The Cable

The Trump Administration Is Now Offering Cash Bounties for Hezbollah Leaders

The U.S. announced $12 million for two senior leaders, marking a shift in counterterrorism strategy.

Souvenir glasses with an image of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut, Lebanon. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)
Souvenir glasses with an image of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut, Lebanon. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

For the first time in a decade, the United States is going after Lebanese Hezbollah’s senior leadership with direct financial incentives, a marked departure from a more detached policy of international sanctions.

In the latest in a series of recent moves, the State Department Tuesday announced over $10 million in cash rewards for the arrest, location, or conviction of two of the militia group’s senior leaders — its first such program in years.

The two men, Talal Hamiyah and Fuad Shukr, are both high-level leaders within the organization, according to Nathan Sales, the director for counterterrorism at the State Department. Hamiyah leads Hezbollah’s “international terrorist unit,” and Shukr is reportedly a senior military commander of the group’s military forces in Lebanon.

A Hezbollah official quoted by the Associated Press called the announcement an attempt to “demonize” the group and added that the new measures would not affect its operational activities.

The reward for Hamiyah was set at $7 million, and the reward for Shukr was set at $5 million.

According to U.S. government officials, the measures are only one part of a broader campaign to deter Hezbollah’s activities both within the United States and around the world. Immediately following a press conference Tuesday, the State Department distributed a “wanted” poster of the two men, as well as a detailed map of Hezbollah’s “select worldwide operational activity” between 1983 and 2017.

Though ultimately symbolic — there is little chance that the Lebanese government would be willing or able to apprehend either individual — the announcement may also mark a significant step forward in the ongoing U.S. campaign against Iranian interests.

“I think that announcement, between going after Hezbollah networks in the U.S., putting the focus on this, it’s all the kernels of the beginning of a broader strategy,” said David Schenker, a former Defense Department official and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The administration is bringing it out little by little, but when you put it all together, you’re seeing elements in that direction,” he told Foreign Policy.

U.S. officials have frequently said that the administration was interested in pursuing stronger measures against Iranian nonnuclear activity throughout the region.

Two weeks ago, the House Foreign Relations Committee approved an update to a set of financial sanctions targeting Hezbollah and its affiliated groups. At an event last week, both Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) voiced their support for further action against Hezbollah and were sharply critical of the Lebanese government’s purported role in sustaining and tolerating its presence on Lebanese soil.

But the ramped-up pressure on Hezbollah’s financing, combined with the group’s participation in the Lebanese government and security apparatus, has put American policymakers in a bind.

The United States has traditionally viewed the group as a mere terror outfit, despite the political and service provision function it plays within Lebanon. During the press conference, for instance, Sales called it a “terrorist group from A to Z.” However, Hezbollah, under the name “Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc,” has members in the Lebanese parliament and ministers in the country’s Cabinet. It also fulfills many state-like roles in its stronghold in southern Lebanon, where the central government’s presence is comparatively weak.

When pressed on this during the press conference, Sales maintained that the United States doesn’t “recognize the false distinction between political role and terrorism.”

But Lebanon — long a recipient of U.S. humanitarian and military aid — is also a long-term partner in the fight against the Islamic State and other Sunni terrorist groups. That’s forcing a tough choice in the U.S. administration between taking an all-out approach to countering Hezbollah or supporting Lebanon’s hybrid governance.

“For many in the administration, it’s the lesser of two evils to continue what is a relatively modest amount” of assistance to the the Lebanese Armed Forces, “in order to maintain some kind of domestic counterterrorism capabilities,” Schenker said.

Photo credit: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Rhys_Dubin

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