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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The man we'll meet next took an unusual opportunity to get to know a terrorist group. Andrew Exum is a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later, he became an analyst and lived for a time in Beirut. And a recent article in Vice magazine describes a 2009 effort by Exum and some friends to better understand the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

ANDREW EXUM: Right. Hezbollah is designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government. It is a political and military organization in Lebanon, primarily. Of course, Hezbollah popularized suicide tactics as a weapon in warfare.

INSKEEP: OK. So a group that's killed Americans, that's killed Israelis, that is committed to the destruction of Israel. You have studied them academically. But then you and some other people hit on a rather unusual way to get to know Hezbollah.

EXUM: Yeah. I mean, I was in a bar in Beirut talking with a bunch of journalists, many of whom had been frustrated by the inability to really kind of get to know Hezbollah at the unofficial level. What we did - and all of us had spent years in Lebanon; you know, I don't think any of us were naifs, or didn't understand the environment. But we decided to challenge Hezbollah to a game of paintball.

INSKEEP: How does one go about challenging a designated terrorist group to a game of paintball?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

EXUM: Yeah. So Mitch Prothero and Nick Blandford...

INSKEEP: He's a journalist. OK.

EXUM: ...and Nick Blandford wrote probably the best single volume on Hezbollah. They worked with one of their contacts within the organization - to just show up with a couple of low-level fighters, to play a game of paintball.

INSKEEP: So you don't challenge them by firing, you know, paintballs at their headquarters or trash-talking them. There was a polite invitation made. And what was the response?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

EXUM: Yeah, it was somewhat polite, although I think Mitch Prothero, who set this thing up, I think he used me as the bait, so to speak. He said look - you know - we've got this former U.S. Army Ranger; he says you guys are terrible fighters; he says you guys couldn't fight your way out of a paper bag.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: He did trash-talk them.

EXUM: Yeah. There was a lot of trash-talk involved.

INSKEEP: So where did you meet? Where was it?

EXUM: So we met in this nondescript strip mall, kind of on the outskirts of the Shia suburbs in southern Beirut.

INSKEEP: It's late at night.

EXUM: Late at night. We go down into kind of this basement, this kind of concrete room, where they have a paintball court set up. And it looks like something that, you know, you might see in the United States.

INSKEEP: OK. So it's four on four, three journalists and you, Andrew Exum.

EXUM: Yeah, that's right.

INSKEEP: Four Hezbollah guys. And what were they like when you met them?

EXUM: Well, when we first met them, I would liken it to before a rugby game - where you just kind of eye the other person warily, but you don't really socialize. And then afterwards, it was like the floodgates opened. And then suddenly, there was a lot of back-slapping and sharing, you know, sharing water bottles back and forth.

So we ran out of ammunition in the first match. And yet the guys that ran the paintball place were resupplying Hezbollah with the ammunition.

INSKEEP: Home field advantage?

EXUM: Yes. Exactly. So we felt like the Israelis must've felt in 2006, you know. You're definitely waging war amongst the population. So we kind of conceded that game to Hezbollah, and we agreed that there would be certain rules going forward. We won that second match. And then we won the third and fourth match pretty handily because we had our technique down.

And they were very much fighting - or playing paintball as, you know - and here, I put on the hat of a former infantryman - as you would fight in combat. So they were doing buddy team rushes. It was really bad paintball tactics. But it was fascinating from an observer's perspective.

INSKEEP: What else did you learn about them?

EXUM: You know, what I discovered, just at the human level, a lot of these guys are just very similar to kind of the 18- and 19-year-old Americans that I led into combat.

INSKEEP: Article's been out for a number of days now. Have you had any blowback?

EXUM: You know, we haven't had much blowback. Most of the reaction has been pretty positive. Again, I've been actually surprised that where the negative reaction has taken place has actually been from those who are - I don't want to say they're groupies or - but those who are really sympathetic towards Hezbollah, and are so sympathetic that they, again, put them on this pedestal.

INSKEEP: They can't believe that these heroic fighters, so-called, descended to playing a game of paintball with you?

EXUM: Yeah, exactly. That's exactly right, yeah. There's been, I think, disbelief on the part of some Lebanese journalists, or academics, who work on Hezbollah, and who've kind of built up this organization as, you know, something beyond the confines of normal human strengths and weaknesses. And for them, this has been a little bit difficult to take.

INSKEEP: Andrew Exum, thanks for coming by.

EXUM: Yeah, sure thing.

INSKEEP: He's an analyst with the Center For a New American Security, and his experience playing paintball with Hezbollah is chronicled in Vice magazine.

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