Computer games have become an ever more valuable tool for recruitment for armed groups. Ana Maria Luca, a Romanian award winning journalist and currently working with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, analyzes the impact of these means.
His name is Ahmad and he is a Hezbollah fighter in Syria.
He defends the holy Shiite shrine of Sayydeh Zeinab in Damascus, he infiltrates an ISIS camp in the vicinity of al Hujeira to save prisoners, he saves hostages held by ISIS in a house in Qusair, before the big battle sweeps the town. Ahmad also takes part in the battle of Qusair, then he catches the mastermind of a twin suicide bombing that killed 46 in November 2015 in Beirut’s southern suburbs. He finally gets to be a sniper in an ambush against a Daesh brigade planning an attack on Ras Baalbek, in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, where Hezbollah fought in the summer of 2017.
But Ahmad also does strange things a soldier would never do. While on the front he doesn’t think of his mother or his wife or children, he never misses his family. In between two missions, while waiting for his battle order that comes in an official note with the Hezbollah logo, he randomly scribbles on pieces of paper “We support you, Nasrallah!”
In February, Hezbollah launched its latest video game, a 3D first person shooter, Counterstrike sourced, that calls on players to defend Shiite shrines across Syria and Lebanon from hordes of ISIS fighters. It glorifies the Iran backed paramilitary group’s involvement in the Syrian war starting 2013.
For the unaware gamer, not much is different from Counterstrike or Call of Duty. Even for the political scientist who followed Hezbollah’s battles in Syria the game contains nothing new. But the devil is in the details.
Hezbollah officials vowed that the game is not a recruitment tool.
“It is a tool to confront the savage culture invading our market using games that are empty of feelings and belonging,” the game official website reads. “A tribute to the souls of martyrs and their families as well as the sacrifices of the wounded and their families,” it adds.
But the truth is, however, that Hezbollah’s video game is but another tiny piece of the Party of God’s propaganda. It aims at teens and pre teens, in Lebanon but also Lebanese Shiite diaspora, who are mesmerized by the mirage of becoming a hero on the battle front. It’s yet another tool meant to influence and shape young minds who now will ingest and internalize the idea that Sunnis are the enemy, just as generations were raised to think of Israel as the source of all evil.
Videogames and Military Recruitment
Enticing military recruits by using videogames is nothing new. Hezbollah itself launched several. The first videogame, Quds Kid, was released in 2000. After the Israeli Defense Forces withdrew from Israel in 2000, another videogame, Special Force I, followed. The third one, Special Force II, was based on the 2006 war with Israel.
Even regular armed forces like the US Army flirted with the idea of using videogames for attracting more young recruits by exposing them to the “coolness of fighting”. In mid 2010, an Army Experience Center that cost some $12 million, a gaming and virtual reality complex that sought to introduce young people to the Army via violent video games, closed down. The center was located in Northeast Philadelphia’s sprawling Franklin Mills Mall.
Inaugurated in 2008, the center has become a hangout area for teens and preteens who played Halo or Madden, or piloted Apache and Black Hawk helicopters on combat simulators. During the two years it functioned, the center increased the recruitment rate by 15 percent.
However, it was met with relentless protests from anti war activists and parents who accused the Army of luring children into enlisting by showing them the excitement of battle.
Videogames have also become part of the Islamic State’s marketing machine. At the end of 2014, a new videogame forged within the caliphate emerged online. It was a modified version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004). The ISIS production was called Grand Theft Auto: Salil al Sawarem (Sword Clash) and its rebel fighter main character attacks the police and the army clad in a black bandana, a loose black shirt, and camouflage trousers.
This might seem a joke to some gamers, but it just might be significant that ISIS militants are gamers and find inspiration in the productions, making them an effective recruiting tool.
‘Jihadi John,’ the man who decapitated James Foley with a knife on camera and produced a movie that horrified the world, was identified as Kuwait born and British educated Mohammad Emwazi. He was a keen video game player and a martial arts practitioner. In a chilling twist, in a school yearbook from when he was 10, Emwazi lists his favorite computer game as Duke Nukem: Time To Kill and his favorite book as How To Kill A Monster, from the popular children's Goosebumps series.
Baghdadi’s caliphate welcomed and even used video games to attract more militants, cultivating and exploiting a coolness factor the same way the fashion industry does, replete with models and actors and high production value. “The Bulldozer,” an ISIS executioner in Iraq, was very popular on jihadist websites due to his size and strength. The fact that he maimed children in public seemed not to affect his stardom.
