Last month, two U.S. citizens were arrested on charges of providing material support to the Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah. According to a June 8 statement by the Department of Justice, Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO) recruited Ali Kourani of the Bronx, New York and Samer el Debek of Dearborn, Michigan as operatives and provided them with military-style training in Lebanon. These latest allegations demonstrate yet again Hezbollah’s extended reach and ability to target American and Israeli interests.
The recent arrests underscore Hezbollah’s ongoing efforts to target Americans and Israelis.
Debek—a trained bomb technician—allegedly traveled to a number of countries on his U.S. passport to gather information for Hezbollah. During a 2011 trip to Panama, he was tasked with “locating the U.S. and Israeli Embassies, casing security procedures at the Panama Canal and the Israeli Embassy, and locating hardware stores where explosive precursors could be purchased.”
Similarly, Kourani was arrested for allegedly conducting “pre-operational surveillance” at numerous U.S. military and intelligence buildings in New York, as well as John F. Kennedy International Airport. The indictment noted that he was also tasked with identifying individuals affiliated with the IDF. Over a series of interviews, Kourani revealed to the FBI that he was a part of the IJO’s plan to develop a network of sleeper agents who could carry out IJO assignments.
Hezbollah has a long history of targeting Americans and Israelis.
1983: Hezbollah carried out two suicide bombings in Beirut—an April bombing of the U.S. Embassy which killed 63 people (including 17 Americans), and an October bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks which killed 241 U.S. service members.
1985: Hezbollah hijacked a TWA airliner, brutally torturing and murdering an American sailor and holding 39 American passengers hostage for 17 days.
1992: With the help of Iranian intelligence, Hezbollah bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 29 people.
1994: With the help of Iranian intelligence, Hezbollah bombed a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 87 people.
1996: Hezbollah attacked U.S. military forces housed in the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. airmen.
2000: Hezbollah operatives captured and killed three Israeli soldiers patrolling Israeli territory near the Israel-Lebanon border.
2006: Hezbollah entered Israeli territory to attack an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) patrol, killing three soldiers and kidnapping two. These actions provoked the Second Lebanon War, during which Hezbollah killed 119 IDF soldiers and 44 Israeli civilians.
2012: Hezbollah bombed an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria.
2015: Cypriot authorities sentenced to six years in prison a Hezbollah operative in possession of 8.2 tons of explosive materials, which he intended to use against Israelis.
Hezbollah’s sophisticated global network helps support its campaign against America and Israel.
Hezbollah has traditionally relied on huge handouts from Iran—now totaling up to $1 billion annually. At the same time, the group has developed multiple new revenue streams including a worldwide network of supporters and operatives.
Hezbollah is deeply involved in transnational crime. As U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) noted in a June 2017 hearing, the group has “developed a broad criminal network involved in a range of illegal activities—from drug trafficking to cigarette smuggling to money laundering to counterfeiting. These global terrorists double as global criminals.”
Also, according to the State Department,
Hezbollah’s Foreign Relations Department (FRD) is responsible for covert operations globally, including recruiting, fundraising and gathering intelligence on behalf of Hezbollah. In June 2017 Congressional testimony submitted to the HFAC, Dr. Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy stated that Hezbollah stations FRD personnel worldwide to “provide logistics to visiting Hezbollah delegations and build ‘community centers’ to engender support for Hezbollah within local Shia communities and serve as a base for the group’s local activities.”
Hezbollah’s criminal activities are especially prevalent in a region known as the tri-border area, where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay converge. The U.S intelligence community regards the area as a “free zone for criminal activity,” from which $10 million annually is sent back to Lebanon.
Hezbollah also maintains close business relations with South American drug cartels, including the former enforcement arm of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, “La Oficina de Envigado.” The group has since become an independent organization that smuggles large quantities of cocaine to the United States and Europe.
In August 2016, a Miami federal grand jury charged a Hezbollah-linked Paraguayan man with attempting to smuggle 39 kilos of cocaine to Houston, Texas. In an earlier case, North Carolina-based Hezbollah operatives ran a successful cigarette-smuggling enterprise in 1996-2000; the cell was ultimately disrupted by an interagency counterterrorism effort that resulted in the indictment of 26 individuals.
In 2011, Lebanese financial institutions, including the Lebanese Canadian Bank (LCB), ran a successful money laundering operation through the U.S. financial system for Hezbollah. The Beirut-based bank wired funds to the United States for the purchase of used cars to ship to West Africa. The profits—along with proceeds from narcotics trafficking—were then funneled through Lebanese exchange houses by Hezbollah-controlled money couriers, who diverted substantial portions of the cash to Hezbollah.
Inter agency counter terrorism efforts ultimately exposed the scheme, resulting in the Treasury Department’s designation of LCB as a “financial institution of primary money laundering concern.” Other criminal activities in Africa include tapping into Lebanese expatriate communities to finance front companies, blood diamond transactions, tax fraud and arms smuggling.
In Europe, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) work closely with international law enforcement agencies to combat Hezbollah’s nefarious activities. The two agencies recently collaborated with their Belgian, Italian, French and German counterparts in “Operation Cassandra,” culminating in a February 2016 announcement regarding the arrests of top leaders of a Hezbollah cell.
The State Department considers Hezbollah to be “the most technically capable terrorist group in the world” and its influence continues to grow—and with it, the threat it poses to the United States and Israel. Accordingly, the Trump administration, Congress and the intelligence community must continue to prioritize the fight, on all fronts, against Hezbollah.
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