On a clear, crisp spring day in Paris, a couple sat down at the popular Cafe de L’Avenue on the broad, tree-lined Boulevard Haussmann. For the well-groomed Lebanese woman, the goat’s cheese flan and the onion soup on the menu of classic French staples was less alluring than her companion’s bag.
Inside was more than €214,000 ($260,200) – the purported proceeds of a drug-smuggling operation that the middle-aged businesswoman had promised to launder through European banks, in return for a 20 per cent cut.
“My gift,” the woman, Iman Kobeissi, told her dining partner as she took possession and promised in future to rent an apartment in a nice part of Paris so their meetings would go unobserved.
But for Kobeissi, it was already too late.
The handover had been caught on camera by the French police, the culmination of 18 months of painstaking work by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Her dining partner was one of its undercover agents.
The National reviewed court documents, sanctions notices, drugs seizures, police reports and government statements to examine how Hezbollah used France and other European countries as a centre of money-laundering operations and a lucrative market for its drugs rackets.
The FBI sting uncovered how the Lebanese group built a multilayered network in France to sustain its role in the drugs trade and procure weapons.
Underpinning its actions is the deal Hezbollah struck with the cartels to source cocaine in Brazil and mainly Colombia, with Venezuela becoming the gateway out of the region.
“Where was the cocaine going? Europe,” said a senior US official. “And where was the money coming back through? Well, every damn thing you could imagine.”
Of more than 2,000 people and groups around the world named by the US as “foreign narcotics kingpins”, almost a 10th are affiliated with or connected to Hezbollah, according to a report by US researchers.
Senior investigators from the US government’s counter-Hezbollah programme fed intelligence to lawyers representing families of hundreds of US soldiers killed in Iraq between 2004 and 2011 for legal action against Lebanese banks accused of assisting Hezbollah.
An 822-page legal complaint sought to tie together the illegal drugs rackets with overseas military action "committed, planned and authorised" by Hezbollah in concert with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Senior officials said the legal document represented one of the most detailed accounts of Hezbollah’s drugs and arms smuggling capabilities.
It details the leadership of Hezbollah’s business affairs component, a unit that runs its criminal operations in Europe, and outlines its money-laundering operations, trade in conflict diamonds, arms and drugs.
How Iman Kobeissi was ensnared
The wooing of Kobeissi started after a meeting in Lebanon where she first offered her money-laundering services to a drug smuggler and DEA informant, who fed the information back.
Her subsequent meetings with a DEA agent took her to New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, to Paris with the prospect of future meetings in Cyprus, Bulgaria, Lebanon and Iran’s Kish Island, a playground for organised crime, according to court papers.
By the time Kobeissi was lured to the United States and arrested in late 2015, she had unwittingly handed over a detailed picture of the vast network of criminal operations ranging across Europe, Africa, and South America run by the terrorist group Hezbollah.
Kobeissi, 50, spoke of her associates in Hezbollah who wanted to buy cocaine and “fireworks” – her code for weapons and ammunition.
Kobeissi and her accomplice Joseph Asmar, a lawyer with high-level connections to banks throughout Europe and the Middle East – offered to arrange for planes laden with massive shipments of cocaine to land in West Africa before being moved into Europe and the US.
She also talked about shipping aircraft parts to Iran in a secret sanctions-busting operation and handed over a shopping list for an Iran-based customer that included more than 1,000 military-style assault rifles.
“That investigation … really blew the doors open in terms of giving authorities insight into the depth and extent of the activity happening through Paris and France,” said Matthew Levitt, a Hezbollah expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The fact that these two based in Paris are running these activities all over the place is quite telling. Some of Hezbollah’s most important illicit finance activities – and certainly the most important ones in Europe right now – are happening in Paris and Brussels.”
Kobeissi and Asmar – who was arrested in Paris – were both extradited to the US and convicted.
Asmar was released in January 2018 and Kobeissi in September last year. Early release typically points to a deal for shorter sentences in return for information, experts say.
But some US officials say that key intelligence secured during years of high-level cross-agency operations pursuing Hezbollah was wasted after senior leaders left key roles and the administration’s focus shifted away.
US missed opportunities to eradicate Hezbollah
Despite other successes, David Asher, who advised the US government on pursuing the terrorist group’s finances under the administrations of George W Bush and Barack Obama, said that the US had missed opportunities to wind up the group.
“Frankly, it was a mix of tragedy and travesty combined with a seriously misguided turn of policy that resulted in no real strategic gain and a serious miscarriage of justice,” he told a US congressional committee.
Hezbollah operates a business model based on crime, donations from the Lebanese diaspora, legitimate business activities as well as support from Tehran, experts say.
Intelligence analysts say Hezbollah’s criminal operations have expanded since the 1990s and they now run one of the world’s largest drug-smuggling operations to support their growing foreign overseas programme. The expansion has been particularly pronounced in Europe and South America.
The significant growth in European demand for cocaine over the past 15 years filed in New York “provided Hezbollah with a golden opportunity to put its sophisticated logistics capabilities to work on behalf of South and Central American drug cartels and generate vast new revenue streams”.
In June, police in Italy seized 14 tonnes of amphetamine pills worth an estimated €1 billion hidden inside rolls of paper at the port of Salerno on the country’s west coast.
The spotlight initially fell on ISIS but authorities were focused on the Iran-backed Lebanese group. The drugs were tracked back to an area of Syria under the control of the Assad government that was known as a Hezbollah smuggling centre.
“They are prepared to work with virtually anyone to achieve their goals,” said David Daoud, a research analyst at the US-based group United Against Nuclear Iran who tracks Hezbollah activity.