In 2011, Eric Larson published a book titled In the Garden of Beasts. The book describes the life of William E. Dodd (University of Chicago), the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany. Germany’s history, culture, and landscape captivated the Dodd family, blinding them to the calamity that would soon overtake them. However, Germany’s charm soon subsided as news of Jewish persecution spread throughout the country. In his telegraphs, Dodd described the rise of Jewish brutalization, press censorship, and the power of the Third Reich. He said, “Mankind is in grave danger, but democratic governments seem not to know what to do. If they do nothing, Western civilization—religious, personal, and economic freedom—is in grave danger.” Despite numerous attempts to warn politicians in the United States, Dodd’s admonishments fell on deaf ears. William Dodd was, as Eric Larson described, a Cassandra among American diplomats. Like the priestess Cassandra in Greek mythology (Cassandra), Dodd recognized the signs of Europe’s impending destruction, but no one listened.
Today, similar warning signs exist in the country of Lebanon. Since the 1980s, a terrorist group named Hezbollah has been using Lebanon as a base of operations to plan and execute terrorist attacks targetting the U.S. They have slowly grown from a cluster of small terrorist cells to an enormous criminal enterprise.
Hezbollah is not only a threat to the United States but also to its allies abroad. To make matters worse, the United States has been complacent and has willingly allowed the growth of this terrorist organization. Despite having concrete evidence proving the existence and capabilities of Hezbollah, the U.S. government has chosen to ignore it. To prevent Hezbollah from further destabilizing Lebanon and amassing more power, the United States needs to establish an interagency taskforce to target Hezbollah.
What is Hezbollah?
Most Americans know Lebanon as a country polluted by political unrest, corruption, and war. Some can remember when the American embassy in Beirut exploded in April of 1983 (Robinson). In October of 1983, the American Marine barracks in Beirut exploded. This attack took the lives of 305 American and French service members (Robinson). A year later, an annex near the American Embassy exploded, and dozens of people died (Robinson). Who is responsible for both orchestrating these terrorist attacks and the current condition of Lebanon? These events were planned, coordinated, and executed by a terrorist organization called Hezbollah (Robinson).
Map of Lebanon and the surrounding region. Lebanese Hezbollah © Congressional Research Service | https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10703.
Formed in 1982, following the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, (Humud) Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shia political and militant organization that started as only a loose network of underground terrorist cells. Over the course of the last forty years, Hezbollah has evolved from a mere terrorist organization into an international crime syndicate (Meyer). The organization exists for two purposes. First, Hezbollah was created to serve and adhere to Iranian rule. Everything Ali Khamenei says is considered law. Second, Hezbollah has devoted itself to disrupting and destroying western culture (Rickards). To that end, Hezbollah has successfully adhered to their objective.
Hezbollah has waged war against Israel and undermined the United States (Humud). They have provided weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq, including funds to create Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs)—IEDs so powerful they have the explosive capability to rip an M1 Abrahms tank in half (Meyer). Hezbollah is a national security risk to the U.S. and the world.
Hezbollah is unique compared to most terrorist organizations. Terrorist cells usually consist of a military faction that intimidates or coerces a civilian population or government, often for political or ideological reasons. Terrorist cells create chaos and cause bloodshed. However, Hezbollah take terrorism to a different level. In 1989, the passing of the Taif Agreement marked an end to the Lebanese Civil War, and Hezbollah was allowed to run for political office. Running for office was a decision that was supported by both the prior President of Iran, Hashimi Rafsanjani, and Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyid Abbas (Stanford).
Hezbollah Controls Lebanon Politically
Historically, Hezbollah has had a political majority in the Lebanese parliament and currently controls many of the Lebanese government agencies, including the ministries of health, finance, public works, and transport (Gadalla). Hezbollah did not choose these ministries or political positions by accident. Taking control of Lebanon’s financial system is arguably the smartest decision Hezbollah has ever made. As a result, they control the Lebanese national budget, tax collection, customs, and the central bank. The ministry of public works and transport oversees land use, air traffic, and the country’s ports. These positions allow Hezbollah to commit financial crimes and cover them up without repercussions (Gadalla).
For example, prior public works minister Youssef Fenianos used his position to award Hezbollah with job contracts and smuggling routes, enabling Hezbollah to circumvent U.S. sanctions (Gadalla). The Lebanese President and cabinet are also puppets of this terrorist organization. Hezbollah has tremendous political leverage in the Lebanese government woven into the fabric of Lebanese society. Since Israel invaded Lebanon in the early 2000s, the Lebanese people have viewed Hezbollah as the country’s primary defender against external threats (Kilcullen). The organization’s control over the country’s social services has also helped maintain the people’s belief that Hezbollah is helping the country.
