US prosecution drive could weaken Hezbollah in Mideast


NEW YORK: Vigorous prosecutions of Hezbollah’s drug traffickers and other vice units could starve the Iran-backed militia of cash and hurt its military activities in the Middle East, an expert on the group told Arab News.

Emanuele Ottolenghi, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank, praised this week’s decision by the United States to launch a task force to probe “narcoterrorism” by the Lebanese movement Hezbollah.

The group pockets $200-$300 million each year – 20-30 percent of its annual budget – from smuggling cocaine to the US and other illicit schemes before using the cash to fund activities in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, Ottolenghi said.

“You could severely disrupt flows of funds that come through Hezbollah’s Latin American involvement to their war machine in the Middle East,” said Ottolenghi, the author of several books on Iran and its Shiite proxy militia.

“You could weaken them at the global level – impairing their ability to interface with the cartels, logistically being able to carry out terrorist strikes abroad, and reduce their leverage in Lebanon, which is contingent on their financial largesse.”

Ottolenghi’s comments followed Thursday’s decision by the US Justice Department to create a unit of specialists on money-laundering, drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime aimed at Hezbollah’s fund-raising wing.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said it would “leave no stone unturned” in targeting Hezbollah’s sprawling network, whose reach extends across Africa and into Central and South America, according to the department.

The team will build prosecutions, disrupt drug rings and staunch cash flows, Sessions said. He noted criticism that former president Barack Obama held back from cracking down on Hezbollah’s global web in order to achieve the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

The creation of the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team (HFNT) comes amid a stepped-up effort to battle Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East and the group’s expanded military capabilities.

Senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, praised the new HFNT, saying an “aggressive, multi-agency investigation” of Hezbollah was “sorely needed” and thanked President Donald Trump’s administration for delivering.

“The Iran-backed Hezbollah uses its criminal network to fund ongoing efforts that undermine US interests. Obama officials blocked efforts to take the terrorist group down,” Wicker said via Twitter on Thursday.

“The American people and their representatives in Congress require a full assessment of Hezbollah’s criminal enterprises.”

Wicker and other Republicans have bashed Obama following a report in Politico in December that his administration hindered a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) program targeting Hezbollah’s trafficking operations as it brokered the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Washington has long targeted Hezbollah with sanctions, accusing the group of terrorist attacks and destabilizing parts of the Middle East using resources gained through global drug smuggling and money laundering operations.

In 2011 the Obama administration cracked down on the group’s far-flung associates, branding Beirut-based Lebanese Canadian Bank a “primary money laundering concern” for handling the funds of alleged Hezbollah drugs chief Ayman Joumaa.

The US Treasury and DEA later described a massive operation involving Panama- and Colombia-based drug traffickers shipping multi-ton amounts of cocaine to the US, Europe and elsewhere around the globe.

The network laundered billions of dollars of their own cash and that of other traffickers through Panama shell companies, various banks in Lebanon and elsewhere, and an operation that exported used cars from the US to West Africa.

Former DEA official Derek Maltz said Hezbollah most recently used the proceeds to buy weapons for the group’s operations in Syria, and some funds went to Yemen, where Iran-backed rebels are battling Saudi-supported government forces.

Against this backdrop, Ottolenghi warned that the new HFNT faced a formidable task and would need talent, tools and the full diplomatic clout of the Trump administration to make a dent in Hezbollah’s criminal web.
“You’re dealing with a global network of people who are very loyal to one another, are loyal to the cause, and often benefit from great wealth for themselves personally and for the enterprise,” Ottolenghi told Arab News.

“They are talented, multilingual gangster-cum-entrepreneurs who travel seamlessly across borders and have global connections for support and cover. In short, we need talent, resources and the lowering of bureaucratic barriers that have impeded the government from doing the right thing until now.”

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