Hezbollah's 'Virtual Entrepreneurs:' How Hezbollah is Using the Internet to Incite Violence in Israel.

Author:Shkolnik, Michael

In 2016, Muhammad Zaghloul, a young Palestinian from Tulkarem in the West Bank, allegedly oversaw the formation of a terrorist cell in the West Bank that planned to carry out a shooting attack targeting Israeli troops. (1) After allegedly communicating with a terrorist handler online and receiving thousands of U.S. dollars, cell members bought a sub-machine gun and ammunition as part of their preparation to assassinate an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officer. Israeli authorities reportedly disrupted the carefully organized plot in its final stage. (2) If executed, it would have added an organized element to an otherwise unorganized Palestinian terrorist campaign plaguing Israel from 2015 to 2016, largely involving individuals with no affiliations to established terrorist groups. (3) But this alleged cell was not handled by Hamas or any other Palestinian terrorist organization. This plot was allegedly the brainchild of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shi'a organization and Israel's arch nemesis. (4)

This article examines Hezbollah's use of social media to recruit Israeli Arabs and West Bank-based Palestinians to attack Israeli targets. Understanding this development is important given rising tensions between Israel and Iran--Hezbollah's main benefactor--as Iran further entrenches its presence in Syria and across the region. In response, Israel's government has escalated its kinetic activity against Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. (5) According to Israeli authorities, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is carrying out a covert campaign against Israel involving Iran's proxy militant groups, including Hezbollah. (6) As part of these efforts, Hezbollah and Iran are expanding their footprint in the Syrian-controlled Golan Heights, cultivating a new base of operations against Israel in a possible future war. (7) Iran has also established a land corridor from Iraq to Lebanon, facilitating the smuggling of missiles and other weapons. (8) A lesser-known and more clandestine effort is Hezbollah and Iranian attempts to direct violence in the West Bank and Israel using virtual entrepreneurs.

A recent innovation in terrorist tactics gave rise to a development referred to as "virtual entrepreneurs" or "virtual plotters." Using social media platforms and encrypted messaging services, terrorist operatives attempt to recruit and assist individuals or cells based in different countries to carry out attacks, tactics largely associated with the Islamic State's online recruitment efforts. (9) Previous research identifies two broad types of Islamic State virtual planners: operatives who engage in direct planning and those who play a more hands-off role by encouraging and facilitating attacks. (10) From the end of 2015 through 2017, the Islamic State increasingly exploited communications and social media platforms--such as Telegram and Kik--to facilitate attacks worldwide. (11) Despite receiving little attention from Western media outlets, Hezbollah relied on similar methods during this period to recruit distant operatives to strike its main enemy. It seems that Hezbollah concurrently arrived at a similar conclusion as the Islamic State: virtual plots are low-cost and potentially high-reward options that allow terrorist organizations to expand their reach. (12)

The following sections contextualize Hezbollah's virtual operations by reviewing the group's previous efforts to build relationships with Palestinians and Iran's recent push to escalate violence against Israel from the West Bank. The article then briefly discusses some of Hezbollah's online operations before focusing on key cases of Hezbollah's virtual planners recruiting operatives in the West Bank. Similarities and differences across cases are identified to build an A History of Fomenting Terrorism in Israel and the West Bank

Hezbollah's attempts to incite, fund, and direct acts of terrorism in Israel and the West Bank began in the mid-1990s and increased following Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. (13) The terrorist organization's activities in this area can be divided into three broad categories: working with established Palestinian terrorist groups; recruiting individuals in Europe to enter and carry out activities in Israel; and recruiting individuals and groups of Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, and Lebanese.

