The war-forged myth of Hassan Nasrallah

The Hezbollah leader is in every conceivable sense, a product of the tumultuous world of warfare.

The war-forged myth of Hassan Nasrallah

Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters over a video stream in the southern suburbs of Beirut, August 9, 2022. (Credit: AFP archive photo)

With a dreamy smile on her face, Rim Haydar stood before al-Manar Television cameras and expressed her desire to impart a particular fragrance to her children. This was not about a sacred relic, though.

In a poignant plea, the young woman implored Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to bestow upon her the very abaya he wore during his televised speeches in the summer of 2006.

This was in September 2006, after a grueling 33-day confrontation between Hezbollah and the Israeli army.

The “July War” had just ended. Lebanon emerged from the conflict, bloodied yet seemingly brimming with pride.

Haydar yearned to be enveloped by this garment in which “the Sayyed sweated, tirelessly defending his children, his brothers, and his homeland.” Just a few days later, the cherished robe arrived, and Haydar paraded it throughout the country.

Through his leadership of the only armed force widely perceived as capable of restraining the Israeli enemy, Nasrallah was able to build a legend around his name.

At the relatively young age of 46, Nasrallah ascended to a place among the Arab world’s most iconic figures. A military strategist, political leader, and charismatic icon, some even liken Nasrallah to a modern-day Nasser.

Seventeen years after the 2006 war, however, the fervor appears to have waned.

Haydar, once the custodian of Nasrallah’s famed abaya, sold it for a handsome sum of two million “fresh dollars.” Meanwhile, Nasrallah’s reservoir of sympathy has been eroded by the multiple crises that have gripped the country in recent years.

While there are Lebanese who vehemently reject the belligerent stance of a man who frequently alludes to the possibility of resuming armed conflict, the image Nasrallah has meticulously cultivated — that of an unparalleled strategist that has weathered the storms — endures.

In 2011, Nasrallah secured a place on Time magazine’s prestigious list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

“Nobody perceives him as merely a Lebanese figure anymore,” said Hanin Ghaddar, a researcher at the Washington Institute.

Whether he is admired or despised, Nasrallah stands as one of the region’s most influential figures.

Four weeks after Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel, the region stands on the edge of an abyss.

Haunted by the specter of past wars, Lebanon is acutely aware that a single utterance from the “sayyed” could potentially trigger another upheaval.

Nasrallah is scheduled to deliver a speech this Friday and the question persists: is he willing to enter a war that will likely be even more intense and unpredictable than those that came before?

This could entail the risk of pushing the envelope too far, potentially deconstructing the myth built through all the preceding wars.

Political awakening

The Lebanese 1975-90 Civil War was the first conflict to mark Nasrallah’s life as a child and adolescent, albeit at a time when many members of the Shiite community were not yet concerned with the conflict. Young Nasrallah had not yet reached the age of fifteen when hostilities first erupted.

Living in Nabaa, a working-class neighborhood in Beirut’s eastern suburbs, the Nasrallah family had already experienced the tremors of insecurity even before the official outbreak of the war.

They were forced to relocate in 1974 and again in 1975, when Christian militias expelled Muslim residents from the Sin el-Fil area, where the family had sought refuge a year earlier.

This time, Nasrallah’s family found a new refuge in the south, settling in the small village of al-Bazouryieh near Sour, the hometown of his father, Abdel Karim.

The initial years of the war mostly marked a period of political awakening for Nasrallah.

As a teenager, he aligned himself with Shiite clerics sympathetic to the Iranian revolutionaries, contrasting sharply with the secular left-wing forces in Lebanon and Palestine.

Reflecting on his time in Bazourieh, Nasrallah recalled that the secular left “was very strong” but that “there were no fervent believers.” His “main interest revolved around the formation of a group of young religious men,” he recounted to Nida al-Watan in 1993.

While the young man’s immediate circle may not have been known for their overt piety or civic activism, they were deeply steeped in Shiite culture, which was marked by a profound sense of exclusion and injustice.

Musa al-Sadr, a renowned spokesman of the historically marginalized community, played a pivotal role.

Years later, Nasrallah admitted to spending long hours contemplating in front of a portrait of the Imam that adorned the entrance to his father’s shop.

