A recent article in a pro-Hizballah media site tells the “Story of Two Martyrs,” Ibrahim and Ahmad Shihab, cousins who grew up together in the town of Baraachit in southern Lebanon. The two were close and went on “jihad” together in June 2016, fighting in the “same trench” in Syria. They were killed in action shortly thereafter, along with another lifelong friend from their hometown who was also a member of the extended Shihab clan.
The story of the two cousins and their friendship sheds light on the workings of organizations like Hizballah, which has morphed from a shadowy underground resistance movement and communal militia into a large, quasi-regular military force. In many cases, members belong to the same family or clan, or are close friends. Indeed, this is true of many local and foreign militias that have participated in Syria’s civil war. These social solidarities may contribute to the effectiveness of these militias, as well as organizations like Hizballah, whose institutional DNA still bears the imprint of its militia origins.
Militias have been key actors in many of the Middle East’s recent conflicts, so it is important to understand what makes them tick. Iran’s creation of a Shiite foreign legion comprised of militias from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, further underscores the urgency of the task. Often comprised of volunteers with no prior military training, militias may be created to defend the interests of an ethno-sectarian group or a political movement or party, or to support government forces fighting insurgents or foreign forces. While much has been written about the leadership, politics, iconography, and military armament of some of the local and foreign militias involved in Syria’s civil war, much less has been written about how the militias that have been so critical to the region’s recent history function as military organizations.
Arab militias have often punched above their weight, bloodying conventional militaries — both Arab and foreign. In the 2006 Lebanon War, Hizballah succeeded in inflicting more Israeli casualties per Arab fighter than had any Arab army in any previous Arab-Israeli war. And Iraqi militias (especially the Popular Mobilization Forces) have played an important role in the fight against the Islamic State, sometimes overshadowing the Iraqi military. What factors account for the tenacity, commitment, and relative effectiveness of some of these militias? What does the answer tell us about their strengths and vulnerabilities? And can conventional Arab militaries exploit these factors to enhance their own military effectiveness?
The Case of Hizballah
Perhaps the best-known Arab militia is the Lebanese Hizballah. Founded in 1982 as a Shiite underground movement to fight foreign forces then in Lebanon, Hizballah is now involved in conflicts in Syria and elsewhere in the region in support of its Iranian patron. While Hizballah’s history, politics, ideology, and involvement in terrorism have been studied in some detail, and there are several useful studies of Hizballah as a military organization, there is still much research to be done to uncover the sources of Hizballah’s military success. Several of the reasons for Hizballah’s military effectiveness are fairly straightforward. First, is the role played by innovative military commanders and terrorist operatives like the late Imad Mughniyah and his cousin and brother-in-law, the late Mustafa Badreddine in the transformation of Hizballah into a highly capable learning organization. Second, are the habits of secrecy and discretion cultivated from Hizballah’s inception as a clandestine resistance movement and reinforced by decades of conflict. Third, is the powerful grip that the group’s culture of jihad, martyrdom, and resistance has over many of its members. Fourth, is the familiarity of its fighters with the physical and human terrain when fighting on home turf. And finally, there is the contribution of Iranian arms, training, funding, intelligence, and logistical support.
However, our new examination of the biographies of more than 2,100 Hizballah fighters “martyred” in combat from 1982 to July 2017 highlights an additional, key factor. Hizballah has relied on family, clan, and local solidarities (or asabiyya, the concept of in-group solidarity made famous by the medieval Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun) to recruit members and build motivated, cohesive, and effective units.*
The data reveal that a significant number of Hizballah martyrs shared family or possible clan ties. Of nearly 900 martyrs identified by name between 2012 and 2017, about five percent were identified as a close relative — a brother, son, first cousin, or nephew — of another Hizballah martyr. Moreover, approximately 30 percent of these martyrs had the same surname and town of origin as at least one other martyr from this timeframe — suggesting common family or clan membership.** Of more than 1,200 martyrs identified by name between 1982 and 2000, this figure was nearly 40 percent.
