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Hezbollah’s External Support Network in West Africa and Latin America

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by Douglas Farah
Published on August 4th, 2006

In order to help insure that Hezbollah does not retain the capacity to rearm itself in the aftermath of the current conflict with Israel, it will be vitally important to restrain its financial support and logistical capabilities which reside outside Lebanon and the Middle East. While Iranian and Syrian financial and political support is much noted for Hezbollah, the terrorist group also receives a significant amount of support from the Shi’ite Muslim diasporas of West and Central Africa as well as pockets in Latin America. The vast majority of these Muslim groups are Lebanese. Through these diasporas, numbering several hundred thousand people, Hezbollah raises millions of dollars a year while at the same time creating a mechanism for those families abroad to maintain contact and political participation in their home country.

 This money is usually remitted directly to Lebanon, either by courier or by electronic transfer. In addition   n to providing financial resources for Hezbollah, these same groups from the Shi’ite Lebanese communities, particularly Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa, provide a safe haven and an R & R retreat for Hezbollah leaders, including Imad Mughniya, Hezbollah’s chief military officer. In some parts of Africa Hezbollah, through Iran, has also worked to recruit militants and develop a teaching network of radical Shi’ite imams and mosques to compete with the larger and more visible Saudi-funded Sunni salafist efforts.[1]

 Almost since its founding Hezbollah has successfully tapped the cash flow of criminal enterprises run by groups that are either sympathetic to the organization’s ideology and preaching, or who leaders are anxious for the political benefits that accrue in Lebanon from having a Hezbollah connection, or a combination of the two. The businesses that contribute to the organization are not Hezbollah companies or wholly-owned criminal enterprises. Rather, unlike some radical Islamist groups that at least profess not to engage in or support criminal activities, Hezbollah has long made it a goal to tap into these resources.

One of the mechanisms used by Hezbollah in West Africa, as in Lebanon, is to levy “taxes” on those Shi’ite Muslim businesses and individuals who run legitimate businesses, as well as collecting from criminal enterprises run by sympathizers and militants.[2] The organization has also attacked the properties of merchants who have resisted Hezbollah’s financial solicitations.[3] Precise estimates of the amount West African revenue represents to Hezbollah are impossible, but the consensus among U.S. and European officials, as well as Lebanese businessmen, is that it is millions of dollars a year. Some of those that contribute do so to support Hezbollah’s social and political wing,  positing a distinction between those enterprises and Hezbollah’s armed component.[4]

On an annual or semi-annual basis Hezbollah notifies businesses in West Africa, stretching from Mali to Cameroon, of the amount of the contribution that each is expected to make, based on fairly precise knowledge of the revenues that each business is expected to generate. This alone indicates a high level of Hezbollah penetration and interest in this revenue stream. At least once a year senior Hezbollah operatives travel through the region collecting the “donations” to be returned to Beirut.[5] The donations are often in cash, as the Lebanese community businesses often do most of their business in cash and seek to avoid financial scrutiny by avoiding the formal banking system. Because the Lebanese Shi’ite community regularly charters aircraft to fly from different West African capitals directly to Beirut, and the flights undergo a minimum of scrutiny, flying money by courier is an easy and accessible way to move the cash.

For a glimpse of how much money Hezbollah raises in the region, consider one case.  On Dec. 25, 2003, a charter flight UTA 141, scheduled to fly from Cotonou, Benin, in West Africa to Beirut, crashed on takeoff, killing all the passengers. On board were senior Hezbollah members, carrying $2 million in contributions to the organization from across the region.[6] Arab press reports said the money represented the “regular contributions the party receives from wealthy Lebanese nationals in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Benin and other African states.” A senior Hezbollah official was immediately dispatched to Benin to console the “sons of the Lebanese community.”[7]

This was not the only time Hezbollah has been detected trying to move large quantities of money by courier from West Africa. In 1998 Lebanese expatriates were caught trying to smuggle $1.7 million to Lebanon, reportedly for Hezbollah. Israeli intelligence ranks Senegal as the “secondary centre for Hizbullah’s fundraising activity in Africa,” second only to Cote d’Ivoire.[8]

In the diamond trade, Hezbollah operates in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and possibly Angola. These countries all provided diamonds as a revenue stream to all factions of the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s, although the diamond trade is now largely controlled by Shi’ite Muslims loyal either to Hezbollah or its political cousins, the Amal party and militia. (Although Amal and Hezbollah remain close politically, and Amal retains an armed wing, it has not been placed on the list of terrorist organizations).

