On Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence is set to meet with regional leaders at the Summit of the Americas, where he should tell those assembled that it is time to launch a coordinated campaign against Hezbollah’s illicit empire in Latin America. (The Vice-President is stepping in for President Donald Trump, who abruptly cancelled his Latin America trip to oversee the U.S. response to Syria’s latest chemical attack outrage). But first, the White House has to show that it is prepared to take the lead by designating Hezbollah, a political and militant organization based in Lebanon, as a Transnational Criminal Organization under U.S. law.
For a brief moment at the beginning of this year, reviving the pursuit of Hezbollah in Latin America seemed to be a priority of the U.S. Department of Justice. Last December, a Politico investigation charged that the Barack Obama administration had gone soft on Hezbollah in order to facilitate nuclear negotiations with Iran, group’s main patron. Specifically, the investigation found that the Obama Justice Department 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.
While veterans of the Obama administration insist that Politico’s reporting was downright false and politically motivated, the story spurred the Trump administration to broadcast signals that it was serious about pursuing Hezbollah. Indeed, days after Politico published its exposé, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of decisions made by the Obama Justice Department, and, on January 11, he announced the establishment of an interagency task force entrusted with combating Hezbollah’s terrorism finance.
Yet, as of yet, there are no concrete signs that the Department of Justice is ready to revive Project Cassandra. Nor has the Trump administration designated Hezbollah as a Transnational Criminal Organization, which would serve as a meaningful step toward drawing a sharp contrast between the current president and his predecessor.
Although the Hezbollah International Finance Prevention Act of 2015 required that the White House determine whether Hezbollah meets the criteria for designation, the Obama administration declined to do so. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have passed legislation seeking to spur the executive branch into action, while giving its agencies sharper tools to go after the terror group. Yet the administration has not acted.
While there are plenty of other challenges that may have distracted the White House and Justice Department from Hezbollah, the Summit of the Americas represents a critical opportunity to put the issue back on the table both at home and abroad.
To date, no Latin American country has designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Pence should definitely raise this issue on his second visit to the region, although progress may be difficult. However, the United States can achieve much of the same effect by persuading other countries to recognize Hezbollah as a narco-trafficking threat under their own laws. Yet for that request to be credible, the U.S. must do so first.
To be sure, Hezbollah rejects the notion that it would ever engage in criminal activity, because the admission would seriously compromise its claim to abide by Islamic ethics. Claiming that accusations of criminal activities are just smear attempts, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has repeatedly cited Iranian patronage as the source of Hezbollah’s finances. While Iran’s largesse still goes a long way, Hezbollah’s financial needs have dramatically grown over the years, driven by war and regional adventurism on Tehran’s behalf. The ayatollahs remain committed to their Hezbollah franchise, but have not always been dependable due to more than a decade of sanctions-induced economic crisis. Since at least 2006, when Hezbollah had to face the challenge of rebuilding Lebanon following its war that year against Israel, the group has sought alternative sources of revenue, making illicit finance a major item of its annual operating budget.
Numerous cases cited in the Politico exposé confirm that cooperation with crime syndicates for fundraising is integral to Hezbollah’s organizational structure and modus operandi, enjoying support from the organization’s highest echelons.
In 2009, the Department of Justice indicted Hassan Hodroj and nine other individuals. Their crimes included trading in counterfeit currency, fake passports, counterfeited and stolen brand goods, and, ominously, the attempted acquisition of 1,400 American-made Colt M4 carbines. Hodroj was at the time, and remains to this day, a member of Hezbollah’s Political Council in charge of Palestinian affairs. The criminal complaint against Hodroj makes it abundantly clear that Hezbollah approved, coordinated, and benefited from these activities. It also reveals that as undercover U.S. agents negotiated arrangements for the weapons transfer, the operative involved called a very senior figure in Hezbollah’s hierarchy — likely Abdallah Safieddine — to facilitate the deal.
Safieddine is the man in charge of overseeing Hezbollah’s criminal activities and is part of the group’s inner circle. He is Nasrallah’s maternal first cousin and Hezbollah’s personal envoy to Tehran. His brother Hisham, a cleric, is a member of Hezbollah’s Shura Council, the party’s ruling body, and many consider him the likely successor to Nasrallah. In February 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency named Hisham as the head of Hezbollah’s Business Affairs Component. Safieddine’s deputy, Akram Barakat, has brothers who are senior members of the Barakat clan’s Latin American branch. The U.S. Department of Treasury listed them as Specially Designated Global Terrorists in 2006, accusing them of involvement in criminal activities whose proceeds funded Hezbollah. Local authorities prosecuted some, but not all of the brothers and their associates over the years for crimes ranging from fraud to drug trafficking.
Other Project Cassandra cases are highly suggestive of a Hezbollah terror-crime nexus. One in particular involves Lebanese businesswoman Iman Kobeissi, whom U.S. undercover agents entrapped and arrested in 2015. Kobeissi was indicted for laundering what she believed to be money from drug proceeds, and for trying to procure weapons and airplane parts for both Hezbollah and Iran. According to court documents, she boasted of Hezbollah ties with criminal groups in numerous African and European countries during her encounters with undercover U.S. agents. She also mentioned Puerto Rico as a point of departure for cocaine shipments — an indication that Hezbollah’s criminal networks operate inside the U.S.
The more recent case of Ali Issa Chamas, a suspected Hezbollah drug trafficker extradited from Paraguay to the United states in June 2017, appears to confirm Kobeissi’s comments about Hezbollah using Puerto Rico for clandestine shipments of cocaine. Investigators discovered that Chamas was conspiring with a U.S.-based associate to ship hundreds of kilograms of cocaine to the United States by air cargo. According to court documents, Chamas boasted of a secure and fast way to deliver his merchandise to the United States. He was no more concerned about cargo screening in the United States than in Paraguay, where corrupt officials look the other way in exchange for bribes.
Another country where Hezbollah’s criminal enterprise has deep roots is Colombia, to which Pence will travel after the Summit of the Americas. Hezbollah works with local drug cartels to dispatch multi-ton shipments of cocaine to both Europe and the U.S.
While at this weekend’s summit, the vice president should remind his hosts about the Ayman Joumaa network in Colombia, which laundered drug proceeds through a complex scheme involving used car businesses in the United States and customers in West Africa. The Eastern District of Virginia indicted Joumaa in 2011 based on Drug Enforcement Agency evidence, although he remains at large. Even after the Joumaa case uncovered the prominent role of used car sales, they remain an important part of Hezbollah’s money laundering schemes through West Africa. Iman Kobeissi told U.S. undercover agents that parking lots in West Africa were still overflowing with used American cars as of 2015.
No matter how much Nasrallah pontificates about the pious and pure nature of his terror group’s sources of funding, the evidence accumulated over a decade of investigations in the United States and abroad makes a damning case for passing tougher legislation against Hezbollah’s terror-crime nexus, and an even more compelling one for a Transnational Criminal Organization designation.
What is Trump waiting for?
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.