Ana Maria Luca

The Hezbollah connection

It was just an undercover operation meant to lead to the arrest of an Iranian drug dealer in Bucharest, Romania. But it developed into one of the largest operations the American Drug Enforcement Agency initiated in the last decade. It ended with the arrest of a Lebanese weapons dealer who claimed he was buying weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, worth $9.5 million for Hezbollah.

The American Drug Enforcement Agency announced last Tuesday that it had arrested Lebanese citizen Bashar Wehbeh in the Republic of Maldives for trying to purchase weapons from two undercover agents who were posing as dealers. As a result of the same operation, Cetin Aksu and Siavosh Henareh, Turkish and Iranian citizens, respectively, were arrested in Romania.

An international network of security institutions from Interpol to the Maldivian, Romanian Turkish, Greek and Malaysian police kept the suspects under surveillance, recorded conversations, intercepted phone calls and e-mails, and, on Monday, arrested the suspects. No Lebanese authorities were involved in the investigation, although the down payment for the transaction had been transferred from Beirut, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne told NOW Lebanon.

“The operation is very significant because it links global drug traffickers and weapons traffickers,” he said. “We don’t seek to do this, but during the course of drug investigations we often have opportunities to see where the money goes, and we are able to acquire intelligence that curbs criminal associations,” he stressed.

According to the published DEA indictment NOW Lebanon obtained from the case prosecutor in New York,  the operation started in June 2010 when the agents started following Siavosh Henareh, an Iranian whom the DEA had under surveillance for drug smuggling from Eastern Europe to the United States. The man pretended to be a doctor and had been living in a luxurious apartment in Bucharest for 20 years, where he would meet his clients.  
But the story took a different turn when the undercover DEA agents posed as Hezbollah operatives trying to raise money from drug dealing in the United States in order to buy weapons for the Lebanese party.  For the United States security agencies this is already a crime, since the US designated Hezbollah a foreign terrorist organization in 1999.

Henareh introduced the two undercover agents to two other arms dealers: Lebanese Bashar Wehbeh, who introduced himself as a Hezbollah associate, and Turkish Cetin Aksu, an intermediary.

After meetings in February 2011 in Romania, Cyprus, Malaysia and several other countries, Aksu and Wehbeh agreed to purchase military grade weaponry from other undercover agents posing as intermediaries on behalf of Hezbollah. According to the DEA, the agents had developed the initial story and were now acting as intermediaries selling weapons acquired from a US military base in Germany.

The agents recorded phone calls and conversations, filmed the meetings and kept e-mails in which they negotiated selling to Wehbeh 48 American-made Stinger SAMs, 100 Igla SAMs, 5,000 AK 47 assault rifles, 1,000 M4 rifles and 1,000 Glock handguns for a total price of approximately $9.5 million.

Aksu and Wehbeh signed a written contract in June 2011 in Malaysia.

“During a meeting on June 12, 2011, Wehbeh stated that he was purchasing the weapons on instructions from Hezbollah,” the indictment reads. “On June 28, 2011, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wehbeh and co-conspirators not named as defendants herein caused approximately $50,000 as a down payment for the weapons purchase… to be sent to the [DEA agents].”

The next day, an additional $ 50,000 was sent to the DEA agents’ undercover account from Beirut.

A video released by the Romanian police showing Siavosh Henareh and Cetin Aksu meeting with undercover agents in Bucharest (Courtesy of the Romanian Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism)

Henareh, the Iranian drug dealer, and Aksu, the Turkish middleman, were arrested in Bucharest on Monday. Wehbeh, wanted by Interpol, was caught the same day in the Maldives and appeared in Manhattan District Court in New York on Tuesday. He was charged with terrorism and faces life in prison.

"These DEA operations starkly illustrate how drug trafficking is a double threat that fuels both addiction and terrorism,” DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart said in a press release. “We have successfully targeted, and substantially dismantled two dangerous and complex networks,” she added. 

Although it is the first time the American security agencies arrest an alleged Hezbollah operative dealing illegal weapons, and, moreover, link him to a drug dealing network, the case is not the first time Hezbollah has come up in the American justice system. A Hezbollah political official and his son-in-law were indicted in 2009 in Philadelphia for smuggling 1,200 machine guns from the United States to Lebanon via Syria. Two other men, Hassan Hodroj and Dib Hani Harb, were charged with smuggling the weapons, but were never caught. Hodroj was identified in court documents as a member of Hezbollah's political council and has been identified in news reports as a spokesman for and head of its Palestinian issues portfolio.

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