Last month, a Politico investigation ignited a firestorm by charging that the Obama administration deliberately undermined Project Cassandra, an ambitious effort by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to stop Hezbollah from trafficking drugs into the United States and Europe. Veterans of the Obama administration fired back, saying the charges were categorically false and politically motivated.
The Politico piece asserts that these investigations, which started in 2008, uncovered an inconvenient truth: Hezbollah’s highest authorities approved and coordinated large-scale criminal activities in which their operatives were involved, including the facilitation of drug cartels’ shipments of large quantities of cocaine around the globe and the laundering of revenues from cocaine sales. But as investigators exposed more details of Hezbollah’s involvement in these global criminal activities, the political implications of their findings increasingly inconvenienced the Obama administration. At the time, President Barack Obama and his administration were not only seeking a nuclear deal with Hezbollah’s main patron, Iran; they also believed a nuclear detente with Tehran could be a prelude to transforming Iran into a stabilizing factor in the region. Exposing Hezbollah, and by extension, its Iranian patron, as a transnational criminal enterprise intent on helping narcotraffickers sell cocaine and launder money, including escalating indictments against Hezbollah’s higher-ups, was bound to undermine the administration’s political efforts to chart a new course with Tehran.
That’s why, according to Politico, Project Cassandra investigators encountered an “increasingly insurmountable series of roadblocks” as they sought to prosecute higher-ups in the Hezbollah hierarchy. According to a former CIA officer quoted by Politico, Iranian negotiators were pleading on Hezbollah’s behalf, and the Obama administration would not let DEA investigations derail its grand vision for a new Middle East.
It is not that investigations were shut down. Instead, according to Politico, numerous roadblocks were put in the way of the project, which ultimately may have caused its demise. These included the removal of references to Hezbollah from criminal indictments, lack of administration backing for prosecutors’ requests to extradite arrested suspects from allied countries to the United States to stand trial, a refusal to target Hezbollah through anti-mob racketeering laws, slashed budgets for Hezbollah investigations, and the reassignment of key personnel. Moreover, even in the wake of the arrest of senior Hezbollah agents who could potentially be turned into cooperating witnesses against their superiors and the amassing of damning financial and communications evidence supporting criminal indictments, no serious effort was made to press charges against the highest echelons of Hezbollah’s leadership.
Given the gravity of these complaints, we firmly agree that a probe is necessary but are concerned that it will become a political circus rather than revive the government’s faltering efforts to pursue Hezbollah. The best way to prevent the Justice Department and congressional reviews from becoming partisan exercises is to ensure that they focus on five key decisions that handcuffed Project Cassandra.
Both parties recognize the exceptional threat that Hezbollah poses to both the United States and its allies. Reviews that focus on rebuilding Project Cassandra by learning the lessons of the past can command bipartisan support.
Our first two questions concern botched extraditions that would have given U.S. investigators access to a treasure trove of information. First, no senior figure at the State Department, Justice Department, or the White House fought for the extradition of the Syrian-Venezuelan national and U.S.-designated drug kingpin Walid Makled García. Why? Makled was the repository of privileged information about the Venezuela-Hezbollah relationship, as well as Venezuelan government corruption and cooperation with the drug cartels. Makled was arrested in 2010 in Colombia, a close ally of the United States. Yet Obama declinedto use his prestige, influence, and leverage to bring him to the United States, instead letting Makled be shipped back to Venezuela in 2011, thereby putting the secrets he could have revealed out of the reach of U.S. law enforcement.
Second, why did the U.S. government fail to extradite the Hezbollah operatives Ali Fayad and Khaled Merebi from the Czech Republic? Fayad, a key weapons procurement agent, was arrested by DEA agents in 2014, along with Merebi and their colleague, Faouzi Jaber, during a DEA sting that closely resembled the capture of arms dealer Viktor Bout, in 2008, in Thailand.