In many cases, more than two martyrs shared the same surname and town of origin. Since 1982, Hizballah has announced the martyrdom of at least 30 fighters with the surname Musawi, originating from the town of Nabi Chit (likely relatives of Hizballah’s former secretary general and resident of Nabi Chit, the late Abbas al-Musawi). And many other clans contributed multiple martyrs. The data, as well as articles published on official Hizballah and unofficial pro-Hizballah websites, suggests a number of ways that social solidarities may contribute to the group’s military effectiveness.
Informal Social Networks and Recruiting.
Nicholas Blanford has noted that in its early days, Hizballah tended to rely on family and clan networks to recruit new members. Established members were relied on to identify immediate family members or cousins, friends, or acquaintances who would be approached to join the organization. The martyrdom notices would seem to indicate that this is still, to a significant extent, the case. In this way, Shiite jihadist groups like Hizballah resemble Sunni jihadist groups like al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Islamic State that likewise often recruit new members through informal networks consisting of family members, friends, and acquaintances. And just as Sunni jihadist groups tend to mobilize new recruits from locales with a pre-existing jihadist presence, nearly 90 percent of Hizballah’s martyrs in Syria had the same town of origin as at least one other martyr killed there.
Accounts in pro-Hizballah media also illustrate the effect of family ties upon a martyr’s decision to fight. For instance, following the martyrdom of Muhammad Ali Daoun in Zabadani in July 2015, his brother Yasir appeared in a widely-shared photo in which he kneeled atop Muhammad’s coffin as it was carried aloft by pallbearers during the funeral procession, while beseeching God to grant him martyrdom so that he might be reunited with his brother. Yasir was later killed in eastern Ghouta in March 2016. Friendships also motivate fighters in many cases. In June 2017, Arabipress.org published the “Story of a Martyr of the Sacred Defense, Muhammad Mustafa Bawab.” According to the article, Muhammad had been wounded previously in Syria, but insisted on returning to the fight because “the only comfort can be among my martyred friends in heaven.”
Hizballah has also played a key role in the recruitment and training of various Shiite “mini-Hizballah” militias in Syria and Iraq, where it has often tapped into family, clan, and clerical networks to help grow Iran’s transnational Shiite militia network. These diverse groups are bound together by organizational ties to Hizballah and Iran, a shared experience of combat and sacrifice, and a nascent transnational Shiite jihadist identity forged on the battlefields of Syria. This identity is expressed by a common ideology, political lexicon, iconography, and standardized military equipment and training. It is also increasingly expressed through a belief that Syria’s Alawis, Iraq’s Shiites, and Yemen’s Houthis are all in the same trench, fighting for the same cause.
Local Solidarities and Combat Motivation
Groups of Hizballah fighters killed in the 1980s and 1990s in clashes with Israeli forces or the rival Lebanese Shiite group Amal were usually from, or resided in the same region where they were killed. This suggests (unsurprisingly) that many units were regionally based. There were also a number of instances of fighters from the same small town falling in battle on the same day, indicating that they were probably associated with Hizballah village defense units. Indeed, part-time militiamen from these units and full-time fighters (including rocket, anti-tank, and sniper team members) reportedly serve in or near their home villages because it is administratively and logistically convenient, because their familiarity with the terrain conferred major tactical advantages, and because they could be expected to fight particularly hard to defend their families, homes, and friends. Hizballah’s geographically-based units include, inter alia, the Nasr Brigade located between the border with Israel and the Litani River, the Badr Brigade located north of the Litani, and the Haidar Brigade based in the Bekaa.
A significant number of individuals from the same village of origin also appear in martyrdom notices for those killed since 2012. This may indicate that sub-units are often still comprised of personnel from the same village or neighborhood, even if they deploy to Syria in larger units that are task-organized on an ad hoc basis, and thus more diverse in make-up. (This probably does not hold for special units such as Hizballah’s Radwan Forces, which likely recruits from all over Lebanon.)