During the war between the Islamic State and the Iran backed Shiite militias in Iraq, social media drowned in gore videos of torture, executions, and even fighters mutilating bodies. They were not coming only from the Islamic State militants, but also from the Shiite militiamen let loose to torture or behead Sunnis on camera, on occasion even shooting children accused of being “ISIS supporters.”
Hezbollah, however, is another matter. It did not forge its propaganda on the battlefield, but in very well equipped studios that hire well educated Lebanese Shiites taught to blindly believe in the party line. For Hezbollah releasing a new videogame to praise its heroes is not for immediate purposes like in the case of the Islamic State. For the Party of God it is but a very small party of a better organized, long term strategy to shape a Shiite society under its rule.
Building Hezbollah’s Utopia
Hezbollah has the Imam al Mahdi Scouts just like the Soviet Union had the pioneers and the Komsomol. The Shiite Islamic fundamentalism guiding Hezbollah and communism might be light years apart, but the methods of implementing their ideas are quite similar. The Soviet Communist Party wanted new generations of young people who swore blind allegiance to the communist state and who would never question the state.
Hezbollah wants its youth to scribble Hassan Nasrallah’s name on pieces of paper as they’re waiting for new orders on the front, instead of thinking of the girl they have a crush on. Just like Ahmad, the character in the videogame.
Since 1983, with help from Iran, the Party of God has raised generations and generations of children and trained them to become soldiers ready to fight Israel when the party calls.
If Hezbollah’s is listed as a terrorist organization by the US, Israel and some other countries, in Lebanon it has grown into one of the largest and strongest political parties that dominates the government together with its political allies, the Free Patriotic Movement and Amal Movement.
Using its military and security apparatus to keep outsiders away from its controlled areas, Hezbollah established itself as a state within a state, with its own welfare and social care system tied to political and military allegiance. It also has its own telecommunications network that works when the national operators are scrambled.
But most importantly, it built its own educations system, the Imam al Mahdi schools and established the Imam al Mahdi Scouts organization, where children and teens from 4 to 17 would learn about religion, gender roles in society. But they are also told that there is no higher aspiration in life than sacrificing themselves on the frontlines for Hezbollah’s cause, the fight against Israel.
At Ashura rallies organized by Hezbollah in the regions it controls, children carry flags and chant “Death to Israel”, many times wearing military fatigues.
Sometimes, teens die on the front too.
In April 2015, Mashhur Fahd Shamseddine died doing “his jihadist duty.” Al-Manar aired his picture, the picture of a teen aged 14 or15, saying that “Hezbollah bid farewell to the mujahid martyr.” Al Araby al Jadeed reported at the time that the teenager was killed in an Israeli raid on Hezbollah positions in the Qalamoun area.
Shamsedine was not the only teen killed as Hezbollah was fighting on the Syrian front. A newly built Mausoleum for Syrian in the Southern Suburbs of Beirut houses some 200 graves. Hezbollah has never disclosed how many fighters it lost on the fronts in Syria, but estimations go as far as 1,200. Many were young men from Shiite village who left behind families who now say they are proud of their sacrifice and who get allowances and other perks from the Party of God.
Getting into Hezbollah’s military ranks was not easy before the group got involved in the Syrian war. Children get recruited and start training at very young ages—typically at around 10 to 13 years old, when they join the Imam al Mahdi Scouts. Later, when the scouts are 16 or 17, they can join the party’s military ranks or opt to continue their education.
The Imam al Mahdi Scouts were founded in 1985 and are registered with the Lebanese Ministry of Education. The organization includes children from four to 17 years of age, split into Cubs, Scouts and Rangers. Besides outdoor activities and charity work, the Imam al Mahdi Scouts also teach the young to be good Muslims, to volunteer at local mosques, and to defend Lebanon against Israel.
In a monthly Mahdi magazine from January 2018 for children between 8 and 12, Hezbollah published a naïve drawing of a child standing on top of a tank holding the Hezbollah flag in Qana, Southern Lebanon to mark the anniversary of the attack in 1986.
Moreover, the magazine dedicated to children between 13 and 17 features, among scientific and religious articles, pictures and stories of young fighters who died doing their “jihadist duty”.
The comics are mostly war stories about Hezbollah fighters battling Israeli forces. Practically all role models for boys are war heroes who lost their lives or sacrificed limbs and friends fighting for the Islamic Resistance.
