The head of Hizbullah, Hasan Nasrallah, is seen delivering a televised speech to his supporters as they attend on August 31, 2017 a rally in Baalbek to celebrate the return of its fighters after fighting the Islamic State. (AFP)

By Charles Bybelezer 

January 22, 2018

The trial of two Hizbullah operatives accused of blowing up an Israeli tour bus in 2012, killing five Israelis and the Bulgarian driver, kicked off this week in Sofia. The suspects, Meliad Farah and Hassan El Hajj Hassan, are being tried in absentia after fleeing to Lebanon, which refuses to extradite them despite Interpol warrants for their arrest.

This comes against the backdrop of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement last week of the formation of a new task force to combat Hizbullah’s vast drug trafficking and money laundering empire, worth an estimated $1 billion annually. That decision followed a Politico report claiming that the Obama administration interfered with a Drug Enforcement Agency initiative—code-named Project Cassandra—to crack down on the Iranian-sponsored Shiite organization’s illicit activities for fear of jeopardizing the nuclear deal with Iran.

Concurrently, the British House of Commons is slated on January 25 to discuss fully blacklisting Hizbullah, whose so-called “political arm” has until now been allowed to fundraise and recruit in major European capitals in a successful attempt to bifurcate the terrorist organization into legitimate civic and martial elements. While Israel, the U.S. and, most recently, the Arab League have listed Hizbullah, in its entirety, as a terror group, the European Union, like the U.K., banned only the organization’s “military wing” in the wake of the Burgas attack.

“While European governments have outlawed Hizbullah’s armed body, this has no distinction because, as Hizbullah itself says, it is a monolithic organization,” Benjamin Weinthal, a Fellow at the Washington-based Foundation For Defense of Democracies, explained to The Media Line. “In this respect, the Europeans have engaged in a sort of soggy appeasement of Hizbullah because they are afraid of it.”

Hizbullah was created by the Iranian regime in the early 1980s, foremost to counter Israel’s presence at the time in southern Lebanon. However, its hatred for the West quickly manifested in the 1983 attack on American military barracks in Beirut which killed 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French peacekeepers. In the ensuing decades, Hizbullah has effectively taken control of the Lebanese government while developing into one of the Middle East’s most powerful military forces, currently engaged in the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

According to Professor Efraim Inbar, President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, “Hizbullah uses Arab communities abroad to make inroads not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe, South America and even Asia. They are there to establish cells that will eventually attack Jewish and Israeli targets,” he told The Media Line, while noting that “Hizbullah’s Islamic ideological underpinnings also motivate its expansion.” Inbar further explained that while Hizbullah’s overarching policies are coordinated by Iran, its local branches maintain freedom of action.

“Unit 133, for example, primarily focuses on the West Bank where it recruits local Palestinians, transfers them funds and then provides online training [on how to conduct attacks],” Yaakov Lappin, an Associate Researcher at Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line. “It also has links to Sinai and Jordan and, [more broadly], has cells across the Middle East which promote terrorism against Israeli targets. The unit is a major concern of the Israeli intelligence community,” he expounded, “and also is reportedly involved in drug trafficking, [which is] a source of financing.”

In Germany, there are an estimated 1,000 Hizbullah members currently operating, with reports suggesting that additional combatants have been infiltrating the country by posing as Mideast refugees. This is part and parcel of Iran’s attempt to further penetrate the continent, with German police this week having conducted wide-scale raids targeting members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds [Jerusalem] Force, who were reportedly conducting surveillance on Israeli and Jewish targets.

Weinthal traces these developments to 1992, when Iranian and Hizbullah agents killed four Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant. While German authorities accused the highest levels of the Iranian government of complicity in the attack, the two countries reportedly reached a quid pro quo deal in which Tehran and Hizbullah would cease perpetrating violent attacks on German soil in exchange for being permitted to freely operate in the country.

Another contributing factor, Weinthal noted, is that “Europeans are so invested in the Iran nuclear deal that they do not want to act against its wholly owned subsidiary, Hizbullah. This is similar to why the Obama administration turned a blind eye to Hizbullah’s illicit activities.”

To this end, terror group is actively engaged in drug trafficking throughout the Americas, from the Tri-Border Area where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay converge, to Mexico, where it cooperates with local drug cartels. Using these funds along with those generated from sophisticated money laundering schemes, Hizbullah and, as a corollary, its patron Tehran, have been able to buy political influence throughout the region.

This was made evident by the previous Argentine government’s attempted cover-up of the 1994 bombing of the Jewish AMIA community center in Buenos Aires, which followed the bombing of the Israeli Embassy two years earlier. An investigation into the attacks, which together killed over 100 people, was stymied for decades until, in 2015, federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman was slated to testify before a congressional panel that then-president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner had concealed facts about Iran’s and Hizbullah’s involvement. Hours before Nisman was set to reveal his findings—including that in exchange for Kirchner’s compliance, the Islamic Republic would supply her government with a steady stream of cheap oil—he was found shot to death in his apartment in what was first ruled a suicide but eventually reclassified as a murder.

The apparent assassination garnered global headlines and “caused a growing awareness in the West of Hizbullah’s negative actions,” Inbar stated, before qualifying to The Media Line that “there remains a big gap between existing legal frameworks, which place an emphasis on upholding human rights, and the [steps required] to crack down on terrorist groups.”

For his part, U.S. President Donald Trump appears committed to bridging this gap by pressing Congress to pass stronger sanctions on Hizbullah. The American administration also directed the Treasury Department to place multi-million-dollar bounties on senior Hizbullah leaders, in a bid to hamper its illegal infrastructure.

However, many analysts point to an apparent contradiction in Washington’s strategy, which includes firm backing for the Lebanese government and more than one hundred million dollars in annual military aid. This, despite Hizbullah’s domination over Beirut and that sophisticated American weaponry provided to the Lebanese Armed Forces has found its way into the terror group’s hands. It is a reality encapsulated by Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s recent assertion about his ally: namely, that “Hizbullah represents the people…[and is] an essential part of Lebanon’s defense.”

Accordingly, these experts argue, so long as foreign governments maintain policies towards Hizbullah premised on inconsistencies, any measures taken against the terror group, while potentially damaging in the short-term, are unlikely to have any long-lasting effects.

The Media Line

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.