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Flirting with militias: What America can learn from the Middle East

Flirting with militias: What America can learn from the Middle East
© MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

As Americans go to the polls, we can learn hard lessons from the Middle East — where militias and nations have long grappled over authority, legitimacy, and power.

Take Israel for instance.

On the night of June 20, 1948, off the coast of Israel, the Israeli Navy attacked the Altalena cargo ship. An Israeli right wing terror organization, the Irgun, had purchased the Altalena to resupply its paramilitary forces; the cargo ship was carrying 800-900 men, 5,000 rifles, 250 light machine guns, 5 million bullets, 50 anti-tank rocket launchers, and 10 armoured vehicles.

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In the prior two years, the Irgun had bombed the British administrative headquarters at King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing more than 90 people and led the Deir Yassin massacre which slaughtered 107 Palestinian Arabs in a village outside of the Holy City. The Irgun was determined to remain a separately armed and funded potent military and political force in the new state.

Israel’s founder and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, on the other hand, demanded that the Irgun and its leader, Menachem Begin, surrender and hand over all the weapons to the recently established Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Menachem Begin, who much later became Israel’s sixth prime minister and founder of Israel’s Likud Party, refused to disarm or surrender. In response, Ben-Gurion ordered a brutal attack on the Altalena ship. In the ensuing firefight, 16 Irgun and three IDF soldiers were killed.

After the battle, Ben Gurion ordered the arrest of 200 Irgun fighters. He saw the Irgun as a threat to the new country and was willing to spill Jewish blood to establish legitimate state authority over the errant militias. The IDF — and not terrorist militias — would have a monopoly on the legitimate use of public force.

For Ben-Gurion, an “army within an army” risked Israel’s political dysfunction, collapse, and civil war. The prime minister gave no succor to the militias.

Lebanon, on the other hand, has had a long, complicated and often symbiotic relationship with the terrorist group Hezbollah.

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In the early 1980s splinter Shia Islamist groups in southern Lebanon began to consolidate under Hezbollah, a small militia focused on ending Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon following Israel's 1982 invasion and siege of Beirut.

Hezbollah was born from political grievances and failed governance. A foreign military, the Israelis, was occupying the Shia stronghold of southern Lebanon. The Lebanon government was divided, dysfunctional, and corrupt. Politicians and bureaucrats failed to deliver security, basic services, decent education, healthcare, and economic opportunity for the entire country. Hezbollah channeled these injustices to build a military, political, and social enterprise that has since dominated Lebanon for decades.

Hezbollah as an organization never folded into the state; instead, its militias and intelligence services remain funded outside of the state coffers and independent of the Lebanese army. This independent militia conducts its own foreign policy by engaging in armed conflicts, terrorist activities, and transnational crime around the world. For instance, Hezbollah has launched massive terror operations against the United States which killed hundreds, repeatedly attacked Israel including a devastating cross border war in 2006, and continues to provide direct support to its proxies in the Syrian and Yemeni wars.

A small militia in the early 1980s has since consumed a state, fueled conflict in the region for decades, and projects stronger military power than many countries.

Hezbollah is not alone.

The Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State are examples of where militias — fueled by grievance, ideology and hate — have evolved to become violent political actors capable of attacking major powers and disrupting the geo-political status quo.

America is not immune from domestic terrorism and insurgency.

Today, according to FBI Director Christopher Wray, white supremacy presents a "persistent" and "pervasive" threat to the United States — to such an extent that most of the domestic terror threats in the United States are driven by “racially motivated violent extremism.”

Earlier this month, for instance, the FBI revealed an alleged plot in Michigan by violent extremists to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, place her on trial for treason, target and kill the police, and trigger a civil war. The FBI infiltrated the group, foiled the plot, and arrested 13 people, including seven members of the right-wing militia, the Wolverine Watchmen, on terrorism, conspiracy, and weapons charges for their involvement.

The Michigan governor was not the lone target; the FBI now says this same group also discussed kidnapping the Virginia governor.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE has repeatedly called for his political opponents to be jailed, encouraged vigilante violence during this summer's protests, and encouraged the implicit overthrow of state governments by calling on residents to “liberate” themselves from Coronavirus lockdowns. He has been widely criticized for not forcefully denouncing or distancing himself from right-wing groups like the Proud Boys.

This November election will be an inflection point in U.S. history.

Engaging militias by encouraging violence to achieve political outcomes has broken nation states in the Middle East. When Trump winks at extremist groups, he risks unleashing forces which threaten the integrity of next month’s election, the foundation of our democracy, and the legitimacy of America.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.