The Business Affairs Component
A Hezbollah unit named the Business Affairs Component is behind the web of lies and deceit. The unit relies on a network of intermediaries in other countries to earn money for Hezbollah. In the early 2000s, the unit was directed by a man named Imad Mughniyeh. At the time, Mughniyeh was considered the second most dangerous terrorist in the world, second to Osama Bin Laden. He helped Hezbollah grow its military wing, amass weapons, and earn billions of dollars through criminal enterprise, until his death in 2008. His successor was a man by the name of Abdallah Safieddine, who is still believed to be Hezbollah’s envoy to Iran (Meyer).
In 2007, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) caught word that Hezbollah was participating in organized crime and generating over a billion dollars per year in profit (Meyer). In response, the DEA created a task force to undercut Hezbollah funding from illicit smuggling sources. The task force was named Project Cassandra. From 2008 to 2016, the DEA attempted to undercover Hezbollah’s entire network. According to the Foundations For Defense and Democracies, Hezbollah primarily engages in the smuggling of cocaine, used cars, and blood diamonds. The cocaine is grown and manufactured in South America, then sold in the United States and Europe. Used cars are bought in the U.S. and sold in Africa. Blood diamonds are mined in East Africa and sold in Lebanon and Europe (Meyer).
Beirut Governorate, Lebanon © Jo Kassis | https://www.pexels.com/photo/the-lebanese-flag-on-pole-with-the-marina-tower-in-beirut-lebanon-on-background-6462863/
Once Hezbollah has received the cash payments from these international transactions, the money is laundered through exchanged houses and deposited into Lebanese banks. From there, the money is laundered to banks in the U.S. The process then repeats and cash proceeds are transferred to pay for more cocaine and blood diamonds. The money Hezbollah launders pays for their terrorist activities (Rickards). Project Cassandra traced everything from the cocaine shipments to the blood diamonds being mined in West Africa (Rickards). John “Jack” Kelly, the head of Project Cassandra, described the criminal network by stating, “Hezbollah operates like the Gambino crime family on steroids” (Meyer).
However, as Project Cassandra uncovered more information regarding Hezbollah’s criminal network, the Obama administration threw roadblocks in its way. According to the personal testimonies of agents involved, the U.S. Justice and Treasury Departments delayed and denied their requests to seek prosecutions, execute arrests, and impose financial sanctions. According to Dr. David Asher, an expert on illicit finance, “The [Obama Administration] serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down” (Asher). The Obama administration prevented Project Cassandra from disrupting Hezbollah’s operations, allowing them to continue to grow and fund their terrorist cell.
The Obama Administration’s Complacency
When Barack Obama became president in 2009, he promised to create a nuclear deal with the government of Iran, believing the rapprochement between the two countries would create a doorway to the rest of the Muslim community in the Middle East. Eventually, Obama’s administration secured the nuclear deal (Meyer). As a part of the agreement, the U.S. lifted sanctions and removed terrorist designations from Iran on the condition that Iran would decrease its uranium stockpile and keep its uranium enrichment program under a certain percentage. The whole purpose of the deal was to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The Obama administration viewed Project Cassandra as a threat to the Iran nuclear deal. In a sworn written testimony submitted to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Katherin Bauer, a Treasury Official during the Obama administration, stated, “under the Obama administration … these [Hezbollah-related] investigations were tamped down for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardizing the nuclear deal” (Meyer). Because Hezbollah and Iran share a symbiotic relationship, certain members of the Obama administration were concerned that targeting Hezbollah would put their political agenda at risk. Their administration feared Iran would not enter a nuclear deal with the U.S. while the DEA targeted Hezbollah.
In 2010, John Brennan, the former director of the CIA, talked about how the U.S. was looking for ways to support components of Hezbollah. Brennan stated, “There [are] certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us, and what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements” (Meyer). President Obama and leaders in his administration imagined a new role for Hezbollah and Iran. That new role was based on the idea that Hezbollah’s political, military, and criminal oriented wings could be separated. However, as Dr. Matthew Levitt, Director of the Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism, stated, “the idea that there is separation between Hezbollah’s military and political wings is, quite frankly, laughable” (Levitt). Hezbollah’s political, military, and criminal wings might serve different functions, but this does not signify that they are separate entities whose work is detached from one another. The Obama administration’s new imagined role for Hezbollah resulted in a reluctance on the part of the administration to act against Hezbollah. Because of this, the Obama administration later derailed Project Cassandra, (Meyer) and like William Dodd during WWII, Project Cassandra was ignored by leaders in Washington.