Bout — a Russian national who inspired Nicolas Cage’s character in the 2005 film Lord of War and sold weapons to the Taliban, African warlords, and Hezbollah — had friends in high places in Moscow. Russia strenuously opposed his extradition and slammed his conviction. But the Obama administration was willing to spend considerable political capital to extradite him for trial in the United States. Yet when, in July 2015, Hezbollah engineered the kidnapping of five Czech nationals in Lebanon, the United States did little to secure the two men’s extradition before Prague succumbed to Hezbollah’s extortion. Jaber was eventually extradited in late February 2016 and is awaiting sentencing in New York, but not before, earlier that month, the Czechs had released Fayad and Merebi, who promptly returned to Lebanon.
The third decision to review is the one that prevented charges from being brought against one of Hezbollah’s senior leaders, Abdullah Safieddine. Safieddine is Hezbollah’s envoy to Iran, as well as the maternal cousin of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. A 2009 Eastern District of Pennsylvania indictment against four Hezbollah operatives involved in the sale of counterfeit currency and the attempted procurement of thousands of assault rifles for Hezbollah obliquely mentioned Safieddine. A 2009 affidavit referred to him as a high-ranking, Iran-based Hezbollah official named “Individual B.” Clearly, investigators did not have sufficient evidence to indict him at the time and were using this case as a platform to build one against Safieddine.
The Treasury Department eventually named Safieddine in conjunction with its 2011 action against the Lebanese Canadian Bank, which had helped Hezbollah launder hundreds of millions of dollars in drug proceeds on behalf of Colombian and Mexican cartels. But he was never charged, despite the fact that, according to investigators, he oversees Hezbollah’s most significant criminal activities, including drug trafficking and the purchase of weapons to support the Syrian war effort.
Bringing drug trafficking charges against Hezbollah’s most senior leaders, such as Safieddine, would lay bare the toxic ties linking Hezbollah and drug cartels across Latin America. While no country in Latin America recognizes Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, many feel pressure to take action against narcotraffickers. Public revelations of criminality and drug trafficking would also damage Hezbollah’s supposed Islamic principles.
Why, then, wouldn’t the Justice Department agree to bring charges against a top Hezbollah criminal? It’s as if, in the 1930s, the department had told the FBI it could prosecute the mob but should leave Al Capone alone.
A fourth and related question to ask is why, when the Justice Department did bring charges against other Hezbollah operatives, none of the indictments identified the group. How can we fight an organization if we cannot even call it by its own name?
The fifth question to ask about Project Cassandra concerns unfinished business from the Lebanese Canadian Bank case, which is deservedly known as one of the greatest successes in the history of prosecuting terrorist finance networks. Yet it was not an unmitigated success: Hezbollah leveraged 300 U.S.-based used car dealerships to launder the drug revenues by exporting vehicles to West Africa. But the actions taken against the bank’s network affected only 30 businesses due to lack of interagency cooperation. That was 2011. Fast forward to 2018. Most of the remaining 270 businesses are still operating. Satellite imagery shows that the same West African parking lots used by Hezbollah in 2011 are still overflowing with cars. Why hasn’t the Justice Department pursued a network of criminal enterprises of which it is clearly aware?
Answering the five questions laid out above will take some time. While that effort is underway, there are other steps the U.S. government can take against Hezbollah. One is to offer substantial rewards for information leading to the arrest or conviction of numerous senior Hezbollah leaders. The State Department recently put a multimillion-dollar price on the heads of two figures with blood on their hands, but many more names need to be added to the roster.
The U.S. government can also designate Hezbollah as a transnational criminal organization even before it brings indictments against specific individuals. Doing so would help mobilize a stronger response in the Western Hemisphere, where Hezbollah does so much of its trafficking.
The fact of the matter is that Hezbollah is both a terrorist organization and a transnational criminal group. Its various activities — including charitable, social, and educational ones — all depend on funding derived from criminal endeavors. Its leadership, likewise, is both knowledgeable of and complicit in the efforts by its global networks to profit from crime. Collecting intelligence to expose, disrupt, and prosecute this phenomenon should be a top priority, not an afterthought that can be sacrificed to other geopolitical ends.
Ultimately, the success of the law enforcement campaign against Hezbollah will depend on understanding what went wrong in the case of Project Cassandra. Whether by design or negligence, the most effective tool the U.S. government had at its disposal was severely debilitated. It’s time to learn why and to make Project Cassandra work again.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the nonpartisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.