By Steven Emerson
A lot of attention has been devoted to the Islamic State’s use of the Internet to inspire or direct international terrorist attacks. But little has been written about how Hezbollah uses similar approaches to recruit and execute attacks. A new study published this month in the CTC Sentinel explores this development by analyzing several cases of Hezbollah’s alleged social media efforts to recruit Israeli Arabs and Palestinians to kill Israelis.
From the end of 2015 through 2017, both the Islamic State and Hezbollah recruited terrorists outside their base countries using social media and encrypted communications platforms to help people form cells and conduct terrorist attacks abroad. Several high-profile Islamic State virtual plots were carried out successfully, killing people in Europe and beyond during this period. Hezbollah, on the other hand, has thus far failed to execute an attack using Palestinians recruited online. But foiled, covert plots still point to a major, yet poorly understood, terrorist threat to Israel. By hiding behind anti-Israel Facebook groups, Hezbollah can oversee plots from afar, at a limited cost to the organization.
The latest study compares and contrasts six publicly available cases of Palestinians recruited by Hezbollah handlers online. In each case, Hezbollah operatives develop ties with individual Palestinians through anti-Israel Facebook groups. After establishing a relationship, the Palestinian recruit is instructed to continue discussions over encrypted email and other communications platforms. The recruit is then asked to form cells with other trusted people in the West Bank. According to the analysis, all of the recruits and cell members were young men from across the West Bank between the ages of 18-32. The sole exception was 49-year-old Mustafa Ali Mahmoud Basharat — who did not make it very far in the planning process before Israel foiled that plot.
In most cases, Hezbollah used secure platforms to send instructions on how to build explosive devices. Palestinian recruits usually conducted surveillance of Israeli military targets, unless Israeli authorities disrupted the cell early on the planning process. Hezbollah’s instructions ranged from kidnapping Israelis, carrying out bombings, and conducting shooting attacks against Israeli military targets. In one case, a Hezbollah-led cell started to build explosives to use in a suicide bombing targeting an Israeli bus.
Beyond inspiration and direction, Hezbollah provided material support. The terrorist group promised, and often sent, large financial transfers to Palestinian recruits. Muhammad Zaghloul, for example, was promised $25,000 but only received $5,000 after Israeli authorities blocked part of the transfer. Zaghloul used the money to buy a sub-machine gun and ammunition after proposing to assassinate a senior IDF officer. Israeli authorities arrested the cell during the plot’s final stages in January 2016, as the cell was potentially en route to carry out the planned attacks. Later that year, another cell, led by Mustafa Hindi, acquired rifles and participated in target practice.
According to the analysis, some Hezbollah handlers hid their identities. But several plots were allegedly overseen by prominent Hezbollah figures including Jawad Nasrallah — son of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah — and Fa’iz Abu-Jadian, a well-known Hezbollah operative based in the Gaza Strip. Based on his involvement in recruiting Zaghloul, the US State Department designated Jawad Nasrallah in November 2018 as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). Abu-Jadian, on the other hand, works for Hezbollah’s Unit 133 — a division specifically created in the early 2000s to facilitate Palestinian terrorism against Israel.
Since the mid-1990s, Hezbollah has been active in stoking violence against Israel from the Palestinian territories and helping Iran transfer money to Palestinian terrorist organizations. During the Second Intifada, Iran tasked arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh with strengthening Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Coordination between Hamas and Hezbollah helped Palestinian terrorists execute the deadliest attack against Israelis during the Intifada: a 2002 suicide bombing at the Park Hotel during a Passover holiday gathering which killed 30 people and wounded 140. After several setbacks, however, Unit 133 gradually oriented its attention toward virtual recruitment campaigns.
There are likely more cases of Hezbollah’s “virtual entrepreneurs” that Israel has not released. But the drop in open-source reporting on this development after 2017 points to several potential explanations outlined in the CTC Sentinel study. Israel’s ability to thwart each plot may have discouraged Hezbollah’s efforts to continue recruiting operatives online. The terrorist group appears to be prioritizing other fronts lately, including in-person recruitment among networks on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Prospective terrorists in the West Bank may also be less inclined to seek ties with Hezbollah, as the popular violent uprising plaguing Israel since September 2015 largely came to a close in mid-2016.
But the overall threat from online recruitment has not gone away. Hezbollah’s main benefactor, Iran, may be taking the lead in recruiting Palestinians online to conduct intelligence and terrorist attacks against Israeli targets. One 2018 plot involved Iranian intelligence personnel, based in South Africa, seeking to cultivate a terrorist cell in the West Bank. In July, an Iranian-directed scheme in Syria sought to recruit Palestinians using fake Facebook profiles before moving on to encrypted communications platforms.
The Palestinian Authority is similarly concerned by these developments. Hezbollah front groups in the West Bank facilitate trips for young Palestinians abroad to meet with Iranian and Hezbollah members. As Hezbollah and Iran strengthen their presence in Lebanon and war-torn Syria, the Islamic Republic and its main Shia partner continue to look for additional ways to strike Israel covertly.
Steven Emerson is considered one of the leading authorities on Islamic extremist networks, financing, and operations. He serves as the Executive Director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism, a non-profit organization that serves as one of the world’s largest storehouses of archival data and intelligence on Islamic and Middle Eastern terrorist groups.