Response to Ali Kourani’s Critique of my Newsweek Piece on Hezbollah

Hezbollah admirer and partisan commentator Ali Kourani recently wrote a Medium post critiquing my Newsweek piece on Hezbollah, which was published with accompanying video from a trip I took into Syria with Hezbollah fighters. This is my response to each point he brings up in the post.

Anderson cobbled together a somewhat bizarre video that demonstrates, at best, she may have been duped into believing those she interviewed are Hezbollah fighters and commanders, or at worst, she is willfully misleading both her Newsweek editors and audience…The video was shot on the outskirts of the regime-controlled part of the Palestinian al-Yarmouk camp…since when do Hezbollah commanders wear caps with Fatah al-Intifada’s logos on them?

First, and I must be clear about this: Not once in the video or the piece did I state that the Palestinian militants in Yarmouk were Hezbollah. They were trained by Hezbollah. To imagine that I made such a claim, one would have to assume that either A) I don’t know the difference between Palestinian militants and Hezbollah fighters, which doesn’t seem logical when you consider that I’ve spent six years working in the Middle East and regularly report on this group or B) I nefariously tried to pass them off as Hezbollah, which would have been particularly stupid, as anyone with basic knowledge of this conflict would be able to tell the difference between those men and Hezbollah fighters. I tried to request that it be clarified in the video that Hezbollah helped train these Palestinians and they were not actually Hezbollah. I had no control over whether my request would be considered or not.

Let us assume, for the benefit of the doubt, that Anderson does not read or understand Arabic, and the same applies to her editors, surely all of them would have noticed the Palestinian flag in the video?

I don’t read Arabic, but speak conversational Levantine Arabic almost fluently, as my mother is Lebanese and I have spent about one third of my life in the country. Regardless, I know the insignias at Yarmouk were not that of Hezbollah and never claimed that they were.

PFLP-GC sources have since confirmed to me that Anderson was unable to enter the camp, but was escorted, with her cameraman and fixer, to the outskirts by Fatah al-Intifada. There was no mention of Hezbollah members.

I’d love to know more about Kourani’s “sources” in Yarmouk. Interesting that they said I wasn’t allowed to enter the camp, because I did enter, as demonstrated by this screenshot of one of the men I interviewed. We were just 300 meters away from ISIS positions.

One is therefore left to believe that Kourani’s “sources” are either uninformed or were lying to him, particularly about the claim that I showed up there with just my fixer and cameraman and no one from Hezbollah, which I’ll return to shortly.

The video starts with eight seconds of what appears to be an assault on a military position, with four men apparently leading the assault. Although several close gunshots from an automatic rifle could be heard, none of the fighters in the video are assuming actual firing positions, nor are any of them seen firing at anything. The gunshots sound effect with the accompanying dramatic music were clearly later added to the video, possibly as an attempt to give the audience the impression this is an active frontline. Yet the place where this was shot…is not a direct combat zone, nor were there any clashes ongoing there at the date of shooting the video.

The “fake footage” of Hezbollah fighters taking part in an operation in Syria was provided to me by one of the men I interviewed, a Hezbollah division leader. In order to believe Kourani, you’d have to imagine that Newsweek would pay several people to stage this elaborate scene, with real weapons, inside Syria itself. It would be nice if magazines had that kind of money. I think I would be paid more if that were the case. The sound of weapons being fired was not added in, though the music was. It makes sense that there would be the sound of gunfire, since everyone in the video was carrying guns. And the video was not taken recently, so how does Kourani know that area was never a conflict zone? He never mentions where he believes this was shot, or how he would pinpoint the location from a short clip of fighters in a nondescript structure. The video he included that supposedly proves this point is unavailable. I invite him to share his knowledge so we understand his certainty.

The first ‘commander’ interviewed speaks with a Syrian accent and has no issue revealing his face. Hezbollah is a Lebanese outfit, and is renown for being highly secretive. It seems the second and third ‘commanders’ are aware of the role they are supposed to play, and refuse to show their faces…Maybe these commanders are confused about the strict regulations of the party they belong to?

The first fighter who speaks in the video has a Syrian accent because he is a member of Hezbollah’s Syrian Division, Hezbollah fi Suriya. The second fighter who speaks has a Lebanese accent and is standing in front of a giant missile just south of Damascus. Who, pray, would he be other than a Hezbollah fighter? If he isn’t a member of Hezbollah, how did he manage to get there? Where did he procure his fatigues, the same kind worn in this Getty photo of Hezbollah fighters?

