teachings of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Since its founding, Hezbollah has subscribed to the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih (“Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists”), which advocates a guardianship-based political system centered on one qualified Islamic jurist, the supreme leader of Iran. While it initially followed a more radical Islamic ideology, Hezbollah’s dogma has become less religious and more nationalistic over time. 

In its 1985 founding manifesto, Hezbollah outlined its militant, religiously conservative, and “anti-imperialist” platform while laying blame on the United States for Israeli incursions in Lebanon and vowing to expel Western powers from Lebanon. Fighting against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon was central to Hezbollah’s ideology and legitimacy. The manifesto proclaims Hezbollah’s first objective to be the final departure of Israel from Lebanon “as a prelude to its final obliteration from existence.” The document also calls for the expulsion of Western powers—specifically the United States and France—from Lebanon and the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon. 

Hezbollah’s official ideology took on an increasingly nationalist character throughout the 1990s and 2000s, often at the expense of its religious agenda. Following the Israeli assassination of Hezbollah’s then secretary general Abbas al-Musawi in 1992, his successor Hassan Nasrallah pursued a pragmatic shift in Hezbollah’s ideology, depicting Hezbollah as a party representing all of Lebanon, not just its Shia population. The party’s 2009 manifesto abandons any reference to creating an Islamic state, asserting that “consensual democracy” is to be “the fundamental basis for governance in Lebanon.” The sharp drop in Islamist rhetoric and appeal to national interests reflects Hezbollah’s turn toward ideological compromise. 

The idea of muqawama (resistance) is still a pillar of Hezbollah’s ideology despite Hezbollah’s ideological moderation. Crafting a “resistance society” (mujtama' al-muqawama) that encompasses all Lebanese society is Hezbollah’s central sociocultural project. Social institutions and services serve to diffuse the values of the ideal resistance society while supporting the resistance through resources. Secondary education, youth groups, and women’s committees disseminate “resistance values” like patriotism, sacrifice, and respect for martyrs while providing social environments for group identity formation. Social services also work to maintain the resistance and prevent public defection. 

Hezbollah also tries to keep alive the nationalist cause of Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Although the United Nations has certified that Israel has fully withdrawn from Lebanon, Hezbollah has played up issues such as Israel’s control of Shebaa Farms (a disputed area between Israel and Syria historically, which Syria declared to be Lebanese) to claim that Lebanon remains under Israeli occupation.

Organizational Structure

Hezbollah is a hierarchical organization that more closely resembles a government than a terrorist network.

Hezbollah’s most important decision-making body is the Shura Council, which has been headed by Hassan Nasrallah since 1992. The day-to-day operations of the group are managed by the Political and Executive Administrative Apparatus comprised of the Executive Council, Judicial Council, Parliamentary Council, Jihad Council, and Political Council.

The Jihad Council is directly responsible for all military and security activities, focusing on what Hezbollah calls “resistance activity,” including military oversight, recruitment, training, equipment procurement, and security. Within the military wing is Hezbollah’s External Security Organization (ESO), most frequently known as Unit 910, which is responsible for overseas terrorism, largely against Western targets and Israel. The Parliamentary Council oversees the political activities of Hezbollah and its political party in the Lebanese parliament, the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc. The Social Unit, housed within the Executive Council, serves as the social welfare arm of the organization, managing the primary support institutions for Hezbollah members and their families.

The organization has a geographically nested structure. Militants are aggregated in groups that belong to a local/town section, multiple adjacent sections make up a sector, and sectors are organized into regions according to the official territorial division of Lebanon’s governorates. Recent estimates of Hezbollah’s manpower stand at roughly 30,000 fighters and 20,000 reservists. This number likely does not include the thousands of non-combatant workers and volunteers across the country, including women who are not allowed to be official members of Hezbollah. As other reporting notes, these numbers also fail to account for the thousands of members and non-member supporters worldwide. 

Hezbollah is highly dependent on financial and tactical support, especially from Iran. Iran continues to provide Hezbollah with the bulk of the group’s annual operating budget, estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Beyond direct funds, Iran supplies Hezbollah with weapons, explosives, and training, as well a political, diplomatic, and organizational aid. The Assad regime in Syria allows the territory it controls to be used as a transit route for Iranian weapons to reach Lebanon and in the past directly provided weapons to Hezbollah. Beyond external support, Hezbollah raises funds domestically through fundraising drives, sponsoring and organizing public events, and collecting the Shiite khums religious tax.

