Explained: How Hezbollah built a drug empire via its ‘narcoterrorist strategy’

Hezbollah is accused of exploiting the disarray in Syria by producing drugs in the war-torn country before exporting them for financial gain. Counter-narcotics agencies have recently foiled several smuggling operations. (AFP)
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Hezbollah is accused of exploiting the disarray in Syria by producing drugs in the war-torn country before exporting them for financial gain. Counter-narcotics agencies have recently foiled several smuggling operations. (AFP)
Supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah movement drive in a convoy in Kfar Kila on the Lebanese border with Israel on Oct. 25, 2019. (Photo by Ali Dia / AFP)
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Supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah movement drive in a convoy in Kfar Kila on the Lebanese border with Israel on Oct. 25, 2019. (Photo by Ali Dia / AFP)
Lebanese Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah is cheered by his supporters as he speaks through a giant screen in Beirut's southern suburb. (AFP file photo)
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Lebanese Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah is cheered by his supporters as he speaks through a giant screen in Beirut's southern suburb. (AFP file photo)
A Saudi anti-narcotics officer arranges a display of Captagon pills and pomegranates shipped from Lebanon. (SPA file photo)
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A Saudi anti-narcotics officer arranges a display of Captagon pills and pomegranates shipped from Lebanon. (SPA file photo)
Captagon pills are exposed from a crushed pomegranate fruit that was part of a fruit shipment from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia. (SPA file photo);
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Captagon pills are exposed from a crushed pomegranate fruit that was part of a fruit shipment from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia. (SPA file photo);
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Updated 03 May 2021

Explained: How Hezbollah built a drug empire via its ‘narcoterrorist strategy’

Explained: How Hezbollah built a drug empire via its ‘narcoterrorist strategy’
  • Discovery of amphetamines in two consignments has compelled Kingdom to ban import of fruit and vegetables from Lebanon
  • The pills may have originated in Syria, where drug production exploded during the war in areas under Assad regime control

DUBAI: Lebanese fruits and vegetables are no longer welcome in Saudi Arabia after the Kingdom’s vigilant port authorities foiled an attempt to smuggle narcotics inside pomegranates.

Last month, Jeddah Islamic Port’s customs officers seized more than 5 million Captagon pills expertly hidden in a pomegranate consignment from Lebanon. Separately, amphetamine pills stashed in a pomegranate shipment from Lebanon were seized in Dammam’s King Abdulaziz Port.

The Kingdom responded to the incident by banning the import and transit of fruits and vegetables coming from Lebanon.

Waleed Al-Bukhari, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon, disclosed that there had been attempts to smuggle more than 600 million pills from Lebanon during the past six years.

Deploring the economic impact of the drug bust and import ban, Michel Moawad, a Lebanese politician who resigned from parliament in protest over the Aug. 4, 2020, Beirut blast, said that farmers and legitimate importers are “today paying the price because of Captagon smugglers.”

“What are we gaining by exporting missiles, militias and drugs?” he said. “What are our interests when we are hostile to Arabs and the international community, when we go fight in Yemen and other places?”

When Moawad demanded that Lebanon’s “soil must remain totally sovereign, without security strongholds, illegal weapons, missiles, military training camps for Houthis and no Captagon factories,” he did not have to explicitly name Hezbollah.

The failed attempt to smuggle the amphetamine pills into Saudi Arabia is most likely linked to the Iran-aligned Shiite group with an active military wing, an unnamed source told the Independent Persian.

The source pointed to Hezbollah’s reputed association with the smuggling of drugs, including Captagon pills manufactured in Syria, a charge the group strenuously denies.

The source added that Hezbollah, by virtue of its authority over both “legal and illegal” border checkpoints between Syria and Lebanon, has unchecked control over all drug-related operations.

Hezbollah officials and politicians have yet to comment on the accusations.




Captagon pills recovered by saudi anti-narcotics officers from a pomegranate shipment from Lebanon are put on display. (SPA)

Lebanese security officials have arrested four people so far on suspicion of being connected with the seized cargo. Local news media reports speculated that the pomegranates came from Syria via either the Al-Masnaa border checkpoint or the northern border crossing of Al-Aboudeyye.

After the certificate of origin was changed from Syrian to Lebanese, the consignment was shipped to Saudi Arabia through Beirut’s port, which lacks scanning devices for detecting drugs. The Independent Persian cited the source as saying “the Captagon was produced in Syria, transported to Beirut then consigned to the Kingdom.”