Did he teleport into Syria just to act in my video? His face is hidden because as Kourani points out, Hezbollah is a secretive organization that doesn’t allow its members to speak to the press. In fact, Kourani writes, “Maybe these commanders are confused about the strict regulations of the party they belong to?” Which indicates he is aware that two of the men in my video are in fact members of Hezbollah and is simply searching for ways to discredit me. I also never claimed that those two men were commanders. The commanders I interviewed for the print portion of the piece were in Dahieh, as I explicitly state in the article. The man next to the missile is a rank-and-file fighter and the other Hezbollah member I interviewed on camera is a division leader.

Attention should also be paid to the translations accompanying the video; they are sloppily done and riddled with mistakes.

I did not translate or edit the video, so let’s leave that aside.

Next is the clothing. From the eagle-eyed online Hezbollah observer to the intrepid reporter who covers every movement made by the party, to party supporters themselves, they are all familiar with and well versed on the fatigues and the uniform by which Hezbollah fighters have to adhere to, according to party regulation. Therefore, Anderson, who claims to be familiar with the party and its commanders, should have noticed when the fighters accompanying her to this ‘frontline’ showed up wearing sneakers, colored T-shirts and shiny accessories.

As mentioned above, if Kourani knows anything about Hezbollah, he’ll know that the fighter in front of the missile was wearing fatigues used by Hezbollah. I made certain to avoid any shots of the men who took me into the country — the same men Kourani claims were “loitering in the background” — so I’m not sure what he’s talking about there. Regardless, the men who took me weren’t in uniform as they weren’t on active duty.

Then there is the question of how Anderson entered into Syria — accompanied by her cameraman and fixer — in the first place…Sources in Damascus have told me they have no record of Anderson receiving a visa to report from inside Syria. This implies Anderson and her team were illegally smuggled across the border into Syria then back into Lebanon.

My immediate question for Kourani is this: how does he think I entered the country and passed every checkpoint without being accompanied by Hezbollah fighters? Here’s a video clip of me driving through a regime checkpoint.

Does Kourani actually believe that the Syrian army, famed for their brutal thoroughness, allowed me through because of my winning smile and sparkling personality? Did I fly into Syria on a magic carpet? This is by far the biggest hole in Kourani’s post. How does he think I accessed the country — with the help of my fixer and some Palestinian militants? We wouldn’t have made it past the first checkpoint. Judging by his rant about the illegality of my entrance, he is more concerned with my bypassing of the visa process than the quality of my access. Journalists are often smuggled into countries illegally. It’s how we manage to produce work that isn’t controlled by state media. If I had entered with a visa, I’d have regime minders monitoring my every move. I wouldn’t be able to write anything of substance that doesn’t pander to Assad’s government. So I chose to enter illegally, at no small risk to myself. I’d like to know the last time Ali Kourani risked his life for his job, or in support of Hezbollah, for that matter.

During the first few seconds of her video, Anderson tells us “Hezbollah has been fighting in the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad since 2013”. Yet in the second paragraph of her article, she informs us that “Since 2012, Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite organization, has been fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against rebel and extremist groups”. 2012, or 2013? Should we believe Video Newsweek or Article Newsweek?

Hezbollah has been openly fighting in the Syrian war on the side of Bashar al-Assad since Nasrallah’s announcement in 2013, but was militarily active in the country since 2012. That is common knowledge. For a self-professed “eagle-eyed online Hezbollah observer,” Kourani doesn’t seem to be very informed.

Anderson also tells us U.S. airstrikes prompted “Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, to warn of retaliatory strikes if America continues to infringe upon the territory it holds in the country.” This is completely incorrect…Nasrallah never warned of any “retaliatory strikes” against the U.S. The citation she uses comes from the Lebanese website NaharNet from June 7th (Nasrallah had spoken on the 25th of May, 14 days prior to the airstrike and cited article, and on the 24th of June, 17 days after the cited article Anderson is basing her claim on) which in turn copied the story from AP, claiming “Hizbullah-Linked Media Threaten Strikes on U.S. in Syria over ‘Red Lines’

This is one of three minor points I concede have merit. Like the others, it was simple human error — I confused two links, that of Nasrallah’s speech and the one describing Hezbollah media threatening retaliatory strikes. A correction has already been issued.

Anderson then informs us that one of the Hezbollah commanders she interviewed bears the rank of “Lieutenant”. There is no lieutenant ranking in Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not a conventional army, and these ranks with their military significances do not exist among its troops.

In my original draft, I clarified that this man had the approximate rank of lieutenant. Hezbollah does not have that rank, as I well know, but this man was just below a commander and acted as his right-hand man, so I used that term — with the clarification that Hezbollah has no such rank. That did not make it into the final version.

This ‘lieutenant’ claims, “Hezbollah now has weapons that we never dreamed of. When Syria was at peace, we could never have had access to such weaponry, especially at these low prices.” This suggests Hezbollah actually pays for its weaponry. One would expect a Hezbollah commander to at least know everything the group owns comes in the form of aid directly from Iran and Syria — nor is this a secret. Hezbollah doesn’t own profitable businesses that enable it to buy any weaponry.

