November 28, 2011

Special Abu Muqawama Q&A with Nick Blanford

One of the biggest compliments I have received as a researcher came in the summer of 2010, when Nick Blanford, who was finishing a military history of Hezbollah, asked me to read and comment on his thousand-page manuscript. Even though Nick and I had been friends for several years, it takes a lot of trust to give someone working on a very similar subject to your own full access to your unedited work and all your sources. (I was finishing up a doctoral dissertation on Hezbollah at the time.) Now that the manuscript has been pared down to just 544 pages and published, I can tell you that if you only buy and read one book this holiday season, it should be Nick's Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah's Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel. Nick was in town last week, and I convinced him to participate in a question-and-answer session for the blog. I respect Nick so much that I even changed the way I transliterate Hizballah Hezbollah in his honor -- something I have only done once before, for Thomas Hegghammer

Nick, first off, thank you so much for allowing me to read this book when it was still in its unedited early drafts. It was incredibly useful to me as I finished my dissertation, and it was a rip-roaring yarn. What a fantastic story you have written. This is truly the work of a lifetime, and I have been telling people for 12 months now, when they ask me about the one book they should read on Hezbollah, that they should read your magnum opus. Tell us: how relieved are you to have this work finally published?

Thanks, Ex, for those kind words. I guess I have mixed feelings about finishing the book. It's a project that was over a decade in the making. I first began mulling a book on Hezbollah's military evolution around 1999 as the Israeli occupation was drawing to an end and the prospects of peace between Israel and Syria were looking good. If peace had been achieved, it would have led to Hezbollah's disarming. Of course, there was no peace deal and Hezbollah has only grown stronger since then. One writes to one's strengths and my intention always was to write a book telling Hezbollah's military story which has been the focus of most of my reporting from Lebanon over the past decade and a half. There are plenty of good books on Hizbullah looking at its ideology and structure, but nothing comprehensive on the "resistance" which after all is the most important component of the party. I have been lucky enough to be in a unique position for a foreign journalist to watch in microscopic detail Hizbullah's military evolution unfold in real time since the mid 1990s. I wanted to produce a book of record that had sufficient weight to interest scholars and academics in the field who hopefully will continue to find it useful 10 or 20 years down the road, but also to provide enough color, reportage and anecdote to make it accessible to a more lay audience. When I began the writing process, I assumed I would need Hezbollah's help to fill gaps in my research, but as it turned out, my problem was not finding more information but choosing what to exclude from a rapidly expanding manuscript. You, Ex, had the misfortune of being the only person who read the much longer original manuscript, which was nudging a quarter of a million words before I started cutting. Very often, a book is improved when it is trimmed down and the MS becomes tighter. I think that's the case with Warriors, but there were some elements and stories that I was sorry to leave on the cutting room floor. In particular, the family and friends of Mohammed Saad, this incredibly resourceful and interesting Amal leader in south Lebanon in the early 1980s, provided me with boxes of information, but I could only use a fraction of it in the book.

Hezbollah goes from just another crappy Lebanese militia in the early 1980s to the most feared non-state actor in the world. Briefly tell us how.

Hezbollah emerged in the early 1980s and was initially very much guided by the Iranians. It owes its creation to the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982, although its leadership had been mulling establishing some form of anti-Israel resistance that followed the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Hezbollah's military exploits began slowly but by the latter half of the 1990s they had come to dominate the resistance against the Israeli occupation in the south. In those days, it was fairly ramshackle, and tactics - such as human wave assaults against Israel outposts - cost them a lot of casualties. Hezbollah's "Golden Years" were in the 1990s - the second phase of the party's evolution - when with the civil war over and under the protection of Syria, Hezbollah was able to focus its activities on resistance. The Islamic Resistance was adaptive and a quick learner and it was fascinating in those days to watch them improve year-on-year. The Israeli withdrawal in 2000 marked the beginning of Hezbollah's third phase. This is where they evolved from a resourceful guerrilla group employing classic hit-and-run tactics into something that folks like you describe as a "hybrid force" - a group that employs a blend of guerrilla and conventional weapons and tactics. Hezbollah today is probably the most formidable non-state military actor in the world. Although we concentrate on Hezbollah's ever expanding arsenal of weapons, for me the most telling aspect of its evolution is its highly complex and advanced electronic warfare and communications systems.

This book focuses primarily on Hezbollah's military activities, but as you know, I always argue the non-kinetic lines of operations -- the information operations, the social services -- are as important to Hezbollah as their military operations. Do you agree?

