Hezbollah: The World’s Leading Narco-Terrorist Organization

Hezbollah (Party of God) has long been known as a Jihadist terrorist organization of global reach. They have conducted operations throughout the Middle East, in Thailand, Bulgaria, Argentina, and elsewhere in Europe and Latin America.

Hezbollah has also conducted operations in Canada and the United States.

Hezbollah has become notorious since the early 1980s for its repeated terror attacks, including the Marine Barracks bombing on 23 October 1983 which killed 241 soldiers, sailors and Marines on peacekeeping duty in Lebanon.

But that was far from the only Hezbollah operation targeting Americans. In the late 1980s Hezbollah and allies of Hezbollah under their protection kidnapped Americans and other Westerners in Beirut, including Marine Lieutenant Colonel William Higgins, who they subsequently murdered in captivity. Also kidnapped and murdered by Hezbollah was William Buckley, the CIA station chief at the US embassy in Beirut.

Many Americans are not aware, however, that Hezbollah continued to target Americans in more recent times, with Hezbollah operatives directly involved in fighting US GIs in Iraq during the insurgency.

How Hezbollah Finances its Terror

 In addition to its Jihadist operations, Hezbollah has a global network of illicit operations to fund itself. Its activities are the same as those of organized crime syndicates around the world: arms trading, drug smuggling, human trafficking, bootlegging and other forms of criminal activity.

Evidence of Hezbollah’s criminal activities has been documented for years, both by analysts and through counterterror and counternarcotics operations conducted by US and allied law enforcement.

In fact, an overview of Hezbollah’s criminal activity makes it seem as if Jihad is just a sideline for a global Mafia-like Islamic organization using every kind of illegal activity imaginable to make money.

Particularly with regard to the US, Hezbollah has avoided violent jihad attacks, probably to avoid massive US retaliation on its home turf in Lebanon, in favor of activities centered around drug trafficking, criminal schemes and scams, which have been going on for decades.

For example, Operation Smokescreen, conducted from 1995-2002, broke up a Hezbollah cell in Charlotte, North Carolina that was bootlegging cigarettes to raise money. This was detailed in the excellent book Lightning Out of Lebanon.

 In 2013, in Operation Tobacco Road, 16 men in the US were indicted for trafficking bootleg cigarettes, the proceeds of which, according to then-NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, went to Hezbollah and/or HAMAS.

In 2011, Lebanese Canadian Bank and other Lebanon-based financial institutions were implicated in a massive money laundering scheme that involved the sale of used cars into West Africa from some 70 US car dealerships. The scheme is thought to have raised $480 million for Hezbollah.

In early 2015, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), working in cooperation with European authorities, launched Operation Cedar, targeting a Hezbollah money laundering network operating with drug cartels in South America, Europe and the Middle East. Operation Cedar was part of a longer, wider law enforcement effort known as Project Cassandra to disrupt Hezbollah’s joint ventures with drug cartels.

The scheme worked this way: Hezbollah garnered proceeds from cocaine sales in Europe and purchased expensive luxury goods to be resold back home in Lebanon. The profits from the sale of those goods was split between the cartels in South America that supplied the cocaine and the purchase of weaponry for Hezbollah.

Fourteen defendants have been charged in Germany for this narco-terror activity.

Hezbollah’s involvement with drug cartels gained the attention of some in the US Congress. Last year, Rep. Ted Budd, R-NC, introduced the Hezbollah Kingpin Designation Act which would have resulted in broader sanctions against anyone associated with Hezbollah. Unfortunately, the bill, like so many other promising ideas and needed initiatives, died in the US Congress.

Of course, Hezbollah is not totally dependent on criminal activity for its funding. Iran has provided funding for Hezbollah since its inception and Hezbollah essentially operates as an arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Additionally, Hezbollah receives an undisclosed amount of funding each year in the form of zakat, an obligatory tax mandated by sharia. “Hundreds of thousands of Shiites in Lebanon and around the globe, who strictly adhere to this duty, pay such amounts on a yearly basis. Hezbollah receives considerable sums from these ‘legal rights or alms’, as they are known.” [1]

 This suggests that Hezbollah’s criminal activity is driven not so much by need but by raw greed and the opportunities to inflict harm on enemies afforded by association with organized crime and narco-traffickers. In other words, in addition to being a Jihadist terror organization, Hezbollah is a gang of thugs and outlaws.

Hezbollah’s terror and criminal activity have global reach, with reports of activity stretching from their home base in Lebanon to Thailand and the Philippines to the east and Europe, Latin America and the United States and Canada to the west. It is Hezbollah’s Latin American operations that are particularly concerning to US observers, largely due to our undefended southern border.

An example of Hezbollah’s Latin American presence was driven home in the late summer of 2018 when Brazilian police, acting on intelligence from US authorities, arrested Assad Ahmad Barakat, a major Hezbollah lieutenant. Barakat was based in the notoriously lawless Tri-Border Region where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina border each other. According to The Globe and Mail, the Tri-Border region has long been a “haven for smugglers, traffickers and counterfeiters.” And since the influx of Middle Eastern immigrants starting in the 1970s, it has also become a “redoubt for terrorism support and financing.”

