There exist many excellent articles that describe the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctions and designations of global terrorists related to Iran and their Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. This article will highlight two other areas where the U.S. can combat Hezbollah’s global operations: 1) strengthening extradition agreements and 2) improving customs enforcement in the global trading networks.
Background on Hezbollah’s Creation
Lebanese Hezbollah was created by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran that overthrew the western- backed Shah with a Shia revolutionary council headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini galvanized the Shia community with his concept of wilayat al-faqih which translates as “guardianship of the jurisconsult.” This theological concept, in simplified terms, meant that a qualified cleric must be obeyed if he can assume control of a political entity and his legal edicts were binding. This concept changed Shia behavior towards political activism which before Khomeini assumed a more passive role waiting for the return of the twelfth imam.
Lebanon’s Shia clerics were acquainted with their Iranian brethren from Shia seminaries in places like Najaf and Qom. Clerics such as Imam Musa al-Sadr, Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah and Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah helped import Khomeini’s doctrines to Lebanon. The Shia community in Lebanon suffered historic economic repression and underrepresentation in Lebanon’s confessional system that favored the Christian and Sunni sects. When Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1982 where the Shia are most numerous, the situation was ripe for the creation of a group like Hezbollah that was formed to fight Israel in Lebanon. By 1983, the U.S. believed that entities linked or closely associated with Hezbollah were responsible for suicide attacks on the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks—which influenced U.S. president Ronald Reagan to withdraw troops from Lebanon.
During the 1980s, Hezbollah emerged as a formidable terrorist group. Hezbollah perpetrated kidnappings, bombings and assassinations that often-targeted Americans such as the Beirut CIA chief William Buckley and Malcolm Kerr, the dean of the American University in Beirut. These activities motivated the Reagan National Security Council to broker the “arms-for hostages” deal, which was a complex and a covert multinational operation designed to release American hostages, sell arms to Iran, and use the proceeds to fund the Contras in Nicaragua.
The Lebanese civil war raged from 1975 to 1990 and devastated the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” Lebanon, via Beirut, thrived as an intermediary between the west and the east with an open economy dominated by banking, tourism, real estate and financial services that tended to favor the dominant Christian and Sunni power brokers and their patrons. But starting in the 1950s, with the rise of Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser, Lebanon was drawn into regional affairs and a more militant brand of Arab nationalism mobilized the Lebanese Muslims who were subject to a 1943 power sharing arrangement with the Christians. This agreement, never memorialized in writing, was known as the National Pact and was a compromise among the Maronite and Sunni elite without a national consensus. The Shia, a growing demographic group, were the least represented of the major sects.
The 1967 six-day war was a humiliating defeat for the Arab world and signaled the decline of Nasserism. Filling the void was a militant and armed PLO led by Yasser Arafat that leaned towards socialism but justified armed resistance to solve the problems that had afflicted the Palestinians since 1948—chiefly the right-of return for hundreds of thousands of refugees who settled in other countries including Lebanon.
When King Hussein of Jordan heaved the PLO out of his country Arafat established his headquarters in Beirut. Various agreements provided that the PLO could engage in resistance activities from Lebanon, which put the country directly in Israel’s crosshairs. Lebanon would suffer foreign intervention from Israel, Syria, Britain, France, Italy and the U.S. as well as Arab fighters from places like Libya and Iraq who supported the PLO in the first phases of the civil war that saw the PLO eventually driven to the coast.
The PLO was forced out of Lebanon by 1983 and the stage was set for the emergence of Hezbollah. In 1990, the Taif Accords were signed that ended the civil war and required, “Disbanding of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias shall be announced. The militias’ weapons shall be delivered to the State of Lebanon within a period of 6 months, beginning with the approval of the national accord charter. Why has Hezbollah remained armed? The rationale is Hezbollah not a militia but a “resistance” organization who deters Israeli aggression. However, Hezbollah fights for President Assad in Syria, supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen and is engaged in global criminal activities—hardly legitimate resistance in the plain meaning of that word.
Iran continued to fund and support Hezbollah as its proxy in the Arab world. Iran’s oil dependent economy has suffered downturns due to low oil prices and U.S. financial sanctions which forces Hezbollah to develop alternative funding sources. The main alternative has been to profit from Lebanon’s fertile Bekka Valley, where poppies and hashish are cultivated. The Bekka is one of the world’s top drug producing areas and billions of dollars are generated in the global trafficking of these drugs. While Hezbollah deplores illegal drugs from a religious perspective, it has been able to justify its operations because it raises money for the group’s activities and the drugs poison American youth.
Hezbollah’s Business Affairs Component (BAC)
Hezbollah’s organizational structure was identified by Professor Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh in his book, In the Path of Hizbullah (2004). Reporting to the important seven-member Shura Council is the Military and Security Apparatus. A sub-group of that unit is the Security Organ. Within the Security Organ is the Business Affairs Component (BAC).