Absolutely. Hezbollah understood the importance of hearts-and-minds very early on. In fact, it was the Iranians that introduced the concept back in 1982 when among the first things they did on arriving in the Bekaa in the summer of that year was to begin building clinics and providing basic social services along with the lectures and religious educational programs. Jihad al-Binna, Hezbollah's flagship social welfare organization, began operating in 1985. I write about this in the book and how Hezbollah has expanded the social welfare activities to create what they call a "culture of resistance". This makes it much more than simply patching up war-damaged homes, providing free education and medical aid. The community becomes part of the "resistance". Youngsters now grow up in an atmosphere of resistance, jihad, martyrdom and hostility toward Israel. Hezbollah does not accept combatants below the age of 18, but by the time a new recruit has reached the age to join the Islamic Resistance, the chances are he will have been immersed since childhood in Hezbollah's "culture of resistance", reading anti-Israeli cartoon books when he was a kid, attending religious classes and Islamic scouting camps in the school holidays. Maybe even getting some basic weapons training when a young teenager. This culture, or society, of resistance testifies to Hezbollah's long-term strategic vision. Obviously the social welfare programs, the creation of a culture of resistance and even the parliamentary presence from 1992 was intended to build up and sustain Hezbollah's base of support. However, the byproduct of this massive emotional and financial investment is that Hezbollah today has a large constituency towards which it is answerable. When you win over a sizeable percentage of the population to your side, you have to respect and satisfy their needs. That adds another layer of complexity to an organization that is ideologically tied to a country 650 miles to the east the interests of which may not always coincide with the interests of Hezbollah's Lebanese constituency.

How does a researcher like yourself even write such a book? How did you gain the incredible access you gained, and are you worried about how the book will be received among your sources?

I have access to a number of Hezbollah people who are willing to talk to me either because they have come to know me over the years or on the assurances of mutual acquaintances. These guys are not supposed to talk to me at all, of course, so I am very careful to protect their identity. Mind you, what they tell me is a fraction of what they know, but it's more than other people get. I didn't ask for Hezbollah's formal help for my research. I have a huge database of information which I have built up over the past 16 years and I have interviewed just about all Hezbollah's leadership at some time or other. Will Hezbollah like the book? I think they will like some things and won't like others. It's a controversial subject and I think there's something in there for everyone to love and hate.

This is a two part question: a) why, in your professional reason, did I kill Rafik Hariri, and b) is it true that when Hezbollah speaks of the most gifted military commander they have ever faced, they speak of me on the paintball court?

I have always felt that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has been wasting its time examining the alleged roles of Syria and Hezbollah in Hariri's assassination. When I was researching my previous book - Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and its Impact on the Middle East
- I quickly discovered the intense rivalry and hostility between you and Hariri: the financial dealings that went sour, how he thwarted your political ambitions in Lebanon, how you stole his girlfriends. You may recall that I was planning to expose the entire plot before your lawyers threated legal action. The truth will out one day, my friend. Seriously though, the guy who spread this rumor was acting extremely irresponsibly and really should be held accountable for spreading such malicious and potentially dangerous falsehoods.
As for the paintball competition, all I recall of that was you curled up on the floor pleading for mercy as the Hezbollah guys splattered you with paint pellets. Or was that me?

It was probably me. A certain H.P. Flashman has always been my role model when the bullets -- or paintball pellets -- start flying. Anyway, I always end these interviews with a few questions about food and drink. You, my friend, are a past master of the Beirut bar scene, but now that you are a family man with a beautiful wife and kids, where do you like to go in Lebanon for a nice meal?

I like the Greedy Goose because they serve locally brewed 961 beer and I meet some journo friends there once a week. I am out of touch with most bars in Beirut these days. I preferred the good old days when there were perhaps three bars in Beirut, the best of which was the Lord Kitchener which was at the back of an abandoned shopping center in Hamra and had a very laid-back speakeasy-type atmosphere and a wicked oud player. As for food, still love Le Chef, an institution. Best cafe is Cafe Younes in Hamra. I used to live above the cafe in 1995-96 when it was just a place to buy freshly ground coffee and knock back a double espresso in the morning. Otherwise, it's local cafes and restaurants dotted around the country. Eat foul in the Tyre souq. There's a brilliant sandwich place in Dar al-Wassah in the Bekaa - best labneh sandwiches in Lebanon. I also stop at Abu Rashed next to the army barracks in Marjayoun. They make terrific shish taouq. Corny though it may sound, the best meal is the one with a couple of spit roast chickens, olives, bread and with the family on a picnic somewhere high up in the mountains.

That doesn't sound corny in the least. Thanks, Nick. As for the rest of you, you know what to do: buy Nick's book here.