Paintballing with Hezbollah
We figured they’d cheat; they were Hezbollah, after all. But none of us—a team of four Western journalists—thought we’d be dodging military-grade flash bangs when we initiated this
Photos by Bryan Denton
Hezbollah members getting in position right before a match starts. It’s almost like they’ve done this before or something.
We figured they’d cheat; they were Hezbollah, after all. But none of us—a team of four Western journalists—thought we’d be dodging military-grade flash bangs when we initiated this “friendly” paintball match.
The battle takes place underground in a grungy, bunker-like basement underneath a Beirut strip mall. When the grenades go off it’s like being caught out in a ferocious thunderstorm: blinding flashes of hot white light, blasts of sound that reverberate deep inside my ears.
As my eyesight returns and readjusts to the dim arena light, I poke out from my position behind a low cinder-block wall. Two large men in green jumpsuits are bearing down on me. I have them right in my sights, but they seem unfazed—even as I open fire from close range, peppering each with several clear, obvious hits. I expect them to freeze, maybe even acknowledge that this softie American journalist handily overcame their flash-bang trickery and knocked them out of the game. Perhaps they’ll even smile and pat me on the back as they walk off the playing field in a display of good sportsmanship (after cheating, of course).
Instead, they shoot me three times, point-blank, right in the groin.
From this distance (well within the 15-foot “safety zone”), paintballs feel like bee stings. I raise my hands in pain and confusion, signaling to the referee that I’m leaving the game. But the bigger one—a tall, muscular farm boy from the deep south of Lebanon who tonight is going by the name Khodor—isn’t finished with me yet: He wraps his giant hands around my body and tries to throw me over his shoulder with the kind of deftness that only comes from practice. I’m quick enough to break free and flee, but my teammate Ben isn’t so lucky. Khodor and his partner move past me in perfect military formation, plunging deeper into our defenses. Soon they apprehend Ben, pushing him ahead of them, human shield-style.
Just before hostilities begin, Team Sahafi lines up for a group shot. From left: Andrew Exum, Mitch Prothero, Nicolas Blanford, Ben Gilbert. Bryan Denton, who also played, is not pictured because he was behind the camera.
Yes, I remind myself, this is really happening: Four Western journalists (two of whom alternated in and out of our rounds of four-on-four), plus one former Army Ranger-turned-counterinsurgency expert, are playing paintball with members of the Shiite militant group frequently described by US national security experts as the “A-Team of terrorism.” It took nearly a full year to pull together this game, and all along I’d been convinced that things would fall apart at the last minute. Fraternizing with Westerners is not the sort of thing Hezbollah top brass allows, so to arrange the match I’d relied on a man we’ll call Ali, one of my lower-level contacts within the group.
Ali had sworn that he’d deliver honest-to-God trained fighters for an evening of paintball, but when the four-man Hezbollah team first walked into the building, I was dubious. In the Dahiyah, the southern suburbs of Beirut controlled by Hezbollah, every macho teenager and his little brother consider themselves essential members of “the Resistance.” And one of the fighters—a tall, lanky, 20-something with a scruffy beard and the spiked-and-gelled hairdo favored by secular Beirut kids—seems like a wannabe. Especially after he introduces himself as Coco.
“Ali, what the fuck?” I ask out of earshot of the men he brought. “This guy is named Coco?”
“No, of course not,” he answers. “Nobody is giving their real names, man.”
“Is he, umm, in the Resistance? If he’s not, that’s fine; the other guys look legit. But I need to know if he’s real for the story.”
“Oh, they’re all real, bro,” Ali says in a high-pitched voice he uses whenever I challenge the veracity of his information. “Wait and see.”
Then he leans in as if sharing a closely guarded secret: “Since the 2006 war [with Israel], Hezbollah has relaxed on their dress code. The new guys can keep their hair the way they want it.”
Now, after the flash-banging during our second match of the night (the first began and ended in a flurry of paintballs; everyone was instantly either out of ammo or eliminated), I’ve little doubt that all of the fighters are the genuine article. As one Israeli counterterrorism official once remarked to me over coffee and a bagel, things would be easier if Hezbollah were crazy like Al-Qaeda—it would make his job significantly less stressful. “They’re not,” he’d sighed. “They’re just ruthless professionals.” They are proving this tonight: The quick but precise movements, the way they support one another with covering fire when shifting positions, the leaps from eight-foot walls that effortlessly segue into perfect tuck-and-rolls (as Coco did during game 4).
