Beware Hezbollah’s Dual-Nationals

Beware Hezbollah’s Dual-Nationals

Without stigmatizing diaspora communities or profiling their members, Western intelligence services must work against radicalization and incitement by targeting Hezbollah agents.

 

On December 27, Hezbollah announced that Ali Ahmad Bazzi had risen “as a martyr on the road to Jerusalem” and released his martial portrait. Hit by an Israeli strike, Bazzi died with his brother Ibrahim and Ibrahim’s wife. In death, Bazzi joined a growing list of Hezbollah military personnel killed by Israeli strikes as Israel and Hezbollah fought along the Israel-Lebanon border. What sets him apart is that Ali and his brother were both Australian nationals—Ibrahim was in Lebanon to bring his wife back to Australia after she had been granted a visa.

Since 9/11, Western countries have closely monitored Al Qaeda’s and Islamic State’s foreign fighters. The Bazzi brothers’ case should alert Western governments that Hezbollah, too, poses a risk among Shia Lebanese expatriates across the vast Lebanese diaspora—estimated to include more than 15 million people worldwide, with its most significant presence in South America.

 

That Hezbollah has been recruiting Lebanese Shia expatriates to support its struggle is not new. But until recently, dual nationals working for Hezbollah mostly emerged from the shadows only when implicated in either terror plots or financial schemes to fund Hezbollah.

For example, in July 2012, Hezbollah operatives targeted a bus carrying Israeli tourists outside the Bulgarian resort of Burgas, murdering five Israelis and the Bulgarian bus driver. The three terrorists—Meliad Farah, Hassan el-Haji Hassan, and Mohamad Hassan El Husseini—were dual nationals of Lebanon and, respectively, Australia, Canada, and France. Elsewhere, a few days before the Burgas attack, Cypriot authorities arrested Hossam Yaakoub, a dual national of Lebanon and Sweden who was plotting to strike Israeli tourists in Cyprus. A few months later, in early 2013, an Iranian-Canadian dual national was arrested in Bulgaria while scouting another possible terror attack. Another dual national of Lebanon and Canada, Hussein Bassam Abdallah, was arrested in Cyprus and sentenced to six years in prison in 2015 for plotting terror attacks against Israeli targets. Additional Hezbollah members of its External Security Organization were arrested in the United States in 2017 and 2019. They, too, were all dual nationals—of Lebanon and the United States.

Hezbollah’s money laundering and drug trafficking both heavily rely on Lebanese expatriates. Of the dozens of Western law enforcement agency investigations over the years, it is worth mentioning the cases of: U.S.-sanctioned Kassem Tajideen, a Lebanese expatriate active in West Africa and the DRC, born in Sierra Leone and with dual nationality; Mohammed Ibrahim Bazzi, sanctioned in 2018 and subsequently arrested and extradited to the United States, who held multiple passports, including from Belgium, the Gambia and Sierra Leone; and Kassem Mohamad Hijazi extradited to the United States for money laundering, who held Brazilian and Lebanese citizenship.

Yet the case of Ali Bazzi is different. Unlike the External Security Agents who were recruited to carry out terror attacks abroad and relied on their foreign passports to slip more easily through airport security and border controls, or foreign-born, Lebanese expatriates engaged in illicit financial activities for the sake of supporting Hezbollah’s causes, the Ali Bazzi story attests to the presence of foreign nationals of Lebanese extraction who, while living in the West, are recruited to join Hezbollah’s military ranks and fight in Lebanon, Syria, or elsewhere in the region. While recruitment to join the military ranks of Hezbollah points to the possibility of more foreign nationals dying in Hezbollah’s uniform while performing their Jihad duties in Lebanon, it also highlights a homegrown problem it would be foolish to ignore: the radicalization that precedes a journey to join the fight.

Though concrete evidence of specific, prior cases is scant, in 2009 and 2013, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated individuals linked to Hezbollah who engaged in the recruitment of Lebanese expatriates to become Hezbollah fighters. In 2009, the Treasury sanctioned Sheikh Abdel Menhem Qubaisy, the imam of a Shia mosque in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. In addition to being a Hezbollah fundraiser and personal representative of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, Treasury noted, Qubaisy “helped establish an official Hizballah foundation in Cote d’Ivoire which has been used to recruit new members for Hizballah’s military ranks in Lebanon.” Four years later, Treasury sanctioned more West Africa-based Hezbollah recruiters, particularly Ali Ahmad Chehade, whom Treasury identified as working with Qubaisy.

These Treasury actions demonstrate that Hezbollah’s effort to recruit fighters from its foreign cohorts has been ongoing. It is a large pool. Though accurate, up-to-date statistics are hard to come by, just in Sub-Saharan Africa, Lebanese Shia expatriates number in the hundreds of thousands. Monitoring the recruitment networks—including the institutions that act as their conduit—should be a priority, as it has been with Jihadi foreign fighters since 9/11.

In Abidjan, Sheikh Qubaisy relied on a religious foundation to recruit. Abbas Loutfe Fawaz and Hicham Nmer Khanafer, two more Lebanese sanctioned alongside Qubaisy’s assistant, Shahade, in 2013, were also active in recruitment in Senegal and the Gambia. Moreover, Hezbollah has built a miniature version of the recruitment tools it uses in Lebanon to mobilize local Shia—scouts’ movements, schools, mosques, and cultural associations—across the diaspora. Relying on clerics, scouts’ leaders, teachers, and community organizers dispatched to serve in those communities under the guidance of its Foreign Relations Department, Hezbollah uses communal institutions to indoctrinate the local youth.

There are numerous documented cases in the Lebanese diaspora where local communities commemorated fallen Hezbollah fighters who died thousands of miles away while fighting Israel or alongside the Assad regime—a possible indication of a family connection, if not direct origin, within those expatriate communities.

The threat, therefore, is real—and it calls for corrective measures. First, Western governments must recognize Hezbollah’s penetration of diaspora communities through charitable work and institutions. But rather than stigmatizing entire communities or profiling their members, Western intelligence services must work against radicalization by targeting Hezbollah agents. As with Sunni radicalism, clerics, teachers, and instructors delivering Hezbollah’s worldview to their pupils and congregants should be monitored and, where the line crosses into incitement, removed. Educational materials must be similarly vetted to identify and expunge radicalizing themes and indoctrination messages.

Hezbollah recruits its foreign fighters through local networks of institutions and activists permanently rooted at the heart of communities in their countries of origin. Further, for those who do not meet Bazzi’s fate, there is the prospect of returning home to offer an example to local youth or to put their skills to Hezbollah’s service abroad. For every Ali Bazzi who dies in Hezbollah’s uniform in Lebanon, there may be another who returns home to the West, bringing the threat of Hezbollah’s violence to our own communities. That is a risk we can no longer afford to ignore.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan foundation based in Washington, DC. Follow him on X @eottolenghi