RIAD SALAMEH, the governor of the Banque du Liban, is probably the bravest person in Lebanon. His religion is Maronite, but in his determination to repel Hezbollah, he has demonstrated a death wish more appropriate to a Shi’ite suicide bomber. American and European bankers who have met him in his capacity as the governor of Lebanon’s central bank admit that were they in his place, they wouldn’t sleep at night.
The Lebanese banking sector has been at the center of an escalating crisis since the United States passed a law requiring banks to take steps to target the finances of the armed Shi’ite political group Hezbollah.
Two months ago, a bomb exploded outside the headquarters of the BLOM Bank in central Beirut, causing damage but no injuries.
Led by Salameh, Lebanon’s central bank has pushed its commercial lenders to heed the US law, and BLOM Bank has closed accounts belonging to those suspected of links to Hezbollah. Though no one claimed responsibility for the attack, it is widely believed by Lebanese security officials and bankers that Hezbollah planted the bomb as a signal to Salameh and the country’s banking system.
In April 2016, the US administration of President Barack Obama deepened its financial grip on Hezbollah’s financial dealings by further implementing “The Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015.” The results are evident.
“After many years of sanctions targeting Hezbollah, today the group is in its worst financial shape in decades,” Adam Szubin, the US Treasury Department’s acting under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a Congressional hearing last May on the Iran nuclear deal and its ramifications.
Szubin was appointed by the Obama administration to be its “czar” in the efforts to impose and implement financial and other sanctions on states such as Russia, after its invasion and annexation of Crimea, Iran because of its nuclear program, and terrorist groups all over the world, Hezbollah included.
In his testimony, Szubin promised the US lawmakers, “I can assure you that alongside our international partners, we are working hard to put them out of business.”
Most Lebanese banks are owned or run by Christians – Maronite or Orthodox – who are not particularly fans of Hezbollah, to put it mildly.
The banks are one of Lebanon’s major economic sectors and certainly a precious source of revenue, serving not only Lebanese citizens but practically the entire Middle East, including the wealthiest nations of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates. Indeed, a few decades ago, Lebanon was known as the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”
According to US law, Washington will target those “knowingly facilitating a significant transaction or transactions for” Hezbollah or any individual, business or institution linked to the group.
Those being sanctioned include Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and his top commander Mustafa Badreddine ‒ who was mysteriously killed in mid-May in an explosion in Syria ‒ as well as some Lebanese businessmen. The list also includes the group’s Al-Manar TV and Al-Nour Radio.
Nasrallah and his deputy, Naim Qassem, claim the sanctions don’t affect Hezbollah because its business and operations are “case based,” outside the banking system. But the Israeli and American intelligence communities know the truth.
The sanctions do hurt Hezbollah, damage its terrorist and other capabilities and make it harder to operate.
The intelligence communities of the two nations work very closely to monitor, follow and intercept Hezbollah’s financial trails.
Surprisingly, however, Israel, which has suffered from terrorism for decades and pioneered operations, doctrines, technologies and innovations to combat it, showed negligence in understanding the old saying of “follow the money.”
It was the late Meir Dagan who in his different capacities – first as adviser to prime ministers on counterterrorism and later as Mossad chief ‒ raised the importance of monitoring terrorism finance and established a special department consisting of a team of experts from the Shin Bet (the domestic Israel Security Agency), military intelligence, the Bank of Israel and the commercial banks to do so.
In the early years of the 21st century, the focus was on money transfers and laundering by the Palestinian Authority, the PLO, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
At a certain point, the special Mossad department tried to trace and collect data on the money smuggling and secret bank accounts opened abroad by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and his wife Suha.
Israeli and foreign journalists were fed information, disinformation and rumors. At least one Israeli journalist volunteered to help the Mossad by befriending Suha, by all available means, but his offer was flatly rejected.
In the last decade, the focus has been mainly on Hamas and Hezbollah, and their financial ties to Iran.
On the American side, the number of agencies involved in the financial efforts is bigger and includes the CIA, FBI, NSA (the US equivalent of Israeli unit 8200, which is part of military intelligence), the Secret Service and others.
All of them work closely and report to Szubin, who is respected by his Israeli counterparts. Szubin has visited Israel several times, especially before the Iran Nuclear Deal was signed in order to calm Israeli fears that the sanctions against the Islamic Republic would be lifted prematurely.