These notices also indicate that compared with earlier periods, a larger portion of Hizballah martyrs in Syria come from what is now the Baalbek-Hermel Governorate, located on the country’s northeastern periphery bordering Syria. About 20 percent of martyrs between 1982 and 2000 were from a town of origin in this governorate, compared to about 28 percent of the more recent martyrs. This shift has been accompanied by the recent appearance of several martyrs from villages just over the Lebanese-Syrian border, including Zaita, Diabiyeh, and Haawik (near the Syrian city of Qusayr), which were not among martyrs’ towns of origin during the earlier period. This suggests that Hizballah’s geographic recruitment base has expanded over time.
This is not surprising, as most combat in the earlier period was against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. However, these changes suggest that Hizballah may be relying increasingly on personnel from these regions to fight in Syria, since their proximity to “takfiri” groups across the border and their ties to at-risk Syrian Shiite communities may more strongly motivate them to combat this threat. Indeed, one of Hizballah’s primary justifications for its involvement in Syria is that the takfiri terrorism flourishing there could eventually destroy Lebanon.
The aforementioned changes may also reflect a rise in recruitment among socioeconomically deprived communities. The Baalbek-Hermel region suffers from substantial poverty, and thus these changes may indicate that economic factors are a more important motivation for recruits than they were in the past. Or they may indicate that Hizballah is trying to reduce the potential political impact of its losses in Syria by ensuring that they are disproportionately borne by politically less consequential peripheral regions.
Social Solidarities, Religious Commitment, and Unit Cohesion
Family, clan, and local solidarities may also contribute to the cohesion and effectiveness of militias. Most modern armies seek to mold recruits from diverse backgrounds into a “band of brothers” willing to fight and die for each other, for a common goal, or for an ideology or cause. By contrast, communal militias are often based on families and clans, while sectarian militias are frequently suffused with a powerful sense of religious solidarity. In this sense, the human raw material for such organizations is often bands of brothers — literally and figuratively.
Thus, during the 1980s, Hizballah-affiliated kidnapping cells were often organized along family and clan lines in order to preserve operational security (with the Mughniyah and Hamadi clans playing central roles). And Hizballah’s external operations branch (the Islamic Jihad Organization) and the organization’s overseas fundraising activities continue to be organized, to some extent, along family and clan lines. For instance, Ali Musa Daqduq, the senior Hizballah operative and advisor to Shiite special groups captured by coalition forces in Iraq in 2007 was a member of the prominent Musawi clan, which has contributed more martyrs to the cause than any other.
Members of Hizballah sometimes also refer to comrades as their “jihadi brothers,” while Hassan Nasrallah often addresses his followers during speeches as “brothers” and “sisters.” (While in Arab societies — as elsewhere — the idiom of kinship is often used instrumentally and its significance is context-dependent, the intent here seems to be to redefine the organization’s support base as a large extended family.) In this way, shared kinship identities, actual and constructed, bind together Hizballah’s membership.
Hizballah uses family members to promote its culture of jihad, martyrdom, and resistance by glorifying the sacrifices of martyrs — themes further reinforced by its school system and scouting movement. In doing so, these family members help propagate a religious-ideological outlook and identity that both coexists with and transcends (albeit not completely) family and clan loyalties. Hizballah disseminates portrayals of mothers who express pride in their martyred sons or profess hope that their sons will seek or find martyrdom. It likewise posthumously releases “last will” videos and letters in which martyrs encourage their brothers to follow in their path by joining the “Islamic Resistance.” For instance, in a June 2017 letter, the martyr Jihad Mahmud Shabib instructs his brothers to “make this world a passageway to your happiness in the next world by… waging jihad for the sake of God, and attaining martyrdom.” In this way Hizballah uses the family — the most influential institution in Arab society, to inculcate the ideal of martyrdom — perhaps the most potent concept in the Shiite system of belief. Hizballah considers its culture of martyrdom to be one of the secrets of its success.