Earlier in April, Greek authorities seized more than four tons of cannabis hidden in a shipment of dessert-making machines heading from Lebanon to Slovakia in the country’s main port of Piraeus, following a tip from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Greece’s authorities said that the street value of the drugs was estimated at $4 million and that Saudi Arabia’s drug enforcement agency assisted them in the case.




Supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah movement drive in a convoy in Kfar Kila on the Lebanese border with Israel on Oct. 25, 2019. (Photo by Ali Dia / AFP)

In January, the BBC aired a documentary that showed Italian police burning 85 million amphetamine pills, weighing 14 tons, that had been seized in June 2020. Italy’s financial crimes police said that the contraband came from the Syrian port of Latakia.

The origin of the contraband was initially thought to be Daesh but turned out to be Syria, according to the BBC’s documentary, which alleged that the Syrian regime and its ally, Hezbollah, are deep into the drug trade as a major source of funding.

The size of the haul indicated that the amphetamine pills were manufactured on a very large scale in proper factories, something that was evidently beyond the ability of Daesh given the loss of most of its territory. That left areas under the control of Syrian President Bashar Assad as the likely source of the pills.

The BBC’s report mentioned, however, that Captagon is produced illegally in Lebanon. The Italian authorities did not publicly announce a possible manufacturer of the pills but confirmed that they came from Latakia.

Illegal drug production is believed to have exploded in Syria during the civil war, emerging as a source of much-needed income for the Assad regime. The ruling clique and its foreign allies have used the proceeds from drug trafficking to evade sanctions imposed by the West.




Narcotics like Captagon pills and hashish are considered key sources of income for both Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. (AFP)

Amphetamine in Captagon is also known for its fear-inhibiting and stimulating effects, which have proved useful during protracted firefights in war-torn areas in the Middle East.

In the past few years, authorities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Jordan, among other countries, have seized enormous quantities of Captagon, often in shipments originating in Syria.

In a televised address in January, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah said that accusations about its involvement in amphetamine production had “no credibility.”

“Our position on drugs, of all kinds, is (clear). It’s religiously banned to manufacture, sell, buy, smuggle and consume. In some cases, the punishment could even be execution, according to Sharia laws,” he said.

However, US and European drugs agencies are convinced that Hezbollah profits from the drug trade. Europol, a European law enforcement agency, issued a report in 2020 cautioning that Hezbollah members were using European cities as a base for trading in “drugs and diamonds” and to launder the profits.

INNUMBERS

  • 10,100 - Hashish packets seized on Syria-Jordan border in 2020.
  • 4.1 million - Captagon pills seized on Syria-Jordan border in 2020.
  • $4 million - Market value of drugs seized by Greece with Saudi help in April.
  • $24 million - Lebanon’s annual fruit & vegetable trade with KSA until the ban.
  • 85 million - Amphetamine pills seized in Italy in June 2020.

In 2018, the US State Department named Hezbollah among the top five global criminal organizations. Reports indicate that Hezbollah’s criminal operations have increased of late in response to Iranian directives to generate income as part of its efforts to dodge US sanctions.

For their part, police in Israel have accused Hezbollah of smuggling hashish into the country.

Lebanon is known to be one of the world’s top producers of cannabis, which is widely cultivated in areas considered strongholds of Hezbollah, notably Baalbek and Hermel.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Last year, the US State Department and Washington’s intelligence community said that there was ample evidence to support claims linking Hezbollah to criminal activities, including drug trafficking, in South America and Europe.

Since 2009, many Lebanese have been sanctioned by the US Treasury for their connection to organized crime, involving drug trafficking and money laundering. Many of those sanctioned were linked to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has built strong connections with the tri-border area of Paraguay-Argentina-Brazil in South America, home to more than 5 million people of Lebanese origin. Local contacts are believed to facilitate and conceal Hezbollah’s drug-trafficking, money-laundering and terrorist-financing operations in this area.

Antoine Kanaan, editor in chief of Lebanon Law Review, says that there is little doubt that Hezbollah was behind the Captagon found in the consignment of pomegranates that reached Jeddah.

He said that pomegranate is not even commercially produced in Lebanon, adding that it is a secondary fruit crop whose cultivation is "restricted to plots of land as small as private orchards and gardens.




Pomegranates are among Lebanon's major agricultural export to Saudi Arabia. (SPA photo)

By contrast, Syria is well known for its pomegranate production, especially in areas such as Daraa, he told Arab News.

