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Hezbollah's secret weapon

By Henry Schuster

Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.

Sheik Omar Bakri says the Israel-Hezbollah conflict is not his fight.


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Tracking Terror

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- Malikah Sroor can tell you what makes Hezbollah so powerful within Lebanon's Shiite community.

The Israel-Hezbollah conflict has displaced Sroor and her family from their neighborhood near Beirut's airport.

In her old neighborhood, Hezbollah did everything that a government should do, from collecting the garbage to running hospitals and repairing schools.

Her daughter Zeinab gets half her schooling paid for by Hezbollah. Party members come and make repairs at the school when something breaks, she said.

"Hezbollah is doing all the things for the people. I don't know where the government is," said Sroor.

While Israeli bombs have destroyed much in south Beirut, which is the capital of Hezbollah's de facto state within a state, Hezbollah's ability to provide for its constituents remains intact.

Even now, when there is no running water, Hezbollah is arranging supplies all around the city. When we arrived, Malikah's sister had just returned from picking up cans of water at a Hezbollah water station, and the family was making tea.

At a school in a Christian neighborhood where refugees have found shelter, A CNN crew found Hezbollah members have moved in and were organizing relief efforts.

People here see Hezbollah as a political movement and a social service provider as much as it is a militia that delivers the goods for its followers, in this traditionally poor and dispossessed Shiite community.

Zeinab is ready to become part of Hezbollah's next generation.

"I hope that when I be big and grow up, I want to be a doctor for Hezbollah. If someone is hurt, has a hurt in his hand, I will help him," Zeinab said. That is Hezbollah's strength.

The United States and Israel considers it a terrorist group.

Filling the void

"Hezbollah has managed to fill the void left by the state. Hezbollah managed to fill the void left by the military," said Dr. Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, who has written a book about the organization's politics and ideology.

What happens following the current conflict may be a repeat of 1996, said former U.N. peacekeeper Timur Goksel.

Immediately after an Israeli campaign that year destroyed many areas in the south, Hezbollah sent out young men wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Jihad Construction Company," Goksel said.

"They load their trucks with windows and all kinds of construction gear, with these young guys wearing their Jihad T-shirts. They will go from house to house and offer 'do you want us to fix your windows, do you want us to fix your doors?' "

These efforts made the social contract between Hezbollah and its followers strong, said Goksel.

It would be a mistake, however, to think this is the main reason why Hezbollah's followers are attracted to it, said Saad-Ghorayeb.

The message of resistance against Israel is what strikes the greatest resonance between Hezbollah and its supporters, she said.

Malikah and Zeinab agree.

"I like them [Hezbollah] more when they kill Israel from our land," said 10-year-old Zeinab.

Bakri: 'Not my war to fight'

A different take comes from a man who is one of the highest profile would-be refugees from Lebanon.

The last time we had seen Sheik Omar Bakri was a year ago in Britain, shortly after the London bombings, when he managed to enrage the British public, government and media by refusing to condemn the suicide bombers.

"SEND HIM BAK," screamed one tabloid headline, noting that Bakri had been in the United Kingdom for more than two decades and spent part of that time getting public assistance from the British government.

He left Britain for his native Lebanon a few weeks later, worried that new British anti-terrorism laws could land him in prison or lead to his deportation.

Bakri was the leader of a group, al Muhajiroun, which the British Home Office had branded as extremist. The British Home Office has tied the group to two suicide bombers who attacked an Israeli nightclub in 2003.

Bakri claims he is retired and has been since he disbanded al Muhajiroun in 2004, but some of those monitoring him said he continues to be active, reaching out to his followers in the United Kingdom via Internet on a regular basis.

When we meet him at a café in the hills near Beirut, Bakri is on the run again, this time from the Israeli air assault. He'd moved here from his family's home in the south.

"My family start to become concerned it's not enough distress you face because the area you live in is on the step to war," says Bakri "and your family keep calling you and you become extra stressed, so I decided to leave."

Bakri's wife, who lives in London, appealed to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to allow her husband to return, or at least get on a British ship to evacuate -- and that set off a new round of tabloid fury.

No way, said the British government.

Bakri is a firm believer in an Islamic caliphate, a Muslim state, stretching over much of the world. Spiritually and ideologically, he has much in common with Osama bin Laden.

In his belief system, true Muslims are Sunni. When I press him about the Shiites in Hezbollah, he said, "Anyone can call himself something. I can call myself the prime minister, but that doesn't make me a prime minister."

This fight between Israel and Hezbollah isn't his fight or that of the jihadis he claims as his spiritual comrades, he said.

"It's not my war to fight on behalf of Iran or Syria or Israel or America or any foolish country or manmade law," said Bakri.

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