“I dreamed of becoming like him,” Nasrallah expressed in an interview published in the Iranian weekly Ya Lesi Domadinary Ya Lesarat al-Hoseyn on Aug. 2, 2006.

In 1975, Nasrallah joined the Amal Movement.

Founded by Sadr [as a militia adjunct to the Harakat al-Mahrumin, (the Movement of the Deprived), Amal positioned itself as a Lebanese organization and carried the mantle of the burgeoning Shiite identity while embracing religious dimensions.

This association held particular significance for young Nasrallah, who had already exhibited early signs of religious fervor, often trekking long distances to attend mosque prayers or to procure second-hand books.

The Israeli invasion of 1982 marked a pivotal juncture for both the Shiite political community and Nasrallah.

At the time, Nabih Berri, who had assumed leadership of the Amal Movement in 1980, decided to align himself with the National Salvation Committee along with then commander of the armed Lebanese Forces militia, Bashir Gemayel.

The National Salvation Committee had been created by then Lebanese President Elias Sarkis to facilitate dialogue among Lebanon’s most powerful leaders during the Israeli siege of Beirut.

Berri’s participation in the Committee was criticized by radicals within Amal, who deemed it as an “American-Israeli bridge” allowing the US to enter and control Lebanon.

A faction within Amal, led by Hussein al-Musawi, opted for a separate path. With the backing of the Islamic Republic of Iran, this faction laid the foundation for what would eventually become “Hezbollah” two years later.

In July 1982, Nasrallah became a part of “the first cohort of young Shiites trained at the Janta camp in the Bekaa, under the supervision of the Iranian pasdaran,” said Aurélie Daher, a professor and researcher at Paris-Dauphine University.

The Islamic Resistance in Lebanon was born.

It was poised to assume a significant role in the Lebanese Civil War while maintaining a multifaceted connection — ideological, religious, military, and financial — with its Iranian progenitor.

Then 22, Nasrallah’s political engagement now took precedence over all other commitments.

“After 1982, our youth, our life, and our time were integrated into Hezbollah,” Nasrallah said in an interview with Nida al-Watan on Aug. 31, 1993.

The following decade witnessed his meteoric ascent within the militia party.

In 1987, at the age of 27, Nasrallah was appointed Chairman of the Executive Council of Hezbollah’s highest governing body, the Consultative Council (Shura).

During the course of the Lebanese conflict, Nasrallah’s direct engagement in armed combat seemed to have been somewhat limited.

Starting in the mid-1980s, although Nasrallah held a prominent leadership role, he was often characterized more as a manager rather than a frontline combatant.

“Nasrallah follows military affairs, but his primary function is political; he is not a fighter in the conventional sense,” said Kassem Kassir, a political analyst with close ties to Hezbollah.

Nasrallah's role during the turbulent years of conflict between Amal and Hezbollah between 1988 and 1990 remains somewhat ambiguous.

“It’s highly likely that he did not participate in the clashes; during that period, he had administrative responsibilities within the party,” said Daher.

However, the precise nature of Nasrallah’s involvement remains unclear.

“At the time of the Dahiyeh battle [in the late 1980s], in particular, he was overseeing military matters,” said Ali al-Amin, a journalist and Hezbollah detractor. “Despite holding a political position, he maintained a direct link with the battlefield.”

The ‘peace’ years

While the years of conflict served as Nasrallah’s initiation into the realm of politics, the post-war era proved to be a launching pad for the young leader.

The assassination of Hezbollah’s then Secretary General Abbas al-Musawi in a Israeli raid in Feb. 1992 propelled Nasrallah to the top of the party’s political hierarchy.

Eager to avoid appearing weak before the victorious enemy, Hezbollah’s members swiftly convened to choose a successor. Although many party members had doubts about Nasrallah, there was no time to lose. Nasrallah was then 31, known to be a close companion of Musawi, and appeared to be Tehran’s preferred option.

Consequently, Nasrallah was elected as the party’s third secretary general.

Over the years, he constructed a leadership stature that has been rarely matched in the region.

The political strategy Nasrallah utilized throughout the 1990s helped transform a small clandestine militia into a party that gradually found its place in Lebanon’s institutions.

