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Easy Money?: The Department of the Treasury's Fight Against Hezbollah in the Americas

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Hezbollah has attained elite status as a globe-spanning and thoroughly modern terrorist organization through its ruthlessness, efficiency and the strategic planning capabilities of a Fortune 500 company. Just in recent years, Hezbollah has won seats in Lebanon’s cabinet and parliament, fought the Israeli Defense Force to a standstill, and maintained their status as a serious regional threat. All this, while at the same time, branding themselves as a charitable social organization and playing a large role in the sectarian violence in Syria. But how has this once disorganized group of militias managed to reach such heights? One of the main reasons appears to be Hezbollah’s ability to manage their financial resources successfully.

Obviously, Hezbollah, like most successful organizations, needs a steady revenue stream to operate. Although a large percentage of their operating budget comes directly from Tehran and in the past Damascus, sometimes more creative sources are required.  One of the more lucrative alternatives involves a region not often associated with Middle Eastern terrorists: South and Central America.  With its sophisticated narcotics networks and sporadic political instability, the region has become fertile ground for Hezbollah fundraisers. Therefore, in recent years the United States has begun paying closer attention to Hezbollah’s financial activities in the region. Three relatively recent Treasury Department (“Treasury”) actions illustrate not only the depth and breadth of Hezbollah’s presence “south of the border,” but also the legal tools available in America’s battle to prevent the financing of terrorism.

The late President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez rarely missed an opportunity to express his disdain for the United States. But as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. So in June 2008, when it was revealed that Venezuelan diplomat Ghazi Nasr al Din was being designated by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as a Specially Designated National, it came as a slight surprise.  Allegedly, Nasr al Din had used his numerous postings in the Middle East to establish a network of fundraisers sympathetic to Hezbollah. Nasr al Din was also apparently involved in sending fighters to Iran for training and in radicalizing indigenous Venezuelan tribes.

By categorizing Nasr al Din as a  “Specially Designated National”, Treasury was acting under (“E.O. 13224”) which adds him to a long list of individuals and organizations who have been found to have committed, threatened to commit or supported terrorism.  Once designated, OFAC can essentially exile an individual or organization out of the world’s financial system by preventing United States persons from interacting with them.

In 2011, another significant E.O. 13224 action was announced, which demonstrated the symbiotic relationship that had developed between Middle Eastern terrorist organizations and the region’s infamous drug cartels. Ali Mohamed Saleh is a well-traveled Hezbollah fundraiser with ties to Venezuela, Colombia, Europe and the Middle East. He had already been targeted under the Kingpin Act for his involvement with the Joumaa Trafficking Network. Although E.O. 13224 action has similar financial repercussions as the Kingpin designation, the effects of the terror designation will likely be felt over a much wider network.

 The most recent example involves a region notorious for its illicit activity. The Triple Border Area (TBA), located at the nexus of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, has long been a regional criminal hot-spot. In May 2013, the TBA made headlines for its role in revealing another link between Hezbollah and the Americas:  Hamzi Ahmad Barakat was arrested by Brazilian police for defrauding Lebanese immigrants through a fictitious clothing business.

Considering that Barakat and several of his relatives were already on Treasury’s radar as early as 2006 when they were designated under a 13224 action, it is surprising it took until 2013 for him to be apprehended. The Brazilians arrested him for activities unrelated to his Hezbollah connection, and he denied any connection to Hezbollah. However, it is likely his connections to the group have not diminished, especially considering that reports name Barakat’s brother, Assad Ahmad, as a key Hezbollah figure in the region.  Barakat is obviously one of many assets Hezbollah has in the area and the type of activities he was involved in show how aggressively Hezbollah is developing the region as a source of income. This time, an arrest was made, but given the level of lawlessness of the TBA, it is likely that there are many more agents slipping through the cracks and operating with near impunity.

Terrorist attacks in the Americas funded by these types of activities are certainly not a new phenomenon and the region may well be targeted again in the future for counterterrorism efforts.  The increasingly sophisticated presence of terrorist support networks in regional hot spots has been a continuously developing concern for South and Central American governments as well as the UnitedStates.  Hezbollah has clearly been targeting places like Venezuela, the TBA, and Central America as locations where they can raise the funds needed for their militant activities in the Middle East without being monitored by local governments. However, as these Treasury Department actions demonstrate, the United States does have the capabilities to fight Hezbollah’s attempts to turn the Americas into a lucrative revenue stream. Whether those actions will ultimately prove successful and have an impact on the terrible violence and destruction in Lebanon and throughout the world remains to be seen.

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