Hizballah also uses family ties to build continuity and solidarity between generations of the resistance, and to cast the war against Israel and the takfiri terrorists as different chapters of the same struggle. One article tells the story of Ali and Ahmad Yahya, a father-son pair martyred exactly 15 years apart — Ahmad on Liberation Day in 2000, and Ali in 2015 in Syria. After recounting the circumstances of Ali’s death, it likens his case to others who came before him: “The martyr has gone to meet his martyred father. Likewise, the martyr Imad Mughniyah has joined his father, and Ali Reza Laqis his father, and Hassan Ibrahim his father … and many others.” In death, second-generation martyrs leave their mothers and children behind, but are reunited with their departed fathers.
Social expectations may also play a role in shaping group dynamics on the battlefield. Hizballah fighters know that if they do not stand by their comrades in combat, their conduct could adversely affect key social relationships, and perhaps even their marriage, employment, and life prospects. While soldiers in conventional armies may have fleeting, intense relationships with “battle buddies” that often end when they transfer units or return home, militiamen’s “battle buddies” are frequently people they grew up with and will be living with for the rest of their lives.
Accordingly, reports of battlefield heroics often make their way home and become the stuff of village legend. A resident of the southern Lebanese village of Aita al-Shaab told the story of two neighbors, a father-son pair who fought Israeli forces during the 2006 war: “The martyr was meters away when they shot him… But his father was right behind him. He fired 30 bullets into the Israeli, and killed him.” Today, war stories from Syria often make their way into the Arab media, and via this route, to the fighters’ hometowns. Arabipress.org regularly features stories about martyrs of the war in Syria, told by friends who fought alongside them. In March 2017, for instance, a former comrade of the martyr Ali Fuad Hassan — killed in Qusayr in May 2013 — told the story of his bravery in his final battle. Despite heavy gunfire, Ali “fought [the takfiris] in large numbers, face to face, when they were just meters away.”
The extensive literature on cohesion and group performance strongly suggests that the components of cohesion — interpersonal relationships, task commitment, and group pride — do indeed have an impact on performance. But how these components interact, how they influence performance, and how one even defines performance remain a matter of controversy. For instance, some have suggested that cohesion may be more a performance enabler than performance enhancer, that its relation to performance may be indirect rather than direct, and that its effects are best observed under stressful conditions — where it helps buffer the impact of combat. Yet others have suggested that cohesion has a greater impact on group processes and behaviors than on group outcomes — which may be influenced by a variety of factors. The debate goes on.
One can surmise that for groups like Hizballah, the trust, confidence, and sense of mutual obligation engendered by family, clan, and local solidarities as well as intensely felt religious commitments, strengthen unit cohesion and ultimately enhance group performance. These ties that bind may not only enhance operational security, as family and clan-based networks are often difficult to penetrate, but may enable the close teamwork and cooperation needed for special missions and combat. And Hizballah’s culture of martyrdom may contribute to the zeal often displayed by fighters motivated by religion or ideology. More research on this subject is needed, though it may not be possible with highly secretive groups like Hizballah.
Leadership plays a critical role in creating motivated, cohesive, and effective units. According to Norvelle DeAtkine, fighters in Arab irregular forces and militias are often bound together by family or tribal ties, and their command structures are often based on traditional Arab leadership qualities. By contrast, Arab conventional forces are often weakened by wide social gaps between the officer corps and foot-soldiers, the lack of a professional NCO corps to bridge these gaps, and by a top-down command structure that induces junior officers to wait for orders from above.
While fighters and commanders in many Hizballah units may share family and clan connections, the legitimacy and efficacy of the organization’s chain of command does not seem to derive from such ties. Rather, it comes from the status and credibility it enjoys among many Lebanese Shiites, and the belief by its fighters that in obeying the chain of command, they are ultimately submitting to God’s will.