It’s with stories like this that teenagers in the best schools in Dahieh and South Lebanon are enticed to join Hezbollah’s military ranks. Children attending the best schools in the southern suburbs of Beirut frequently go on trips to Hezbollah museums and camps. They watch presentations about weaponry and are told stories of heroes of the Resistance and how they lived in tunnels to defend Lebanon of the Israeli occupation.
Shaping a New Narrative to Justify the War against Sunnis in Syria
Going from the Islamic Resistance that fights against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon to the Shiite militia fighting against fellow Muslims in Syria and sending people to Iraq to train other Iran Backed Shiite militia was a hard switch for Hezbollah.
The Party of God did not even admit that it had fighters on the Syrian front for the most part of 2011 and 2012. However, Shiites in villages in South Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley reported secret burials.
But in October 2012, the death of a high ranking commander who had played an important role in the 2006 war against Israel revealed more than the party officials wanted to. Abu Abbas’ death could not be ignored and, after paving the village and lining it with yellow flags, even Sheikh Mohammad Yazbeck went to the village next to Baalbek to hold the sermon in his honor.
It was about the time Hezbollah started mentioning taqfiris, intolerant Muslims accusing other Muslims of apostasy, in relation with Islamist movements in Syria and also rising Salafist discourse in Lebanon, mostly in support of the Syrian uprising.
But it was not enough for people to validate the group’s involvement in the Syrian war. The conflict has no relations to Hezbollah’s fight against Israel constructed around the idea of defending South Lebanon of military aggression and occupation.
Hezbollah’s line was that the war in Syria was about Sunni extremists rebelling against a political regime that had backed Hezbollah, ensuring it a free highway to Iran and fostering some military bases on Syrian territory. But still, it was no life and death matter to justify a full military involvement.
With some fighters losing their lives in Syria and buried at home, people were already starting to ask questions that Hezbollah was not yet ready to answer. At first Hassan Nasrallah vowed that Hezbollah, as an organization, was not involved in Syria. Then he explained that Lebanese Shiites from villages in the Bekaa Valley, who also happened to be Hezbollah fighters, had crossed the border to defend villages from Syrian rebel brigades.
Soon enough the narrative of defending Shiite shrines and Shiite villages in Syria from taqfiris merged with the anti Israeli narrative: the emergence of Daesh, Nusra Front and other Salafist brigades was blamed on Israeli interference and sponsorship. Suddenly, in Hezbollah’s world, the Sunni rebels in Syrian were Israel’s minions trying to wipe out any Shiite influence in the Middle East, therefore also in Lebanon.
Whether this was an intended outcome or it was just chance, this wouldn’t have worked without the strong foundations of educating generations and generation not only to see Israel as the source of all evil, but also to obey the party without question. If the party says Israel is behind the Syrian uprising, the party is always right.
Meanwhile, Syrian refugees were pouring into Lebanon, Sunni Salafist sheikhs in Tripoli and Sidon gained popularity by speaking against Hezbollah’s alliance with the government in Damascus capitalizing on the divisions among the moderate political leadership in the Sunni community and Saad Hariri’s exile.
The fear and anger between common Sunnis and Shiites started to transcend the political sphere. While covering the fighting between the Sunni fighters in Bab el Tabbeneh and Alawites in Jabal Mohsen, I went to Tripoli to speak to community leader. The driver of the cab that took me to Bab el Tabbaneh happened to be a young Shiite from the southern suburbs of Beirut. He did not disclose his religious background until he sighed with relief on the way back to Beirut. In the 7 hours we spent in Tripoli, he had never left the car for fear that someone might realize he was Shiite and might attack him.
Hezbollah’s presence in Syria triggered a deterioration in security in Lebanon in 2013, with Hezbollah controlled neighborhoods becoming targets for suicide bombers.
While Hezbollah’s people were fighting in Qusair and training Shiite militias in Iraq and Yemen, civilians died in Lebanese areas inhabited by Shiite civilians. In November 2015, 47 people were killed in a twin suicide bombing in Bourj al Barajneh, the deadliest blast since the civil war.
Between 2012 and 2016, over 38 explosions shook Lebanon leaving over 200 people dead. Many of them were deemed martyrs, but they were, in fact, just victims. But in the Party of God’s narrative there was never any room for showing suffering, despair, pain, fear of death or defeat. Hezbollah’s heroes are always victorious, glory and dignity can only be found by defeating an enemy in war. It’s all about the holy defense.
For them, Hezbollah will never release a videogame. Only soldiers are worthy of being remembered. For now with a videogame and 200 graves in a mausoleum.