Secret U.S. War in Lebanon Is Tinder for Escalation of Israel–Gaza Conflict

Billions in security aid to Lebanon, along with off-the-books commandos, could embroil the U.S. in a regional conflagration.

Children lift Palestinian flags during a solidarity vigil organized by Lebanon's Press Photographers Syndicate and the Ajial Social Communication Center, at the Ramlet al-Bayda beach in Beirut on October 22, 2023 in memory of killed Lebanese Journalist Issam Abdallah and in support of Palestinians amid the the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images)
Palestinian flags are seen during a solidarity vigil with Gaza in Beirut on Oct. 22, 2023. Photo: Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images

The State Department urged U.S. citizens to leave Lebanon on Sunday “due to the unpredictable security situation.” The warning followed clashes between protesters and Lebanese security forces in a Beirut suburb near the U.S. Embassy after hundreds of Palestinians were killed last week in a blast at Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza. The unrest seems to confirm the fears of almost eight in 10 Americans that the war between Israel and Hamas will lead to a broader conflict in the Middle East.

But few Americans realize that the United States has long been embroiled in a wider war in Lebanon, and that U.S. forces may be a target there, as well. The U.S. has, over decades, poured billions of dollars in security assistance into Lebanon and conducted counterterrorism efforts against Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shia group with political and military wings. Lebanon’s dominant political and military force, Hezbollah has long been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S.

In the shadow of that conflict, the U.S. has waged another “secret war” in Lebanon against Sunni terror groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, according to a former four-star commander who oversaw the effort, declassified documents, former special operators with knowledge of the program, and analysts who have investigated U.S. Code Title 10 § 127e — known in military parlance as “127-echo” — which allows Special Operations forces to use foreign military units as proxies.

Attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East have already ramped up with drone strikes on American troops in multiple locations across Iraq and Syria, and drone and missile attacks from Yemen on a U.S. Navy destroyer in the northern Red Sea. Experts say that secrecy surrounding the 127e program in Lebanon, known as Lion Hunter, whose existence The Intercept revealed last year, could embroil the U.S. in a wider war in the Middle East and pose an additional threat to U.S. troops.

Neither Special Operations Command nor Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the greater Middle East, will comment on Lion Hunter and the number of U.S. troops who have been, and may still be, involved. But in a June “war powers” letter to Congress, President Joe Biden noted that “approximately 89 United States military personnel are deployed to Lebanon to enhance the government’s counterterrorism capabilities and to support the counterterrorism operations of Lebanese security forces.”

The Israeli–Palestinian conflict makes it all the more crucial that secret wars like the one carried out via the 127e program in Lebanon are subject to congressional oversight, said Katherine Yon Ebright, counsel in the Brennan Center’s liberty and national security program and author of the most comprehensive analysis of the 127e authority. “Already, we have seen U.S. forces in the region targeted over the United States’s political support for and arms transfers to Israel,” Ebright said. “Congress and the public must know where U.S. forces are deployed in the region and whether those forces are at risk of attack, particularly as Hezbollah in Lebanon contemplates joining the conflict against Israel.” 

View of the destruction and damage at the scene of the suicide bombing of the American Embassy, Beirut, Lebanon, April 18, 1983. (Photo by Peter Davis/Getty Images)

View of the destruction and damage at the scene of the suicide bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983.

Photo: Peter Davis/Getty Images

A $3 Billion Partnership

The U.S. military has a long and checkered history of engagement in Lebanon, including a 1958 intervention by U.S. Marines to forestall an insurrection there. In 1983, during a civil war that lasted 15 years, bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut killed more than 300 people. The United States blames Hezbollah for both attacks.

On Monday, during a speech to honor those killed in the barracks bombing 40 years before, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy C. Shea called out Hamas and Hezbollah for trying to “rob Lebanon and its people of their bright future,” saying that the U.S. and the Lebanese people “reject the threats of some to drag Lebanon into a new war.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog, meanwhile, has signaled a willingness to widen the current conflict. “I think Hezbollah is playing with fire,” he said. “And I want to make clear, we are not looking for a confrontation in our northern border … but if Hezbollah will drag us into war, it should be clear that Lebanon will pay the price.”

America has a long-standing relationship with the Lebanese Armed Forces, or LAF. In a country where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, the U.S. has provided more than $3 billion in military aid since 2006. “The United States is committed to a relationship that reinforces Lebanon’s security and stability,” said Lt. Col. Karen Roxberry, a Central Command spokesperson. “The Department of Defense provides training and security assistance to help support the LAF’s counterterrorism operations and border security.”