Few diamond traders work directly for Hezbollah. But many, if not most of the Lebanese community that now controls the diamond trade, valued at several hundred million dollars a year, are Shi’ite Muslims who contribute to Hezbollah either out of conviction or fear. In Kinshasa, DRC, there is diamond dealer who is commonly known among his peers as the “Hezbollah” dealer. Hezbollah also has a functioning center in Freetown, Sierra Leone, that provides social services and is reported to deal with stones to be smuggled out of the country.[9]

Hezbollah sympathizers such as Aziz Nassour and Samih Osailly, have long been known for their support of Hezbollah. Both were convicted of illicit diamond smuggling in Belgium in 2003. While Osailly served several years in prison, Nassour retreated to a suite in Beirut’s Sheraton Hotel, from where he has continued to do business. They stand out because they also helped al Qaeda diamond merchants purchase and move large quantities of diamonds in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the months prior to the 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

For many years Nassour was the chief diamond merchant for Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. The two were so close that Nassour was often referred to as “Aziz Mobutu.”[10] Nassour was chosen by the al Qaeda operatives to help them because he was known throughout the diamond-trading world as someone who could move large amounts of “blood diamonds” to Europe.  Because of his strong political connections he could also afford the al Qaeda operatives protection.

Nassour later bragged that he was illegally moving $25 million a week in diamonds from Africa to Europe during the height of his efforts in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).[11] In late 2000 he began purchasing weapons for Liberian president Charles Taylor, spending part of his time in Monrovia. In February 2001 he rented a house for the al Qaeda operatives, sent his established couriers there, and set up his nephew, Osailly, to handle business. The diamonds flowed through a company called ASA Diam in Antwerp, controlled by Nassour and owned by his cousin. Therefore, al Qaeda did not have to open new companies, a move that could have attracted the attention of authorities or other diamond buyers.[12]

In addition to reaping profits from diamonds, Hezbollah and other Islamist groups collect money from taxes and/or contributions from a host of other illegal activities that members of the West African Lebanese community are involved in. This is not to say that these businesses are controlled by Hezbollah or form an organic part of the Hezbollah structure although the organization does run numerous front companies for its laundering and financial needs. But these businesses contribute money and political clout to the organization, clout that has historically been important in spreading radical Shi’ite teachings and improving diplomatic relations for Hezbollah allies such as Iran.

European intelligence officials, particularly those in Belgium, have identified the Lebanese family/clan structure of the Shi’ite community as the fundamental business unit, whether the business is legitimate or not. Often in West Africa the lines are blurred because of onerous red tape for conducting legal business and the high level of corruption endemic in most of the countries. Over time the Lebanese Shi’ite community has come to dominate the trade of rice, gasoline, wine, chicken, pasta and many other basic imported commodities, often through family alliances that control all aspects of the trade from buying the produce in Europe to the airlines that ship it to the West African outlets.

 In addition, Lebanese families negotiate monopoly import deals with the government, allowing them to charge more than competitive rates for specific products and share some of the wealth through payoffs to government officials while generating more revenue for Hezbollah and other recipients of their largesse. This was particularly true in Liberia, where the Taylor regime sold monopoly franchises of rice, petroleum products and vehicle importation to different Lebanese families, who in turn made millions of dollars.[13]

 In a series of investigations over the past decade the Belgian exterior intelligence service has outlined the overlapping business structures of several of the more prominent West African Shi’ite Muslim families, which include overlapping criminal enterprises. Among the most prominent are the Nassour clan (see above), which controls several dozen businesses in Antwerp and elsewhere in Belgium.  Over the past decade members of the clan have allegedly been involved in the counterfeiting of currency, the defrauding of ANB-Ambro Bank in Amsterdam of $87 million and plotting coups in Africa.[14]

Because of the close-knit nature of the clans and the close ties between the African and Lebanese branches of the families, intelligence penetration of these groups has been extremely difficult.

The presence of Hezbollah in West Africa is rooted in the history of the region. Initial Lebanese migrations to the region in the middle of the 19th century were largely Christian, due to the waning of the Ottoman Empire and economic duress. However, the Shi’ite immigrants outnumbered the Christians by 1910, and continued to grow and gain political clout, particularly in Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone. By the 1950s the Lebanese in Sierra Leone and Liberia had come to control much of the diamond trade, in part because they were more trusted by Sierra Leone’s British colonial rulers than were Africans.[15] The Shi’ite community’s growing predominance in Sierra Leone’s diamond trade was cemented in the 1970s with the rise in power of Jamil Sahid Mohamed, known as Jamil. By 1984 Jamil  controlled most of the nation’s diamond production of some 2 million carats a year. Jamil was a childhood friend of another Lebanese born in Sierra Leone--Nabih Berri, the head of the Amal party, speaker of the Lebanese parliament and ally of Hezbollah. A December 2000 issue of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin noted Berri had distinguished himself “as both one of the most reviled of Lebanon’s militia elites (even among fellow Shi’ite Muslims) and the most loyal of Syria’s Lebanese allies.”[16]

