March 6, 2014 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1074

Lebanese Media Report Shift In U.S. Attitudes Towards Hizbullah – Though It Is A Designated Terrorist Organization

March 6, 2014 | By E. B. Picali*
Lebanon | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1074


In February 2013, Hizbullah deputy secretary-general Sheikh Na'im Qassem said that the Americans had "contacted us in various ways and via mediators and asked to sit down with us. We answered via the mediators that the images [of such a meeting] would do no good, and that the only thing that would help is a change in your [i.e. the Americans'] mentality and your recognition of the legitimate rights of peoples."[1]

This statement, if authentic, could attest to a change of strategy vis-à-vis Hizbullah on the part of the U.S., which declared Hizbullah a terrorist organization in 1990. According to Lebanese media reports, the U.S. administration has been conducting contacts with it since April-May 2012; these contacts, mostly indirect and through intermediaries, have more recently become direct as well. The reports state that at first, the U.S. administration and Hizbullah exchanged intelligence information, but later expanded the contacts into a diplomatic and political relationship, and even into dealings concerning domestic Lebanese politics.

The media reports focus on the relationship between the U.S. and the director of Lebanon's General Security Directorate, ‘Abbas Ibrahim; although it is an official Lebanese body, this directorate, and Ibrahim himself, are close to Hizbullah. Before heading General Security, from 2005 to 2008, Ibrahim headed military intelligence in South Lebanon – and, according to many Lebanese Sunnis, this apparatus and those in charge of it in South Lebanon are pro-Hizbullah. At Qatar's request, Ibrahim also mediated between this country and Hizbullah in November 2013.[2]

This paper will review the reports on the contacts and the relationship between the U.S. and Hizbullah, on the development of these contacts and this relationship, on their possible reasons and purposes, and on their possible connection with the shift in U.S. foreign policy towards Iran and towards the entire region.

U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale (left) and Lebanese General Security Directorate head ‘Abbas Ibrahim

Direct And Indirect CIA-Hizbullah Security Cooperation

According to Lebanese media reports, indirect CIA-Hizbullah contacts were apparently initiated by the U.S., and have been underway since at least April 2012, conducted by the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and Hizbullah through Ibrahim. These contacts culminated in cooperation fighting Al-Qaeda and its offshoots and other extremist Sunni organizations.[3] It should be noted that since Hizbullah's announcement of its military involvement in Syria, it has been targeted by Sunni terrorist organizations operating in Syria and Lebanon, which have attacked Hizbullah itself as well as Shi'ite population centers in Lebanon considered to be Hizbullah strongholds.

The contacts between the U.S. Embassy and the General Security Directorate constitute a deviation from U.S. policy in Lebanon, because General Security and Ibrahim are considered close to Hizbullah. Up to this point, the embassy had maintained security ties with the directors of the country's other security apparatuses, including the Lebanese army and the intelligence branch of the Internal Security Forces, which is considered to be close to the March 14 Forces, Hizbullah's political rival.[4]

First reports of U.S.-Hizbullah contact, a meeting between then-Ambassador Maura Connelly and Ibrahim, appeared in April 2012.[5] Later, there were reports of more meetings in 2013.[6] In May 2013, the Al-Safir daily stated that the relations between General Security and U.S. intelligence apparatuses were initiated by the U.S. a year previously, in May 2012, and were conducted via the U.S. Embassy.[7] The paper said that in early 2013, the relations became direct, as expressed by a General Security delegation's visit to the U.S.[8]

In June 2013, the Al-Jumhouriyya daily reported that an American anti-terrorism delegation accompanied by the U.S. military attaché in Lebanon had visited various security elements in Lebanon, including General Security.[9] The Al-Mustaqbal daily reported in October 2013 that Ibrahim had met with an American military delegation, and that the meeting was attended by the U.S. military attaché and the head of the American Defense Coordination Office.[10]

The efforts of this CIA-General Security cooperation came to fruition in May 2012 with the arrest of two young men, 'Abd Al-Malik 'Abd Al-Salam from Jordan and Shadi Al-Mawlawi, from Tripoli, Lebanon. Lebanese security officials told the Al-Akhbar daily and the news website Middle East Online that the CIA had informed General Security that the Jordanian, 'Abd Al-Malik 'Abd Al-Salam, was an Al-Qaeda coordinator operating in several Middle Eastern countries.[11] This information was corroborated by Ibrahim himself, who said, "Someone in the media exposed today that we are coordinating with a Western embassy or security mechanism. This is true."[12]

In July 2013, Al-Akhbar reported on further U.S.-Hizbullah cooperation that had taken place several weeks previously. Security and political sources told the paper that the CIA had given Lebanese security apparatuses, including General Security, intelligence reports that Al-Qaeda intended to carry out suicide attacks against various elements in the country, including Hizbullah, along with information about those responsible for firing rockets from Syria at Baalbek in northeast Lebanon, considered a Hizbullah stronghold.[13] This report was confirmed by then-internal security minister Marwan Charbel.[14] Also, in January 2014, the paper cited a knowledgeable source as stating that several weeks previously the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon had warned Hizbullah via a Lebanese security apparatus that a large-scale attack was being planned.[15]

