• Jean AbiNader

Hezbollah in the Crosshairs of new DOJ Taskforce

According to a three-part series released by the online paper Politico, the US has been tracking Hezbollah’s role at the nexus of drugs from South America, arms to Iran and Syria, and drug shipments to the US and Europe via a clandestine network of used car dealers in West Africa since 2008.

The probe, dubbed Operation Cassandra, was, according to the series, obstructed by the Obama Administration, which concerned how it might upset US negotiations of the nuclear deal with Iran. The claims in the series are nettlesome enough that the Department of Justice has vowed to refresh the investigation and bring a harsh light onto Hezbollah’s international activities in funding terrorism and arms transfers through illicit drug operations, money laundering, and other criminal activities.

The Politico investigative report is quite detailed and includes charges made by those intimately involved in the operation and its predecessors and well as former Obama officials who do not agree with their allegations and characterizations. The series notes that the backbone of the supposed Hezbollah network is in large part Shiite diaspora communities in South America, West Africa, the Middle East, and Europe where interconnected business ventures, transport systems, government officials, dealmakers, and arms dealers collaborate in an efficient and well-organized network able to turn drugs into cash used to purchase arms for Hezbollah, Syrian, and Iranian militaries.

Interesting, one of the chief architects of the network, according to Politico, is Abdallah Safieddine, whose cousin is the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Safieddine’s son is identified as a key component of the network residing in Beirut.

Worth reading, the series provides part of the rationale for the announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions of the Justice Department of a new government taskforce to investigate the alleged involvement of Hezbollah in many illegal activities, including drug trafficking. Called the Hezbollah Financing and Narco- terrorism Team (HFNT), it is the strongest evidence yet that the new Administration takes the implications of the Cassandra Project quite seriously.

The naming of the Task Force follows the October 2017 passage by Congress of legislation to apply additional sanctions to Hezbollah and any organizations and individuals that provide support to it. Sessions described the team as “a group of experienced international narcotics trafficking, terrorism, organized crime, and money laundering prosecutors,” who are “tasked with investigating individuals and

networks providing support to Hezbollah, and pursuing prosecutions in any appropriate cases.”

In his announcement, the Attorney General specifically mentioned the need to examine evidence from earlier investigations, including cases resulting from Project Cassandra, which targeted Hezbollah’s drug trafficking and related operations. “The Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats to our citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating drug crisis,” said Sessions.

He also noted that the Obama Administration had failed in its support of the investigation, pledging to “ensure that all Project Cassandra investigations as well as other related investigations, whether past or present, are given the needed resources and attention to come to their proper resolution.” The team has the power to “initiate prosecutions that will restrict the flow of money to foreign terrorist organizations, as well as disrupt violent international drug trafficking operations.”

Assistant Attorney General John Cronan of the Criminal Division is tasked with supervising the HFNT and build interagency coordination to identify and combat individuals, companies, and networks supporting Hezbollah. Other agencies include the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which initiated Operation Cassandra, the FBI, Homeland Security, and Justice Department offices across the country and overseas.

“The Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats to our citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating drug crisis,” Sessions said.

In additional reporting from CBS, it mentioned that “US government officials allege the group's [Hezbollah] External Security Organization Business Affairs Component (BAC) is involved in international drug trafficking and money laundering, and that the proceeds are used to purchase weapons for Hezbollah's activities in Syria.”

“According to the DEA, members of Hezbollah's BAC have established business relationships with South American drug cartels that supply cocaine to the European and US drug markets and then launder the proceeds. Over the past year, the DEA has uncovered what it describes as an "intricate network of money couriers" who collect and transport millions of dollars in drug proceeds from Europe to the Middle East” for arms purchases and funding terrorism.

The DEA says the international investigation is on-going, and involves numerous international law enforcement agencies in seven countries.

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