Through Berri, Iran became much more active in Sierra Leone as well, funding a large cultural center in Freetown and expanding diplomatic ties. In one of the stranger incidents, Jamil in 1985 persuaded Sierra Leone’s president Joseph Momoh to invite Yasser Arafat to Freetown. While there Arafat offered to rent Banana Island, a small speck of land off the coast, to use as a training center. His offer was rejected, but Momah did allow Jamil to have a 500-man “personal security force,” many who were Palestinian.[17]

In recent years Israeli intelligence has warned other countries of Hezbollah plans to kidnap Israeli businessmen and diplomats in Africa and has reported Hezbollah attempts at recruitment in East Africa. “For Hizbollah, Africa constitutes a very comfortable base of operations,” a senior Israeli official said in 2004. “On the one hand, there is a strong base for extremist Islamic groups there and on the other hand the local security forces and intelligence agencies are very lenient.”[18]

U.S. and European officials say that Africa has gained in relative importance as a Hezbollah fundraising and recruitment area as attention has been more focused on the Shi’ite Islamist activities in South America’s tri-border area (TBA), the relatively lawless region near the Atlantic coast where the borders of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet.

The TBA has for years drawn attention as a center for contraband smuggling, drug trafficking and large-scale money laundering, in part because all of the countries whose borders are involved profit from the illicit trade. It is also an easy place to hide and move money. Estimates of the amount of drug money alone laundered through the two main urban centers in the TBA, Foz do Iguacu and Ciudad del Este, range as high as $12 billion a year. Such quantifications, by their nature are imprecise but a joint 2003 study by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress and the Central Intelligence Crime and Narcotics Center concluded the “amounts laundered in the TBA probably are in the billions of dollars per year.” The same study concluded that “Hizballah has reaped hundreds of millions of dollars from narcotics and arms trafficking, product piracy and other illicit activities in the TBA.”[19]

Hezbollah is not the sole Islamist group with a presence in the TBA. U.S. and Latin American intelligence services have documented the presence of Hamas, al Qaeda and other smaller groups using the TBA for many of the same purposes as Hezbollah.[20] Veja, a leading Brazilian news weekly, and other reputable news outlets reported that Osama bin Laden himself was filmed at a mosque in Foz do Iguacu in 1995.[21] Khalid Sheik Mohamed, the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, visited the area at least once that same year. His contact in Brazil was given to him in Sudan by Mohammed Atef, a top al Qaeda officer.[22] Given that no terrorist attacks were carried out, it is not unreasonable to assume the visits of senior al Qaeda officials were related to logistical or financial matters rather than operational planning.

 Hezbollah, however, has the largest financial structure in Latin America and it is similar to that in of the organization’s Africa structure, that is to say, structured along family/clan lines. These clans have family members across the continent’s main free trade zones of Panama, Isla Margarita and the TBA, allowing for multiple opportunities to launder funds by over invoicing stocks, under invoicing merchandise and thtough the use of little-monitored electronic money transfer systems and bulk money smuggling. The first study of this overlapping clan structure spread across broad geographic areas was not undertaken until 2004.[23]

 We don't see any operations nor any training areas, training camps, Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, with responsibility for the region, told reporters earlier this year. We do see activity with regards to transit, with regards to logistics support, document forgery, money laundering, he said of Islamist extremists groups in the TBA. So there is an underlying support base throughout the region but nothing that we've seen operational since probably the bombings in Argentina in the mid '90s.[24]

It was the two Hezbollah bombing of Jewish facilities in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the early 1990s that first brought attention to possible terrorist activity in the TBA. Hezbollah operatives, with the help of Iranian diplomats, bombed the Israeli embassy on March 17, 1992, killing 29 people. Former president Carlos Mennen was implicated in blocking the investigation into the attack.