Since the mid-1990s, Hezbollah has focused its efforts on supporting Palestinian terrorist groups to carry out acts of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Hezbollah established Unit 1800 to provide Palestinian organizations with military training and bomb making instructions, while helping Iran transfer significant funds to Palestinians. (14) After the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, Iran assigned Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah's international operations commander, to bolster the capabilities of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. (15) A direct result of this support was the March 2002 suicide bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel, which killed 30 and injured another 140, the deadliest attack against Israelis during the Second Intifada. (16) The mass-casualty attack, labeled the "Passover Massacre" given that it occurred during the Jewish holiday's Seder meal, is believed by Israeli military officials to be the product of Hamas-Hezbollah cooperation. (17)

From the mid-1990s to early 2000s, Hezbollah successfully recruited several individuals in Europe who entered, or attempted to enter, Israel to carry out reconnaissance or attacks. One prominent case involved Stephan Joseph Smyrek, a German convert to Islam, who traveled to Lebanon for training in 1997 before arriving in Israel later that year. (18) He was arrested by Israeli authorities at Ben Gurion International airport in Tel Aviv, after a tip from German intelligence. (19) During his interrogation, Israeli authorities concluded that Hezbollah had sent Smyrek to conduct a suicide-bombing attack. As with Smyrek, Israel thwarted every attack plot involving Hezbollah agents recruited in Europe throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. (20)

Following Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah ramped up its efforts to recruit Israeli Arabs. Given their freedom of mobility within Israel, Israeli Arabs were presumably viewed as particularly useful operatives for the Lebanese group, especially for intelligence operations. (21) Hezbollah recruiters would also approach Israeli Arabs living or travelling abroad, including Khalid Kashkoush--a medical student living in Gottingen, Germany. (a) Kashkoush was arrested in July 2008 when he landed in Ben Gurion Airport. (22) Hezbollah reportedly instructed him to conduct reconnaissance and identify members of the Israeli security forces. (23)

In the early 2000s, Hezbollah established Unit 133 to facilitate intelligence collection and attacks within Israel and against Israeli interests across the Middle East and Europe. (b) The Unit recruits new assets and provides security and military training. (24) To fund and arm operatives in the West Bank and Israel, it has relied primarily on Lebanese drug dealers and Israeli-Arab smuggling networks, which have intimate knowledge of the Israeli-Lebanese border area. (25) In April 2012, Unit 133 attempted to smuggle C-4 explosives and weapons into Israel using Israeli Arab smugglers. (26) Israel's domestic security service, Shin Bet, disrupted the smuggling network and foiled a mass-casualty attack. (27) Following a series of failures, Unit 133--likely with Iran's encouragement--increasingly shifted its focus toward online recruitment schemes. (28)

Rising Regional Tensions

By the end of the Second Intifada, Iran reduced its support for Hezbollah's efforts in the West Bank and focused on strengthening ties with terrorist groups operating in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. (29) But recent developments signal Iran's growing interest in fomenting instability in the West Bank. Following Operation Protective Edge--Israel's 2014 military offensive in Gaza--Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered Iran to arm the West Bank while the IRGC's second-in-command threatened to help make the West Bank a "hell" for Israel. (30) Tensions escalated in January 2015 after an Israeli airstrike in the Golan Heights killed a senior IRGC general and Jihad Mugniyeh--son of Imad Mughniyeh and head of Hezbollah's operations in the Syria/Iraq theater. (31) During a ceremony that month commemorating the dead operatives, Iran's Defense Minister acknowledged that "arming the West Bank and strengthening the resistance movement and Hezbollah to fight against the murdering and occupant Zionist regime is the general and firm policy of Iran." (32) A month later, a senior IRGC commander reaffirmed Iran's desire to enhance its presence in the West Bank in order to "contain the Zionist entity ... so that it never dares to speak about a missile attack on Iran." (33) During the 2015-2016 wave of Palestinian terrorist violence, Iran's ambassador to Lebanon promised that Iran would offer $7,000 to every family of a Palestinian who carries out an attack. (c) These statements signaled Iran's willingness to invest in a new front against Israel and reinforce its deterrence posture. (d)

Recent developments suggest senior Iranian leaders are translating these statements into...

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