(CNSNews.com) - The Iranian-created and funded organization at the center of the unfolding conflict between Israel and Lebanon is considered one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world, responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other group apart from al-Qaeda.
Since its establishment in the early 1980s, the Hizballah has carried out a proxy war on behalf of Iran and Syria against Israel, focusing on South Lebanon but also targeting Israeli and Jewish institutions in Europe, Latin America and Asia.
The Shi'ite group's involvement in terror attacks against Americans has been deadly too. The group brought the Islamist strategy of suicide bombing to the world's attention in 1983, when it killed more than 350 people, including 241 U.S. servicemen and 58 French troops, in a series of attacks in Beirut.
It has also long been associated with kidnapping of Western hostages in Lebanon, including a U.S. Marine Corps colonel and a CIA station chief, both subsequently killed by their captors. Five Israeli soldiers who were captured or disappeared in or near Lebanon between 1982 and 1997 remain missing in action, with suspected involvement of Hizballah or allied groups.
Hizballah was also responsible for another hostage situation targeting Americans - the June 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner during an Athens-Rome flight. The terrorists diverted the plane to Lebanon with its 153 passengers and crew, and murdered U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem, dumping his body onto the Beirut runway.
Hizballah claims as its greatest success forcing Israel's decision in 2000 to withdraw its troops from a narrow buffer zone it had maintained in southern Lebanon for 18 years.
Since the Israeli departure, the group has focused more attention on political activities while continuing attacks against Israel and refusing to disarm, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution requirement that it do. The Lebanese government has been powerless or unwilling to enforce the resolution.
In elections last year Hizballah won 14 seats in Lebanon's 128-member parliament. Along with its Shi'ite ally Amal, which won 15 seats, it's regarded by many Lebanese as the legitimate representative of the country's largest religious community.
The U.S. declared Hizballah a terrorist group long before 9/11, while Canada did in 2002 and Britain and Australia have both banned the Hizballah "External Security Organization."
As in the case with Hamas in Gaza, Hizballah and its backers have been fighting a propaganda campaign aimed at drawing a distinction between its military and political "wings."
The drive has been particularly successful in Europe, where many countries have refused to place Hizballah in its entirety on an E.U. terror list, arguing that the organization conducts political and social welfare activities too.
The Netherlands government was a notable exception, saying in a 2004 intelligence assessment that its investigation found the group's political and terrorist functions to be controlled by a single co-ordinating council.
"The Netherlands has changed its policy and no longer makes a distinction between the political and terrorist Hizballah branches," it said.
Other attacks researchers have attributed to Hizballah include a series of bombings in Paris in 1986, which killed 13; an unsuccessful attempt to carry out attacks in Cyprus in 1988; a plot, foiled by Spanish police, to carry out attacks against Jewish targets in Europe in 1989; an unsuccessful attempt to detonate a car bomb outside a Jewish community building in Romania in 1992; the bombing of a small passenger plane carrying 18 passengers in Panama in 1994; and a planned 1996 attack, also foiled by police, on an Israeli institution in Paris.
Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in 2002 called Hizballah a member of the international terrorist "A-team."
One of the FBI's most wanted men is Imad Fayez Mugniyah, the head of Hizballah's security apparatus since its inception.
He has been linked to the 1983 Beirut bombings, the kidnapping and torture of hostages, the death of Stethem in the TWA hijacking, the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina in the early 1990s, at the cost of 114 lives, and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen.
A number of reports over the years have dealt with Mugniyah's intimate links with Iran, and especially with its Revolutionary Guard, whose former senior members - including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - now dominate Iran's government.
Last January, American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Ledeen reported that Mugniyah was believed to be among Hizballah figures present at a meeting in Damascus with Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Western security specialists regarded that meeting as a reaffirmation of a longstanding Iran-Syria-Hizballah terrorist alliance.
The Israeli government said Thursday the fingerprints of Iran and Syria were all over this week's events in Lebanon and northern Israel, triggered when Hizballah crossed into Israeli territory, killed eight Israeli soldiers and abducted two others.
Iran and Syria are also backers of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, whose kidnapping of an Israeli soldier last month sparked the continuing crisis in Gaza.
A number of political analysts have attributed the widening conflict to Iran's concerns about the growing international pressure on its nuclear programs.
Ledeen does not believe Iran is driven by worry over a nuclear showdown, however.
"A U.N. debate serves Iran's interest," he wrote in the National Review Online Thursday.
"It deflects attention from our growing awareness of Iran's centrality in Iraq, and the urgency of going after the regimes in Tehran and Damascus. That is where Iran's doom lies, not in the endless charade about the nukes."
Ledeen argued that Iran was the "common prime mover" behind the war now running from Gaza to Israel, through Lebanon and to Iraq via Syria.
"Iran has been at war with us all along, because that's what the world's leading terror state does. The scariest thing about this moment is that the Iranians have convinced themselves that they are winning, and we are powerless to reverse the tide."
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