The Hezbollah paintball team, looking a wee bit more intimidating than the team of journalists.
With me out of the game, another teammate eliminated, and a third being held hostage, that leaves only one remaining member of Team Sahafi (Arabic for “journalists”): Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger captain who retired after three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and has since become a noted counterinsurgency expert. When he’s not playing paintball in the basement of a Beirut strip mall, Exum is flying to Kabul to advise the US military or writing papers with phrases like “population-centric” in their titles. He also heads up abumuqawama.com, a blog revered by War on Terror geeks. The main thrust of Exum’s strategy is to separate insurgents from the broader population. Tonight, however, as two Hezbollah fighters drag and push his comrade-turned-hostage toward him, Ranger Exum makes little effort to separate good guy from bad and shoots all three of them repeatedly. This delights our opponents, who appear to appreciate the lack of emotion shown by the American warrior. Finally, they relent—no one can doubt they have been “killed”—and forfeit the game.
We all convene back in the arena’s cantina, where there are snacks and weird murals suggesting that paintball is the best way to deal with one’s inner aggression. If the initial introductions between the two sides had been slightly tense—the fighters seemed nervous about being identified, and we were anxious about them backing out—the realization that they had just attempted to use a hostage as a human shield during a paintball fight loosened things up. The Hezbollah guys all laugh when Exum jokes that he killed Ben to keep him off some Al Jazeera reel. And they respond—pointing at me—that after the next game “the Germans will have to negotiate for this one.” It’s a somewhat sick inside joke: German diplomats are usually tasked with negotiating Hezbollah-Israeli prisoner and body swaps.
Soha—my Lebanese girlfriend, who agreed to serve as a translator/liaison—decides that Team Hezbollah’s use of actual military hardware, their hostage-taking tactics, and, most of all, their refusal to leave the game when hit means that the rules need clarifying. She has a few words with the arena’s confused manager, who five seconds into the first match quickly realized he was hosting a very peculiar party tonight and who, for the first two games, was too intimidated to remind the four guerrillas to adhere to the posted rules. So it’s up to Soha to badger both him and the Hezbollah boys so that they quit it with the cheating. In setting up the ground rules for the game, the Hezbollah team members sent word that “no Lebanese” could be present, concerned that someone would recognize them and tell their bosses they were breaking some serious rules. But Soha charmed them within a few minutes, and her presence slowly became welcome.
Quickly, Soha brokers a deal: Everyone agrees that, for the rest of the game, only head shots will count as kills. Also, “outside equipment” is officially banned. During the first two games, it was clear that Team Hezbollah had little fear of nonlethal paintball fire; they’d all been hit multiple times and stubbornly stayed in the game. But they seem to respect the notion that when someone is shot in the head, he’s done. Plus, it’ll be more fun if everyone’s harder to kill. We decide to call the first two games down the middle: one win for them, the other for us.
This gets Coco’s attention. “Really?” he asks. “But Hezbollah always wins.”
While setting up the game, it occurred to me that such an arrangement may fall afoul of US sanctions. (Attn: Treasury Department readers in the Office of Financial Asset Control: No money changed hands.) No matter how I justified my intentions, something about enjoying some faux-street-combat fun with members of an organization described by some as the “cat’s paw” of Iran—a group responsible for decades of attacks on Israel, countless kidnappings, and the 1983 bombing of an American military barracks in Beirut that killed 241 soldiers—just seemed plain wrong.
One of Hezbollah’s main goals is the annihilation of Israel. While that stance has softened somewhat since the radical days of the 1980s, partially due to Israel’s pulling the majority of its troops out of Lebanese lands in 2000, the border has remained as tense as ever. And every once in a while, it still explodes into all-out war (as it did in 2006). But for all the attacks targeting Israelis, it bears mention that their sometimes brutal occupation of South Lebanon helped create the monster that came to be known as Hezbollah. In just a few short years of occupation, many Lebanese Shiites went from supporting Israel’s removal of the Palestinian militants from Lebanon to joining Hezbollah in droves.
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.”
A Hezbollah fighter throws a percussion grenade, which isn’t normally allowed in paintball matches, but who was going to tell him that?
