The arrest of Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi in Romania last week is an important step against Hezbollah. The US had wanted Bazzi since at least 2018, and his arrest in Bucharest is viewed as a success. Much remains to be done on the case, as the US will need to extradite the alleged financier of Lebanese and Belgian citizenship.
Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said that “Bazzi is the most senior catch in the top tier of Hezbollah’s BAC since the 2017 arrest and extradition of Kassem Tajeddine. Bazzi is a close associate of the heads of the BAC, namely Abdallah Safieddine and Adham Tabaja, with whom he coordinated his activities.” BAC stands for “Business Affairs Component,” Hezbollah’s organizational structure that runs its global network of businesses and enterprises, Badran noted in an email.
Of particular interest is the financier’s role in West Africa, particularly The Republic of the Gambia, a small country of 2.6 million people bordered by Senegal. “He was the most significant minority shareholder in Prime Bank in The Gambia, which allegedly was a critical money-laundering instrument for Hezbollah in West Africa. Prime Bank was a subsidiary of the Lebanese-Canadian Bank, the infamous money-laundering machine in Lebanon,” Badran noted. Numerous articles in the media focusing on Africa and the Gambia have alleged massive corruption linked to the West African country.
That bank was highlighted over the years in various reports as being at the center of money laundering and a “hub of Hezbollah,” according to The New York Times. In a conversation with Matthew Levitt at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in March 2022, the bank’s role was highlighted.
Danny Glaser, who served as Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes in the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the US Treasury Department from 2011-2017, told Levitt that the “Lebanese Canadian bank was an important node within a broader global money laundering and money moving system that Hezbollah had established. Hezbollah would move money from all over the world. But in order to use that money effectively to advance their aims within the Middle East and within Lebanon and Syria, they needed to move that money back to Lebanon so that they can use it.”
In Gambia, Bazzi had ties to Yahya Jammeh, the leader of the country from the mid-1990s to 2017. “Jammeh appointed Bazzi as The Gambia’s honorary Consul to Lebanon – a diplomatic cover that Hezbollah has exploited. His close association with Jammeh allegedly also included organizing and financing major weapons shipments from Iran,” Badran noted.
A 2010 article at Reuters asserted that “crates of weapons including rocket launchers and mortars seized in Nigeria this week were loaded in Iran by a local trader,” and apparently had connections to the Gambia as well. This was only the tip of the iceberg of what was going on in the Gambia in terms of corruption prior to 2017, according to reports.
Jammeh was forced to leave power after losing elections in 2017, after 22 years in power. “If Jammeh’s political and mercenary network kept him in power, it was his links to the business world that enabled much of his corruption. His office allowed foreign companies to bypass tender procedures, handing them government contracts and opening the country’s public purse for pillaging,” a report at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project noted in 2019.
How long will Bazzi's extradition take?
A KEY QUESTION for US authorities will be how long the extradition of Bazzi will take. Badran notes that in the case of “Kassem Tajeddine, for example, it was very quick. In other cases, such as that of Ali Fayad, who was arrested in the Czech Republic in 2014, the extradition was denied as Hezbollah kidnapped Czech citizens in Lebanon in 2015, who they held hostage to pressure the Czechs.”
In 2016, the US embassy in Prague criticized a decision by the Czech Republic’s justice minister to not extradite Fayad. In the case of Tajeddine, he pleaded guilty to money-laundering charges in 2019 and was sentenced to five years in prison.
However, NBC noted in 2020 that “the Justice Department is appealing a federal judge’s decision to grant an early release to a Lebanese man labeled by US authorities as a Hezbollah financier, arguing he does not qualify to be freed on ‘compassionate grounds’ due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to court documents.”
This means that even if Bazzi is extradited, it’s not clear for how long he might end up in prison, even if the government wins its case against him. What is important in the case is that it once again sheds light on the US government’s continuing attempts to go after the financial web that underpins Hezbollah operations. Media in the Middle East have highlighted this case as the arrest of a “key” financier.
The role of Bazzi in West Africa has been highlighted for more than a decade and a half. The Lebanese Hezbollah select worldwide activity map that Levitt pioneered has several references to Bazzi and the Gambia. Writing in 2018 in a piece for the AJC, Levitt noted that “efforts to peel away at the onion that is the Hezbollah criminal enterprise, and particularly the BAC, continue.
“Most recently, on May 17, 2018, the US Treasury designated Hezbollah financier and close [Adham] Tabaja associate Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi and five companies he owns or controls. According to information released by the Treasury Department, Bazzi has provided millions of dollars to Hezbollah from the businesses he operates in Belgium, Lebanon, Iraq, and several West African countries.” Tabaja had been designated back in 2015.
Overall, the Bazzi case appears to exemplify and symbolize the multilayered ways that Hezbollah operates, including how its financiers operate with numerous companies and how this has affected governments, like the former regime in the Gambia. For many years, this appeared to go under the radar. In other cases, expediency or other policies – such as the drive for the Iran deal – may have moved the spotlight off some of the nefarious activities of Hezbollah.
The overall web of this group is so large that it appears in many cases that only one part of the Hezbollah elephant is being touched at a time. It remains to be seen if this case will lead to more revelations and whether extradition will go smoothly.