A couple of recent arrests have once again shined the spotlight on the subject of Hezbollah’s global networks, namely its financial networks and illicit sources of funding worldwide. Some of these are based not only at the United States’ doorstep, but actually within its borders.
On June 3, it was reported that a Lebanese couple was arrested in Ohio for attempting to smuggle $500,000 to Hezbollah in the hollow sections of a vehicle. Then last week, Interpol announced that it had arrested Moussa Hamdan (a dual Lebanese-American national who was indicted in the US last year) on suspicion of funneling money to Hezbollah in Ciudad del Este, on the Paraguayan side of the notorious tri-border area where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet. Hezbollah has allegedly set up a lucrative base in this region from which to finance its operations.
The Ohio couple was not the first to be held in the US this year on charges of Hezbollah-related smuggling. For instance, back in February, three Florida businessmen were arrested for smuggling game consoles and other electronics to a mall in Paraguay, which was identified by the US Treasury Department as a Hezbollah front establishment. The episode highlighted the potential danger posed by the party’s logistical bases in South America.
The question of Hezbollah’s finances remains somewhat obscure, and the militia’s budget continues to be the subject of speculation. Hezbollah watchers regularly note that the group receives anywhere from $100 to $200 million a year from its patrons in Iran (a sum that may have been increased substantially in 2006 to cover for the losses suffered in that year’s war and the compensation effort that followed).
Hezbollah is also said to depend on an array of illicit enterprises the world over. According to a 2004 report by the American Naval War College, Hezbollah raises $10 million annually in the tri-border region alone. This is not to mention its assets in Africa and the Persian Gulf, or, for that matter, in the US. These ventures are said to cover such activities as contraband (for example cigarette smuggling); CD, DVD and software pirating; fraud schemes; money laundering; counterfeit currency (with Iranian help); and, according to media reports and official testimonies, narcotics trafficking, and the trade in diamonds.
As in Lebanon, Hezbollah embeds itself in tightly-knit Shia communities of the diaspora. In this way it makes it difficult for law enforcement and other agencies to penetrate their networks.
In the course of discussing the group’s sources of funding with a reporter in 2004, Hezbollah parliamentarian Mohammad Raad noted that the party also counted on the support of “wealthy Shia.” Raad was being truthful. When Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 crashed off the Lebanese coast this year, one passenger, Hassan Tajeddin, received the Hezbollah equivalent of a state funeral. Tajeddin was identified as the owner of the Angola-based Arosfran Company, which he ran with his brothers. One of the firm’s board members, Kassim Tajeddin, was designated by the US Treasury Department in May of last year.
The Treasury declared that Kassim and his brothers ran several cover companies for Hezbollah in Africa. Kassim had also “contributed tens of millions of dollars to Hezbollah and has sent funds to Hezbollah through his brother, a Hezbollah commander in Lebanon.” He was also previously imprisoned in Belgium on charges of large-scale tax fraud, money laundering and trade in conflict diamonds.
Another Tajeddin, this one named Ali, also said to be involved in the conflict-diamond trade, is better known in Lebanon for buying swaths of real estate in Druze and Christian areas. In this way, he has helped provide geographical continuity between Lebanon’s disparate Shia areas, in which Hezbollah has allegedly established “security zones.”
Much in the same way that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has set up multiple business ventures, Hezbollah is partnering with Shia businessmen in the diaspora, voluntarily or through coercion and intimidation. This is not without consequences for the Shia communities abroad. For instance, in October of last year, news broke that the Emirati authorities had deported dozens of Lebanese Shia, perhaps more, on suspicion of working with Hezbollah.
Aside from embedding themselves with local diaspora communities and taking advantage of lawless areas in weak or failed states, Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons have also allegedly collaborated with accomplice states such as Venezuela. There, the US Treasury has designated Ghazi Nasreddin as a Hezbollah facilitator and financier employed by the Venezuelan government.
The US authorities view these Latin American bases and transit routes (through Mexico) with much concern for the potential threat they pose for US national security. For example, it has been suggested that bombings in Buenos Aires during the early 1990s were planned in the tri-border area, and that the highest echelons of the Iranian regime were also implicated.
When Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, declared, after the 2008 assassination of the group’s military commander, Imad Mugniyah, that he was ready for “open war” well beyond the Lebanese theater of operations, he wasn't exaggerating. As has been evident from the early 1990s, Hezbollah has by many accounts been setting up a global infrastructure to support such a capacity.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies