Hezbollah and the U.S. government — tangled ties to drug cartels

Make of this tangled web, what you will. All I can say is that the key words — ties and links — don’t have a lot of substance.

Lebanon is a small country inside which Hezbollah is the most powerful political organization. To identify a person or a business in Lebanon as having ties to Hezbollah doesn’t say a great deal.

A New York Times report alleges that an investigation of the books of the Lebanese Canadian Bank (LCB) “offer evidence of an intricate global money-laundering apparatus that, with the bank as its hub, appeared to let Hezbollah move huge sums of money into the legitimate financial system, despite sanctions aimed at cutting off its economic lifeblood.”

(The LCB was recently acquired by the Lebanese subsidiary of the major European bank, Societe Generale, which itself happens to have been the largest beneficiary of the U.S. government’s bailout of AIG, receiving $16.5 billion — but that’s a whole other banking story!)

The report says:

While law enforcement agencies around the world have long believed that Hezbollah is a passive beneficiary of contributions from loyalists abroad involved in drug trafficking and a grab bag of other criminal enterprises, intelligence from several countries points to the direct involvement of high-level Hezbollah officials in the South American cocaine trade.

One agent involved in the investigation compared Hezbollah to the Mafia, saying, “They operate like the Gambinos on steroids.”

But once the report goes into details, the substance of the ties to Hezbollah amounts to facts like these: one individual involved turns out to be “a relative of a former Hezbollah commander”; Shiite businessmen, “many of them known Hezbollah supporters,” are involved; and Ayman Joumaa, a Sunni Lebanese hotel owner at the center of the scheme possessed cell phones that “linked him to Shiites in Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon.”

The evidence of the laundering scheme may be strong but the ties to Hezbollah seem a bit sketchy. Moreover, the desire of U.S. officials to tar the Shiite movement is quite explicit.

As the case traveled up the administration’s chain of command beginning in the fall of 2010, some officials proposed leaving the Hezbollah link unsaid. They argued that simply blacklisting the bank would disrupt the network while insulating the United States from suspicions of playing politics, especially amid American alarm about ebbing influence in the Middle East. But the prevailing view was that the case offered what one official called “a great opportunity to dirty up Hezbollah” by pointing out the hypocrisy of the “Party of God” profiting from criminal activity.

If Hezbollah is worried about protecting its reputation, it probably has less to fear from the U.S. government than it does from reactions to its response to the uprising in Syria.

Larbi Sadiki writes:

Faced with the Syrian people’s uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and a democratic tsunami sweeping the Middle East, Hezbollah’s alignment with Mr. Assad is destroying its reputation across the Arab world.

The Syrian masses who once worshiped the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah today curse him when they parade in public squares. The posters of Mr. Assad and Mr. Nasrallah that once adorned car windows and walls throughout Syria are now regularly torched.

Until recently, Mr. Nasrallah, a Shiite, was a pan-Arab icon. His standing as Hezbollah’s chairman and commander of the 2006 war against Israel elevated him to new heights of popularity among Shiites and Sunnis alike, reminiscent of the former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s political stardom following the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956.

Not only did Mr. Nasrallah fight Israel next door; he defied pro-American Arab states, trained and protected Hamas in Lebanon, backed Moktada al-Sadr’s Shiite militia as it killed Americans in Iraq, and showed absolute loyalty to Iran. His fans were in the millions. The Arab multitude from Casablanca to Mecca saw him as a genuine hero who talked the talk and fought the good fight.

But when such a wildly popular resistance movement abandons the ideal, much less the practice, of liberation in support of tyranny, it loses credibility with the public.

Fighting Israel as a Syrian proxy is one thing, but opposing the Syrian people’s desire for democratic change is something else entirely.

The Assads are mortals who are today burdened by a moribund political system. Mr. Assad, his brother Maher and their henchmen have managed to trap themselves in a macabre machine of oppression that has left the stench of death in its wake, from Homs to Hama.

Now, Mr. Nasrallah has reason to worry. In one speech, he defensively denied that his troops partake in repressing Syrian protesters. In another, he ignored the Syrian uprising altogether.

Syrians, in Mr. Nasrallah’s eyes, apparently, do not deserve democracy because that would mean the downfall of Hezbollah’s patron in Damascus, not to mention the destruction of the “axis of resistance” that reaches from southern Beirut to Syria and Iran.

Hezbollah’s fellow “resistance” movement, Hamas, has been more politically savvy. It has adapted to the new political landscape, navigating the uncharted territory of the Syrian uprising by impressing onlookers by what it didn’t do and say rather than what it did or said.

Thanassis Cambanis points out that in spite of the criticisms it currently faces, Hezbollah remains a strong force.

[It] boasts the most formidable militia in the Arab world and commands the undivided loyalty of its core supporters, even if the casual fans are drifting away. For the time being, the movement also can count on Iran’s funding, which is critical for them. Even in the year of the Arab uprisings, Nasrallah scored as the most popular Arab leader on the Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey [PDF] (although some non-Arabs did better; Nasrallah was tied with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and behind Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan).

So Hezbollah is unlikely in the short term to diminish as a player.