Matthew Levitt, a Hezbollah expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote on April 26, 2016, “The BAC is no rogue operation—U. S. Investigators determined it was founded by the group’s senior terrorist figure, Imad Mugniyah, before his death in 2008, and that it is run by senior Hezbollah official Abdallah Safieddine and other operatives such as Adham Tabaja. Safieddine, a cousin of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, served as the group’s representative to Tehran and helped Iranian officials access the now-defunct Lebanese Canadian Bank, which the Treasury Department blacklisted in 2011 for having ties to global narcotics trafficking and money laundering network and to Hezbollah directly.”
A Department of Justice (DOJ) press release dated March 24, 2017 highlighted the BAC in the arrest of Kassim Tajideen, a key financial supporter of Hezbollah. This arrest was part of a two-year investigation led by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and assisted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as part of Project Cassandra, which targets Hezbollah’s global criminal support network—dubbed by the DEA as the Business Affairs Component that operates as a logistics and procurement network according to the DOJ.
The DOJ release quoted the indictment, which alleged, “Tajideen allegedly presided over a multi-billion-dollar commodity distribution business that operates primarily in the Middle East and Africa through a web of vertically integrated companies, partnerships and trade names.” The U.S. alleged that Tajideen fraudulent with criminal intent structured his business operations to evade U.S. sanctions and to manipulate the global trading rules.
By using fake trade names to conceal the actual ownership of goods it “allowed Tajideen’s companies to continue to illegally transact business directly with unwitting U.S. vendors, as well as to continue utilizing the U.S. financial and freight transportation systems to conduct wire transfers and move shipping containers despite the sanctions against Tajideen.”
Tajideen was arrested in Morocco and was extradited to the U.S. While the U.S. and Morocco do not have a formal extradition treaty, the two nations are aligned in the fight against global terrorism and are parties to a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty since 1993 in order to provide cooperation on criminal cases. The ability for the U.S. to gain personal jurisdiction over globally designated terrorists is imperative to disrupt and dismantle sophisticated transnational criminal organizations. The U.S. must strengthen and add to these treaties and mutual assistance pacts moving forward in its counter-terrorism efforts.
Hezbollah’s Trade-Based Money Laundering Activities
When billions of dollars are generated by illegal activities those funds must be laundered through the global financial networks. In order to mask their activities, Hezbollah has become a transnational criminal organization (TCO) that operates in five continents: North and South America, Asia, Africa and Europe. These activities require the establishment of front businesses operated by Lebanese living abroad and now the group is involved in U.S. real estate, used car lots, restaurants and other businesses that generate a lot of cash that helps launder their illegal proceeds.
To facilitate their global narcotics empire Hezbollah has and will work with dangerous drug-cartels in Mexico and Columbia. It is well known that for decades Hezbollah has been active in the tri-border area of South America: Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. The U.S. recently claimed that Hezbollah laundered drug proceeds from Latin American production through approximately 300 used car dealerships in the United States who shipped the used cars to West Africa where Lebanese residents linked to Hezbollah were involved in the trade.
These illegal activities involve trade-based money laundering (TBML) that manipulates a global trading apparatus established to facilitate trade. The terrorist financers engage in invoice fraud, false end-user certificates, fraudulent shipping declarations and weaknesses in letter of credit funding mechanisms with or without the knowledge of global banks. Likewise, Hezbollah utilizes transshipment ports, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), well known for corruption and fraud, in order to facilitate their illegal global trade. In February 2011, the Department of the Treasury designated the Lebanese Canadian Bank as a financial institution of primary money-laundering concern, stating that, according to U.S. government information, Hezbollah “derived financial support” from these drug and money laundering schemes, which included TBML.
Given that Hezbollah is also a sophisticated TCO, how can the U.S. better restrain Hezbollah without resorting to armed conflict? In addition to economic sanctions on Iran and declaring Hezbollah members as specially designated terrorists, triggering various sanctions and prohibitions, the U.S. should beef up extradition agreements and improve customs administration in places like Lebanon and the UAE where trade fraud is rampant.
Extradition Problems in Lebanon
The global operations of Hezbollah were exposed in the United States v. Iman Kobeissi in a DOJ document dated October 13, 2015. This is a terror-financing case in the Eastern District of New York. Kobeissi, born in Lebanon, was recorded as telling a confidential informant of her extensive ties to Hezbollah and ongoing terrorist criminal activities in the United States, South America, Lebanon, France, Bulgaria, Iran, Cyprus, Benin, Hungary, Ghana, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The DOJ noted that many of these countries, including Lebanon, do not have extradition treaties with the United States.
