Fifteen Hezbollah-linked defendants accused of laundering millions of euros in South American drug money to Europe and Lebanon went on trial in Paris last week. The accused, mainly Lebanese nationals, allegedly collected proceeds from cocaine sales in Europe to purchase luxury goods, which they later resold in Lebanon. They then returned the profits, minus a hefty commission, to the South American cartels that delivered the cocaine. U.S. agents involved in the investigation, known as “Operation Cedar,” assert that Hezbollah used part of the profits to purchase weapons for the war in Syria.
Based on investigative leads from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), European authorities launched a year-long investigation in February 2015 that uncovered a laundering network spanning South America, Europe, and the Middle East. The DEA initiative was part of Project Cassandra, a decade-long effort to disrupt Hezbollah’s cooperation with the cartels.
In early 2016, European authorities seized cash, luxury goods, and properties valued at millions of euros from the network. The ensuing arrests included chief defendant Mohamad Noureddine, who was detained in France in January. As part of a corresponding American effort to obstruct the network, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Noureddine for working “directly with Hizballah’s financial apparatus to transfer Hizballah funds via his Lebanon-based company Trade Point International S.A.R.L.” Noureddine maintained commercial interests on behalf of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iraq.
The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which accessed hundreds of pages of the investigation’s case files, reported that the “intersection between money laundering and terrorist financing … plays a role in the Paris trial,” and that investigators “suspect” money was transferred to Hezbollah. The defendants deny any links to the group. Europol reported that the laundering network, which processed an estimated 1 million euros per week in 2015, was mainly composed of Lebanese nationals suspected of financing terrorism through Hezbollah.
Europe has sought to downplay Hezbollah’s presence on the continent, apparently worried that pressuring Hezbollah would jeopardize the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran – Hezbollah’s chief patron – and derail business with Iranian companies. Plans for a joint Europol-DEA press release following the arrests of the defendants were cancelled because Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was scheduled to visit France later that week. French officials reportedly feared that publicity could jeopardize France’s planned sale of Airbus planes to Iran.
The fear of confronting Hezbollah is not new in Europe. In 2012, Hezbollah planted a bomb in Burgas, Bulgaria, which killed five Israeli tourists and their Muslim Bulgarian bus driver. While Bulgaria, Europol, and other governments blamed Hezbollah for the attack, the Bulgarian prosecutor trying the case – perhaps in an apparent effort to downplay the terrorist group’s role – did not mention Hezbollah in the indictment.
Shortly after the attack, the European Union designated Hezbollah’s so-called “military wing” as a terrorist entity, drawing a false distinction from the “political wing.” Indeed, the group does not regard itself as bifurcated. The U.S. Congress has thus called on Europe to designate Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization.
It is time for Europe to cease minimizing the threat from Hezbollah and to hold the group legally responsible for its actions. Europe should designate all of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The French justice system should ensure that as the Operation Cedar trial unfolds, Hezbollah’s illicit activities, which continue unabated in Europe, are exposed, punished, and constrained.