The Globe and Mail reports that the US Treasury believes that Barakat has used his businesses in the Tri-Border Area as a front for fundraising for Hezbollah, as well as coercing local shopkeepers into giving money to the organization. A Treasury official said Barakat used ‘every financial crime in the book” to fund Hezbollah and ‘underwrite terror.’”

Hezbollah’s major presence in Venezuela is a particularly timely topic. Not surprisingly, Hezbollah’s operations there are characterized by criminal activity and interaction with Venezuela’s Iranian allies, who also have had a significant presence there.

Hezbollah’s support network in Venezuela dates back to the 1990s. It’s center of gravity in the country is on Margarita Island, with its thousands of Middle Eastern immigrants. Conveniently, the island is a prime location for the drug traffickers with whom Hezbollah has such a close relationship. Some of the members of the Charlotte, North Carolina Hezbollah cell and bootlegging outfit taken down in the previously mentioned Operation Smokescreen came from Venezuela.

Naturally, for years, due to the hostility of the socialist regimes in power in Caracas, as well as their close ties to Iran, US officials have long been concerned about Venezuela being a gateway from the Middle East to the Western Hemisphere.[2]

Hezbollah works the connection between narco-trafficking in Latin America and Africa, one of the busiest drug smuggling thoroughfares in the world. This route is the means by which most cocaine finds its way into Europe. It is also a lucrative means of financing for Hezbollah and other Jihadist groups. According to the US State Department, cocaine from Latin America, including  Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela passes through the African nation of Guinea-Bissau into southern Europe. Interpol and the United Nations both report that at least a portion of this trade involves Hezbollah. Those reports indicate that a considerable portion of Hezbollah’s income comes from cocaine traded through West Africa. The Lebanese expatriate community in both South America and West Africa provide a seamless connection to facilitate the drug trade.[3]

Hezbollah’s support network in the Lebanese expatriate community is one of the keys to its prominence in the narco-trafficking world. Latin American drug kingpins have come to depend on Hezbollah, particularly in the African pipeline into Europe. Lebanese merchants and cargo aggregators use their otherwise legitimate logistical infrastructure to facilitate the movement of drugs.[4]

Hezbollah’s role in drug smuggling has not escaped the attention of U.S. law enforcement.

In 2009, Michael Braun, then the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Special Operations Division, testified before Congress that members of Hezbollah were “rubbing shoulders with Latin American and Mexican drug cartels.” Braun described this alliance of Jihadists and drug traffickers as “hybrid terrorist organizations meaner and uglier than anything law enforcement or militaries have ever faced.”[5]

U.S. law enforcement agencies have in fact targeted Hezbollah’s narco-terror activities. For instance, in 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted Lebanese drug trafficker and Hezbollah supporter Ayman Joumma along with nine of his associates and nineteen businesses that made up his trafficking and money laundering operations. Joumma’s operations spanned the globe, including Panama and Colombia.[6]

There is almost no country in the Western Hemisphere that hasn’t been infested by Hezbollah, which means that their narco-trafficking is as widespread as any of the known cartels. Among the nations in which Hezbollah has operated are Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Mexico, Canada, Chile, Paraguay, Curacao, Uruguay and, of course, the United States.

Hezbollah’s involvement in these activities is triply dangerous for America and its allies.

First of all, Hezbollah’s drug smuggling and other trafficking activities allow the organization to build up tremendous wealth which it can then use to wage its brand of global jihad.

Secondly, Hezbollah’s vast network and terrorist experience poses a great danger to our law enforcement agencies in the form of weapons and methods gained from experience in terror operations in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Finally, Hezbollah’s operations in both illegal and seemingly legitimate global businesses has allowed the organization to create a footprint unrivaled in the jihadist movement. Should Hezbollah choose to go kinetic, they are capable of targeting Americans and U.S. diplomatic and military targets anywhere in the world.

[1]Hezbollah: Born With A Vengeance. By Hala Jaber. Columbia University Press, NY, NY. 1997. P. 151.

[2]Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God. By Matthew Levitt. 2013, Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC. Pp. 342-344.

[3]Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, Levitt, P. 272.

[4]Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, Levitt, P. 275.

[5]Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, Levitt, P. 273.

[6]Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, Levitt, P. 274.

About Christopher Holton

Christopher Holton is Vice President for Outreach at the Center for Security Policy. Mr. Holton came to the Center after serving as president and marketing director of Blanchard & Co. and editor-in-chief of the Blanchard Economic Research Unit from 1990 to 2003. As chief of the Blanchard Economic Research Unit in 2000, he conceived and commissioned the Center for Security Policy special report “Clinton’s Legacy: The Dangerous Decade.” Holton is a member of the Board of Advisers of WorldTribune.com. Follow Holton on Twitter @CHoltonCSP