February 26, 2018 | The Weekly Standard
The Mystery Martyr
Death came suddenly for Samer Ibrahim Atoui, a 48-year-old native of the southern Lebanese village of Khiyam. On October 2, 2017, a Syrian opposition social media account posted photographs showing the burned-out wreckage of Atoui’s car, alongside Atoui’s picture and that of his fellow traveler, a known Hezbollah special force commander named Ali Al-Ashiq. Atoui was initially identified only as Abu Ali Jawad, his nom de guerre. The apparent cause of death was a drone strike.
Atoui’s demise might have been unremarkable, given the heavy fighting and mounting Hezbollah casualties in Syria. But this death opened up surprising windows into the powerful ties between Hezbollah’s leadership in Lebanon and the criminal enterprises in South America that generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the group each year. These networks, fed by drug money and other illicit traffic, inhabit the still-underexplored intersections between narcotrafficking and terror finance. Swashbuckling gangsters, Bond-movie villains, white-collar criminals, and Lebanese merchants, whose economic success serves Hezbollah, man them across the globe. Their proceeds fund war and ethnic cleansing in Syria and Hezbollah’s rearmament in South Lebanon. Their trade feeds violence and crime, flooding advanced economies with counterfeited medicines, illicit drugs, weapons, and dirty cash.
The toxic convergence between terrorism and narcotrafficking suddenly came into focus in Washington when, late last year, a Politico report dropped a political bombshell by charging that the Obama administration put “an increasingly insurmountable series of roadblocks” before investigators from a task force named Project Cassandra. This was an ambitious effort by the Drug Enforcement Agency to combat Hezbollah drug-trafficking from Latin America into the United States and Europe. In the wake of the Politico investigation, Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month ordered a review of decisions made by the Obama Department of Justice and established an interagency task force entrusted with combating Hezbollah’s terror finance.
That Hezbollah has in the last decade morphed into a global criminal enterprise is part of the reason it is today Lebanon’s power-behind-the-throne. Iran founded the Lebanese Shia militia to spread its Khomeinist ideology at the height of Lebanon’s civil war. It is Tehran’s most successful franchise and can largely sustain itself financially even as it expands its reach. It is spearheading the ayatollahs’ military effort to save the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. It is fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and their Afghan, Pakistani, and Iraqi proxies in Syria. It is helping the Islamic Republic establish, train, and mobilize likeminded militias in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. Hezbollah is creating a new generation of well-trained and battle-hardened Shia fighters whose goal, beyond Syria, is to make Khomeinism triumphant across the region. Their enemies are the same as always—the Sunni monarchies and the hated Zionists, with America, the imperial power with its toxic, godless culture, lurking in the background. Hezbollah’s resilience and accomplishments set it apart from other Islamist movements. It believes, and it has reason to believe, that it can succeed in its vision. As journalist Thanassis Cambanis wrote in his study of Hezbollah, A Privilege to Die, “Hezbollah has inculcated millions . . . into its ideology of Islamic Resistance. The credo is catchy and thoroughly thought out; and it is coupled to an unusually effective program of militancy and mobilization. That recipe has put Hezbollah in the pilot’s seat in the Middle East, steering the region into a thicket of wars to come.” Those wars keep coming thanks to men like Atoui and their devotion to Hezbollah’s cause.
The first crucial detail that Hezbollah released about Atoui was his name. The opposition’s Twitter post noted the circumstances of his death but only used his nom de guerre; Hezbollah’s Twitter announcement revealed his real name, identifying him as Abu Ali Jawad and Samer Atoui. The latter post also included two photos of his face, one smiling with sunglasses, the other with slightly parted lips and a plaintive gaze. These details were the key that unlocked his presence on social media to outside observers.
On the day of Atoui’s death, residents of Khiyam started posting on their Facebook accounts videos of a procession of cars accompanying an ambulance to the entrance of town. To the sound of gunfire, a coffin emerged from the ambulance, draped in the yellow Hezbollah flag. Men in black escorted the coffin, surrounded by a crowd of mourners gathered to see a son of their village take his final journey.