According to reports, this U.S.-Hizbullah security and intelligence cooperation has recently been upgraded from indirect to direct, including discussion of details. Al-Jumhouriyya cited U.S. sources in a December 2013 report that stated that U.S. Department of Defense and CIA representatives are in direct and indirect contact with Hizbullah;[16] the report was denied by the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.[17] That same month, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas cited sources close to U.S.-Hizbullah talks as stating that negotiations between the sides are "detail-oriented" and that "there are points of agreement, points of contention, and points under negotiation." The sources added that the sides are in detailed discussions over ways to combat Al-Qaeda, are divided over the definition of Al-Qaeda in Syria and over the U.S. demand for a map of Hizbullah's deployment in Syria, and are discussing Israel's assassination of Hizbullah officials and the possibility of using U.S. drones against Al-Qaeda and its offshoots in Syria. They were also quoted as saying that the Americans were demanding guarantees from Hizbullah that it would provide it with all information in its possession on Al-Qaeda in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.[18]

U.S. Sides With Hizbullah – At March 14 Forces' Expense

According to the reports, the U.S. change in policy vis-à-vis Hizbullah and its Lebanese allies was also manifested in U.S. diplomatic activity, beginning with David Hale's August 2013 appointment as U.S. ambassador to Beirut. On September 10, 2013, Hale stated that the U.S. administration "wants to dialogue with all elements of Lebanese society, and esteems relations with them."[19] Some two weeks later, Al-Akhbar explained that since Hale cannot meet with Hizbullah, he meets with its allies and its associates such as Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun.[20] Aoun himself told Al-Safir that Hizbullah is included in the U.S.'s policy of openness towards all.[21] Both Al-Akhbar and Al-Safir quoted Aoun and his associates as saying that Ambassador Hale was bringing with him signs of change, in contrast to his predecessor, and that unlike previous U.S. ambassadors, who issued orders or presented their country's positions, meetings with Hale focus on consultation and exchanges of opinions.[22]

This change has percolated into internal Lebanese politics as well. For the 10 months prior to mid-February 2014, Lebanon had been run by an interim government, after all efforts to establish a new government during that time period had failed. This failure stemmed from profound disagreement between the rival March 8 and March 14 Forces regarding the government's fundamental principles and regarding Hizbullah's military involvement in Syria. The March 14 Forces stated that they would not serve in the same government with Hizbullah as long as it is militarily involved in Syria, and Hizbullah, for its part, indirectly and directly threatened the March 14 Forces, President Michel Suleiman, and Prime Minister Tamman Salam, who had been tasked with forming a new government, stating that it would never accept a government that opposed its views, and that the establishment of such a government would lead to instability and civil war (fitna), and even to the possibility of Hizbullah taking over the country.[23]

If the U.S. once tended to side with the March 14 Forces, it now is shifting to side more with Hizbullah's positions in all things concerning its participation in the Lebanese government. In October 2013, the daily Al-Akhbar reported, citing Western diplomatic sources, that the U.S. had told Lebanese officials that it no longer opposes the appointment of Hizbullah ministers in the new government.[24] Some six weeks later, Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Beri said that in early September he had received a message from the West and the U.S. that their veto of Hizbullah participation in the government had been dropped, and that in mid-October he had been informed that the U.S. had agreed that Hizbullah would appoint over one-third of the ministers in the new government – which gives Hizbullah the power to bring down the government.[25]

Reports on these changes came also from March 14 Forces sources. In November 2013, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Anba wrote, citing a March 14 Forces MP who spoke anonymously, about secret, indirect ties between the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon and Hizbullah, and added that these ties are developing. This, the paper said, was manifested by Ambassador Hale's telling Lebanese political leaders that no government could be established without Hizbullah.[26] Additionally, the March 14 Forces mouthpiece Al-Mustaqbal wrote that "a political delegate has expressed his surprise in private circles over the American enthusiasm about the need to include Hizbullah in the future government."[27] The Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas claimed that the U.S. Embassy and Hizbullah were in discussion over the nature of the coming Lebanese government.[28]

Various reports note that the U.S. has even adopted Hizbullah's position that there will be no stability in the country without it in the government; by doing so, it has in effect given in to Hizbullah's threats. The Al-Safir daily wrote that Ambassador Hale told President Suleiman on the issue of the establishment of a government unacceptable to Hizbullah that the U.S. prefers that no steps that could endanger Lebanon be taken, and that such a government could push Hizbullah to take over the country and institute regime change.[29] Similar reports were also published a few days later by Al-Safir and Al-Akhbar.[30]

