The Treasury Department designated Hezbollah security chief Wafiq Safa on Tuesday, along with two Hezbollah members of parliament. Safa’s activities epitomize Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanese state institutions, illustrating that the supposed distinction between the two is fictional.
Treasury’s announcement of the sanctions identified Safa as “the head of Hezbollah’s security apparatus” and “part of Hizballah Secretary General Nasrallah’s inner circle.” It went on to say that Safa is “responsible for Hizballah’s coordination with the international community and with Lebanese security agencies.” While true, this description greatly understates his influence.
Safa, who reportedly played a role in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, is now the central figure in Lebanese politics and security. As head of Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit, Safa is Nasrallah’s troubleshooter. He manages Hezbollah’s relationship with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. All of Lebanon’s political barons meet and coordinate regularly with Safa, in recognition of his key position and stature in the Lebanese system.
This includes government ministers. In 2014, for example, then-Minister of the Interior Nouhad al-Machnouk invited Safa to join a senior-level meeting of security officials at the ministry, to discuss the situation on the northeastern border with Syria. The meeting exemplified the ongoing synergy between Hezbollah, the official security agencies, and the Armed Forces. It also reflected Safa’s routine – even obligatory – input, facilitation, and direct involvement in state security operations.
Safa has also met with current Minister of the Interior Raya al-Hassan. Any visit by the minister, or indeed any security official, to Hezbollah-controlled areas such as Beirut’s southern suburbs involves coordination with Safa. The same goes for any policy measures concerning these areas.
But most notable is Safa’s relationship with the head of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate, Abbas Ibrahim. In many ways, Ibrahim, who is close to Hezbollah, is Safa’s counterpart inside the state’s security agencies. Ibrahim is the official troubleshooter, a function he performs hand-in-hand with Safa – a partnership that embodies the synergy between Hezbollah and the state.
In 2017, Ibrahim handled negotiations on behalf of Hezbollah for the return of its abducted fighters in Syria, and he and Safa greeted the returnees at the border together. In fact, the two regularly appear together, including at official events. In April, Ibrahim dedicated a new General Security branch in the southern town of Qana, where the directorate’s personnel paraded under a poster of Ibrahim and Nasrallah that read, “Together, for security and the resistance.” Seated next to Ibrahim at the dedication was Safa.
According to a former senior US government official who spoke to the author, Wafiq Safa is believed to have organized the 2015 kidnapping of five Czech citizens in Lebanon, designed to pressure the Czech government into releasing Lebanese arms procurer Ali Fayad. While Safa orchestrated the abduction, Ibrahim handled the negotiations. The Lebanese state, in other words, serves as the diplomatic and collections arm of Hezbollah.
Lebanese Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, who regularly coordinates with Safa, described his role well: “He decides what the army and security forces can do.” For that reason, Safa’s designation raises serious questions about the continuation of U.S. security assistance to Lebanon. More broadly, his designation should signal the rejection of a resilient Washington myth: that Hezbollah and the Lebanese state are distinct. They are not. To strengthen the Lebanese state is to strengthen Hezbollah.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AcrossTheBay. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.