In Khiyam, everyone seems to have known of Atoui’s prominent role inside Hezbollah. Yet to his dying day, few in the West ever heard of him. Little of his role in Hezbollah emerges from Atoui’s social media profiles, much less from the flowery pronouncements Hezbollah made to honor his death. It is doubtful anyone would have identified him as a senior Hezbollah figure had it not been for the matching information released on Twitter in the hours after his death.
Atoui cultivated the unassuming public image of a man focused on the joys of family and a simple rural life. His Facebook account’s photos show a jovial-looking man, tall and handsome, slightly graying, but still in the prime of his life. Whether playing grandfather to a joyful newborn baby, out on a fishing expedition with friends, or skillfully riding a horse, Atoui only immortalized intimately personal moments on his social media. He occasionally appears in military fatigues, but the bonhomie exuded by his smiling face makes it hard to tell whether he is hunting Syrian rebels or pheasants. In his last year, Atoui even posted numerous photos of a rundown building that he eventually turned into a refurbished family home with a pool—hardly a giveaway of his professional militancy.
Had Atoui lived anywhere else in the world but South Lebanon, he could have easily been mistaken for a typical family man intent on building his middle-class suburban dream. To the best of our knowledge, he was a happy man, devoted to his family, admired by his peers, and loved by his friends. He was also a senior Hezbollah commander who met his untimely death on the front lines of the war between the Assad regime and the Islamic State.
On the day of Atoui’s death, an unidentified drone reportedly struck Hezbollah positions in the desert of eastern Syria, killing several of its fighters. Lebanese media accused the United States of ordering the strike, eliciting a strong denial from the Pentagon. There were suggestions of friendly fire, since Russia and Iran are the only other forces operating drones in the area. Casualties, quickly announced on Hezbollah-affiliated social media, included the two senior Hezbollah commanders, Ali Al-Ashiq and Samer Atoui. Even more puzzling: Their car appeared to have been struck by either a missile or a roadside bomb a few miles from the site where the other seven fighters were hit by the reported drone strike.
Though these were two separate incidents, Hezbollah information outlets treated them as one, eulogizing its nine martyrs together. To date, Hezbollah media and social platforms have not revealed much about Atoui’s rank and role inside the resistance. Yet the elaborate production immediately assembled to honor his memory made it clear that he was not a regular casualty. Though the circumstances of Atoui’s death may still be shrouded in mystery, the way in which his name emerged from the shadows reveals much about Hezbollah’s global footprint.* *
A hint that Atoui was a very senior Hezbollah operative, not just a local commander, came from a notice posted the day after his death on the Facebook account of a member of the Shia Lebanese community in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. The ad summoned members of the community to commemorate Atoui and another slain young Hezbollah soldier, Ibrahim Ma’an Sbeyti, on October 6 at the local Imam Khomeini mosque. Foz do Iguaçu lies at the confluence of the Paraná and Iguazu rivers, which mark the frontier area where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. Better known as la triple frontera, Spanish for the tri-border area, or TBA, it is a notoriously porous border for all sorts of illicit traffic. It is also the home of a large community of Shia Lebanese merchants, who began settling there in the 1950s. Back then, the TBA was little more than an outpost in the middle of the jungle, but the building of the Friendship Bridge connecting Paraguay and Brazil in 1965 and the opening, in 1984, of the Itaipu Dam, a large hydroelectric project just north of Foz do Iguaçu, boosted the area’s economy. Paraguay’s late dictator Alfredo Stroessner encouraged the Lebanese to immigrate to Ciudad Presidente Stroessner (later renamed Ciudad del Este) and turn it into a bustling commercial center.
They did. Ciudad del Este’s tax-free commercial zone begins just past the Friendship Bridge. It is a maze of stores, market stalls, and elegant malls offering a mixture of duty-free-shop-priced products, unregulated currency exchange services, cheap Chinese-made consumer goods, and a suspiciously overabundant and underpriced selection of Western brands. Many of these products are routinely smuggled across the river to Brazil, where the brands, both in their counterfeit and genuine incarnations, are sold at a premium. The Lebanese community is still predominant among shop owners, though in recent years Chinese merchants have joined them in growing numbers.
