Terrorism in Cyberspace: Hezbollah’s Internet Network
1. For Hezbollah, its cyberspace presence is of great importance, and is considered by both Hezbollah and Iran as an important weapon in the battle for hearts and minds. Hezbollah and Iran use the Internet for both internal information and indoctrination (in Lebanon, the Shi’ites and its own operatives) and external pro- Iranian propaganda (especially the Arab-Muslim world and the West). The network enables Hezbollah to circumvent the limitations placed on its other media (television, radio, the press) by the West, especially the United States.
2. Today Hezbollah’s vast media network includes a satellite television channel (Al- Manar TV), a radio station (Radio Nur), the press (Al-Ahad/Al-Intiqad) and network of websites. Hezbollah also uses the social networks, YouTube and various Lebanese media which it does not own but which are affiliated with it, to publicize its positions and policies (for example, the newspaper Al-Akhbar and the Al-Mayadeen TV channel).
3. During the past decade Hezbollah developed an extensive Internet presence, much larger than those of the other terrorist organizations. Since the Second Lebanon War (2006), and with greater intensity during the past year, Hezbollah has increased its Internet presence, improved its quality and upgraded it technically. Currently (updated to March 2013) Hezbollah has more than 20 websites in seven languages, some of them news sites and some of them relating to specific issues. The sites are used by senior Hezbollah figures, the organization’s social institutions, its media and several important Shi’ite villages in south Lebanon where Hezbollah is entrenched.
4. From the point of view of a terrorist organization like Hezbollah, developing and maintaining such a broad Internet network in particular and its media empire in general is very expensive. It also necessitates technical capabilities and trained manpower. In our assessment, Iran supports the development and maintenance of Hezbollah’s Internet presence and media empire, which exceed, both in extent and capabilities, Hezbollah’s needs in Lebanon per se. In addition, Iran itself operates two Farsi websites devoted to Hezbollah.
5. The propaganda and information strategy of Hezbollah’s websites is uniform, and both serves the organization and promotes Iran’s ideology and political agenda. In our assessment, media strategy is formulated by Hassan Nasrallah and the Hezbollah leadership, based on overall Iranian strategy. Hezbollah’s media policy is coordinated with Iran, whose policies and considerations are well known to senior Hezbollah figures.
The main themes of Hezbollah’s websites are the following:
1) Glorifying the organization, representing it as a force gaining in strength while Israel is represented as growing weaker and about to collapse: That includes messages of deterrence for Israel, which also serve Iranian strategy. Such messages were more conspicuous during the past year, resulting from the
2. Fostering the personality cults of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and of Hezbollah shaheeds, represented as heroes and role models. The three principle shaheeds commemorated by the organization are Sheikh Gharb Kharb, Sheikh Abbas Musawi and Imad Mughnie
3) Legitimizing terrorismtowards Israel and the West by cultivating the ideologies of shahada (death as a martyr for the sake of Allah), muqawama (“resistance”) and jihad; at the same time, there is strong condemnation of any Arab or Palestinian peace process and the agreements or arrangements with Israeli they might produce.
4) The hate industry: Vicious propaganda and incitement against Israel, the Zionist Movement, the Jewish people, the United States and the West. Hezbollah rejects the existence of the State of Israel, calling for its annihilation and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the ruins.
5) Disseminating Iranian Islamic Shi’ite ideology based on the principles set down by the Ayatollah Khomeini, including hatred for the United States, the West, Israel and the Jewish people. Hezbollah websites also promote the personality cult of Iranian Supreme LeaderAli Khamenei, representing Hassan Nasrallah as one of his supporters and admirers.
6) Promoting Hezbollah and Iran’s political agenda: Hezbollah’s websites support Iranian policy in the Middle East and its positions concerning the United States and the West. They also foster the “resistance camp,” which includes Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist organizations. During the past year Hezbollah’s media, including its websites, were enlisted in a propaganda campaign to support the Assad regime in Syria it defaming and criticizing the Syrian opposition and the popular uprising.
7. The main target audience of Hezbollah’s websites is Lebanon, especially the Lebanese Shi’ite population. Hezbollah wants Shi’ite support and to recruit its members as fighters in its ranks. Another important target audience is Iran. In our assessment, its second priority is the Arab-Muslim world, whose support it also needs. Third in importance are the West and Israel, especially their Arab-Muslim communities (exposed to anti-Israeli and anti-Western as well as pro-terrorism incitement through Hezbollah’s websites).
8. Hezbollah’s websites appear in seven languages, the most important of which is Arabic, the language of the Lebanese and Arab target audiences. Until recently, they appeared in Arabic, English, French, Farsi and Hebrew;Azeri and Spanish have lately been added. Their addition indicates the importance Iran and Hezbollah give Azerbaijan and Latin American countries (in which there are large Arab-Muslim communities, especially Lebanese communities). Thus, through Hezbollah’s Internet network, Azeri and Spanish-speaking populations are exposed to anti-West, anti-Israeli and pro-terrorism incitement, with Iranian orientation.
9. Despite the efforts Iran and Hezbollah have invested in launching and developing the Hezbollah website network, most of them received relatively low ratings in a survey conducted of Lebanese news sites. According to the global web metrics provider Alexa.com, the only Hezbollah website enjoying high ratings the Al-Manar TV website, which in 2012 was rated second of the ten most popular Lebanese news sites (after Tayyar, the site of the Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah’s opposition in Lebanon. In eighth place was the website of the newspaper Al-Akhbar, affiliated with – but not owned by – Hezbollah).
10. Most of Hezbollah’s websites, especially those belonging to its social institutions, are not particularly popular in Lebanon and especially not beyond its borders. In our assessment that is because most of its visitors are Shi’ites (the largest community in Lebanon), who visit them because of their religious/sectarian slant and because of their clearly Iranian orientation. On the other hand, most other communities, which are are hostile to Hezbollah (and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors), prefer websites which do not identify with Hezbollah and Iran’s political and ideological agendas.
11. Hezbollah operates in a number of ways to break through the constraints of its religious-sectarian-political identity. For example, it makes use of Lebanese media such as Al-Mayadeen TV and the newspaper Al-Akhbar, which are affiliated with but not owned by Hezbollah. In some instances Hezbollah tries to blur the identity of some of its websites and attempts to represent them as overall-Lebanese or at least generally Shi’ite. Another marketing tactic is the large number of languages used by Hezbollah to appeal to Arab-Muslim communities around the globe, especially those in the West and in Latin America.
12. Most of Hezbollah’s websites receive technical support from Internet companies in the United States, Europe (Britain, France) and Lebanon. They provide Hezbollah with IP addresses and/or access to the Internet. In our assessment, most of the time the Internet service providers (ISPs) are approached by front men or by Internet companies, usually from Beirut, which not necessarily affiliated with Hezbollah. They are then listed as contact personnel for a number of websites (For further information see below). In addition, as opposed to past practice, Hezbollah’s websites frequently change their IP addresses and ISPs (almost every year), and each of them has addresses with various extensions (.org, .com, .net).
13. In our assessment, using front men and Lebanese Internet intermediaries, like frequently changing ISPs, has three objectives: the first is to blur, insofar as is possible, Hezbollah’s ties to the websites and prevent the ISPs from connecting it to them. The second is to make if difficult for the authorities in the United States and other Western countries to shut the sites down (the United States is especially problematic for Hezbollah, where Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist organization and where in the past law enforcement authorities used measures against Hezbollah media). The third is to prevent cyber attacks. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which maintains close relations with Iran, uses similar tactics to make it difficult to identify its websites.