Interactive map exposes shocking scale of Hezbollah’s global crimes

A Hezbollah member carries a mock rocket next to a poster of the group's leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in Sidon, southern Lebanon. (REUTERS/Ali Hashisho/File Photo)
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Updated 05 August 2020

Interactive map exposes shocking scale of Hezbollah’s global crimes

  • The project, which spans four decades of activity, is the largest repository of open-source information about the group

NEW YORK: The shocking extent of Hezbollah’s covert and illicit activities around the world is revealed in an interactive map created by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

It includes about 1,000 incidents and activities spanning more than four decades, including a thwarted plot in Cyprus, a bus bombing in Bulgaria and the group’s role in the Syrian Civil War. 

LOOK: Interactive map of Hezbollah's criminal activity

“Hezbollah invests a lot of time and effort in its media campaigns to publicize (what) it wants you to know about: politics, social, charitable and educational activities, (and) its NGOs,” said Matthew Levitt, the Fromer-Wexler Fellow and director of the Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the institute.

“But Hezbollah invests at least as much time, effort and money trying (to) obfuscate its covert activities — criminal enterprise, money laundering, military (and) terrorist activity — in Lebanon, in the region and around the world.”

For decades, academics, officials and policymakers have had difficulty accessing comprehensive information about the party’s global activities. Its golden rule, according to details that emerged during the trial and conviction in New York last year of Hezbollah operative Ali Kourani, is “the less you know, the better.”

“This project aims to poke a big hole in that rule,” said Levitt. “(It) will hopefully enable people to have a more robust conversation about the sum total of Hezbollah’s activities.”

The map is the result of several years of work by Levitt. He has been studying Hezbollah since the 1990s, focusing on its terrorist activities, weapons procurement, money laundering, drug trafficking, and other illicit financial schemes. While compiling the information for the map, he interviewed people around the world, and obtained court documents and government reports.

The result is the world’s largest repository of open-source documents on Hezbollah. Searchable by category, location, timeline and keywords, the multi-media tool lays bare the scope of Hezbollah’s activities, from the aliases its operatives use and the routes they take when traveling to more complex themes relating to the nature of the organization and its relationship with state sponsors.

“Hezbollah is intimately connected to Iran,” said Levitt. “It always has been at an ideological level, and at an operational level ever since Hezbollah sent some 1,500 Quds Force officers to the Bekaa valley to help bring a motley crew of disparate Shiite militant groups together into one party of God: Hezbollah. There’s a lot of declassified CIA material from that period.

“It’s also true (that) while Hezbollah and Iran are very close, Iran gives Hezbollah some significant freedom of decision-making within Lebanon itself. The way I describe this is (that) even within a good marriage there are ups and downs. There’s a strong marriage between Iran and Hezbollah. Ever since the Syrian war — with Hezbollah and Iran fighting together in the trenches, and together overseeing the rest of the Shiite militias — they have become much, much closer.”

In addition to collecting and organizing information that was already known, the map project reveals other details that were not common knowledge.

“There are entries with brand new information, such as the name of the Lebanese-French academic who bought Hezbollah a safe house (in which) to stock explosives in Cyprus,” said Levitt.

“There is a lot of declassified intelligence material about previously unreported incidents. In the late 1990s, for example, Hezbollah, together with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, was plotting to target Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the synagogue in Warsaw, according to the CIA.

“And then (there are) simply more mundane things, just making more public things that have already been disclosed. For example, (Hezbollah parliamentarian) Mohammed Raad was planning, together with Hezbollah’s senior security official Wafiq Safa, to identify Hezbollah operatives who could obtain foreign citizenship and then be deployed abroad on Hezbollah operations.”

According to Levitt, the map debunks the myth that Hezbollah’s military wing is a disparate entity within the wider organization. 

“What this map is trying to do is present information that has not been in the open-source domain at all or not easily accessible, and certainly not all available in a one-stop (location) to people so that they can have this conversation,” he said.

“I think that’s going to put pressure on Hezbollah because of the fact that, while it has not been super well-reported, Hezbollah does engage in a very, very wide range of illicit and violent activities that often have nothing to do with its position in Lebanon or its hatred of Israel.”

Visit www.washingtoninstitute.org/hezbollahinteractivemap to view the map. It is an ongoing project that will continue to be updated with new information and documents.


Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

Iranian singer Omid Tootian, 46, gestures during an interview at a coffee shop in the UN-controlled buffer zone in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, on September 23, 2020, where he's been stuck since mid-September. (AFP)
Updated 27 September 2020

Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

  • Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran

NICOSIA: Dissident Iranian singer Omid Tootian has for days been sleeping in a tent in the buffer zone of the world’s last divided capital, after being refused entry by the Republic of Cyprus.
“I can’t go to one side or the other,” the performer, in his mid-40s, whose songs speak out against Iranian authorities, told AFP. “I’m stuck living in the street.”
His tent is pitched between two checkpoints in western Nicosia, among the weeds outside an abandoned house in the quasi-“no man’s land” that separates the northern and southern parts of Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974.
In early September, he traveled to the north of the Mediterranean island, controlled by the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized only by Ankara.
Two weeks later, Tootian, who had been living in Turkey for around three years, tried for the first time to seek asylum in the Republic of Cyprus, which controls the southern two-thirds of the island and is in the EU.  But once at the green line, the 180 -km buffer zone that traverses the island and is patrolled by UN peacekeepers, he was denied entry into the south.
Refusing to return to the TRNC, where he fears he would be in danger, Tootian found himself in limbo in the few hundred meters of land that divides the two territories.
“I don’t know why they haven’t approved my entry ... but I think it’s because of the coronavirus,” he said, speaking at the pro-unification Home for Cooperation community center in the buffer zone where he eats, grooms and spends most of his days.
“But I hope things will become clear because now I don’t know what will happen, and it’s a very difficult situation.”
Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran.

Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran.

Omid Tootian, Dissident Iranian singer

“Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran,” he said, adding that he had for the past six months been receiving anonymous “threats” from unknown callers using private phone numbers.
In July, three Iranians were sentenced to death by the Islamic republic. Two of them had initially fled to Turkey and, according to the non-governmental group the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Turkish authorities cooperated with Tehran to repatriate them.
Since arriving at the checkpoint, Tootian has tried “four or five times” in a week to enter, without success, despite the help of a migrant rights advocacy group known as KISA and the UN mission in the buffer zone.
According to European and international regulations, Cyprus cannot expel an asylum seeker until the application has been considered and a final decision issued.
The police said “they have restrictions not to let anybody in,” KISA member Doros Polycarpou told AFP.
Cypriot police spokesman Christos Andreou said “it is not the responsibility of the police” to decide who can enter the Republic of Cyprus.
They “follow the instructions of the Ministry of Interior,” put in place “because of the pandemic,” he added.
According to the ministry, “all persons who are willing to cross from a legal entry point to the area controlled by the Republic must present a negative COVID-19 test carried out within the last 72 hours” — a requirement Tootian said he had fulfilled.
Polycarpou charges that the Cypriot “government has used the pandemic to restrict basic human rights.”
A spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Cyprus Emilia Strovolidou said “there are other means to protect asylum seekers and public health at the same time ... we can test people when they arrive or take quarantine measures.”
“We have someone who is seeking international protection, he should have access to the process,” she added.
Due to the closure of other migration routes to Europe, asylum applications have increased sixfold over the last five years in Cyprus — a country of fewer than 1 million inhabitants — from 2,265 in 2015 to 13,650 in 2019, according to Eurostat data.