Ciudad del Este has been a good investment for them. Many live in opulent homes north of the city in the exclusive and secluded Paraná Country Club. Some have acquired prized honorary consulships. The most successful are regularly seen in local glamour magazines rubbing shoulders with the country’s elites.
Their story of success is not dissimilar to those of other communities of Lebanese expatriates across the region. Much like Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina are home to large Arab diasporas. In other parts of the world, their members have by and large assimilated into local cultures; the TBA Shia, by contrast, have remained close to their South Lebanon ancestral home, which since the 1980s has been increasingly dominated by two political and paramilitary groups: Amal and Hezbollah. Both TBA Shia mosques are affiliated with Hezbollah. The Shia school on the Brazilian side is run by Hezbollah’s al-Mahdi educational movement, while Amal is responsible for the school on the Paraguayan side. Their clerics and teachers are also closely linked to Hezbollah.
The TBA links to Hezbollah are not just financial. When Iran ordered the bombing of Israel’s embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and then, two years later, against the AMIA building, the Jewish cultural center in the same city, Hezbollah operatives in the TBA provided critical logistical support. When years later one, Ali Khalil Merhi, was arrested, he was found hiding in Ciudad del Este. When Moussa Ali Hamdan, indicted in 2009 by the United States for providing material support to Hezbollah through the sale of counterfeited currency and passports, was captured in 2010, he was found in the same building as Merhi’s hideout.
Despite these strong links, commemorations of Hezbollah’s fallen are infrequent though not rare among the Lebanese Shia diaspora. They usually occur when the fallen have relatives in the community, which Atoui did in the Brás neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil. The Brás mosque’s announcement named the martyr and his relations, a paternal uncle. Yet Atoui does not appear to have family in Foz do Iguaçu. There are numerous Sbeytis and some Atouis in the tri-border area, but no mention was publicly made of them, and the deceased’s social media accounts do not appear to link directly to any of them.
Samer Atoui’s case was unusual, then—his death was greeted by a tremendous outpouring of grief beyond family circles, especially in the TBA, where Hezbollah’s presence is closely tied to the drug trade and other illicit activities. His funeral, broadcast live on Facebook, elicited tearful comments from numerous Shia communities overseas. Viewers sending blessings for the soul of the departed included numerous Canadian-based members of Atoui’s family, villagers from Khiyam, and many others in Lebanon, in addition to people from as far afield as Kuwait, the Ivory Coast, Uppsala, Sweden, and, of course, Latin America. The videos were shared hundreds of times by people as far as Sydney, Australia. Someone both beloved and famous had died. His admirers close and far were paying their last tribute.
Within days of Atoui’s death, videos, photos, memorial services, eulogies, and articles emerged to provide a full account of how important Atoui was to Hezbollah. His funeral procession summoned Hezbollah VIPs from all departments of the organization, including senior members responsible for illicit financial activities overseas. Among them: Hezbollah member of Lebanon’s parliament Ali Fayyad, who represents Atoui’s district; Hezbollah’s commander of the Khiyam sector, Hajj Ali Hassan Zureiq, whom the U.S. Department of Treasury identified, in 2010, as the director of the Lebanon branch of the U.S.-sanctioned Imam Khomeini Relief Committee; Hezbollah’s commander of the first southern region, in which Atoui was a leader, Seyed Ahmad Safieddine; and Akram Barakat, the deputy head of Hezbollah’s executive council.
Immediately after the funeral, Atoui was eulogized by the local mufti of Khiyam and Marjayoun, Abdel Hussein El Abdallah, but a few days later, no less than Qassem Naim, the deputy secretary general of Hezbollah, second only to Hassan Nasrallah, came to Khiyam to memorialize Atoui. A picture of Atoui posing next to the former commander of Iran’s Basij militia, Mohammad Reza Naqdi, emerged. This was no ordinary martyr. And to one Hezbollah operative based in Latin America, Atoui was first and foremost a personal friend.