In the days leading up to the match, Exum and I developed our strategy. We (correctly) assumed that our opponents would be well versed in small-unit tactics, and we would exploit a strategy easily executed with a paintball gun but impossible with a real weapon that kicks back when fired: providing a near-constant stream of accurate covering fire. Nick and either Ben or Bryan would stay in defensive positions regardless of what developed, aiming down set lanes of fire to keep the enemy from taking direct approaches. Exum would occupy the perch in the far back corner of the arena, killing anyone who tried maneuvering around his teammates. The goal was to force them to spend time and energy trying to break through our defenses, and then I’d mount a counterattack once they’d been weakened.
For the first three games, Exum’s strategy works perfectly, so much so that it begins to visibly piss off Team Hezbollah. Coco especially hates that we just sit back and camp. “They won’t change their plan or move,” he tells Soha. “They just play defense. It’s too predictable.” She relays this to us, and we all laugh.
“I’m not here to entertain them,” Exum replies. “I’m here to fucking beat them.”
Coco turns out to be the most talkative of the bunch, especially when he’s chatting up Soha. “This is the best war I’ve ever been in,” he says after his team loses its third match. “There’s water. And girls.”
“Have you guys ever played paintball before?” Soha asks. The fighters laugh.
“We’ve played in the mountains, we’ve played in the south, and we’ve played in Beirut—just not with paintballs,” Coco replies.
Eventually the other fighters warm up to us a bit, too. Andil (“lantern” in Arabic) is extroverted, funny, and a stone-cold fighter; despite being slightly chubby, he’s far from soft, and during the games he’s lightning quick and aggressive as hell. I’m later told that he’s a member of the famed special forces, which, beyond the years of vetting, religious instruction, and military drilling all fighters undergo, also means a full year of specialized training in Iran.
Khodor, the huge one who tried to kidnap me during the second game, is shy and deeply religious. He hails from a tiny village in the south, and at first, the scene makes him a little uncomfortable, as if enjoying himself in this company is somehow sinful (compounded by the fact that it’s currently Ramadan). He closes his eyes every time a photograph is taken of him, even though he never removes his game mask, just in case someone manages to recognize him through the dirty visor. I later find out his Hezbollah duties include commanding a team tasked with shooting a barrage of rockets into northern Israel if war breaks out again.
Then there’s “the Boss.” Dark-haired with piercing black eyes and an angular face, he entered the arena after the others and scanned the room intensely, just as we were about to begin. He’s wearing a black leather jacket, jeans, and trainers, and at first glance looks just like an ordinary 30-something guy from Beirut. Up close his muscular build becomes apparent, as does his confidence, which far exceeds that of Andil and Khodor and is confirmed by his chilling self-introduction: “I am the Boss.”
For the first few matches, the Boss observed stoically from the sidelines, watching his team fail against a bunch of doughy foreigners. Before the third match, he called for a huddle. They instantly got better, dominating the next round as they knocked out Nick and Bryan immediately before cornering Exum. Still, they ended up losing because they were so excited, they overlooked the fact that I was still alive. As they approached Exum, I popped out of nowhere, and we mowed them down in seconds, prompting Andil to rip off his mask and grab me in an excited embrace. His thick arms crushed my chest as he shouted, “Nice! Nice!” in Arabic and kissed me on the cheek.
A Hezbollah fighter relaxes during a break in the paintball action.
The honeymoon is soon over, and Soha picks up on a little whisper campaign about me. She tells me Coco and Andil want to know why she’s hanging out with us foreigners: “So how do you know these guys? How are you friends with them?” A secular Muslim, Soha knows we’re entering territory loaded with cultural land mines. And although the fighters seem to have taken a peculiar liking to me, the fact that I’m dating a local Muslim girl is counterbalancing that impression; I’m also the one who challenged them to the game they’re now losing. There is pride at stake, and to my surprise, they suddenly seem more intent on shooting me than Exum, our US Army representative, and up until now their most prized target.
I’m immediately eliminated from the next game when Andil, at a dead run, shoots me in the face from 30 meters away. But we wind up winning that game, the fourth, the overall score now 3-1. It becomes evident that the Boss has had enough, and he announces that he’ll suit up for a few rounds of five-on-five.
