Who is Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the man who leads Hezbollah, who controls what some have called the world's best irregular army, who has moved Hezbollah from a purely terrorist organization to a Lebanese political party with two seats in the nation's cabinet?
What he may be is the next generation of Shiite leaders -- a man capable of leading a state within a state, a transitional figure between Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei, and Moqtada al Sadr, the leader of Baghdad's three milliion Shiites, and a man still capable of reminding Americans who first used car bombs against U.S. targets.
Nasrallah has been at this since 1992. He is well regarded by both the Syrian and Iranian governments. He is thought to oversee Hezbollah's operational activities in terms of both unleashing Imad Mugniyah (the Hezbollah leader responsible for the 1980s attacks on the Marine Barracks, the U.S. embassy and the kidnapping of Americans) and the Hezbollah Jihad Council. He oversees it and largely through Mugniyah, he affects things.
He has led Hezbollah to where it is today, and is largely responsible for the group's political successes.
As secretary general, he approves overall strategic direction for the entire party, both in terms of electoral strategy and terrorist activities. He is responsible for taking it from a primarily military/terrorist-oriented group to what it is now: a major political force in Lebanon. He consolidated its power using the social service network you see in operation today.
Nasrallah was born in Bourj Hammoud, in east Beirut in 1960, the eldest of nine children. A devout Shiite Muslim. He is married and had at least two children; one, a boy killed in 1997 in an operation in southern Lebanon against the Israelis. That loss has helped him gain credibility among the Hezbollah rank-and-file, particularly the military wing.
In 1975, his family was forced to return to their ancestral home in south Lebanon where he joined Amal, then a radical Shiite party. From south Lebanon he moved to Najaf, Iraq, and studied in a Shiite seminary there. With the buildup of tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the late 1970s, he was thrown out of Iraq and returned to Lebanon.
In 1982, he left Amal and helped form Hezbollah. In 1992, he was elected Secretary-General, getting re-elected to a third term in 2001. His bottom line position is as long as Israel exists, Lebanon needs a resistance.
He has been very very popular with Syria and Iran. This has done nothing to diminish his reputation -- creating a monster is an overstatement -- but it has burnished his image. He stood up to the Israelis and he survived!
Hezbollah has long launched attacks against Americans, but has not carried out a major attack in years. Khobar in 1996 is attributed to "elements of Hezbollah" rather than to the party itself, but they do have the capability. Does he have the charisma of Bin Laden? No, but he has more than he did three weeks ago.
Hezbollah has the capability to hit the United States at home or abroad -- though more likely to hit interests overseas -- if there was the perception of a significant threat from the U.S., or if Iran asks them to act. Hezbollah is effectively Iran's surrogate.
Iranian officials dispute that contention, saying that while it has influence over Hezbollah, it does not have control, adding that the U.S. does not understand that.