September 21, 2023 | Washington Examiner

Treasury sanctions Hezbollah’s network in Colombia, but what took so long?

September 21, 2023 | Washington Examiner

Treasury sanctions Hezbollah’s network in Colombia, but what took so long?

The Biden administration wants to create the impression it is finally getting tough on Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group and Iranian proxy. The Treasury Department’s sanctions last week against three Colombia-based Hezbollah operatives and their businesses seem to suggest the White House is taking the threat more seriously. In fact, this latest action is a classic case of closing the stables after the horse has bolted.

According to the Treasury, brothers Amer and Samer Akil Rada, along with Amer’s son Mehdy Helbawy, “manage a commercial enterprise for Hezbollah, including charcoal exports to Lebanon,” a preferred method for concealing drug shipments from Latin America. The department says Amer’s company remits “as much as 80 percent” of its proceeds to Hezbollah. This, then, is not just a case of Hezbollah supporters remitting money to Hezbollah in the form of donations or laundering money for cartels and paying a percentage of their revenue to Hezbollah. This is a wholly owned Hezbollah business.

There’s more. Amer, according to the Treasury, was an operational member of the Hezbollah hit squad behind the 1994 deadly terror attack against the AMIA, the Jewish cultural center in Argentina, which left 85 dead and more than 200 wounded — not just a sympathetic businessman then, but a trained terrorist. Samer, who is now running a lucrative cryptocurrency operation in Venezuela, was suspected by local authorities of being implicated in a cocaine shipment hidden under pineapples that was seized on its way from Belize to El Salvador in 2013. At the time, Samer denied any wrongdoing. With the fresh sanctions last week, the Treasury has finally set the record straight.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the Treasury’s latest revelations are new. They are not.

Amer and Samer Akil Rada were first publicly linked to Hezbollah in two separate articles published by the Argentinian news outlet InfoBae in 2018. Then, in October 2020, the Washington-based Latin America expert Joseph Humire detailed Amer and Samer Akil Rada’s links to Hezbollah in a lengthy Atlantic Council study of Hezbollah’s networks in Venezuela. Humire noted, “Argentine authorities suspect a Venezuelan Lebanese dual national named Amer Mohamed Akil Rada of being involved in the Hezbollah attack of the AMIA building.” Amer, later on, “set up small import-export businesses in Panama, sending textiles to Colombia and charcoal to Lebanon, with as much as 80 percent of the proceeds used to support Hezbollah.” This is almost word for word what the Treasury announced last week.

Since those reports appeared in the press, publicly exposed evidence of the Akils’ business network and their connections to the Maduro regime and Hezbollah has piled up, including, most recently, a detailed map of their activities in a Washington Institute policy note in March 2022. But by then, the Akils had absconded to safer shores. Amer fled Colombia in 2014, setting up a business in Lebanon while leaving Samer and Mehdy behind to run the Colombia operation. Samer and Mehdy too have since left Colombia, according to confidential Colombian sources who spoke to this author in July. They are now operating their businesses from the safety of Venezuela’s friendly Maduro regime.

Not only did Washington’s targets find shelter elsewhere long before the Treasury acted against them, but they had ample time to cover their tracks as well. Shipping records for the companies the Treasury sanctioned, such as Zanga S.A.S., obtained from the Panjiva commercial database, show that Zanga discontinued business operations in 2021, soon after its suspected link to Hezbollah became public and long before the Treasury bothered to act. Shipments of Colombian charcoal have since been handled by new companies, also owned by Lebanese nationals. Zanga’s old clients, likewise, have also disappeared, and new buyers have replaced them in the same locations to which Zanga used to ship.

The slow pace of the Treasury’s designations, of course, can be just a function of budgetary constraints, personnel changes, or a different policy focus (think Russia), not the result of a policy aversion to targeting Iran’s proxies. Either way, the result is underwhelming. We get a press release; Hezbollah’s operatives, meanwhile, are already out of reach.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on X @eottolenghi.  FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran in Latin America Iran-backed Terrorism Sanctions and Illicit Finance