As if the Middle East wasn’t unstable enough…
There has been a lot of saber rattling going on of late in a part of the world where the talk of war all too frequently results in innocent people being murdered and maimed. For a change, the rhetoric didn’t involve the Israelis or the Palestinians, nor did it center on the usual suspects who could always be relied upon to send a few sparks on the region’s endless reservoir of dangerous flammables. This time talk of war was between Iran and the House of Saud: a fight between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam with the stakes being dominance over a region that has been struggling over this bitter religious schism for centuries. The battlefield for this latest eruption between the Wahabis in Mecca and the Mullahs from Tehran was an old one: Lebanon. It began when Prime Minister Said Hariri, the son of a murdered Lebanese premier, resigned his post while on a state visit to the Saudi kingdom. Tensions mounted when Hezbollah missile specialists posted to aid the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels fighting in the Yemeni fratricide launched a ballistic missile at Riyadh, the Saudi capital. It took almost a dozen Patriot missiles to shoot the rocket down. The new Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, eager to flex his muscle, declared the Hezbollah missile strike an act of war by Iran against the kingdom.
Leaders in the area — and, indeed, in capitals around the world — used their best back-channel diplomacy in the hope that they could temper the hyperbole to hothead ranting instead of rockets launching over the horizon. The conflict between the House of Saud and the Iranian Ayatollahs, direct and through proxy, might or might not result in a full-scale Middle Eastern war, one that would be fought in Lebanon, but the noise being generated from the desert sands has served one constructive purpose: it’s placed Hezbollah where it belongs, front and center as the world’s most capable terrorist army and the cause for much of the region’s mayhem.
Up until the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States, Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Shiite Party of God, was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist group in the world. Hezbollah introduced suicide bombings into the regional vernacular. The group, supported and fueled by the Iranian revolution, blew up two U.S. embassies in Beirut, and destroyed the barracks of the U.S. Marine peacekeepers in the Lebanese capital. Hezbollah kidnapped western nationals in Beirut, including William F. Buckley, the CIA Chief of Station; Buckley was tortured to death by a team of Iranian and Hezbollah thugs who beat the life out of a Silver Star recipient and Green Beret veteran. Hezbollah hijacked TWA Flight 847 in 1985 and singled out a U.S. Navy diver on board, Robert Stethem, for special treatment. Hezbollah terrorists beat the young sailor to death, mutilating his body before tossing the butchered young service man onto the tarmac at Beirut airport.
Hezbollah’s activities weren’t restricted to Lebanon. The Party of God displayed a global reach. In 1992, a Hezbollah suicide bomber drove a van crammed with explosive into the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital. Two years later, a Hezbollah suicide truck bomber destroyed a Jewish cultural affairs center in Buenos Aires, killing nearly 100 women and children. Hezbollah was behind the suicide bombing of American airmen at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1995, killing twenty and wounding a hundred more.
Then al-Qaeda emerged as the clear and present danger to the United States and other pro-Western nations, beginning with the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998. Then, of course, came 9/11. Afghanistan and Iraq soon preoccupied the collective conscious and the war against militant Islam and rogue dictatorships stretched. The international community was horrified by attacks in Moscow, Madrid, and London; we were mortified by the slaughter of children in Beslan. We all shared the relief and the adulation when operators from SEAL Team Six raided a lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing Osama bin Laden. Throughout these long and bloody years, though, Hezbollah was quickly forgotten as an adversary in the Global War on Terror.
And then ISIS came along. Once again the collective outrage was deafening by the beheadings and immolations. We were shocked and terrified by the sophisticated assaults in Paris and Brussels, and then lone wolf attacks in London, Nice, Barcelona, and countless other locations. Once again — perhaps by choice — we seem to have forgotten Hezbollah’s long and bloody history of indiscriminate murder and violence.
Israel certainly hasn’t.
The foundation — certainly the rationale — of Iran’s military and financial support for Hezbollah has been for the Party of God to perpetrate an endless stream of malignant strikes against Israel and Israeli military personnel. From 1985 to 2000, Hezbollah waged a lethal suicide-bombing campaign against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah provided full-fledged support for Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad so that suicide bombers could target buses and cafés in Israel. In 2006, Hezbollah launched an unprovoked conflict known as the Second Lebanon War that saw thousands of rockets rain down on the cities of northern Israel. During this period Hezbollah forces also provided active assistance to pro-Iranian Shiite militias battling American and coalition forces in Iraq. Hezbollah proved itself to be a fanatical and highly disciplined military force; dug in and eager to die, they proved to be a formidable foe.