Today, President Biden, in a similar fashion, is following in the footsteps of his predecessor (Phillips). The Biden administration has been hard at work restoring the Iranian nuclear deal. While the deal was revised, the proposal has stayed the same: negotiate with a country that harbors and supports terrorists, hope that Iran complies with America’s wishes, and trust that Iran will decrease its stockpile of uranium and not attempt to build nuclear weapons. Iran will not agree to the deal unless the U.S. ignores Hezbollah. America should not follow in the footsteps of the Obama administration. Being complacent with a terrorist organization only endangers the U.S. (Brookes and Phillips).
The Biden administration should not enter into a nuclear deal with Iran. To start, the new deal will only temporarily pause Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons—not stop it. Because of this sunset provision, the deal’s restriction on uranium enrichment begins to expire after 2025. By 2030, Iran will be in the perfect position to expand its uranium enrichment program for the purpose of building nuclear weapons (Brookes & Phillips).
Furthermore, lifting the harsh economic sanctions allows Iran to grow stronger financially, giving them more money to fund Hezbollah or fund building their nuclear program in secret. The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors oversee the identification of whether Iran is complying with the deal, do not have access to all of the Iranian military bases and undeclared facilities (Brookes & Phillips). The Iran Nuclear Deal is not beneficial to the United States. The deal is beneficial to Iran, providing them with the opportunity to hide their nuclear arms program. The United States should not negotiate with a country that has the blood of American citizens on their hands.
Youth Posing with Hezbollah Flag © Paul Keller | https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulk/354323199/
Furthermore, the deal will also continue to affect the United States’ complacency with Hezbollah. If Iran grows stronger, Hezbollah, in turn, will grow stronger. Hezbollah will continue to undermine U.S. interests and its allies abroad. However, if the U.S. were to institute another interagency task force, the problem would be solved. Iran has been crippled by the economic sanctions that have been imposed on it over the last decade. If the U.S. continues to place pressure on Iran while targeting Hezbollah, most notably its criminal division, Hezbollah will grow weaker and Iran will slowly lose its influence in Lebanon.
The U.S. should also consider using the military and economic assistance they provide Lebanon as leverage to convince Lebanon to adopt an extradition treaty. This would allow the D.O.D. and the intelligence community to target terrorist groups currently hiding in the U.S. By targeting Hezbollah’s criminal activities, the U.S. can target the terrorist group’s funding. If Hezbollah loses finances, it will no longer be able to support its political and military wings and the terrorist group as a whole will slowly begin to weaken. The U.S. should not remain complacent with the rise of a terrorist group. Currently, the United States is in the Garden of Beasts, hoping that the beast lurking in the shadows won’t strike.
Asher, D. (2017). Attacking Hezbollah’s Financial Network: Policy Options. Foundation for
Defense and Democracies: Center on Sanctions & Illicit Finance. https://docs.house.gov/ meetings/FA/FA00/20170608/106094/HHRG-115-FA00-Wstate-AsherD-20170608.PDF
Brookes, P., & Phillips, J. (2022). 4 Reasons Why Returning to Iran Nuclear Deal is Bad Idea.
The Heritage Foundation. https://www.heritage.org/middle-east/commentary/4-reasons-why-returning-iran-nuclear-deal-bad-idea
President Bush, George. (2001). Statement by the President in His Address to the Nation. White
Dodd, W. William Dodd, (1869-1940): History. University of Chicago. https://www.lib.uchicago.
Gadalla, P. (2021). Why Hezbollah Wanted the Ministries of Finance and Public Works. Middle
Kilcullen, D. (2022). Missing the Mark: Reassessing U.S. Military Aid to the Lebanese Armed
Levitt, M. (2017). Attacking Hezbollah’s Finaction Network: Policy Option. Hearing Before The
Committee on Foreign Affairs. https://www.congress.gov/115/meeting/house/106094/witnesses/HHRG-115-FA00-Wstate-LevittM-20170608.pdf
Meyer, J. (2017). The Secret Backstory of How Obama Let Hezbollah Off the Hook. Politico.
Ottolenghi, E. (2021). The Laundromat: Hezbollah’s Money-Laundering and Drug-Trafficking
Phillips, J. (2022). Why Joe Biden’s Nuclear Talks With Iran Look Like a Disaster. The Heritage
Rickards, J. (2020). Crisis in Lebanon: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse. Foundation for
Defense and Democracies. https://www.fdd.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/fdd-monograph-crisis-in-lebanon.pdf
(2016). Hezbollah: Hezbollah is a Shiite Political and Militant Organization Based in Lebanon.
Stanford: Center for International Security and Cooperation. https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/hezbollah
(1997). Cassandra. Encyclopedia Mythica. https://pantheon.org/articles/c/cassandra.html.