A threat to Hizbollah’s illegal drug trade

Project Cassandra offers a glimmer of hope to the victims of the terror outfit

(FILES) This file photo taken on December 4, 2017 shows US Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking during the inaugural Global Forum on Asset Recovery at the  International Finance Corporation in Washington, DC.
The US Justice Department announced January 11, 2018 creation of a special task force to investigate what it called "narcoterrorism" by the powerful Lebanese movement Hezbollah.
The unit will comprise specialists on money-laundering, drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime, targeting Iran ally Hezbollah's sprawling network, whose reach extends across Africa and into Central and South America, the department said."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 Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
 / AFP PHOTO / Mandel Ngan
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The US department of justice on Friday announced the relaunch of its investigation into Hizbollah's alleged involvement in illegal conduct, including drug trafficking. For an organisation that claims to be the "party of God", Hizbollah has meticulously transformed a substantial portion of Lebanon, the country out of which it operates and where it effectively functions as a state within a state, into a criminal underworld. In addition to receiving tens of millions of dollars annually from its patrons in the government of Iran, Hizbollah generates millions more from drug trafficking. That its fighters control the vast fields of marijuana that dot the Bekaa Valley has been common knowledge.

But no action was forthcoming until the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) initiated Project Cassandra, a mission devoted to identifying and disrupting Hizbollah's finances originating in drug trade and organised crime, in 2008. The scale of the problem became apparent that year when German customs officials seized nine million Euros in cash, with many of the bills carrying traces of cocaine, in the luggage of four Lebanese nationals at Frankfurt airport. Subsequent investigations found that a pair of Lebanese suspects detained at the airport were involved in the drug trade and had allegedly been sending funds to relatives with connections to Hizbollah leaders, including the chief of theorganisation Hassan Nasrallah. A Kuwaiti investigation in 2013 found that Hizbollah often stole from shipments of medical supplies donated to African nations.

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The money generated through illicit drug trafficking and organised crime enabled Hizbollah to circumvent institutional checks, finance its terror operations and build up the capability to sabotage the legitimate Lebanese state. Project Cassandra threatened to undo all of this. Dismayingly, however, instead of being encouraged, its work was actively undermined by former US president Barack Obama's administration in a bid to appease the Iranian government as it sought to push through the nuclear deal with Tehran. In the words of David Asher, one of the American officials who helped establish Project Cassandra, the move to stymie Project Cassandra was a "policy decision" that "serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down."

The consequences for the region's security have been baleful. Iran, enriched by the nuclear deal, has expanded its terror operations rather than scaling them down. Hizbollah, given a free pass by the Obama White House as a concession to Iran, is today measurably more powerful than it was in 2008. Consequently, it poses a greater threat than it did before. Jeff Sessions, the US attorney-general, has pledged that this time around Project Cassandra will be "given the needed resources and attention" to halt "violent international drug trafficking operations." To the victims of Hizbollah and Iran, Project Cassandra offers a belated glimmer of hope.

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