“He’s come to save his boys,” says Nick, as the referees announce a new game. Each team will select a captain (me, the Boss) and defend their respective towers on opposite sides of the arena. Only a captain can enter the other team’s tower, and when he does, his team wins. Hit the opposing captain in the head, game over; the shooter’s team wins.
In our first five-on-five match with the Boss, Exum designs an elaborate strategy that takes five times as long to describe as it does for the Boss to sprint the length of the field in a flurry of paintballs, amid the screams of his fellow guerrilla fighters. He reaches our tower untouched; the game is over before I can even break into a stride. It’s now 3-2, and Team Hezbollah erupts like a volcano of insults and boasts. Even Khodor, the quietest of the bunch, joins the boys in chanting, “20 seconds! 20 seconds!”
The next round is even shorter. The horn blares, and the Boss sprints into our tower. Done. But this time I notice that while he’s pretty fast, he’s not that fast. I might even be faster than him. He’s not even engaging the field at all, but simply holds his gun alongside his head for cover while sprinting in a straight line. I can do that.
After our two-game, 30-second ass whipping at the hands of the Boss, things are all tied up. There’s talk of changing the rules once again to ensure the tiebreaker is a more drawn-out battle, but it’s after 11 PM and Khodor needs to be at the mosque by midnight for Ramadan prayers. His teammates, all of whom also celebrate Ramadan, pressure him to hold off long enough for the grand finale, and while he clearly wants to keep at it, he has got to pray. There’s only time for one more round of shoot-the-captain.
We decide to appropriate the Boss’s strategy: I’ll head straight for the tower, with my gun protecting my head, while Bryan is “volun-told” by Exum to run alongside me and eat paintballs. As the horn blows, I ignore our opponents and stare only at the stairs to the tower, about 50 meters away. The race is on. Bryan immediately gets tangled in his giant legs, felled like Gulliver by a swarm of Team Hezbollah bullets. Andil fires at me the entire time but can’t connect with my head. Seconds later I hit the tower half a stride ahead of the Boss on the other side of the room. We win: 4-3.
In some Arab cultures there is a custom known as baroud: the moment at a wedding, funeral, or other cultural event where the men shoot guns into the air in a display of emotion. A few years back, Hezbollah officially banned the practice, but tonight, with everyone still holding a full clip of 200 paintballs, the Boss and Co. join us in the center of the arena to celebrate the night’s fun by joyfully shooting into the air. Language barriers are overcome to rehash moments from the night, or to gently talk trash, while shaking hands and hugging in recognition of having together pulled off something, if not special, then notably unique.
At the very end of the evening, things take a chilling turn. The Boss walks over and takes Ben’s gun away from him while criticizing his marksmanship. In an exemplary display, the Boss takes careful aim at a rope hanging on the other side of the arena and fires shot after shot, squarely hitting the rope each time while chanting Yahoud (“Jew”) on each pull of the trigger. He seems to think it’s funny, but no one else laughs.
Protective masks sit on the counter moments before they’ll get splattered with paint.
Almost a month after the game, I am driving in an unmarked SUV along the heavily guarded Lebanese-Israeli border, where Hezbollah, Israeli, and Lebanese Army patrols are joined by 12,000 UN peacekeepers. The Boss is at the wheel. In the weeks following the paintball match, we’ve developed something of a rapport. So he humors my earnest curiosity as I ask questions about the specifics of the group’s battlefield tactics. He is fully aware that I am asking these questions because I will be writing about him and his comrades. My impression is that although he knows that this sort of thing is strictly banned, he figures I’m harmless enough
to drive me to some abandoned positions, or explain, from his point of view, how an ambush of Israeli officers in 1994 went down. After removing the batteries from our mobile phones to avoid eavesdropping and tracking devices, we set off southbound on a rainy winter’s day.
As we pass through a Lebanese military checkpoint intended to keep foreigners from sniffing around one of the world’s tensest borders, he talks tactics, first insulting both sides’ strategies in the paintball game—a lack of discipline and unwillingness to modify plans, the antithesis of the Hezbollah way. As an example, he points to a bend in the road just inside the former Security Zone, which Israel had occupied for more than 20 years.
“That’s where an Israeli tank almost ran me over,” he says, describing a patient ambush he’d set in the late 90s. “But we couldn’t move or make a sound, because the tank wasn’t our target.” Then he points to another bend in a road a few hundred meters away: the site of the action.
