Washington designates Hezbollah as ‘top organised crime threat’

The unprecedented move puts the Lebanon-based militia in the same category as notorious Latin American drug cartels and gangs.
Sunday 21/10/2018
US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks during a news conference on efforts to reduce transnational crime at the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, on October 15.  (AFP)
Tougher stance. US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks during a news conference on efforts to reduce transnational crime at the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, on October 15. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration has classified Hezbollah as an international criminal organisation, an unprecedented move that puts the Lebanon-based militia in the same category as notorious Latin American drug cartels and gangs.

By designating Hezbollah and the four Latin American groups as “top transnational organised crime threats,” the US Justice Department will target them with stepped-up investigations and prosecutions, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said.

Prosecutors assigned to Hezbollah were charged with investigating “individuals and networks providing support to Hezbollah,” Sessions said. Other groups targeted by a new Justice Department task force on transnational organised crime include MS-13, a violent street gang based in El Salvador linked to killings in the United States, and the Sinaloa cartel of Mexico, a powerful international drug organisation led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

The targeting of Hezbollah reflects the group’s stature as a multibillion-dollar international criminal organisation whose members have helped facilitate major drug sales in the United States, officials said. Hezbollah associates have been charged recently with moving hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of cocaine into the United States from Latin America.

The US Congress said in a report on border security that Latin America has “become a money laundering and major fundraising centre” for Hezbollah.

By classifying Hezbollah as an international criminal group, the Justice Department “is clearly recognising Hezbollah’s global criminal enterprises as a core element of the terror group’s activities and a threat to US national security,” Emanuele Ottolenghi, an expert on Hezbollah, wrote in a column in the Hill newspaper.

“US strategy to disrupt Hezbollah’s financial flows will now rely not just on sanctions but also on sustained investigations, indictments, arrests, extraditions and convictions that the Justice Department will seek through the work of its newly minted task force,” he said.

The United States designated Hezbollah a foreign terrorist organisation in 1997 and has imposed increasingly stringent sanctions under US President Donald Trump, including targeting Hezbollah leaders Hassan Nasrallah and Naim Qassem.

Before Sessions announced steps against Hezbollah, the US Senate approved a measure aimed at restricting Hezbollah access to the international financial system. The Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act sanctioned countries and individuals that give Hezbollah arms or money or help its recruitment.

The bill will “build on existing sanctions against Hezbollah by targeting its global fundraising and recruiting as well as those who provide it weapons,” US Representative Ed Royce, a Republican from California, said. Trump was expected to soon sign the bill into law.

The two actions reflect a more aggressive stance against Hezbollah under Trump. His predecessor, President Barack Obama, was accused of undermining efforts by the US Drug Enforcement Agency to block Hezbollah from importing large quantities of illegal drugs into the United States and Europe. The Obama administration denied accusations that it derailed investigations for policy and diplomatic reasons and said prosecutions ended because of a lack of evidence and cooperation from US allies.

In January, Sessions created the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team to support the Drug Enforcement Agency’s work and crack down on Hezbollah associates allegedly involved in drug trafficking and related crimes, such as money laundering. “The investigation and prosecution of terrorist organisations that contribute to the growing drug crisis are a priority for this administration,” Assistant Attorney General John Cronan said.

Joseph Humire, a global-security expert specialising in international crime, said the creation of the Hezbollah team in January along with Trump’s election has emboldened governments in Latin America to take their own steps against Hezbollah. In July, Argentinian authorities froze the assets of members of a Hezbollah-linked criminal syndicate in their country. Weeks later, Brazilian police arrested the syndicate’s leader, Assad Ahmad Barakat, on money-laundering charges.

“Regional governments have started cracking down on Hezbollah’s criminal activity,” Humire wrote in the Hill.

Hezbollah’s drug-trafficking activities have come to light in recent criminal cases in Miami, a major port of entry for illegal drugs into the United States.

In December, Ali Issa Chamas, a Paraguayan man of Lebanese descent with Hezbollah ties, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison after pleading guilty to attempting to import 31 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. Prosecutors said Chamas trafficked drugs to support Hezbollah and told authorities that he was “a global facilitator for Lebanese drug traffickers.”

Two years ago, US agents in Miami arrested three Hezbollah associates suspected of laundering $500,000 in cocaine profits through Miami banks.

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