The U.S. routinely decries “Iran’s continuing arms transfers to Hezbollah,” even as it works to arm the LAF with sophisticated weaponry. The U.S. government has facilitated almost $2 billion in Lebanese purchases through the Foreign Military Sales program, including light attack aircraft, helicopters, and Hellfire missiles. Through another program, the U.S. provided 130 armored and tactical ground vehicles. From 2016 to 2021, the United States also authorized the export of more than $82 million in U.S. military equipment to Lebanon, including $12 million in “firearms and related articles.”

The State Department did not respond to detailed questions about the full extent of U.S. security assistance to Lebanon prior to publication.

More than 6,000 members of the LAF have received training in the United States since 1970, including 120 members in 2020. Under the 127e authority, the U.S. trained, armed, advised, and directed an elite unit known as the G2 Strike Force. “The U.S. supporting proxy forces in Lebanon is part of a decades-long, overly militarized policy towards the Middle East that has ignored the root causes of the region’s turmoil and struggles and not brought the peace or stability Americans have been promised,” said Seth Binder, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

The U.S. is ramping up its military presence in the Middle East, sending the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group and its roughly 7,500 sailors, along with the USS Bataan amphibious ready group, which consists of three ships carrying thousands of troops from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

“By posturing these U.S. naval assets and advanced fighter aircraft in the region, we aim to send a strong message intended to deter a wider conflict,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder on Thursday. Binder warned that it threatens to do the exact opposite. “The administration’s rush to move forces into the region in order to ‘bolster deterrence’ is a dangerous response that puts the United States at greater risk of what the majority of Americans are afraid of: a broader war.”

Masked men wearing bandanas showing the name and sigil of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement, take part in a demonstration supporting the Palestinians in Beirut on October 20, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo by Joseph EID / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images)

A demonstration supporting Palestinians in Beirut on Oct. 20, 2023.

Photo: Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images

Exempt From Vetting

Roxberry, the Central Command spokesperson, said that U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Lebanon are primarily aimed at Hezbollah. A formerly secret document obtained by The Intercept stops just short of revealing the target of the Lion Hunter program, noting only that its “activities serve to identify, isolate, and deny safe haven to [redacted].” Gen. Joseph Votel, who headed Special Operations Command from 2014 to 2016 and then Central Command until 2019, filled in the blank, noting that the effort was especially focused on Sunni extremist organizations, including the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and affiliated terror groups.

The 127e program in Lebanon was one of 20 in operation as recently as 2019, according to the formerly secret Special Operations Command document obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. Votel said it was one of the most effective proxy war efforts of the last decade. “We often held this program up as the gold standard,” he told The Intercept, calling America’s proxies in Lebanon “motivated and capable partners who were well led and very effective at what they were doing.”


How the Pentagon Uses a Secretive Program to Wage Proxy Wars

Central Command would not comment on the 127e program or proxies employed in Lebanon more generally. “We have no details to share specifically to G2 Strike Force,” said Roxberry, noting only that the Defense Department “supports broader efforts to build the LAF’s institutional capacity to train and operate its forces in a professional manner.”

Votel, who observed the G2 Strike Force firsthand, praised their capability and prowess. “In comparison to other LAF units, they had a more direct chain of command, were smaller and thus more agile and responsive and were focused specifically on offensive operations. Their mission set was smaller and better defined than normal LAF organizations,” he told The Intercept.

According to the formerly secret document, members of the G2 Strike Force undergo “comprehensive assessment” by U.S. Special Operations forces and are “subjected to counter-intelligence screening, polygraph testing, and physical and mental challenges before being selected.” But 127e programs have long been exempt from a vetting process required of other U.S. efforts supporting foreign forces under the “Leahy law.” The measure, named after former U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, requires the U.S. to scrutinize the human rights records of forces receiving U.S. security aid.

Without such vetting, Brennan Center’s Ebright told The Intercept, the Pentagon “can end up supporting groups and individuals whose conduct may cause civilian harm, undermine U.S. credibility, and even create U.S. legal liability.” 

“Congress, not the president, has the constitutional role of deciding when, where, and against whom the nation is at war,” Ebright said. “By overclassifying basic information about 127e programs, the Department of Defense hinders Congress’s ability to fulfill this role and potentially to stave off undemocratic, unaccountable U.S. involvement in a new war in the Middle East.” 

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