Hezbollah receives much aid from Iran and Syria, but it also purchases weaponry — parts and technology for surveillance drones, for instance, as cited in this Atlantic piece. And the idea that Hezbollah doesn’t own profitable businesses that allow it to buy weapons is laughable. Hezbollah’s financial network is complex and widespread. It receives donations from party members across the globe. Recent U.S.-led financial legislation against the group targeted banks that do a very profitable business with Hezbollah. The group can afford to buy whichever weapons they want, and sometimes do when they’re not being gifted with them by Iran.

Quite bizarrely, both Anderson and the Newsweek editors seem to think Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, is the Israeli capital.

I didn’t write that in my draft. I know Jerusalem is contested territory and would never cite it as the capital of Israel.

In the same paragraph, Anderson tells us “Hezbollah’s casualties ranged from 49 to 300” during the 2006 July War. The first number comes from a cited BBC article on the 25th of July, only 13 days into the war. How is Anderson using an article written 20 days before the end of the war to give a total estimate of Hezbollah’s causalities? More ridiculously, the article doesn’t even mention the number 49 once, instead, the article says, “Hezbollah said 27 of its fighters had been killed as of Monday”. The second number, 300, uses this link as a citation, which takes you to a 404 error page on The Australian.

This was another error with links that somehow made it through edits. It has been fixed and a correction issued.

Anderson quotes an alleged fighter saying: “Especially after the experience we’ve gained in Syria. A boy who was 18 years old and went to fight in Syria — now, he is 25.” Hezbollah went to Syria in 2013, unless Anderson and her editors believe Hezbollah fighters age quicker than your average human being, this fighter should be 22 now.

As Kourani notes, I was quoting someone. I couldn’t change the quote, even if the math didn’t add up. I think the gist of what he was saying came across regardless.

But perhaps the most farcical quotes come from this “older commander in Dahieh”: “Everybody is going to fight. Women and children will pick up knives…” This ‘commander’ is aware this isn’t the West Bank, correct?

Again, I was quoting someone, whom I can only assume was saying that for dramatic emphasis. Kourani’s problem with this seems to be entirely subjective.

The ‘commander’ continues: “We were keeping our Borkan-1 missiles as a secret weapon to use against the Israelis, but then we had to use them in Syria, and now the Israelis know we have them”…The Burkan-1, with a range of more than 800 km, was not designed by Hezbollah, nor has it been used in Syria by any groups, to date…What Hezbollah developed and uses in Syria is the Burkan Dwarf Missile (known as the Burkan), first used in Qusayr and Qalamoun battles, which the Syrian Arab Army now uses too.

This was the last error that made it past edits. It has been corrected.

Anderson also alludes to “The tension on the Lebanese side of the Israeli border is palpable, as it has been for years”. This is also highly inaccurate…Personally, I live on the Lebanese side of the border and there is no such tension. Farmers are going to their fields on a daily basis just meters away from the Blue Line, and there is definitely no “new note of urgency here”. This is the definition of false hysteria being propagated by a sensationalist journalist.

I’ve been interviewing Hezbollah members and fighters for four years. Since it’s been established above that 90% of Kourani’s gripes are baseless, I think it’s clear that I don’t invent sources. I don’t doubt that farmers are still working near the border. The Lebanese, particularly those in the south, are accustomed to living with the threat of conflict, which is very real considering their homes border a country with which they are at war. But every single Hezbollah member I’ve interviewed has alluded to growing tension with Israel. U.S. intelligence sources have since confirmed to me the increasing possibility of conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. So my only explanation for why Ali Kourani would have missed this tension is that he doesn’t really know very many people in Hezbollah, at least not enough for them to confide in him. I suggest he find more productive ways to spend his time than trying to discredit people with more experience and knowledge in this area, who are not biased partisan supporters of a political party and militia.

Newsweek seems to have removed the video from Anderson’s accompanying article without any comments explaining why.

This is a blatant lie. Newsweek did not remove my video, as you can see in the story if you scroll down the page. Kourani is either being purposefully dishonest or suffers from a degenerative disease that renders him unable to navigate a simple website.

Corrections issued:

1. The story originally stated that Hassan Nasrallah threatened retaliatory strikes against America in a speech. It was Hezbollah media that threatened retaliatory strikes.

2. The story originally stated that Hezbollah claimed 49 casualties during the 2006 war with Israel. Hezbollah provided no official estimate of its casualties. Lebanon’s Higher Relief Council estimated that 68 Hezbollah fighters died in the war and Israel claimed that it killed 500–600.

3. The story originally stated that a Hezbollah commander spoke of the group’s Burkan-1 missiles. He was likely referring to the Burkan Dwarf Missile.