“That means that the pomegranates that went from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia originated in Syria,” said Kanaan, who believes that the Captagon was inserted into the fruits in Lebanon.

The amount of Captagon involved and the ingenuity of the plot confirm Hezbollah’s involvement, or at least consent and profit-sharing, according to Kanaan, who further noted that consensus governs everything in Lebanon, even drugs.

“I believe Hezbollah is the number one Captagon supplier in the region and there’s no way an independent Lebanese trader, or even the Syrian government, would have dared pull this off without involving Hezbollah,” he said.

As to why the drugs were sent to Saudi Arabia, Kanaan said: “It is possible but unlikely that they were headed for (Iran-backed Houthi) fighters in Yemen.”




To sustain its paramilitary force, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement export drugs to countries it considers non-allies, such as Saudi Arabia. (AFP file photo)

Brig. Gen. Adel Machmouchi, a former chief of antinarcotics department at Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, said that the drug bust in Jeddah has exposed Lebanon as one of the countries that does not cooperate with international drug-enforcement bodies.

In a TV interview over the weekend, he suggested that the Lebanese ministries and security bodies concerned should have “better and closer control” over areas — in Bekaa Valley and northern Lebanon — where illegal farming and production of drugs takes place.

He said that the government should transform those illegal businesses into legitimate, productive projects.

Machmouchi said that punishments “are not harsh enough to curtail crimes of producing, trafficking and smuggling drugs,” and should be made harsher to act as a deterrent.

He claimed there are about 20 factories used to produce Captagon pills in Lebanon. “Lebanese antinarcotics bodies should (join forces) with counterparts in Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries to be able to combat this crime and halt the process of using Lebanon as a launchpad to smuggle drugs,” Machmouchi said.


Egypt sends letter to UN Security Council about Renaissance Dam

Egypt sends letter to UN Security Council about Renaissance Dam
Ethiopia began work on the dam in 2011. Egypt and Sudan are calling for a binding and comprehensive deal with Ethiopia that guarantees the rights and interests of all three countries. (AFP/File)
Updated 14 June 2021

Egypt sends letter to UN Security Council about Renaissance Dam

Egypt sends letter to UN Security Council about Renaissance Dam
  • Cairo fears the GERD will threaten its water supply from the Nile

CAIRO: Egypt has sent a letter to the head of the UN Security Council to highlight developments in the Grand Ethopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute, as it and Sudan drafted a resolution about the dam to be presented to Arab foreign ministers next week.

Ethiopia began work on the dam in 2011. Egypt fears the GERD will threaten its water supply from the Nile, while Sudan is concerned about the dam’s safety and its own water flow.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s letter to the UN Security Council included the country’s objection to Ethiopia’s intention to continue filling the dam during the upcoming flood season. It also expressed the government’s rejection of Ethiopia seeking to impose a fait accompli on the downstream countries through unilateral measures.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Hafez said the letter aimed to reveal the truth about the intransigent positions Ethiopia was taking as these were stalling the efforts made over the past months to reach a fair, balanced and legally binding agreement on the issue.

HIGHLIGHT

The Council of Arab States, at the level of foreign ministers, is scheduled to hold an extraordinary session in Doha on Tuesday at the request of Egypt and Sudan to discuss developments regarding the dam issue.

Hafez said that an integrated file was also deposited with the UN Security Council to serve as a reference for the international community on the issue, as well as to document the constructive and responsible positions taken by Egypt.
Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary-general of the League of Arab States, said there was an Arab consensus supporting Egypt and Sudan’s rights in the Nile waters and that there was not a single country outside this consensus.
He indicated that Ethiopia’s attempt to “drive a wedge” between Arab and African countries on the Renaissance Dam issue would not succeed.
The Council of Arab States, at the level of foreign ministers, is scheduled to hold an extraordinary session in Doha on Tuesday at the request of Egypt and Sudan to discuss developments regarding the dam issue, he added.
Zaki said the session would be held on the sidelines of the consultative meeting of Arab foreign ministers that was being held in Doha.
Egypt and Sudan are calling for a binding and comprehensive deal that guarantees the rights and interests of all three countries.