 The second attack was on the Jewish community center, killing 85 people and wounding 230. On Nov. 9, 2005, an Argentine special prosecutor found the perpetrator of the 1994 attack to be a 21-year-old Hezbollah operative name Ibrahim Berro. The possibility of Iranian participation in the second attack is still under investigation.[25] A 2002 police report on the incident, leaked to the Argentine press, identified Iranian officials, including former Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian, and Hezbollah, as being directly responsible for the terrorist attack.  In the wake of the report, international arrest warrants were issued against four Iranian diplomats suspected of involvement in bombing.[26]

Since those attacks and the attention they drew, it appears that Hezbollah has used the TBA less as an operational center and more as a financial haven. But in fact, there is very little direct knowledge of what transpires in the TBA, the Colon free trade zone in Panama, Isla Margarita or other Shi’ite enclaves. This is in part because of lack of attention by the intelligence community and the low priority Latin America in general has received in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. Another reason is that, as noted earlier, the clan structures are difficult to penetrate and monitor. While some of the relationships among the Shi’ite clans involved in contraband, money laundering and drug trafficking have been mapped out, the networks remain largely uncharted territory in the intelligence community. The agency with the best working knowledge of the TBA, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), is seldom viewed as part of the intelligence community and its knowledge and resources in the region are exploited only minimally by other agencies.[27]

However, the interest since 9-11, while minimal, has generated some successes. On Sept. 21, 2001 16 terrorist suspects from Lebanon and elsewhere were arrested in Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este for having false documents. Two weeks later, on Oct. 2 two Lebanese citizens, Hassam Saleh and Saleh Fayad, were arrested as Hezbollah suspects and charged with commercial piracy and having false documents. Police allege they were sending $50,000 to “organizations like Hezbollah.[28]

But since those early arrests, relatively little has been done, in large part because human intelligence in the area simply does not exist among the Shi’ite and other radical enclaves. Some intelligence tools are becoming more useful, and some liaison relationships in host countries with large Shi’ite diasporas are improving. But most of the countries, in both West Africa and Latin America, have little capacity or political will to crack down on groups which provide employment and a revenue stream for the government and those government officials on the payrolls of that particular business community.

Until these weaknesses are understood and the clan structures and business relationships mapped out to achieve a working understanding of the economies of the regions, Hezbollah and other radical Islamist groups will continue to reap a windfall profit, free of tax, oversight and strategic consideration by Western governments.

[1] Author interviews with U.S. and European intelligence officials in West Africa.

[2] Author interviews with Lebanese businessmen in Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Mali.

[3] Matt Levitt, “Hizbullah’s African Activities Remain Undisrupted,” RUSI/Janes Homeland Security Monitor, March 1, 2004.

[4] Author interviews with Lebanese businessmen in Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Mali.

[5] Author interviews.

[6] Levitt, op cit. For a fuller discussion of the Lebanese connection, including that of Hezbollah and the Amal militia, please see: Lansana Gberie, War and Peace in Sierra Leone: Diamonds, Corruption and the Lebanese Connection, The Diamond and Human Security Project, Occasional Paper 6, January 2003.

[7] Levitt, op cit.

[8] Levitt, op cit.

[9] Author interviews in Kinshasa and Freetown, 2002.

[10] For a full discussion of the role of Nassour and Osailly in the blood diamond trade see Douglas Farah, Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror,” Broadway Books, New York, May 2004.

[11] Nassour interview, aired on BBC Documentary, “Blood Diamonds,” Feb. 10, 2003.

[12] For full details, see: Unofficial translation of Public Prosecutor File 1/2002-Subsection General Examining Magistrate, Antwerp; Farah, op cit., pp. 71-99.

[13] For a detailed look at the monopoly structure in Liberia, see: “Following Taylor’s Money: A Path of War and Destruction,” Coalition for International Justice, May 2005.

[14] Intelligence documents in possession of author.

[15] Lansana Gberie, op cit.

[16] Daniel Nassif, “Nabih Berri: Lebanese Parliament Speaker,” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, December 2000.

[17] Lansana Gberie, op cit

[18] Levitt, op cit.

[19] “Terrorist and Organized Crime Groups in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of South America,” The Library of Congress, July 2003, p. 53.

[20] Author interviews with U.S. and Argentine intelligence officers and “Terrorist and Organized Crime Groups in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of South America,” op cit.

[21] “El Esteve no Brazil,” Veja on-line, no. 1,794, March 19, 2003; “Bin Laden Reportedly Spent Time in Brazil in ’95,” Washington Post, March 18, 2003, p. A24.

[22] Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, W.W. Norton Company, New York, p. 161.

[23] Author interview with U.S. intelligence sources.

[24] Joe Pappalardo, “South America Hotspot Garners U.S. Attention,” National Defense, June 2005.

[25] Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies, Nov. 22, 2005.

[26] Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, op cit.

[27] Author interviews with recently-retired intelligence officials.

[28] William W. Mendel, “Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este and the New Centers of Gravity,” The Military Review, March-April 2002.

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