August 10, 2006 | Family Security Matters

Hezbollah’s African Network

Despite the valiant efforts of the men and women of the Israeli Defense Forces to degrade the lethal capacity of Hezbollah terrorist organization—and, one might add, notwithstanding the frantic denials of diplomats not wanting to face up to the consequences of admitting the terrible reality of the situation—it has become quite clear that the only way forward to a sustainable cessation of hostilities along Israel's border with Lebanon will require cutting off the radical Shî‘a group's access to the external sources which enabled it to amass its arsenal and carry out its operations in the first place.

At the time of this writing, there have been some discussions on the role that Syria and Iran have played not only in fomenting, but also in prolonging the conflict. However, to date, almost no attention has been paid to the third leg of the tripod sustaining the operations of the Hezbollah death cult: its far-flung financial and logistical networks among the Lebanese Shî‘a diaspora, especially in West Africa.


Emigrants from Lebanon, the majority of whom, for a number of historical reasons, happened to be Shî‘ites, began flocking to West Africa in the early 1900s, where they were welcomed by British colonial authorities who saw them as a tool with which to break the hold of the increasingly nationalist-conscious local merchant class on trade with the interior in places such as the Crown Colony of Freetown.


Over time, a combination of governmental favor and their own hard work resulted in the Lebanese achieving dominance not only of the commerce in manufactured goods, but also control of the trade in natural resource commodities like the fabled alluvial diamonds of Sierra Leone. The Lebanese in West Africa have become the region's “market-dominant minority,” to borrow a term popularized by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua in her study of free market democracy and global instability, World on Fire. As Chua herself observed, “the extent of Lebanese market dominance in Sierra Leone—historically and at present—is astounding.”


Arguably the most successful Lebanese trader in West Africa was Jamil Said Mohammed, a close associate of Siaka Probyn Stevens, the kleptomaniac dictator of Sierra Leone from 1968 to 1985. In his halcyon days in Stevens's one-party state, Jamil's National Trading Company held monopoly rights to for the importation of no fewer than eighty-seven commodities. As I documented in my book, Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy, so great was Jamil's influence that he managed to persuade Stevens's handpicked successor, Joseph Saidu Momoh, to host a 1986 “state visit” of Yasir Arafat, who was exiled to Tunis after his humiliating defeat by the Israeli forces in Lebanon and who was, at least that year, being treated by the international community as a virtual diplomatic leper after a group led by PLO executive committee member Abu Abbas hijacked the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro and pushed overboard a 69-year-old wheelchair-bound Jewish American passenger from New York, Leon Klinghoffer. Arafat offered to pay the cash-strapped Momoh $8 million for the use of one of Sierra Leone's offshore islands as a training base for his exiled fighters. While, under pressure from Western nations, Momoh turned down the offer, he did allow Jamil to maintain a 500-man “personal security force,” consisting primarily of Palestinians driven out of Lebanon, which effectively enabled the Palestinian leader to achieve the same end of finding a base to keep his fighters together.


During the Sierra Leonean civil conflict (1991-2001), Jamil and another Lebanese Shî‘a merchant, Samih Osailly, whom Belgian intelligence has linked to Osama bin Laden's financial network, fenced diamonds on behalf of the brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, who enslaved whole communities to mine them in areas under its control. After the conflict, when it appeared that the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone might prosecute him, Jamil fled back to Lebanon on a diplomatic passport provided to him courtesy of his childhood friend, the Sierra Leonean-born speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Nabih Berri, whose Amal militia-cum-political party is a full partner in Hezbollah's “Resistance and Development Bloc” in the legislature. (According to intelligence sources, Jamil repaid the favor by giving Berri a substantial cut in the former's new state-plundering racket, the Zahrani oil refinery.)


While the colorful Jamil may have left West Africa, more than 100,000 of his compatriots remain. In many respects, the fictitious Yusuf “the Syrian” who tried to corrupt Scobie in The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene, who himself served as an intelligence officer in Sierra Leone during the Second World War, was actually a composite figure summing up these traders from the Levant who, even as they prospered in Africa, maintained close commercial and personal ties with their homeland, followed events in the Middle East, and were willing to use every artifice to further their ends.