Greece says Turkish patrol boat damaged coast guard vessel

Greece says Turkish patrol boat damaged coast guard vessel
This handout picture released on January 29, 2020, by the Turkish Defence Ministry Press Service shows migrants in a rubber boat rescued by Turkish navy soldiers on January 28, 2020, off the Libyan coast. (AFP)
Updated 14 June 2021

Greece says Turkish patrol boat damaged coast guard vessel

Greece says Turkish patrol boat damaged coast guard vessel
  • Greece in April had accused Turkey of seeking to “provoke an escalation” in the Aegean with “dangerous” maneuvers and illegal assistance to migrants

ATHENS: The Greek coast guard said that one of its patrol vessels was “harassed” by a Turkish patrol boat on Sunday, causing minor damage, a day before the Greek and Turkish leaders hold talks in Brussels.
There were no injuries in the incident, which occurred east of the Aegean island of Lesbos, the coast guard said in a statement.
It said “a patrol vessel of the Turkish coast guard harassed a patrol boat of the Lesbos coast guard, causing minor damage.”
Such incidents are common in the Aegean Sea during patrols for boats carrying migrants from Turkey to Greece.

SPEEDREAD

• A patrol vessel of the Turkish coast guard ‘harassed a patrol boat of the Lesbos coast guard, causing minor damage.’

• Such incidents are common in the Aegean Sea during patrols for boats carrying migrants from Turkey to Greece.

• Greece had accused Turkey of seeking to ‘provoke an escalation’ in the Aegean with ‘dangerous’ maneuvers and illegal assistance to migrants.

Greece in April had accused Turkey of seeking to “provoke an escalation” in the Aegean with “dangerous” maneuvers and illegal assistance to migrants.
Athens wants Ankara to better police migration routes and take back hundreds of asylum seekers found ineligible for refugee protection.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is to hold talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels.
Mitsotakis said on Friday that good bilateral relations will depend on de-escalation efforts and on whether “Turkey participates constructively in the dialogue and respects the conditions set by the EU” in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.


Algeria awaits results after voters snub elections

Algeria awaits results after voters snub elections
Algerian elections staff count ballots for parliamentary elections at a polling station in Bouchaoui, on the western outskirts of the capital Algiers, on June 12, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 14 June 2021

Algeria awaits results after voters snub elections

Algeria awaits results after voters snub elections
  • The movement has urged boycotts of all national polls since it mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in early 2019 to force longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his cronies from power

Algeria on Sunday awaited the results of a parliamentary election boycotted by the long-running Hirak protest movement and marked by widespread abstention.
Turnout was just 30.2 percent, electoral commission chief Mohamed Chorfi announced after Saturday’s vote — the lowest in a legislative poll at least 20 years.
He said it would be “96 hours” before official results are announced.
Fewer than 1 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in Kabylie, a mainly Berber region east of Algiers, and the cities of Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou.
“As expected, the majority of Algerians snubbed the ballot boxes. The low turnout confirms the strong trend toward rejecting the vote,” read the front page of French-language daily Liberte.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, himself elected on an official turnout of less than 40 percent in late 2019, put a brave face on the figures.
“For me, the turnout isn’t important. What’s important is whether the lawmakers that the people elect have enough legitimacy,” the president said.
The Hirak protest movement, which apart from a hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic had held twice-weekly demonstrations for reform until they were effectively banned last month, rejected the polls as a “sham.”
The movement has urged boycotts of all national polls since it mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in early 2019 to force longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his cronies from power.
But voting day was mainly calm, except in Kabylie, where ballot boxes were ransacked and security forces detained dozens of people, rights groups said.
Two prominent journalists detained on the eve of the election and released Saturday, Khaled Drareni and Ihsane El Kadi, condemned their “arbitrary” arrests.
“I believe you have the right to know that two journalists ... were subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention for no apparent reason,” Drareni wrote on his Facebook page.


IRC denounces deadly attack on Syria hospital

IRC denounces deadly attack on Syria hospital
A member of Syria’s Civil Defence service inspects the damage caused by the shelling at Al-Shifaa hospital in Afrin, Syria. (AFP)
Updated 14 June 2021

IRC denounces deadly attack on Syria hospital

IRC denounces deadly attack on Syria hospital
  • Saturday’s attack on the opposition-held northern town of Afrin killed at 21 people

BEIRUT: The International Rescue Committee on Sunday condemned the shelling on the Syrian city of Afrin that put a hospital out of service and killed civilians and medical staff.