In the post-war landscape, Nasrallah adopted a strategy of pacification and political normalization. He portrayed himself as a pragmatic figure, emphasizing intra-community openness.

This period witnessed a loosening of ideological constraints for Hezbollah. The process of Hezbollah’s “Lebanonization” began when the party secured 12 seats in the 1992 parliamentary elections and nine in 1996.

Simultaneously, Nasrallah initiated an unwavering military stance against Israel.

With the cessation of intra-Shiite conflicts between Amal and Hezbollah in 1990, Hezbollah had already started to refocus its efforts on the “resistance.” Nasrallah took this rationale even further.

On Feb. 24, 1992, a week after Musawi’s assassination, Nasrallah addressed an assembly outside a mosque in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where he declared the party’s readiness to “avenge” the late leader’s death.

He called on “the Lebanese people and political parties, especially Christians, to join the resistance.”

The die was cast.

A few days later, the first salvo of Katyusha rockets was launched.

At the tactical level, a mini revolution was taking place. The party opted for more sophisticated warfare techniques in comparison to the suicide bombings it adopted in the 1980s. The military thinking that Nasrallah espoused was hybrid.

“It is based both on observations of the Palestinian and Vietnamese resistance movements and on more contemporary concepts: it is a fusion of guerrilla warfare and modern warfare techniques,” said Kassir.

Under Nasrallah’s leadership, Hezbollah’s troops became more professional: specialized units were developed, intelligence capacities improved and the pace of operations was accelerated.

Nasrallah’s new strategy won him respect and admiration. He was continuously re-elected head of the party. Hezbollah’s internal regulations were even amended so Nasrallah could be re-elected for more than two consecutive terms.

Nasrallah's mythical status emerged in times of peace, but was measured with the yardstick of war?

Nasrallah’s decade-long strategy — a policy of reaching out internally coupled with meticulous management of military affairs — also enabled him to shape an image for himself. His oratory skills drew attention within the party’s circles and his name became increasingly inseparable from that of the party.

Nasrallah’s mythical status emerged in times of peace, but was measured with the yardstick of war. Several factors contributed to the introduction of the new “Nasrallah” brand to the Lebanese public.

While the 1990s were punctuated by a series of armed confrontations in the South, the April 1996 escalation, during which the Israeli army killed around 100 civilians, positioned Nasrallah as the champion of national defense. In 16 days, his troops fired 639 rockets toward Israel.

“Over are the days when they would kill our people and we won’t take revenge,” he said on the party’s news channel, al-Manar.

On Sept. 13, 1997, the death of his son Hadi in battle shed light on a new, human aspect of Nasrallah’s persona, with which the public could easily identify.

This event also gave credence to the image of a solid war leader, willing to make personal sacrifices for a greater cause. “We, Hezbollah’s leadership, do not jealously guard our children,” he said in a speech the day after the death of his eldest son.

The liberation of the South on May 25, 2000 provided something that years of long armed guerrilla warfare did not: it proved that his military strategy was working.

After 18 years of occupation, Israel packed up and left, all the while abandoning its South Lebanon Army allies.

Hezbollah seems to have achieved what very few Arab armies have. The party’s media outlets documented Israel’s exit by broadcasting scenes of joy. Chants, including “Allah, Allah protect Nasrallah,” echoed through the streets of the liberated south. Crowned with this success, Hassan Nasrallah’s name resonated across the region.

At the head of a militia party that was now firmly rooted in Lebanon’s political landscape, one that notably proved worth in the military arena, Nasrallah approached the new decade with significant popular support.


The ultimate endorsement came with the July 2006 war. In 33 days of operations, Israel fired 7,000 bombs into Lebanese territory. In comparison, Hezbollah fired some 4,000 rockets towards Israel.

With 1,125 dead, more than 4,000 wounded, and 1 million displaced on the Lebanese side, the toll was heavy.

But the human and material cost did not change the way the conflict was interpreted by the population.

Although Hezbollah was responsible for the spark that ignited the conflict (the party fired rockets fired toward Israel on July 12), Nasrallah emerged as the last bastion against the Israeli war machine. He became a war hero.

The victory was “even greater than that of 2000,” Nasrallah said. The “new model,” he explained, is based on an offensive approach of the “resistance.” One that was no longer limited to defense.