Tactics and Targets

Though its targets have stayed the same, Hezbollah’s tactics have become more sophisticated and state-like in recent years. While Hezbollah used to operate as a guerilla group and used terrorist attacks to supplement guerrilla attacks and to have international reach, Israeli sources claim it has since developed military capabilities akin to that of a midsize country

When Hezbollah emerged in the 1980s, it used a mix of guerilla and terrorist tactics to expel Israel from southern Lebanon and deter U.S. action in the region. While Hezbollah primarily targeted Israel and the United States during this period, Saudi Arabia and the West at large have also been targeted. Hezbollah’s early tactics included car, truck, and suicide bombings; kidnapping; assassination; and plane-jacking. During Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, Hezbollah used hit-and-run guerilla tactics, inflicting causalities, and wearing down Israeli forces. It began using Katyusha rockets in 1992 both to inflict mass damage and to establish a deterrence capability. 

At the height of its terrorist activity, Hezbollah was responsible for some of the deadliest terror attacks of the late twentieth century. On October 23, 1983, two truck bombs struck the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, killing 307 people, including 241 Americans, making it the single deadliest day for the U.S. Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima. In 1992, a Hezbollah suicide bomber drove a car bomb into the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 29 and wounding 242 people. Two years later on July 18, 1994, Hezbollah carried out another car bombing in Buenos Aires, on AMIA, an Argentinian Jewish community center. The attack killed 85 people and wounded hundreds more, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentina’s history.  

Since the turn of the century, Hezbollah has adopted more sophisticated fighting techniques, aided by improved weaponry and training. By the time Hezbollah and Israel began fighting again during the one-month war in 2006, Hezbollah had significantly improved its weapons, tactics, and training, transforming into more of a quasi-army than a guerilla group. Its forces stalemated the Israeli army in 2006, a rare Arab military success in the face of Israeli military forces. Since 2006, Hezbollah has only carried out one terror attack outside regional war zones, with no successful attacks in the last decade. Hezbollah’s relative inactivity on the international stage over the last decade could be explained by the significant organizational costs Hezbollah incurred through its support to Syria. However, Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict has also given it access to greater capabilities and competencies on the battlefield. Hezbollah’s military force and capabilities are now considered to be stronger than that of Lebanon’s own army. 

Threat Assessment 

The greatest danger associated with Hezbollah is the possibility of a full-scale war with Israel. Clashes along the Lebanon-Israel border have steadily escalated since October 7, with Hezbollah’s attacks averaging five to six a day. Hezbollah has already displayed its increased capabilities in recent attacks on Israel, using surface-to-air missile unitsanti-tank guided missiles, and suicide drones. Hezbollah has repeatedly violated UN Security Council Resolution 1701, risking further escalation and direct combat between Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces. Israel has also raised the risk of war with Hezbollah, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stating that Israel is determined “to return the residents of the North safely to their homes” diplomatically or “in other ways.”  

A potential war between Hezbollah and Israel poses a grave threat to both the Israeli and Lebanese civilian populations as well as the stability of the Middle East and the world at large. Both sides can inflict mass casualties on the other, and Israel has the potential further to destabilize the already struggling Lebanese economy. An all-out war between Hezbollah and Israel also risks more regional actors becoming involved in the conflict, including the full armed support of Iran and cascading violence in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. A major war between Hezbollah and Israel could reverberate around the world, disrupting the energy marketinternational trade, and the provision of humanitarian aid

Hezbollah’s threat to the United States is closely linked with U.S. support for Israel. The increase in U.S. support for Israel in the current Israel-Hamas conflict means the threat from Hezbollah to the United States has increased as well. A deadly and costly war between Hezbollah and Israel also has a high potential to bring the United States into the conflict. U.S. support to Israel in a potential conflict with Hezbollah could renew Hezbollah’s effort to target U.S. forces in the Middle East, beyond the region, and in the United States itself. Hezbollah has maintained its capacity to operate outside of Lebanon, shown by recently uncovered plans to carry out terror attacks abroad. Hezbollah’s history of targeting U.S. military and diplomatic personnel in the region has also renewed fears of violence against Americans in the Middle East. Hezbollah has the capacity to target U.S. personnel in the Middle East, which could deter further U.S. involvement in the current crisis. 

Katherine Trauger is an intern with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Special thanks to Katherine Stark for editing and publication support.

Katherine Trauger

Research Intern, Transnational Threats Project