Saturday’s attack on the opposition-held northern town killed at least 21 people, mostly in shelling on the hospital, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.
“We utterly condemn this deadly attack on Al-Shifaa Hospital, one of the largest medical facilities in northern Syria,” said IRC’s Syria director Wolfgang Gressmann.
“This is the 11th attack on healthcare that has been recorded so far this year, and brings the total number of verified attacks on healthcare since January 2019 to 124.”
Of the 21 killed, 17 were civilians, including at least 4 hospital staff members, the Observatory said, adding that 23 people were also wounded.
The IRC said the attack completely destroyed the emergency room and the labor and delivery room.

This is the 11th attack on healthcare that has been recorded so far this year.

Wolfgang Gressmann, Syria director of IRC

“The hospital is now out of service,” the statement said. “It is vital that these attacks stop.”
According to the Observatory, Saturday’s artillery fire originated from northern Aleppo province where militias backing Iran and the Syrian regime are deployed near a region run by Kurdish forces. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) issued a statement denying any involvement in the shelling.
The Afrin region, like all areas held by pro-Turkish rebels, regularly witnesses targeted killings, bombings and shootings.
The conflict in Syria has killed nearly 500,000 people since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of peaceful demonstrations.
Separately, the Lebanese army on Sunday said it intercepted a small boat carrying 11 people, mostly Syrians, attempting an illegal sea crossing out of the crisis-hit country. A statement said a naval force spotted the boat off the northern port city of Tripoli and that its passengers were all detained and referred for investigation, the army added.
The boat was carrying “10 people of Syrian nationality and a Lebanese national,” it said.
Their journey’s end was not specified but neighboring Cyprus, a member of the European Union, has been a popular sea smuggling destination in recent months.
In May, the Lebanese army intercepted a boat near Tripoli carrying 60 people, including 59 Syrians.
Lebanon, home to more than 6 million people, says it hosts more than a million Syrian refugees.
They have been hit hard by widening poverty rates and growing food insecurity brought on by the country’s economic crisis.

 


Netanyahu ‘might be down but he’s not out’

Netanyahu ‘might be down but he’s not out’
(L to R) Israel's outgoing PM Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his successor incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 13 June 2021

Netanyahu ‘might be down but he’s not out’

Netanyahu ‘might be down but he’s not out’
  • Celebrations by Netanyahu’s opponents to mark the end of his premiership began outside his official residence in Jerusalem, the site of weekly protests for the past year

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year hold on power ended on Sunday after a parliamentary vote on a new coalition government headed by a right-wing hawk.

Embattled Netanyahu earlier vowed that “if it’s our destiny to be in the opposition, we’ll do so with our heads high until we take down this bad government and return to lead the country our way.”

Khaled Elgindy, nonresident fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told Arab News: “Netanyahu might be down but he’s not out.”

Elgindy said Netanyahu and his supporters “will do everything they can to bring down this highly fragile (new) government whether it takes a week, a month or a year.”

The new Cabinet was cobbled together by centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid and ultranationalist Naftali Bennett.

The latter, a hawkish hi-tech millionaire, is likely to serve as prime minister for two years before former TV host Lapid takes over.

Wadi Abunassar, director of the Haifa-based International Center for Consultation, told Arab News that it is difficult to talk of the “end of the Netanyahu era” because he is expected to be the leader of an aggressive opposition.

“Many things could happen in the Israeli political arena, including the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid government,” said Abunassar.

Celebrations by Netanyahu’s opponents to mark the end of his premiership began outside his official residence in Jerusalem, the site of weekly protests for the past year.

Dimitri Diliani, spokesman for the Democratic Reform Current — a Palestinian movement — told Arab News that the new Israeli government was not born out of a struggle between pro- and anti-peace camps.

“In general, both the previous government and the newly sworn-in one are in favor of expanding settlements and further Israelization of Palestinian Jerusalem, and against the two-state solution,” he said. “Palestinians aren’t placing any hope or expecting any change in policies concerning them.”

Bennett, a former defense minister, has promised that “Israel won’t let Iran have nuclear weapons.”

But Netanyahu said “Iran is celebrating” the prospect of a “dangerous” and weak new government.

It is the most unusual of coalitions, spanning the spectrum of Israeli Zionist parties and including Ra’am, an Arab party.

Mansour Abbas, head of Ra’am, succeeded in getting $16 billion pledged for Arab communities and recognition of a number of Bedouin towns in southern Israel.

Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Arab News: “From his perspective, Netanyahu’s most stunning achievement was his success in expanding Israel’s relations in Asia, Africa, Latin America and with great powers, while expanding settlements and putting the Palestinian issue in the deep freeze.”