By the end of the summer of 2006, Israel’s intelligence services were focused on one primary target: Hezbollah.
It wasn’t as if the terrorist organization was flying under the radar before that, of course. Since 1982, the Lebanese Shiite “Party of God” had waged a relentless suicide bombing campaign against Israeli forces in Lebanon killing over 1,000 soldiers; there were Israeli soldiers who had been killed only to have their remains held hostage, exchanged after cruel and one-sided negotiations. There were the terror group’s periodic mortar and missile attacks against towns in Northern Israel, as well. Hezbollah financed Hamas and the Islamic Jihad who introduced suicide bombing attacks against Israeli cities. Hezbollah suicide bombers blew up an Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing over 100. But in July 2006, Hezbollah attacked an Israeli army patrol from across the Lebanese frontier and seized two mortally wounded soldiers. The attacked sparked a 34 day war in Lebanon that cost the lives of 120 Israelis, including civilians killed in incessant rocket barrages; over 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed. A heavily-armed Iranian proxy, Hezbollah posed a clear and present danger to the security of the Jewish State.
The Mossad director at the time, Meir Dagan, used all the usual tradecraft resources of Israel’s esteemed espionage service to target Hezbollah, including a new paradigm that had worked years earlier against Arafat and Hamas — going after the terrorists’ money.
Dagan realized that money was the oxygen that allowed terrorists to operate freely had created a new unit inside Israel’s spy service called Harpoon that went after their bank accounts, holdings, and their revenue sources. Hezbollah received hundreds of millions of dollars in stipends from Iran but, Harpoon would learn, the Party of God also earned billions from illicit criminal activities, primarily as being one of the world’s largest narcotics traffickers, smuggling cocaine and laundering cash across oceans. From Colombia to the Beka’a Valley, Caracas to West Africa and the American Midwest, Hezbollah moved drugs and monies through shell corporations, sleeper agents, and a string of Middle Eastern banks. Harpoon was determined to follow, target and kill the money, but it needed outside allies to help.
I am the co-author of a new book that for the first time revealed the extent of the Israeli effort to stem this criminal enterprise — an effort that ultimately forged a partnership with U.S. law enforcement and the DEA to go after the drug lords, the global pipelines they used, and the banks that held their cash. I spearheaded legal action against one of the financial institutions implicated in the investigation, the Lebanese Canadian Bank, on behalf of the families of terror victims killed or maimed by Hezbollah rockets purchased with funds that passed through its accounts. At the time when we filed our civil suits, along with a Department of Justice criminal prosecution of the Lebanese Canadian Bank, we forced the financial institution to shut its doors and pay hefty punitive fines.
In mid-December 2017, Politico published an in-depth expose of these DEA initiatives, codenamed “Project Cassandra,” and headline-grabbing claim that the Obama administration had undermined the DEA’s — and others — efforts to prosecute the Hezbollah kingpins involved in the narco-trafficking in order to seek favor with Iran during the negotiations with Tehran before the signing of the nuclear deal. The Politico piece was a damning indictment of the mysterious obstacles placed in the path of DEA special agents and U.S. attorneys eager for indictments and convictions, but there was no smoking gun, no email chain of memos from the situation room in the White House, ordering any obstruction. The circumstantial evidence, though, is overwhelming. Take the case of Kassem Hejeij.
Kassem Hejeij was identified as one of the owners and chairman of the Middle East Africa Bank, or MEAB, an institution that is self-described as, “one of Lebanon’s leading financial institutions, providing individuals, small and medium-sized businesses and large corporations with a wide range of financial products and services.” The bank opened its first branch in 1991 and went from a mom-and-pop savings and loan to a commercial institution with 21 branches throughout Lebanon and Iraq. MEAB was defined by Israeli operations and the DEA endeavor as one of the main conduits of drug and weapon-sale proceeds to Hezbollah. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Hejeij has helped open bank accounts for Hezbollah in Lebanon and provided credit to Hezbollah procurement companies. Hejeij has also invested in infrastructure that Hezbollah uses in both Lebanon and Iraq.”