And Hezbollah’s unmasking of CIA agents in Lebanon serves as a stark reminder that the Party of God is a force with real tools in its arsenal, not just a rhetorically gifted leader who plays well on television. This week, Al Manar aired the name of a man it claims is the current CIA station chief in Beirut; the agency has replaced top officers in Pakistan twice in the last two years when their names were published.

However dim Hezbollah’s long-term prospects, it will remain a critical player in the short term. And if history is any indicator, it might just find a way to emerge from a self-induced crisis that threatens to consign it to irrelevance — once again — even stronger.

Meanwhile, when it comes to investigating ties to the Mexican drug cartels, the operations of the investigators themselves seem to warrant as much scrutiny as the subjects of their investigations.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported:

Undercover American narcotics agents have laundered or smuggled millions of dollars in drug proceeds as part of Washington’s expanding role in Mexico’s fight against drug cartels, according to current and former federal law enforcement officials.

The agents, primarily with the Drug Enforcement Administration, have handled shipments of hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal cash across borders, those officials said, to identify how criminal organizations move their money, where they keep their assets and, most important, who their leaders are.

They said agents had deposited the drug proceeds in accounts designated by traffickers, or in shell accounts set up by agents.

The officials said that while the D.E.A. conducted such operations in other countries, it began doing so in Mexico only in the past few years. The high-risk activities raise delicate questions about the agency’s effectiveness in bringing down drug kingpins, underscore diplomatic concerns about Mexican sovereignty, and blur the line between surveillance and facilitating crime. As it launders drug money, the agency often allows cartels to continue their operations over months or even years before making seizures or arrests.

Agency officials declined to publicly discuss details of their work, citing concerns about compromising their investigations. But Michael S. Vigil, a former senior agency official who is currently working for a private contracting company called Mission Essential Personnel, said, “We tried to make sure there was always close supervision of these operations so that we were accomplishing our objectives, and agents weren’t laundering money for the sake of laundering money.”

Another former agency official, who asked not to be identified speaking publicly about delicate operations, said, “My rule was that if we are going to launder money, we better show results. Otherwise, the D.E.A. could wind up being the largest money launderer in the business, and that money results in violence and deaths.”

Those are precisely the kinds of concerns members of Congress have raised about a gun-smuggling operation known as Fast and Furious, in which agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed people suspected of being low-level smugglers to buy and transport guns across the border in the hope that they would lead to higher-level operatives working for Mexican cartels. After the agency lost track of hundreds of weapons, some later turned up in Mexico; two were found on the United States side of the border where an American Border Patrol agent had been shot to death.

So, the DEA is laundering cartel money and the ATF is providing them with guns. What next? Drug kingpins on the CIA payroll? Oh, I guess that’s just old news.

The CIA — which seems to have been down on its luck recently with officers exposed in Beirut, operatives arrested in Iran and a stealth drone captured by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard — does indeed show up in the Times Lebanon story.

The trail began with a man known as Taliban, overheard on Colombian wiretaps of a Medellín cartel, La Oficina de Envigado. Actually, he was a Lebanese transplant, Chekri Mahmoud Harb, and in June 2007, he met in Bogotá with an undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration and sketched out his route.

Cocaine was shipped by sea to Port Aqaba, Jordan, then smuggled into Syria. After Mr. Harb bragged that he could deliver 950 kilos into Lebanon within hours, the undercover agent casually remarked that he must have Hezbollah connections. Mr. Harb smiled and nodded, the agent reported.

A nod and a smile? This is the kind of detail that’s good for a new report, but it would hardly have any value in a trial. But then again, since this is a case that probably won’t ever reach trial, the political value of the indictment seems to figure more prominently than any likely legal outcome.

(Jordanian officials, after extensive surveillance, later told the D.E.A. that the Syrian leg of the shipment was coordinated by a Syrian intelligence officer assigned as a liaison to Hezbollah. From there, multiple sources reported, Hezbollah operatives charged a tax to guarantee shipments into Lebanon.)

Soon the cartel was giving the agent money to launder: $20 million in all. But before Mr. Harb could reveal the entire scheme and identify his Hezbollah contacts, the operation broke down: The C.I.A., initially skeptical of a Hezbollah link, now wanted in on the case. On the eve of a planned meeting in Jordan, it forced the undercover agent to postpone. His quarry spooked. In the end, Mr. Harb was convicted on federal drug trafficking and money-laundering charges, but the window into the organization’s heart had slammed shut.

Lastly, for a story in which Hezbollah figures so prominently, here’s perhaps the most curious detail about the legal case around which the story revolves: the indictment unveiled by the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia on Tuesday does not mention Hezbollah.

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One thought on “Hezbollah and the U.S. government — tangled ties to drug cartels

  1. Norman

    One good thing here, it brings out in the open, the role that both the C.I.A. & the D.E.A. play. As was stated, old news. But, for those just tuning in, “Quelle surprise”. As with any empire, control is the key, though losing such control on a continuing basis, requires said control to be replaced, or lose it. Strange bedfellows, the shaping up that’s taking place in the M.E. today. Getting harder to tell who is who, except that the C.I.A. seems to be into it so deep, that even if it wanted too, it can’t extricate itself. There is just too much money available, and we all know what that does! Besides, this being the 21st century, everything is moving exponentially each day, not like it was in the 20th century, which is where the present thinking still resides.

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