Sobhi Mahmoud Fayad is a TBA-based Hezbollah senior member whom the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned in 2006 for his role as “a senior TBA Hezbollah official who served as a liaison between the Iranian embassy and the Hezbollah community in the TBA” under Executive Order 13224, which targets global terrorism’s financial enablers. Treasury accused Fayad of being active in drug trafficking and currency counterfeiting. The day Atoui died, Fayad changed his Facebook profile photo to capture for posterity his friendship with Atoui. The two are pictured lounging in a garden with a third friend—the TBA-based Bassam Nader, whose Facebook handle is the Farsi equivalent of “death to America.” This was not a photo op, but a genuinely intimate moment among close friends.
Such friendships have implications for U.S. national security. Fayad is the brother of Ali Fayyad, the Hezbollah MP who attended Atoui’s funeral procession. More important, according to his 2006 Treasury designation, Fayad is a close associate of members of the Barakat clan, whom Hezbollah dispatched to the TBA to build a funding network to support the organization’s activities. These Barakats are close relatives of Akram Barakat, a member of Hezbollah’s executive council and the second in command at Hezbollah’s global finance department. (Barakat also accompanied Atoui to his final resting place). At 71, Sobhi Fayad is one of the elders of the TBA Hezbollah network. Unimpeded by U.S. sanctions, he has continued to travel around the globe in recent years, making regular visits to Lebanon at least annually, including last October, when Atoui died.
Fayad and Nader are not the only ones in the Latin American Hezbollah network who appear to have personally known Atoui. Numerous others from the TBA, and linked communities in the Brazilian frontier town of Ponta Porã, from São Paulo, and from the Paraguayan capital of Asunción, took time to join in the Facebook chatter triggered by the announcement of Atoui’s death.
Much still needs to be clarified about Atoui’s rank and role inside Hezbollah and the extent of his connections to the TBA, including whether he was a member of Hezbollah’s External Security Organization Business Affairs Component (BAC), which according to the DEA is in charge of running drug trafficking and the laundering of drug proceeds.
It is definitely possible that Atoui was part of the BAC. As shown in his entry in Paraguay’s national registry, Atoui was given permanent residency in Paraguay, a world away from Khiyam, in 1993. At the time Khiyam was under Israeli occupation. Whatever his later claims to Hezbollah fame, in 1993 he cannot have been much more than a lowly fighter, promising though he might have been, with familial connections to guide his path in the great expanses of Latin America. Fayad, on the other hand, was by the mid-1990s a well-established TBA-based operative working for the Barakat clan.
Hezbollah’s martyr’s posters and videos show photos of a young Atoui in uniform. One can speculate at what stage in life he moved to the TBA and why, but clearly he wore Hezbollah’s uniform at a time when it was fighting Israel in South Lebanon and then, as a young man, he went to Latin America.
He was in Latin America for years and they must have been some of the best of his life. A year before he met his fate, Atoui waxed lyrical about how nicely Lebanese immigrants were treated in Brazil. Clearly, Brazil held a special place in his heart. Five years after he obtained his permanent residency, and likely his citizenship, in Paraguay, in 1998 Atoui became a naturalized Brazilian—a sign that he lived there for a period.
Holding both passports is common among Shia Lebanese operating in the TBA. Evidence has recently emerged that Hezbollah operatives moving there rely on TBA-based Lebanese intermediaries who facilitate their immigration paperwork. Terror finance operatives in the BAC routinely seek multiple citizenships to move more easily across borders.
So here’s what we know: Atoui was a veteran of Hezbollah’s wars. He spent at least five years in Paraguay and Brazil—likely in the TBA—and at one point, according to information available in Paraguay’s commercial registry, he had a business there, although he later shuttered it. He was a close friend of a U.S.-sanctioned Hezbollah operative 23 years his senior, possibly a family relation but likelier a mentor in the trade Atoui went to learn in the TBA.
It could be that Sobhi Fayad and Samer Atoui were not just friends but colleagues. There was, after all, a significant age gap between them. Atoui, who came to the TBA in the early 1990s and spent enough time in the area to acquire two citizenships, may have met Fayad in Latin America rather than in Lebanon. Fayad, who back then was in his forties and ran a racketeering operation on Hezbollah’s behalf in the TBA, could have taken this young veteran of Hezbollah’s battles under his wings and trained him in the ways of illicit finance. It is just a theory, of course, but Atoui’s publicly available information checks out.