Israel, however, found its Achilles heel: money.
Meir Dagan, Israel’s legendary special operations mastermind, created a financial warfare task force codenamed Harpoon when he led the prime minister’s counterterrorism bureau in 1996. Harpoon worked to undermine the vast fortunes of Yasir Arafat and the other Palestinian terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. When, in 2002, Dagan became the head of Israel’s Mossad, the country’s foreign intelligence service, Harpoon became an operational espionage unit. Harpoon took on financiers and banks — anyone and everyone that touched money destined for the suicide bombers; the task force’s motto was “follow the money, target the money, and kill the money.” In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Dagan saw to it that the Israeli Air Force obliterated Beirut banks where Hezbollah kept its cash reserves. Bankers’ homes were targeted too. When the Dollars, Dinars, and Euros burned, Hezbollah was forced to beg for a cease-fire.
Harpoon did more than just incinerate Hezbollah’s financial institutions. It uncovered the terrorist group’s leading role in a highly lucrative global cocaine smuggling operations involving Venezuela’s strongman and Syria; the espionage effort, ultimately working closely with U.S. law enforcement to forcefully crippling the network and bringing indictments of the ringleaders who were situated on the four corners of the globe; the bank used by Hezbollah to launder its multi-billion dollar drug ring, was eventually taken down by Israeli-assisted lawsuits and the long arm of the U.S. Departments of Justice and the Treasury. Harpoon used hackers and malware to subvert the financial connection between Iran’s intelligence services and their proxy gunmen for hire in Lebanon. During this period, “mysteriously,” a Ponzi scheme defrauded Hezbollah’s leadership of close to a billion dollars. Although the Shiite group’s commanders remain quite vocal in their pledge to eradicate the Jewish State, they have been quiet ever since Harpoon opened a financial warfare front against the Party of God.
And this brings us back to the recent saber rattling with Saudi. Hezbollah has never been this vulnerable. It has lost close to 2,000 operatives in Syria fighting for Iran and the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Its popularity in Lebanon is at an all-time low. The threat of America’s reneging of the Iran nuclear deal risk new sanctions against Tehran and, subsequently, a severe limitation on money that Iran could send to Hezbollah. Now is the time to close in for the kill — a financial kill — and replicate the Israeli model of follow the money, target the money, and kill the money.
The Saudis — and the Gulf Arabs — have enormous financial leverage in Lebanon. Saudi deposits at the Banque du Liban, Lebanon’s central bank, are estimated to be close to $900 million. Eighty percent of the foreign investment in Lebanon comes from the Gulf Arab states. The removal of this massive investment in the country could cause the Lebanese economy to collapse like a house of cards. Indications are that this is the path that Saudi Arabia is taking. According to Hanin Ghaddar, an inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at prestigious The Washington Institute, Riyadh's “war” on Iranian influence in Lebanon, i.e. Hezbollah, is likely to be economic rather than kinetic.
We have learned, through bitter mistakes, that in the Middle East that when your enemy is on his last gasp of air, it is dangerous to throw him any lifeline. Now is the time for the west, including the United States, the Europeans, the Israelis and the Gulf Arab States, to once and for all to join forces for a non-kinetic campaign to conclusively eradicate Hezbollah. The Middle East will never know stability as long as Hezbollah threatens its brand of criminally-funded fundamentalist murder and political extortion. Without its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, Iran’s ability to sow the seeds of instability and suffering to the region is limited. The time to strike — to follow the money, target the money, and once and for all destroy the money — is now.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner is an Israeli activist and civil rights attorney. She is the president of Shurat HaDin, a Tel Aviv based law center that has represented hundreds of terror victims in courtrooms around the world. In 2016, she was chosen as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post, and named by the Israeli Forbes magazine as one of the 50 most influential Israeli women. She is the co-author of the National Best-Seller "Harpoon: Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism's Money Masters" published by Hachette Books. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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