By contrast, relations between officers and enlisted men in many Arab militaries are often tinged by tension, mistrust, and a lack of respect. In the post-2003 Iraqi Army, for instance, many officers skim the salaries of their enlisted men, engendering resentment. Some unqualified officers purchased commissions or commands and do not train with their troops for fear of losing face. And many officers look down on their less educated enlisted charges. Consequently, enlisted men often do not believe that their officers are competent or have their welfare at heart. These and other factors contributed to the collapse of the Iraqi army when the Islamic State attacked Mosul in June 2014, causing many senior Iraqi officers to abandon their positions.
Explaining Hizballah’s Effectiveness
Hizballah uses family, clan, and local solidarities to enhance unit cohesion, and to strengthen its fighters’ commitment to a religiously-based culture of jihad, martyrdom, and resistance. The resulting synergy has contributed to Hizballah’s military effectiveness. Hizballah, however, is not unique in its use of social solidarities to advance military ends. Various Arab regimes have created praetorian units to defend against coups or unrest drawn from personnel sharing tribal or ethno-sectarian ties with the country’s leaders. Such units, like Syria’s Republican Guard and 4th Armored Divisions and Iraq’s Republican Guard divisions (in the era of Saddam Hussein) have not only proved politically reliable, but have generally performed better on the battlefield than regular units from these militaries. The success of these praetorian units may be due, at least in part, to the mobilization of many of the same social solidarities that militias have relied upon for their success.
But exactly how does cohesion and motivation translate into effectiveness in this context? In his landmark study of Arab military effectiveness, Kenneth Pollack concluded that unit cohesion has generally had a limited impact on the overall poor performance of Arab militaries, and that other factors, particularly poor tactical leadership, have been much more important. He concluded that unit cohesion is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for battlefield success, though in certain circumstances (for instance, when units are forced to withdraw under pressure) its absence can lead to disaster. However, factors that may contribute to unit cohesion — for instance, the trust, confidence, and sense of mutual obligation engendered by family, clan, and local solidarities, or intensely felt religious commitments — may also affect a tactical leader’s ability to employ combined arms or engage in combat maneuver. This may enable militias like Hizballah to fight more effectively than even some conventional militaries.
On this point, DeAtkine has argued that Arab irregulars are able to exercise “imagination and initiative in… way(s) never allowed in… conventional unit(s).” This is key, because the success of irregular forces against larger, more heavily armed conventional forces often depends on creativity, flexibility, and initiative. Furthermore, DeAtkine claims that one of the main reasons that the Arab irregular can fight this way is because he “is fighting within his element with people he trusts.” An attacking fighter “exposing himself to enemy fire can count on those who support him to provide covering fire” because he knows that “his life has meaning” to them. Absent this trust, the willingness to endanger oneself may be diminished. At any rate, in militia warfare, tenacity, commitment, and zeal often seem to count as much, if not more, than tactical competence. Hizballah’s use of kinship identities (family, clan, and sect), as well as its culture of jihad, martyrdom, and resistance — some of the main pillars upon which Hizballah’s military effectiveness rests — confers benefits in all these areas.
But this may not always remain so. More than five years of grinding combat in Syria and its concomitant transformation into a quasi-regular military organization will test Hizballah’s ability to preserve its fighting edge. Hizballah has undoubtedly gained tremendous operational experience and learned important lessons in Syria. Yet, as Hanin Ghaddar has noted, the high human and material costs of the war have demoralized the less committed members of its base and forced it to relax age requirements and ideological vetting in order to replace combat losses (the minimum age of recruits has been lowered to 16). Many are now joining up simply for a paycheck, creating potential recruitment opportunities for hostile foreign intelligence services. Hizballah has also cut social welfare spending in order to pay for combat operations. This has caused it to prioritize payments to the families of veteran fighters, creating tensions between the families of new recruits and old timers, and between non-fighters and fighters. It remains to be seen if these developments will have an impact on Hizballah’s cohesion and military effectiveness, and if Hizballah can preserve the efficacious elements of its militia culture as it becomes a quasi-regular military organization, or whether it will take on some of the more debilitating features of many conventional Arab militaries.