Pro-Hizbullah Press: U.S. Declarations Against Hizbullah Are Meaningless

Despite the various reports on the shift in U.S. policy in Lebanon, U.S. representatives declare that there is no change. The U.S. Embassy and Ambassador Hale deny reports of dialogue with Hizbullah;[31] at a November 2013 joint press conference in Riyadh with Saudi Foreign Minister Sa’ud Al-Faisal, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the two had discussed "the importance of our strong support for responsible moderates who will still work for government formation without Hezbollah intimidation, and we think it's important that Hezbollah not be allowed to define that future."[32] Later, at a January press conference in Paris with his Qatari counterpart Khalid bin Mohammad Al-'Attiyah, Kerry said: "Hizbullah is a terrorist organization. They have engaged in extraterritorial assassinations... they have also engaged in activities in Lebanon that are further destabilizing Lebanon."[33] Also that month, Ambassador Hale said that the U.S. was aware of Iranian activity aimed at destabilizing the region, and that it would continue to stand up to the terrorist activity of Iran and its allies, including Hizbullah.[34]

However, these statements are insufficient to disprove the statements by Hizbullah deputy secretary-general Qassem and the many different reports on direct and indirect U.S.-Hizbullah intelligence and diplomatic contacts. Discussing this contradiction, Al-Akhbar noted that Hale's November statements do not reflect the complete picture, and that the U.S. believes that Iran plays a central role in the Middle East, and that this belief would later lead to the U.S. and the West normalizing relations with Hizbullah.[35] Al-Safir also did not give much weight to Kerry's Riyadh statements, calling them mostly meaningless because the U.S. would not want to harm its ties with Iran.[36]

The U.S.'s Iran Policy Shift And Its Position Vis-à-vis Hizbullah

In a November 2013 Al-Akhbar interview, Nabih Beri claimed that the shift in U.S. policy came against the backdrop of the U.S.'s dialogue with Iran;[37] Michel Aoun made a similar statement in a December interview with Al-Safir.[38] The Al-Jumhouriyya daily cited American sources who said that the U.S.-Hizbullah contacts are connected to the U.S.-Iran dialogue and that they concern various regional political issues.[39]

In addition, it appears that the foundations for the current Hizbullah-Iran-U.S. relationship were laid in the interest of fighting Sunni terrorist organizations shared by the sides – while disregarding the Shi'ite terrorism promoted by Iran and Hizbullah, which Kerry himself pointed out at the Paris press conference. The U.S. seems to perceive Shi'ite terrorism as a lesser danger to its security than Sunni terrorism, and is disregarding the other countries in the region that suffer from it.

This situation was best described by a Lebanese official quoting a Beirut diplomat who is close to the U.S. and U.N.; the official said: "We have inflated the dangers of Hizbullah and made light of the dangers of terrorism. But the truth is the opposite: The danger of terrorism is huge, and the danger of Hizbullah is extremely limited."[40]

*E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Rai (Kuwait), February 9, 2013, quoting the Lebanese daily Al-Safir from the same date.

[2] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 28, 2013.

[3] Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 3, 2013. According to the daily, this intelligence cooperation stemmed from American pragmatism.

[4] Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 3, 2013.

[5];, April 27, 2012.

[6] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 14, 2013; Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebanon), June 4, 2013; Al-Safir (Lebanon), October 15, 2013;, May 13, June 3, 2013.

[7] Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 3, 2013.

[8] Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 3, 2013.

[9] Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebanon), June 4, 2013.

[10] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 11, 2013.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 15, 2012;, May 26, 2012.

[12], May 15, 2012.

[13] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 11, 2013.

[14] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 12, 2013.

[15] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 10, 2014.

[16] Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebanon), December 12, 2013.

[17], December 13, 2013.

[18] Al-Qabas (Kuwait), December 13, 2013.

[19] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 11, 2013.

[20] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 25, 2013.

[21] Al-Safir (Lebanon), December 20, 2013.

[22] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 25, 2013, November 22, 2013; Al-Safir (Lebanon), December 22, 2013.

[23] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1071, Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam's New Government: A Compromise Between Rival Factions February 19, 2014.

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[24] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 19, 2013.

[25] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 2, 2013.

[26] Al-Anba (Kuwait), November 4, 2013.

[27] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), December 25, 2013.

[28] Al-Qabas (Kuwait), December 13, 2013.

[29] Al-Safir (Lebanon), January 4, 2014.

[30] Al-Safir (Lebanon), January 11, 2014; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 8, 2014.

[31] Al-Hayat (London), January 19, 2014.

[32], November 4, 2013.

[33] Al-Safir (Lebanon), January 13, 2014;, January 12, 2014.

[34] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 29, 2013.

[35] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 29, 2013.

[36] Al-Safir (Lebanon), November 7, 2013.

[37] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 2, 2013.

[38] Al-Safir (Lebanon), December 20 2013.

[39] Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebanon), December 12, 2013.

[40] Al-Safir (Lebanon), December 25, 2013. Two reports, one Syrian and one Lebanese, regarding ties between the CIA and the Syrian regime, which is part of the Iran-Hizbullah axis, should be mentioned. In August 2013, the Syrian oppositionist website reported, citing officials in the March 8 Forces visiting Damascus, that Syrian and U.S. intelligence exchanged info on Al-Qaeda., August 13, 2013. In October 2013, the daily Al-Akhbar cited sources saying that last summer there was a planned meeting that never took place between an aide of the former deputy director of the CIA and Syrian regime representatives. The sources did not rule out secret contacts to set a new date. Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 29, 2013.

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