During the Bush administration, when, according to published accounts, the CIA and Israeli intelligence embarked on the most adventurous and successful intelligence strikes against Hezbollah, such as the February 2008 targeted assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah special operations mastermind responsible for most of the group’s spectacular operations against the United States and Israel, the MEAB would have been targeted with sanctions, indictments, and an appearance in federal court in lower Manhattan. But under the Obama administration, it was Hejeij — and not the MEAB — that earned the U.S. Treasury Department’s black-list designation as an Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Specially Designated National. The Obama Administration never saw fit to blacklist the bank or stop its ability to serve Hezbollah, Shiite notables, and members of the anti-American Iraqi militias and even the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The bank continues to flourish under the helm of Hejeij’s son Ali, who simply replaced his U.S. sanctioned designated father. Obama administration officials always used the argument that going after the Lebanese banks would harm the Lebanese economy and, as a result, innocent Lebanese civilians. The contention is ridiculous and short sighted. What sense does it make to designate a bank chairman for criminal and terrorist activity and not the institution he operated itself? After all, the secretive terrorist-related accounts and investments still thrived inside the bank. What kind of compromise was it that allowed the terror financier’s own son to simply take over in his stead? It’s like targeting the godfather while giving his mafia infrastructure, now captained by his son, a free pass.
Off the record, the Israeli agents and their American counterparts were furious with what they viewed as bureaucratic indifference. These men — and women — who risked their lives chasing Hezbollah’s drugs and money from the jungles of Latin America to the used car chop shops in Africa could only assume, privately, why there weren’t further arrests and bank seizures. The Politico reports reaffirmed what members of the intelligence community — Israeli and others — have been saying since the commencement of Iranian nuclear deal negotiations, that the United States was willing to brazenly whitewash and ignore Hezbollah’s transgressions for what has always been a punch line used by administrations to justify policies that were mindboggling to the soldiers and the spies. Namely that being soft on Hezbollah in order to secure rapprochement with the fundamentalist regime in Tehran was for the greater good.
If this is the case, the Obama administration displayed criminal naïveté and not for the greater good. Hezbollah is not a clause in a trade treaty that can be simply crossed out as a sign of good intentions; it isn’t an uninhabited island that can be handed over in a gesture to save political face. The Party of God is not a mere bargaining chip. Hezbollah remains the most lethal terrorist army in the world. As I write this piece, Hezbollah is committing war crimes in Syria and amassing more missiles — aimed at Israel — than are in the arsenals of most NATO nations. Hezbollah is leading a bloody rebellion in Yemen, menacing America’s Sunni allies and endeavoring to destabilize the entire region, spreading what was once referred to as the "Shiite Crescent" over the Middle East. And, it must never be forgotten, Hezbollah has killed more Americans — with the suicide bombings of two U.S. embassies in Beirut, the suicide bombing of the Marine Corps peacekeepers barracks in Lebanon, the kidnapping and murder of hostages in Lebanon, and the suicide bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia — than any other terrorist group up until 9/11. Even after the World Trade Center tragedy, Hezbollah operatives and the Shiite militias they trained and equipped killed scores of American servicemen in Iraq.
Hezbollah is the homicidal muscle of Iran’s regional and global intentions and ambitions — in Lebanon, in Iraq, in the Persian Gulf, vis-à-vis Israel or in Syria. If the United States has any hope that Iranian regional expansion can be contained, then Hezbollah must be cornered and neutralized. If the United States and the West has any reasonable expectation that Tehran will ever live up to the accords of the nuclear deal, or not cross any red lines in Syria, then Hezbollah must be neutralized and destroyed as a military force.
There can be no loosening of the reigns or the diminishing of resolve in the coordinated efforts by the United States, Israel, and the other democracies of the world to destroy Hezbollah. The war on terror, this particular campaign specifically, will not be won if we acquiesce and accommodate such groups regardless of how virtuous the greater good.
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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