Atoui left Latin America at some point, and upon return to Lebanon he became a heavyweight inside Hezbollah. According to a local source, he had not visited for more than a decade by the time he died. Yet the outpouring of genuine, intimate grief suggested many knew him and interacted with him personally long after he was supposedly gone.
These facts expose the limits of American efforts to restrict Hezbollah’s access to financing, especially illicit access. Despite being listed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, Fayad’s frequent travels to Lebanon reveal that neither travel bans nor asset freezes are actually being implemented against him. To reach Lebanon, Fayad crossed at least two borders and transited several international airports. No one stopped him.
Countries like Brazil and Paraguay, which host Fayad and have granted him citizenship, do not seem interested in acting on U.S. terror finance designations. The State Department’s 2016 report on terrorism noted that “there were no terrorist financing convictions or actions to freeze in 2016” in Paraguay, despite the existence of legal means and capacity to enforce them against Hezbollah operatives. Speaking to the author, a senior Paraguayan official countered that the government of Paraguay could only act on U.S. designations if it received an official request from Washington.
The lack of interest in enforcement is aggravated by the unusually low threshold for acquiring citizenship in both countries. The same State Department report observed that in Brazil, “Irregular migration, especially by aliens from areas with a potential nexus to terrorism, is a growing problem, with Brazil often serving as a transit country.” Citizens of Latin America still require a valid visa to enter the United States—Hezbollah operatives with Brazilian passports are not necessarily more dangerous to the homeland. But having multiple passports facilitates the efforts of these operatives to seamlessly move across borders in pursuit of their goals. And their unfettered presence, as citizens, in countries with weak law enforcement, corrupt political elites, and rampant organized crime means their ability to conduct business and raise money for their cause is enhanced.
Now that the Trump administration has turned toward a harder line on Iran and its proxies, it is possible that the State Department will exert greater pressure on South American governments. Given his rank, Atoui’s case may prove to be particularly embarrassing for both Asunción and Brasília. Yet this is not just a one-off case of benign neglect.
Recent Hezbollah terrorist plots—successful and thwarted—all involved operatives with multiple passports. In July 2012, Hezbollah operatives successfully targeted a bus carrying Israeli tourists at an airport outside the Bulgarian seaside resort of Burgas, murdering five Israelis and the Bulgarian bus driver. The three terrorists were Meliad Farah, Hassan el-Haji Hassan, and Mohamad Hassan El-Husseini, dual nationals of Lebanon and, respectively, Australia, Canada, and France. A few days before the Burgas attack, Cypriot authorities arrested Hossam Yaacoub, a dual national of Lebanon and Sweden who was plotting to strike Israeli tourists in Cyprus. Several weeks later, an Iranian-Canadian dual national was arrested in Bulgaria while she was scouting a Chabad center for another possible terror attack. Another dual national of Lebanon and Canada, Hossein Bassam Abdallah, was arrested in Cyprus and sentenced to six years in prison in 2015 for plotting terror attacks against Israeli targets. He was found in possession of vast quantities of explosives when arrested.
This pattern applies to Latin America too. When Peruvian authorities arrested Lebanese national Mohammad Amadar in Lima in October 2014, they found explosive devices in his apartment. His phone included evidence of scouting potential targets. Amadar, like other members of Hezbollah’s overseas operations, held a second passport, in his case from Sierra Leone, which he used to enter the country. Although Peruvian courts have so far only convicted him of immigration fraud, the U.S. Department of Treasury listed Amadar as a member of Hezbollah’s External Operation Service (of which the BAC is part) in 2016 and slapped sanctions on him.
Those who visit the TBA know very well that the Paraguay-Brazil boundary is largely fictional. Of the numerous individuals whose business activities the United States targeted with terror finance designations in 2004 and 2006, most have residences on both sides of the border, hold both citizenships, bank in both countries, and play each jurisdiction’s weaknesses to their own advantage.