In 2004 Larry Andre, the deputy chief of mission at the United States Embassy in Freetown told the Associated Press:


“One thing that's incontrovertible is the financing of Hezbollah. It's not even an open secret; there's not a secret. There's a lot of social pressure and extortionate pressure brought to bear: ‘You had better support our cause, or we'll visit your people back home.'”


While undoubtedly some pressure is at work, other observers also see conviction: witness the anti-Israeli (and anti-American) rallies, replete with Hezbollah flags, which members of the Lebanese community have staged in recent weeks in a number of West African capitals.


In Sierra Leone, Lebanese traders control an overwhelming majority of the diamond buying shops. Although some of these enterprises are officially licensed by the Sierra Leonean government, most experts agree that their owners conduct most of their business off the books, smuggling last year somewhere between $170 million and $370 million worth of uncut gems out of the country each year according to Ambassador Daudi Mwakawago, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in the West African country. A not-inconsiderable portion of these illegal profits eventually finds its way into Hezbollah's coffers. For just one example of how lucrative this revenue stream is for the terrorist group, when Union des Transports Africains de Guinée (UTA) flight 141 en route to Beirut crashed off the coast of Benin on Christmas Day 2003, not only were 133 passengers lost, but so was a briefcase with $2 million in contributions being carried by a Hezbollah fundraiser.


In his book Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror, former Washington Post correspondent Douglas Farah described how al-Qaeda procured diamonds from the RUF and its Liberian patron, former President Charles Taylor. In contrast to Osama bin Laden who saw in the gemstones a means to hide his money, Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah's sees in them a way to make money.


In fact, according to reliable sources in the region, Hezbollah is no longer content with collecting tribute from the Lebanese diaspora involved in the diamond trade and its operatives have slowly gone into the business directly, buying diamonds from both local miners and Lebanese traders in relatively well-known places like Kenema and Koidu in eastern Sierra Leone as well as more isolated production centers in Liberia, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to sources in the diamond business, Hezbollah then sends the highest quality gems to the industry's center in Antwerp, Belgium, while lesser stones go the emerging diamond cutting centers in India—in either case earning the terrorists a handsome return on their initial investment.


If the United States and its allies are serious about fighting international terrorism, then they must do everything in their power to destroy Hezbollah—recall, Nasrallah has said that his group “needs only to survive to win.” This means that an effective counterterrorism strategy must confront the issue of the support that the terrorist group receives from not just Syria and Iran, but also from Africa.


With respect to curtailing the flow of resources to Hezbollah from its African network, the task will be both easier and harder than cutting off its supply lines from Damascus and Tehran. It will be easier, because we will not be acting against governments, but with them: most African governments would welcome assistance in building their own law enforcement capacity as well as in reasserting control over their own countries against the interlopers from the Middle East. However, the challenge will simultaneously be more difficult, because of the nature of the diaspora community within which Hezbollah operates: readily identifiable, but not easily penetrated.


As, U.S. News & World Report reported recently:


“At the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department, and the FBI, there is a heightened sense of urgency” concerning these places with officials scrambling to expand our on-the-ground capabilities.


However, the same article noted that:

 “the political and diplomatic hurdles are substantial. Each office costs millions of dollars to establish and equip…the FBI has long struggled to recruit and train G-men with the know-how to effectively work in these regions—language skills especially, plus the necessary historical, geopolitical, religious, and cultural sensitivities.”


The task of shutting down Hezbollah's financial network will undoubtedly require considerable investment by the U.S. and its allies of resources, human and otherwise, in a number of African countries. However, failure to cut off the terrorist group from these sources of support undermines the fight against it in the Middle East. So the effort must be undertaken because at stake is not only the peace of the Middle East, but the stability of Africa and, ultimately, the security and national interests of the United States.

J. Peter Pham, Ph.D., is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, and an academic fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He has written for a variety of publications, and has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.