US designation exposes Hezbollah's criminal activities

The group's thin veneer of legitimacy masking terrorist acts has been peeled away

A supporter of Lebanon's Hezbollah gestures as he holds a Hezbollah flag in Marjayoun, Lebanon May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
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The designation of Hezbollah by the US Justice Department as a "transnational crime organisation" is a welcome further clampdown on the activities of a group whose front as a legitimate political entity is a thin veneer for its role as a violent and criminal collaborator with Tehran's ambitions to destabilise the region. The company kept by Hezbollah on the list of the top five "transnational organised crime threats" targeted by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks volumes about the true nature of the organisation. Its tawdry companions, in the eyes of the US justice system, are a central American street gang, a Mexican criminal group, an international organised crime syndicate also based in Mexico and a Colombian drug cartel.

The classification as an organised crime syndicate, which adds to Hezbollah's long-term designation by the US as a terrorist organisation, will allow the Justice Department to begin prosecuting the members of all five groups and, as Mr Sessions said, "ultimately take them off [American] streets". This telling phrase underlines how Hezbollah's reach has extended around the world as it seeks to move and invest large sums of money in illicit activities and business fronts in support of its aims. In Lebanon, Hezbollah aspires to political legitimacy through the seats it holds in parliament and the "social services" it provides to the Lebanese people in its strongholds. But the reality is that its activities, supported by an annual $1 billion injection from Iran, are made possible by criminal or terrorist activities. In order to fund the dispatch of fighters to Syria, and arms and money to Yemen, Hezbollah has ruthlessly embraced the deadly business of trafficking weapons and narcotics. The nations of the GCC have designated Hezbollah as a terrorist group since 2013, when the extent of the organisation's involvement in the Syrian conflict became apparent and measures were announced to seize its assets.

In Europe, however, there has been less of a united front, marked by a hesitancy to tar the two faces of Hezbollah with the same brush. While the entire organisation is regarded as a terror group by France and the Netherlands, the EU and the UK currently only proscribe its military wing. This approach is misguided. As the US action makes clear, this is an organisation involved in egregious criminal activity at an international level. To maintain the pretence that its political and military wings gain no benefit from this is naive and dangerous. There have been hints that this approach might change. Last month, suggestions emerged that the UK cabinet was close to a decision to impose a full ban on the entirety of Hezbollah, with which it already has a no-contact policy, while a new proposed counter-terrorism bill would give the government greater powers in dealing with such organisations. In shining a light on the criminal activities of Hezbollah, the US Justice Department might finally push the rest of the world to see the organisation for what it really is.