The manpower policies that contribute to Hizballah’s effectiveness may also be a vulnerability, as they often result in significant disparities in losses between families, clans, and regions. While this might be a source of pride for some, it is a source of resentment for others that might be exploited through both kinetic and information operations — especially if recruits are increasingly motivated by mercenary considerations. Information operations may also highlight inequalities in the distribution of social welfare benefits. And just as the voice of ideologically committed martyr’s mothers are used to instill a culture of jihad, martyrdom, and resistance, the voices of dissident mothers might be amplified by others to undermine this culture and demoralize the militia’s social base. Finally, experience shows that Hizballah is sensitive to casualties — despite its apparent devotion to jihad and martyrdom. This is another vulnerability that might be exploited, especially in light of the heavy losses Hizballah has suffered in Syria relative to its Iranian patron, which has consistently off-loaded risks and costs onto its partners.
Hizballah’s culture of martyrdom may likewise be a tactical asset but a strategic liability. By transforming martyrdom from a means to an end, Hizballah risks decoupling action from strategy, and overreaching — thereby endangering the very community it claims to defend. There are ample examples of this: In rejecting the offer of a cease-fire in1982, Iran prolonged its bloody war with Iraq by six more years — hoping that its willingness to sacrifice martyrs would help liberate Karbala and Jerusalem. Instead, it created a national trauma that endures to this day. The wave of suicide bombings accompanying the second Palestinian Intifada prompted harsh Israeli countermeasures that saved Israeli lives but did great harm to Palestinian society. Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon and its 2005 withdrawal from Gaza encouraged Hizballah and Hamas, respectively, to continue provoking the Jewish state, leading to the ruinous 2006 war in Lebanon and three devastating wars in Gaza between 2008 and 2014. And since 2014, the so-called Islamic State has wreaked havoc in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, leaving death and destruction in its wake — especially for its supporters.
Finally, this discussion has implications for U.S. efforts to turn allied Arab militaries into effective combat organizations. Arab armies have tended to rely on the same methods used by armies elsewhere to turn civilian recruits from diverse backgrounds into soldiers, and to create effective units in large numbers — with little overall success. The key, then, for Arab regimes may be to find ways to constructively harness the asabiyyas that have so often undermined their stability, in order to strengthen their militaries, without exacerbating social tensions or engendering political strife. Hizballah has accomplished this by balancing family, clan, and local solidarities with a Lebanese-Shiite identity that both coexists with and transcends these primordial loyalties.
Some Arab militaries might therefore consider more broadly applying the manpower model used by militias and praetorian units, which employ social solidarities to create more effective combat units. They might also look to the British regimental system for an example of a successful Western military that has often used local affiliations to enhance unit esprit and cohesion. But this would require Arab regimes inclined to address this problem to accept a degree of risk by organizing units along local lines — potentially empowering competing tribal, ethno-sectarian, and regional groups and encouraging centrifugal tendencies within their societies. As long as a zero-sum, winner-takes-all type of politics predominates in so many Arab states, this is unlikely to happen — and for good reason. As a result, most Arab militaries will continue to underperform, while ethno-sectarian militias will continue to punch above their weight. This will have adverse consequences for the stability of the Arab state system, and redound to the advantage of Iran — which has proven adept at manipulating Arab asabiyyas and employing the diverse “bands of brothers” that make up its Shiite foreign legion to advance its interests and expand its regional influence.
*Biographic data were drawn from “martyrdom” notices and “rolls of honor” from a Hizballah website, Moqawama.org covering 1982 through 2000, and a pro-Hizballah website Arabipress.org covering 2012 through July 2017. Sufficient data from the 2006 war were not available on either site, though the figure for total Musawi clan martyrs provided above includes losses during that war.
Michael Eisenstadt is Kahn Fellow and Director of the Military and Security Studies Program and Kendall Bianchi is a Research Assistant at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.