The arrest of a “global terrorist” and financial supporter of Hezbollah in Romania on February 24 exemplifies the lengths the Lebanese militant group will go to insulate itself from U.S. sanctions. According to an indictment from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York, Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi, a fifty-eight-year-old Lebanese and Belgian citizen, conspired to “secretly move hundreds of thousands of dollars from the United States to Lebanon” and “provide continued financial assistance to Hizballah,” a designated foreign terrorist organization. Bazzi, who was himself declared a Specially Designed Global Terrorist (SDGT) by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in 2018, is now awaiting extradition to the United States alongside another Lebanese citizen, Talal Chahine, for participation in the same crimes.
Bazzi and Chahine’s offenses reach far beyond Romania and the United States. As described in the OFAC designation, Bazzi has generated millions of dollars for Hezbollah from business activities in Belgium, Gambia, Lebanon, and Iraq, among other locations. Further, as a “key Hizballah financier,” he maintains ties to other material supporters of Hezbollah and OFAC-designated and sanctioned SDGTs, as well as the Central Bank of Iran.
The Iran angle is particularly interesting, as Hezbollah has been known to receive the bulk of its funding (and weapons) from the Islamic Republic of Iran. As Iran’s foremost proxy which has carried out Iranian-backed operations in Syria and Yemen and against Israel, the ties between the two are extensive. Hezbollah has grown so powerful due to Iranian largess that it has often been called a “state within a state,” and has leveraged its capabilities to exert considerable political influence over Lebanon’s domestic and foreign policies.
Yet Hezbollah has also faced various financial constraints over the past two decades, including those brought on by Iran’s deteriorating economy, international financial sanctions, political competition in Lebanon, and combat operations in Syria. These pressures created an impetus for Iran and Hezbollah to get creative. Just this last week, for example, Israel announced the discovery of a gold smuggling operation between Iran and Venezuela, in which the former’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force would smuggle Venezuelan gold to Iran, sell it for a profit, and transfer the funds to Hezbollah.
This revelation should not be surprising. Hezbollah has worked assiduously to establish a presence in Latin America, especially in the notorious tri-border area between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, where a significant number of Lebanese immigrants live. As described by Matthew Levitt, a former senior official at the Treasury Department and a counterterrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in his 2013 book, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, Hezbollah not only built formal and informal support networks in this area, including sleeper cells, but engaged in drug trafficking and “every financial crime in the book” to generate funds.
Hezbollah has established similar transnational criminal networks in Europe, Africa, and even the United States, providing it with sources of funding that are entirely independent of Iran. This has made cracking down on the group an arduous task for U.S. and international law enforcement.
This brings us back to Bazzi and Chahine. Despite being described as “the most senior catch in the top tier” of Hezbollah’s Business Affairs Component, the organizational structure that undergirds the group’s international enterprises, it is far from a death blow. Indeed, countering Hezbollah, which in addition to controlling a worldwide criminal network also commands a large political following in Lebanon, requires friends of a free and democratic Lebanon to play the long game.
To be sure, one way in which the United States has sought to support Lebanese democracy and Lebanese alternatives to Hezbollah is by supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). According to the U.S. State Department, the United States has invested over $3 billion into the LAF since 2006 as a means of supporting Lebanon’s institutions, strengthening its sovereignty, securing its borders, and countering internal threats and terrorists.
Unfortunately, Lebanon’s economic emergency and political dysfunction are straining the LAF to the breaking point. Al-Monitor reported in late February that desertions are rising as the country’s currency has collapsed by more than 98 percent over the past three years. Lebanese security chiefs are warning of their declining ability to secure the country at the same time that Lebanese citizens and police are “storming” banks to access their own money and violent clashes are occurring in the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp.
Whether a solution to these problems can be found is difficult to say, but Lebanon’s long-standing political deadlock suggests that the situation will further worsen before it improves. The country has failed to elect a new president since its former president, Michel Aoun, left office last October, leaving it in the hands of a caretaker government. This constitutional crisis is only one more problem upon a mountain of challenges that the Lebanese must summit before their situation improves. In this light, the arrest of two senior Hezbollah financiers is laudable, but ultimately a sideshow for the Lebanese people, whose country stands on the edge of a precipice.
Adam Lammon is a former executive editor at The National Interest and an analyst of Middle Eastern affairs based in Washington, DC. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.
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