by Alex McCarthy

Author Matthew Levitt’s lunchtime talk at the American Islamic Congress’s D.C. Center this week started out on the subject of his recent book on Hezbollah, but he quickly tied it in with a more-current topic dominating the news: Syria.

“It’s difficult to discuss Hezbollah without starting or ending with Syria,” Dr. Levitt said.

Interspersing stories from “Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God” with implications on the conflict in Syria, Dr. Levitt delved into topics ranging from Hezbollah’s origins to its ties with Iran and its lesser-known reach in the Western Hemisphere, Africa and Southeast Asia.

Dr. Levitt touched on part of what makes Hezbollah unique–and the premise of his book–from other terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Shaabaab: It is parts political party, social welfare movement, military wing, with plenty of open-source literature available (read: not classified). The problem, he said, was there was plenty missing on Hezbollah’s activities beyond that, the more criminal elements of counterfeiting, money laundering, narcotics and weapons.

“The public discourse has underestimated, and completely discounted, the threat from Hezbollah because the information isn’t there,” he said.

In addition, Hezbollah continues to insist that its form of resistance is distinct from (and therefore more innocuous than) terrorism. He shared a direct quote from a captured operative: “I was just carrying out surveillance of the Jews. This is what my organization (Hezbollah) does all over the world.”

Hezbollah’s lack of compunction in using violence against Israeli tourists and other “soft targets” around the world is compounded by another of its attributes that makes the group more dangerous than it appears: it has been able to make its message resonate with people.

In spite of the violence that has spread over Lebanon’s borders from the conflict in Syria, Hezbollah’s push to send more Lebanese people to fight there has its supporters because they see it as defending other Muslims. The rise of foreign fighters in Syria in general stems from the belief that they must defend their Muslim brothers and sisters against the butchery because they do not see anyone else stepping in.

“The greatest concentration of Al-Qaeda-like groups are in Syria right now,” he said. “Hezbollah is trying to build a culture of resistance in Lebanon… to still have standing, without a raison d’etre, for the killing of Lebanese people. Hezbollah spends tremendous amounts of time trying to convince the Lebanese people that everything it does is in Lebanon’s interest.”

These foreign fighters, many of whom have passports from countries such as the U.S., Australia and the U.K., frequently return home far more radicalized because of the training they received on the ground.

“Hate crimes between Shia and Sunni communities [in other countries] are on the rise,” Dr. Levitt said, because “as these conflicts happen abroad, the violent tension starts popping up in diaspora communities.”

Banning or naming-and-shaming its military faction is just one tool the international community has used to clip Hezbollah’s wings, but it is not enough. There continues to be little known or discussed about Hezbollah’s ties in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia, in part tied to Iran’s role in exporting revolution.

AIC Executive Director Zainab Al-Suwaij introduced Dr. Levitt to a crowd of approximately 40 people and outlined how his talk addresses one of the key pillars of AIC’s mission: opposing extremism.

Alex McCarthy is Communications Assistant at the American Islamic Congress

To view photos from the event, click here.

To watch a portion of video from Dr. Levitt’s remarks, click here.

To watch a portion of the Q&A with Dr. Levitt, click here.

For more information on Matthew Levitt and his work, read his bio here.