It is worth noting that unlike the prevailing belief in the Israeli public and media, not all US sanctions against Iran were lifted as a result of the implementation of the Iran deal.
Sanctions against individuals and companies involved in Iran’s missile program remain in place and so are those directed against al-Quds Forces and its commanders and entities for their involvement in sponsoring and assisting terrorist operations and terrorists around the globe including, of course, Hezbollah.
Noting that Iran “supplies funding and weapons to Hezbollah,” Szubin affirmed in the hearing that the Iran deal “has no impact on our efforts on this front.”
The Hezbollah sanctions prohibit banks in Lebanon and elsewhere to open accounts for individuals who are members of the Shi’ite movement or associated with it and for companies that are owned by or run by the group or associated with it.
Szubin added in the May hearing that in January 2016, the US “sanctioned a major Hezbollah financial support network that was laundering criminal proceeds to support Hezbollah’s terrorism and destabilizing activities.”
A few weeks ago, a delegation of Lebanese bankers led by Salameh visited Washington and met with senior officials of the US Treasury Department, including Szubin, in an attempt to modify the anti-Hezbollah law. But Szubin and his team were determined and explained that the situation was “take it or leave it.”
Salameh and his colleagues understood that if they don’t adhere to the law, Lebanon’s banks could face unprecedented dire times. They well remembered how, in 2011, US sanctions brought about the collapse of a Lebanese bank that was laundering money for Hezbollah.
Salameh is one of the most appreciated and respected civil servants in the country.
Until recently, he was considered as a suitable candidate for the nation’s presidency, which has been vacant for a few years because of the political deadlock between Hezbollah’s bloc and its opponents. However, because of his principled standing, his chances diminished completely. Moreover, many commentators fear that Salameh lives on “borrowed time.”
“I don’t think insurance companies would agree to sell him life insurance,” I was told by a former Israeli intelligence operative familiar with the Lebanese arena. “No doubt in my mind that Hezbollah would not have second thoughts if they decide to get rid of him.”
So far, Salameh hasn’t caved.
LEBANESE BANKS refuse to open accounts even to Hezbollah’s members of parliament and ministers or their families.
Realizing that the standard and known financial channels are closed to them, Hezbollah has resorted to its old ways of moving monies in cash and by trusted intermediaries.
For years, Hezbollah was involved in reaping proceeds from smuggling drugs and electric appliances, and from the diamond trade and counterfeit cigarettes.
In recent months, these activities aimed at purchasing weapons, encoded satellite phones and other essential military equipment have increased.
This is a cat and mouse game. Hezbollah tries to operate under the international financial radar to circumvent the sanctions regime. On the other hand, Israeli, American and other Western security services are keeping a very close eye.
For example, based on precise intelligence, an international sting operation broke down a European Hezbollah cell accused of using millions of dollars from cocaine sales in South America to launder money and buy weapons for its fighters in Syria.
The financial siege against the Lebanese Shi’ite movement creates secondary shock waves far beyond the US. Almost every bank and financial institution in the world, including China, understands that if it harbors Hezbollah money it will be punished and blacklisted by the US.
In addition to its difficulties with the banking system, Hezbollah faces other troubles, as well. It is bogged down in the five-and- half-year-long civil war in Syria where it is paying a heavy price. Some 1,600 of its warriors have died and 6,000 others have been wounded in the Syrian battlefields, while hundreds have been taken as prisoners of war. And this from a relatively small militia of 45,000 conscripts and reservists.
Hezbollah is in constant need of money.
Its budget is estimated at 1 billion dollars, of which 70 percent comes from Iran and the rest from taxes and smuggling and other illegal activities.
But Iran, too, is without unlimited resources and has its own budgetary problems.
As a result, Iran has held back money transfers to Hezbollah, setting off a chain reaction ‒ the Lebanese group is late in its payments of salaries to its members and to families of its dead and wounded warriors.
Also, its traditional operations in the fields of education, health and welfare have been heavily damaged, downgrading its support among the country’s general Shi’ite population.
It seems that, in its 36 years of existence, Hezbollah’s situation has never been weaker so it is no coincidence that Nasrallah and its senior officials declare time and again that they have no interest in a new war with Israel. Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman
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