As we approach the border, on the other side of the fence we encounter an Israeli military patrol milling around with their Humvees in the distance. The Boss rolls down his window.
“Hellllooooo there,” the Boss shouts in English to the startled soldiers, who whip around in surprise. He follows this with a hearty “Fuck you!” and we speed off. Once we’re far enough away that I stop worrying about getting shot, I ask him what he really thinks—personally—about his Israeli enemies.
“They are well trained and tough,” he says. “They fight hard and defend their land and people. I respect them as enemies. They work with their hands, they fight for themselves, and they take care of their own people, so they’re much better than the Saudis.” He goes on: “Saudis are the worst people alive. They claim to be the most religious Muslims and were given the greatest gift of any nation by God himself. Do they protect Muslims with this money? Do they feed the poor? Build a culture? No, they spend it all on cars and whores. I hate them.”
This is coming from a guy who, during our paintball match, answered Soha’s question about military tactics by muttering, “Sometimes when you hold the gun in your hands, it shows you things.” Clearly, we’re making some progress; he’s much less menacing today. As we continue our tour of the border, he tells me how to properly execute an ambush (stay hidden and let five chances to attack pass before you take action) and about Hezbollah’s first rule for its fighters: “We’re taught not to get killed,” he says. “They teach us our lives and training are too valuable to waste.”
He shows me rocket-launching sites so well concealed that I can’t see them until we’re standing on top of them and describes how, during battle, the rocket teams travel by bicycle to avoid detection. It’s exactly the kind of detailed tactical description from a legitimate military source I’d hoped to obtain by setting up the paintball battle.
Still, as the tour goes on, I probe for a deeper understanding of how the Boss feels about his adversaries. His shooting-the-rope “Yahoud” joke was offensive from just about any perspective, but in a normal Lebanese context, it wasn’t a total anomaly. By and large, folks in this part of the world tend to conduct themselves with a gleeful lack of political correctness. The IDF recently had to deal with revelations that a sniper team who had participated in the assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008 had also made t-shirts featuring a visibly pregnant Muslim woman surrounded by crosshairs. one shot, two kills was emblazoned underneath.
Regardless, one side’s bad behavior doesn’t excuse the other’s, and I’m still curious as to whether there’s any delineation between resistance and racism in the minds of fighters like the Boss. So I push him on the real goal of Hezbollah. Liberate and protect Lebanese land, or keep the fight going until all the Israelis are gone? I ask him to consider a scenario in which the Palestinians have cut a two-state deal, and the Israelis withdraw from the tiny parcels of land claimed by some factions as Lebanese. Would he feel obligated to continue fighting despite all that (likely impossible) progress in the region?
“If all those things become true, then the Resistance stops being a national obligation and turns into a religious question,” he answers. “As Muslims, we feel a religious duty to liberate Jerusalem. But these sorts of questions can be addressed in many ways, while occupation can only be addressed with resistance.”
He then says that Israelis have yet to learn that they can’t win a war in Lebanon because they’re fighting people with a homeland. In his view, having actual land to defend is critical. And for all his bravado about Hezbollah’s abilities, he points in the direction of Israel and eloquently summarizes a subject few Middle Eastern militants would dare address.
“If the war is fought 500 meters that way, the resistance could never win,” he says. “We couldn’t beat the Israelis there, not on their land, by their homes.” I’ve never heard an Islamic militant ever admit that Israel is Israeli land. He continues by pointing out that in 1982, 50,000 trained and well-equipped Palestinian troops couldn’t keep the Israelis out of Beirut for a week. But by his count, less than 1,000 Hezbollah fighters did the job alone for 34 days in 2006. “Palestinians can’t fight because they have no homes to defend. There would already be a Palestine if it weren’t for the Palestinians.”
In light of this revelation, I press him on what he thinks could stop this cycle of violence in the south. What if the Israelis left Lebanese lands, made peace with the Palestinians, and never threatened Lebanon again?
“Some guys would consider violence the solution to the religious questions, like liberating Jerusalem. But doing so would mean the end of the Resistance,” he says.
“So, peace?” I ask.
He thinks for a second. “Sure,” he replies, without much conviction in his voice.