Hezbollah’s operations in west Africa

Last Thursday, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on three Lebanese individuals – Mustapha Fawaz, Fouzi Fawaz and Abdallah Tahini –accusing them of running a significant Hezbollah supply network in west Africa. The trio, all Lebanese-born but now residing in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, have a history of alleged links to Hezbollah.

According to the Treasury Department, Mustapha Fawaz has had ties with the group since the 1990s, organizing a network of hidden cameras to monitor the movement of Israelis. Fawaz is also rumored to have provided Hezbollah with a report of his visit to the US Embassy in Abuja. In May 2013, the Nigerian authorities detained him, whereupon he gave up crucial intelligence on Hezbollah’s activities throughout the country. Fawaz’s confession led the Nigerian security services to an unremarkable property in the Nigerian city of Kano, where they uncovered a veritable armory  housing weapons to be used against Israeli targets across West Africa. Following this discovery, Mustapha’s brother – Fouzi Fawaz – along with Abdallah Tahini were apprehended by the Nigerian security forces and charged with supporting Hezbollah operations in the country. All three men have since been released.

Thursday’s sanctions were not the first time the Treasury Department has targeted individuals connected to Hezbollah in west Africa. In June of 2013, the United States blacklisted four Lebanese men – Ali Ibrahim al-Wafta, Abbas Loutfe Fawaz, Ali Ahmad Chehade and Hicham Nmer Khanafer – after they were accused of masterminding Hezbollah’s fundraising campaigns in Sierra Leone, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and the Gambia. Speaking after the announcement of the sanctions in 2013, David S. Cohen, the then Under Secretary of State for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, claimed that the four men had assisted in raising “millions of dollars” for the Lebanese-based terrorist group. Indeed, the State Department believes that Hezbollah has had this supply network in place within west Africa since at least the early 2000s. Matthew Levitt, director of The Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, believes that the militant group has been involved in the illicit dealing of ‘conflict diamonds’ from Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Congo. Levitt’s report cites Belgian intelligence papers from 2000 which highlight the presence of Hezbollah in both the Sierra Leone and Congolese diamond trade.

Conflict diamonds have been valuable assets for Hezbollah in the past. A 2004 Washington Post article, focusing on the group’s involvement in the diamond trade, claimed that in December 2003 “an airliner that crashed off Benin had a courier on board carrying $2 million in Hezbollah-bound funds”  originating from the sale of diamonds. Hezbollah’s west African financing operation does not stop there.  In 2011, the Obama administration accused the Lebanese Canadian Bank, based in Beirut, of laundering cocaine money destined to Hezbollah. According to the New York Times, bank employees conducted a scheme where drug money was ‘washed’ by combining it with the proceeds of second-hand, U.S. made, vehicles sold in west Africa. The same report also highlighted that “hundreds of millions of dollars a year” made its way from west African criminal syndicates to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s global reach – highlighted by these historical examples of the group’s financing operations within west Africa – is a major concern for the United States, and the Treasury Department has vowed to defeat it. Speaking after the announcement of last week’s sanctions, Adam J. Szubin, Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, announced that “as these designations make clear, we will track Hezbollah’s illicit activities to all corners of the earth”. There are suggestions that Hezbollah may increase its presence within west Africa in the future. According to Cohen, the region is growing in importance to the organization because “what they’re getting from Iran is squeezed. Iran’s capacity to fund Hezbollah has been impaired”.

Additionally, “modest” improvements in border security and counterterrorism capabilities within South America have hindered Hezbollah’s activities operations on the continent.  This, added to Iran’s decreasing influence in the region, has led to a concern that Hezbollah will double its operations on the African continent to compensate. If this becomes the case, then we will likely see further US Treasury Department sanctions brought against individuals in the region.