Unlike the United States, neither Brazil nor Paraguay has designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization, although both have antiterrorist legislation in place which would allow them to do so. If Asunción and Brasília chose to designate Hezbollah, they could revoke citizenships, seize assets, and preemptively detain the group’s operatives. The United States would not be the only beneficiary of such moves, since Hezbollah operatives were arrested in 2014 and 2017 for scouting high-value targets in Latin America. Clearly the region remains vulnerable to attacks, despite a long period of quiet since the 1994 bombing of the AMIA building in Buenos Aires, which bore Hezbollah’s fingerprints. The AMIA bombing is still awaiting justice for its victims, including the slain prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, who more than anyone else worked to expose the Iranian-Hezbollah matrix of the attack. Yet not even Buenos Aires has designated Hezbollah a terror entity.
While encouraging greater vigilance from its South American partners, the United States cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of its own enforcement efforts. A case in point is that of Ali Issa Chamas, a recently sentenced Lebanese trafficker with ties to Hezbollah who was extradited to Miami from the TBA in June 2017. Publicly available documents show that Chamas had business ties to the United States and was getting ready to export significant quantities of cocaine for the American market. Even more concerning: In his conversations with a U.S.-based client, Chamas bragged about having a secure method for shipping cocaine by air cargo from the TBA into the United States. Clearly, Hezbollah operatives have a way to get their deadly merchandise through the front door, if they can get drugs past U.S. airport authorities.
There aren’t many cargo flights connecting the TBA to the United States. Most are operated either by a Miami- or a Persian Gulf-based carrier on a regular basis. The challenge here is not one of catching small planes flying out of Latin American jungles or speed boats crisscrossing the Caribbean. As such, U.S. airport authorities, customs officials, and other law enforcement agencies can mitigate this vulnerability by systematically searching planes coming into the United States from the TBA, as well as working with the airlines involved to improve their own cargo controls. (Likewise, the State Department may want to raise the issue with Paraguayan authorities, who can conduct more rigorous inspections on their end.)
U.S. authorities can also investigate hundreds of front companies that suspect TBA businesses have established in southern Florida. This process is likely to move more quickly once the White House finally appoints a new DEA administrator, to empower the law enforcement agency most actively involved in the fight against Hezbollah’s drug trafficking and money laundering rings in recent years.
As part of its efforts to target global terror finance, over a decade ago, the Bush administration went after Hezbollah’s operatives in Latin America, designating a major network implicated in money laundering, counterfeiting, and drug trafficking in the TBA. In parallel, the DEA launched the aforementioned Project Cassandra to systematically dismantle Hezbollah drug trafficking networks across the globe, many of which emanated from Latin America. Project Cassandra initially scored some important victories but its success was short-lived. If sustained, over time the combined onslaught of sanctions and law enforcement actions could have disrupted Hezbollah’s overseas financial flows. Instead, with the Obama administration aggressively pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran, many investigations were downgraded, slowed down, put on ice, or simply nixed so as not to upset the Iranians. The complacency of local authorities who failed to follow through on U.S. sanctions did the rest.
We may never know whether Atoui was a senior operative for Hezbollah’s overseas illicit operations. But the echo of his death put the spotlight on a remote area of Latin America that still plays, thanks to its porous border and illicit trades, a key role in Hezbollah’s finances. On a rainy November morning when I last visited, there was little sign of movement in front of the Foz do Iguaçu Imam Khomeini mosque where congregants had gathered to commemorate Atoui. It was Friday, a holy day of prayers. Yet the faithful were on the other side of the river, in Paraguay, readying their stores for the weekend onslaught of buyers. Business is booming, with the latest rage, satellite decoders, selling at every electronics store in the city. On the Paraguay side, there are even billboards advertising $130 decoders that will let anyone with a fast Internet connection watch Netflix and HBO without paying a subscription.
Inside an electronics shop, a Paraguayan salesman boasts that the product he is trying to sell me is the best one on the market. He also swears he has the best price in the city. Neither the salesman nor his Lebanese boss sitting watchfully in the back of the store appears overtly preoccupied with the legality of the product and the loss of revenue inflicted on cable and satellite providers across the border. “Will it work in the U.S.?” I ask him. He points to a screen broadcasting a sports event on ESPN and smiles.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the 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.