In this case, Kobeissi was arrested in Atlanta so extradition was not an issue. But what if she had been arrested in Lebanon? Or what if the accused flees to a country with no extradition treaty with the U.S.? In this case, the DOJ argued that under the U.S. Bail Reform Act, that Kobeissi suffer pretrial confinement because she had the “means, motive and opportunity to flee the country and should be denied bail.” Several U.S. court decisions support the pretrial confinement in similar circumstances where the government showed by the preponderance of the evidence the accused had the financial resources and foreign connections making flight from the U.S. to a safe haven a strong possibility.
The importance of the U.S. gaining physical custody of terror operatives is evidenced by Kobeissi attempting to acquire weapons and restricted technologies such as airplane parts and blueprints for “heavy weapons.” The investigation revealed global criminal activities by Hezbollah operatives in concert with other global mafias the included trade in cocaine and “blood diamonds” in Africa. The investigation also revealed a complex conspiracy to launder illicit funds through global banks in the U.S., Lebanon and France. Another defendant in this case, Joseph Asmar, bragged about his connections to Hezbollah and claimed Hezbollah could provide security to narcotics shipments at transshipment points in Africa and the Middle East, thereby implicating the group in global trade fraud for the purposes of furthering their criminal and terrorist operations.
Another example of extradition problem was brought to light by the case of Hezbollah financier Nader Mohammad Farhat. In May, 2018, Paraguayan law enforcement raided a money changing house in Ciudad Del Este and arrested Farhat for money laundering. Farhat is alleged to be a member of Hezbollah’s BAC. The U.S. sought to extradite Farhat because his crimes involved the U.S. financial system but Lebanon’s charge d’Affaires intervened with a letter to Paraguay’s attorney general requesting that Farhat not be extradited. Is Lebanon officially protecting Hezbollah’s criminal activities?
Lebanon does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. The U.S. should insist that one be enacted. The U.S. has provided considerable funds for the Lebanese military and the U.S. Department of State has ongoing economic assistance programs that are helping the Lebanon’s agricultural sector among other benefits. The U.S. also has sent troops to Lebanon upon request to help Lebanon, such as in 1958 when President Chamoun invoked the Eisenhower doctrine to help repress alleged communist subversion from Soviet backed Syria and in the early 1980s to facilitate a peaceful withdrawal of the PLO. Moreover, the U.S. provides ample employment to a large Lebanese diaspora whose remittances that are vital to the sagging Lebanese economy. Based on these and other reasons, the U.S. should insist on better cooperation from Lebanon to combat global drug trafficking and money laundering. If Lebanon is unwilling to enter into a bilateral treaty they should sign a Mutual Assistance Agreement to cooperate on criminal and terrorist cases. A careful examination of the law reveals how Lebanon can protect its accused from American justice.
Article 30 of the Lebanese Criminal Code states: Nobody may be extradited to a foreign state other than those provided for in this code, except pursuant to a legally binding treaty. Article 31 states: The following may give rise to extradition: 1) offenses committed in the territory of the requesting state; 2) offenses that adversely affect its security or financial status; and 3) offenses committed by one of its nationals.
Lebanon acceded to the United Nations Convention against the illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in 1996. The accession has the same legal effect as ratification–for treaties already negotiated and signed by other states.
The U.S. has ratified the treaty. When Lebanon acceded to this treaty they made certain reservations and exceptions, but none of those related to article 6 that governs extradition. Does the U.S. have a legal basis under this treaty to extradite a Lebanese national apprehended in Paraguay? The Lebanese criminal code seems to say that their prohibition on extradition does not apply when there is a legally binding treaty in place.
It is apparent from article 6 of the UN treaty that the term legally binding treaty refers to an extradition treaty between the parties—which does not exist between Lebanon and the United States. However, paragraph 3 of Article 6 states, “If a Party which makes extradition conditional on the existence of a treaty receives a request for extradition from another Party with which it has no extradition treaty, it may consider this Convention as the legal basis for extradition in respect of any offense to which this article applies. The Parties which require detailed legislation in order to use this Convention as a legal basis for extradition shall consider enacting such legislation as may be necessary.”
While a legally binding extradition treaty between Lebanon and the United States would be desirable, it is unlikely a divided and sometimes the unformed Lebanese government will pass such legislation—especially as the 2018 parliamentary elections appear to have strengthened Hezbollah’s growing political power in Lebanese politics. For example, the international tribunal that has indicted four members of Hezbollah for assassinating Prime Minister Rafik Hariri have been tried in absentia as Hezbollah refuses to turn over the accused. Hezbollah will vigorously oppose any effort to help the U.S. extradite its operatives.
