Paintballing with Hezbollah
Is the Path Straight to Their Hearts
Two Hezbollah fighters wait for a new match to start.
When you live in Beirut, as I do, you’re always surrounded by Hezbollah, albeit a mostly anonymous variant. They control entire neighborhoods, and they’ve become one of the fastest-rising political movements in Lebanon. Since they last claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing (against Israeli military targets in South Lebanon in 1995), Hezbollah’s ultrasecretive military wing, the Islamic Resistance of Lebanon, has developed into an expansive public institution that provides social services and assistance to poor communities. By Hezbollah’s own admission, however, these projects exist only to support their militaristic operations.
My motivation for brokering the match was largely driven by the simple journalistic need to better understand the group. Hezbollah’s highly professional press office is quite friendly toward Western journalists—eagerly taking meetings and repeating the same bland propaganda spewed by their official outlets. Requests for access to its foot soldiers, however, are always ignored. Even the idea of such a meeting happening is taboo. Partly, it’s an institutional thing. Top Hezbollah boss Hasan Nasrallah likes to joke about how taciturn his fighters can be, once explaining that when the 2006 war broke out, his security detail moved him to a location so secret he didn’t know where he was for 34 days.
After more than five years in Beirut, I’d never once found a way to interact closely with Hezbollah fighters. So I wondered: What might I learn if I could get them out of their tightly disciplined environment, into a place where they might relax a little and trust me enough to reveal even a fleeting truth or insight? The rest of Team Sahafi is composed of similarly minded foreign correspondents.
Our roster includes Ben Gilbert, a radio and print reporter who moved to Lebanon in 2006 after a year reporting from Iraq; Nicholas Blanford, who has been reporting on Lebanon and Hezbollah for 17 years and who just put out Warriors of God, an exhaustive military history of the group; the impossibly tall and baby-faced New York Times photographer Bryan Denton, who has been in Beirut for the past five years, covering various outbreaks of violence and the 2006 war with Israel, before deciding to cover the revolution in Libya; and Exum, our secret weapon. Our only nonjournalist, Exum was the key both to getting the fighters to show up and to our having any real chance at winning. He left the army before his 30th birthday and is now wrapping up a PhD in “insurgency studies.” His take on the situation was that it’d serve as an indispensable bit of field research.
Our collective reasoning for the game was simple: bragging rights. Hezbollah’s military wing is widely considered the most competent group of “nonstate actors”—or, depending where you sit, “terrorists”—in the world. I’d seen pretty much all of their closest competition in action: Al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban, and almost any other militant group you can name in the region. Famed for their combat prowess and careful tactical calibration, Hezbollah’s few thousand professional fighters have repeatedly taken on the toughest armies in the world (Israel, France, the United States, and even, briefly, Syria) and come out on top every time. Over the decades, they’ve grown in skill and competence to the point where, during the 2006 war with Israel, they’d done something few insurgencies have ever accomplished: morph from guerrillas into a semi-conventional force. If I could get them into a paintball game, I could witness their battlefield tactics firsthand. And if our team could beat them, we could walk around calling ourselves “the most dangerous nonstate actors on the planet.”