The 2006 war highlighted the evolution of Hezbollah’s methods and strategies. Nasrallah’s eloquent public speaking, rich with masterful imagery helped him to get his message across and influence the masses.

War is psychological, and although Nasrallah was the war’s public face, he was not its mastermind. The 2006 operation was steered by Hezbollah’s two leading military figures at the time — Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s ex-operations chief, and Qassim Soleimani, who headed the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force.

The strategy was “devised collectively” and “he was in constant contact with the operations room, when he wasn’t sitting there in person,” recalled Daher. But the Sayyed was not the only master on board.

War has become psychological

Triumphant as it was, 2006 also heralded the end of an era. Aware of its extremely high cost, Nasrallah stated on the evening of the conflict that the party “would absolutely not have carried out the operation if it had known it would lead to such a war.”

He seemed to understand that the country would not accept a second sacrifice on this scale. From 2006 onwards, the southern front has been stable. From then on, Hezbollah refrained from reacting to Israel’s daily mini attacks.

While Narallah’s speeches retain all their belligerent charge, the rules of engagement on the Lebanese-Israeli border completely changed: after 2006, the “resistance” became performative.

Rather than ending, the war moved to new terrain. First, internally, where Nasrallah’s quest to dominate the Lebanese political arena led him to use his military arsenal as an intimidation tool.

This strategy culminated on May 7, 2008, when Hezbollah invaded Beirut’s western districts and tried to force Fouad Siniora’s cabinet to back down on its plan to dismantle the party’s illegal telecoms networks and to sack the Beirut Airport’s Security Chief, who was reputedly close to the party.

The events of 2008 revealed a the new logic, now dedicated to internal political gains, and the blackmail for war that the militia is capable of. The red lines have been drawn. They have not been challenged ever since.

From 2011 to present day, the regional upheavals caused by the Arab Spring uprisings have changed the order of priorities of Tehran and Hezbollah’s leader alike. In the name of the fight against the “takfiris” (infidels), Hezbollah’s forces have been focused on Syria since 2013.

In Iraq and Yemen, contingents have trained, advised and mentored the local allies of the “resistance axis.” The most powerful non-state armed organization in the world has become the main strike force of the Iranian apparatus in the region.

“From a Lebanese resistance group, Hezbollah has become a key component of the Revolutionary Guards,” said Hanin Ghaddar. “With a presence in Europe, Latin America and Africa, they have both a regional military foothold and an international financial foothold.”

Nasrallah, who has become the bonding force of the party, accompanies and embodies this transformation.

The serial assassinations of high-ranking Hezbollah officials, namely Imad Mughniyeh (2008), Mustapha Badreddine (2016) and Qassim Soleimani (2020), have left a vacant space in the role of adviser and military strategist to Tehran, which Nasrallah has gradually filled.

But the image of the Sayyed is also cracking. The bodies of hundreds of “martyrs,” if not more, returning from the Syrian front embarrassed the party. A growing part of the Lebanese public no longer understands the meaning of its military interventions across the region.

Hezbollah’s ideological DNA, once tied up to the sacrosanct Palestinian resistance, has faltered. The message that “the road to Jerusalem does not pass through the ‘Ring’ [a bridge in Beiurt],” was written throughout the Lebanese capital during the October 2019 uprisings, during which the party dispatched its troops to downtown Beirut to create a climate of terror on the ground.

In Lebanon, Nasrallah, who was looking for new enemies, was increasingly perceived as venal and corrupt, just like the other sectarian “community leaders.”

The glorious memories of 1996, 2000 and 2006 overshadowed with darker ones, like the Beirut port explosion, in which Lebanese officials were implicated, and the assassination of Lokman Slim, a prominent Shiite Hezbollah critic. Both events were blamed on the party.

Remaining is the party’s capacity for brute force and its arms, which could at any moment drag Lebanon into a war it seems unwilling to join.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub. 

With a dreamy smile on her face, Rim Haydar stood before al-Manar Television cameras and expressed her desire to impart a particular fragrance to her children. This was not about a sacred relic, though.In a poignant plea, the young woman implored Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to bestow upon her the very abaya he wore during his televised speeches in the summer of 2006.This was in September...