Hezbollah’s multipurpose drug trade
Law enforcement agencies around the world have uncovered the extensive drug trafficking operations of Hezbollah and its affiliated groups and individuals. The main objective of its involvement in the narcotics trade is financial, to fund its expanding activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon itself. However, more recently, there appears to be another motive: To undercut the social cohesion of its adversaries. That also means Iran’s adversaries, as the group is practically the operational regional arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Quds Force in particular.
The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been at the forefront of these efforts because of the long history of Hezbollah attacks against American interests. The DEA has the largest US law enforcement presence overseas. In 2008, it launched Project Cassandra in an effort to undercut the group’s funding from illicit drug sources. Other US government agencies and those of its allies and partners are also focused on Hezbollah, which has become an important albeit destructive force regionally and beyond, working largely as a proxy for Iran. According to the DEA, Hezbollah has become increasingly involved in drug trafficking and organized crime to fund its activities, with large sums of drug money being laundered from the Americas, Africa and Europe into Lebanon and then Hezbollah's coffers.
The DEA has also established the Counter-Narcoterrorism Operations Center, which focuses on the links between narcotics and terrorism. Because of that focus, it was instrumental in foiling the 2011 Iranian plot to assassinate Adel Al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s then-ambassador to the US, in Washington. The plot was derailed when one of the suspects, Mansour Arbabsiar, attempted to hire a Mexican organized crime gang member, who was in fact a DEA informant.
Hezbollah has been an important target for law enforcement agencies because it acts as a semi-state actor, has enormous resources and is very effective as a multipurpose terrorist organization and sectarian militia. In Lebanon, it effectively controls large swaths of territory in the south, Beirut and the Bekaa Valley. It has significant political influence in the Lebanese government as well as in parliament, where it exercises an effective veto power through alliances with other political groups.
To fund the huge expansion of its operations outside Lebanon during the past decade, it has developed a large financial network. In addition to direct funding from the Iranian government, which Hezbollah openly acknowledges, it gets funding from levies it imposes on legitimate businesses or appropriates from the government operations it controls, such as ports and telecommunications. However, much of its funding comes from drug trafficking.
For these reasons and the fact that it has become a lethal fighting force for Iran’s regional adventurism, countering Hezbollah’s activities has become a high national security priority for many countries.
What has been uncovered about the group’s activities may just be the tip of the iceberg. In the US, Operation Titan intercepted the sale of multi-ton cocaine shipments by Hezbollah associates in cooperation with a Colombian drug cartel. And cases in the US since then have identified additional Lebanese and Colombian individuals, as well as the Lebanese Canadian Bank. In 2016, Operation Cedar targeted an international money-laundering scheme, leading to the arrests of Hezbollah operatives and collaborators in Belgium, France, Germany and Italy.
Other investigations have led to the identification, arrest or extradition of numerous individuals and outfits involved in Hezbollah’s funding schemes across six continents, but mainly in Europe, West Africa and Latin America.
To protect its illicit global funding network and cover its tracks, Hezbollah has resorted to kidnapping and assassinating witnesses and intimidating government officials involved in the investigations into its activities. For example, in 2014, it kidnapped five Czech military officers based in Lebanon. They were only released after a Hezbollah operative was freed from Czech custody. In 2017, another Hezbollah operative was extradited from Belgium to the US after plans to assassinate the prosecutors involved in his case and kidnap a Belgian defense attache in Beirut were foiled.
Hezbollah uses its illicit funds to finance its own operations and those of its partners and allies. It is believed that Hezbollah has, for example, used such proceeds to buy arms for fighters recruited by Iran to fight in Syria and for the Houthis in Yemen.
Hezbollah uses its illicit funds to finance its own operations and those of its partners, while also seeking to drown the region in drug addiction.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
While funding is the main purpose of Hezbollah’s drug trafficking, it also has another, more nefarious purpose: To weaken its enemies by trying to encourage drug addiction among their fighting-age populations. Reports from Syria by Al-Arabiya, Al-Hurra, Asharq Al-Awsat and others have documented how Hezbollah and its affiliated groups have worked to demoralize communities in Syria and Lebanon by turning local economies into drug manufacturing areas and facilitating youth drug use.
The law enforcement and customs agencies of Lebanon’s neighbors have frequently intercepted large quantities of drugs made in Lebanon or Syria. It is probably not an accident that those drug smuggling operations target Hezbollah and Iran’s adversaries. Saudi Arabia has been one of the main targets. In April, Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Al-Bukhari tweeted that more than 50 million Captagon pills had been intercepted since the beginning of 2020 at Jeddah’s main seaport, hidden in fruit and vegetable shipments. Al-Bukhari further told Al-Arabiya TV in April that about 600 million pills had been intercepted during the previous six years: “Enough to drown the whole Arab world in drugs.” As a result, Saudi Arabia has suspended the import of fruits and vegetables from Lebanon.
While fragile communities in war-torn areas have been decimated by Hezbollah’s drugs, Gulf countries are more difficult targets. Precautionary measures such as the ban on imports from Lebanon should move the Lebanese authorities to crack down on this growing trade in drugs, and they should join law enforcement agencies around the world to fight it. Otherwise, economic ruin would be the wages of negligence, not to mention a serious addiction problem.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent the views of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1