Clearly the UN Convention can be a basis for an extradition but the use of discretionary words like may and consider are discretionary terms and not binding requirements. As such, Lebanon is not bound by international law to extradite their nationals unless required by domestic legislation to do so.
Herein lies the problem with international treaties. They typically lack binding enforcement provisions and are often couched in discretionary language that allows countries room to maneuver to suit their interests. It is worth mentioning that the UN treaty on illicit narcotics appears to be so much fluff—drugs flow across borders daily and despite some local interdictions by domestic border enforcement agencies the demand is always met. Despite good intentions, the UN scheme for combatting drug flows has proven to be ineffective.
The U.S. should attempt to negotiate an extradition treaty with Lebanon and to insist that the UN treaty is a proper basis for extradition. If Lebanon refuses to sign an extradition treaty then the U.S. should, at a minimum, insist that Lebanon sign a Mutual Assistance Agreement with the U.S. to facilitate cooperation on criminal and terrorist cases. According to the U.S. Department of State, via the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the U.S. has many such Mutual Assistance Treaties, agreements, Memorandum of Understandings or even an exchange of letters in place to combat TCOs but none—so far—with Lebanon.
Failing that, If Lebanon is unwilling to cooperate in these endeavors then the U.S. must consider what, if any, diplomatic or other tools it has available to prosecute Hezbollah members who commit crimes affecting U.S. interests.
Problems with Transit-Trade in the United Arab Emirates
Hezbollah expert Emanuelle Ottolenghi has claimed that the organizations illicit schemes in the tri-border region involve the corruption and complicity of local officials who rarely inspect the flow of goods that transit through Dubai and the U.S. via Ciudad Del Este’s Guarani International Airport. This problem relates to corrupt and or incompetent customs enforcement that either allows the illicit goods to escape capture or fails to detect the fraud. It is well known that the UAE has been a key transit port for illicit trade and this must be addressed if the goal is to diminish the success of Hezbollah in funding their operations.
The UAE has approximately thirty-seven Free Trade Zones for duty free exports. The Emirati Federal Customs Administration oversees the huge volumes of global trade that enters and transits the seven Emirates. The laws and regulations prohibit illegal trade but the problem—as always—is fraud and corruption. Civil servants on a government salary are always vulnerable to bribes and intimidation.
The European Union (EU) threatened in 2009 to withdraw special trade privileges from the UAE due to the high volume of fraudulent trade arriving in the EU. All goods entering EU ports must have proper documentation that includes a valid certificate of origin. TCOs often transit their goods through the UAE with a certificate of origin masking that the sender is from Iran or China by showing the UAE as the goods origin. The EU trade officials demanded that that UAE engage in better interagency cooperation and develop better procedures for post verification of trade consignments.
The UAE touts their ability to stop fraud and boasted in 2016 that Abu Dhabi Customs inspectors foiled over 7,000 smuggling attempts. While there is no doubt that UAE customs halts a fair amount of illegal trade these statistics do not reveal how much criminal or fraudulent trade is not being detected or is facilitated to the EU or the U.S.
The UAE, like the U.S., is part of the UN treaty on illicit narcotics and a member of the World Customs Organization. The U.S. should proactively utilize these treaties and instruments to assist the UAE (and other high-risk nations) with better customs administration procedures. The U.S. customs administration is based on risk management principles that facilitates legitimate trade in order to focus on high risk trade. Because of the overwhelming volume of global trade there is no possible way to eliminate all fraud but proper procedures will stop a large portion of this criminal trade.
For example, article 10 of the UN Convention on illicit narcotics calls for international cooperation and assistance for transit states that includes technical cooperation on interdictions and other related activities. The article also describes financial assistance to transit states for the purpose of augmenting and strengthening infrastructure for effective control and prevention of illicit traffic.
The U.S. customs assistance can also include training on how to implement a risk-based system to better detect and interdict goods with fraudulent documentation including false certificates of origin. International treaties and global customs organizations highly encourage the sharing of intelligence and Mutual Assistance Agreements which are force multipliers in combatting groups like Hezbollah who utilize the global trading system to facilitate their global operations.
Hezbollah has repeatedly expanded their definition of resistance and now operates as a TCO that corrupts global trade to fund their activities. The U.S. must use every available method to frustrate and interdict their illegal activities. In addition to the financial sanctions against Iran and Hezbollah, the U.S. should strengthen its ability to extradite Hezbollah operatives and to target their global trading operations indispensable to its financial well-being. The U.S. must strengthen and add to its Mutual Assistance Agreements and bilateral extradition treaties with countries like Lebanon in order to fully prosecute and incarcerate global criminals who support Islamic terror groups like Hezbollah.
Photo credit to: ‘Lebanon in a Picture’
Counter-terrorism Analyst - Jihadist networks in USA - US Desk (USA)