According to a 2018 U.S. Treasury Department report, the Lebanese terrorist organization Hizballah receives an estimated $700 million annually from Iran, while raising another $300 million from a vast network of illegal businesses. Foremost among these is a money-laundering operation that provides its services to Latin American drug cartels, with nodes in West Africa, Europe, the U.S., and even East Asia. Tony Badran and Emanuele Ottolenghi explain:
Hizballah relies on a global network of couriers, financiers, businesses, and financial institutions to launder money from organized crime and drugs. These activities generate commissions for Hizballah. In addition, Hizballah directly engages in criminal activities, such as drug production and trafficking, human trafficking, gun smuggling, illicit wildlife trafficking, illegal logging, and blood diamonds.
As Badran and Ottolenghi detail, much can be learned about these activities from publicly available documents. Take, for example, one of the individuals caught up by authorities as they unraveled one particular segment of this criminal network:
In 2018, U.S. authorities arrested Ali Kassir, a U.S.-Lebanese dual national recently convicted in Miami. . . . Kassir bought discounted electronics from a Hong Kong-based company owned by a Lebanese national whose cousin, based in Ciudad del Este, would then buy them from Kassir. Court records indicate that some of Kassir’s merchandise was counterfeit—including fake Apple accessories. Acting as an unlicensed money remitter, Kassir used his company’s bank account as a pass-through for third-party transactions, ultimately laundering up to $70 million in three years. Some of the money he helped launder moved by courier (cash in suitcases), but most of the payments were wire transfers transiting Florida branches of U.S. banks.
At the Lebanese end of these operations, Hizballah facilitates the smuggling of goods into Syria. It has also injected enormous sums of illicit funds into Lebanon’s banks, resulting in the “contamination” of the country’s financial system, which is now in a state of near-collapse. But Washington now has a chance to intervene:
The government of Lebanon seeks an international bailout to save its financial system, which will require an estimated $93 billion rescue. . . . In the past, the United States has refrained from targeting Lebanese banks for fear of destabilizing Lebanon’s economy. That fear is now moot given the current financial crisis, which has left the entire sector in ruins.
The country’s corrupt political and financial elite, coupled with Hizballah’s domination of the system, sealed Lebanon’s fate. For the United States, as much as for the Lebanese people, what matters is to end the current system. Anything less would mean perpetuating the financial crimes that brought Lebanon to this moment in the first place.