Fundamentally Freund: The growing threat of narco-terror

Hizbullah earns over $500 million annually from its drug trade.

Hizbullah fighters 224.8 (photo credit: AP [file])
Hizbullah fighters 224.8
(photo credit: AP [file])
With a great deal of attention focused of late on Hizbullah's extensive arms buildup, little heed has been paid to yet another dangerous development taking place across the northern border: the resurgence of the drug trade in Lebanon. Without much fanfare, the Shi'ite terrorist group has been presiding over an increase in the cultivation and production of illicit crops such as opium and hashish in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. And though the extent of the drug trafficking is still well below the levels reached during the heyday of the 1980s, it is nonetheless on the upswing once again. That alone should have policymakers both in Israel and the West concerned, if only because the lucrative narcotics trade plays such an important role in financing Hizbullah's network of terror and mayhem. In its recently released 2008 World Drug Report, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime noted that Lebanon continues to be one of "the most important cannabis resin producers in the Near East," along with Egypt. While production is down since the height of the civil war, when the Bekaa Valley was awash in drugs, the report found that the area used to cultivate opium poppy, from which heroin is made, and cannabis soared in 2007 to an estimated 6,500 hectares (16,000 acres). And as Reuters put it (September 26), the most recent harvest has emerged as "what locals describe as one of their best cannabis crops since the 1975-1990 civil war." Local Lebanese farmers aren't the only ones getting into the act. An article in the Yemen Times three months ago revealed that at least 20 drug lords are now operating openly in the Bekaa Valley. One of them told the paper that there was little to fear from the Lebanese army or police, as they rarely ventured into the area, and that even when they do, it is merely "to clear a few marijuana or opium fields for the press, just to show that the Lebanese government is addressing the drugs problem." Everyday life in the Bekaa, the correspondent concluded, "is dominated by the industrial production of, and trade in, drugs." Needless to say, the renewed strength of Lebanon's drug trade has had a direct spillover effect on Israel. After all, at least some of the illegal drugs being grown in the Bekaa, which is under Hizbullah control, end up in the hands of dealers and users in Tel Aviv. On March 25, 33 kg. of heroin were confiscated on the Lebanese border in what was hailed as one of the largest local drug busts in recent memory. And in February, Israel broke up a drug-smuggling ring involving an IDF sergeant. Since 2000, 24 people, including IDF officers, policemen and civilians have been arrested for involvement in the drug trade between Lebanon and Israel. But the damage doesn't stop there, for in addition to weakening Israeli society by facilitating the availability of harmful drugs, Hizbullah has also exploited the situation for military purposes. As analyst Yossi Melman noted in Haaretz (March 31), Hizbullah "allows Lebanese dealers to smuggle drugs into Israel, in exchange for which they provide Hizbullah, through their Israeli contacts, with intelligence information on the deployment of the IDF in the North, and purchase maps and equipment for Hizbullah." Like any good drug cartel, Hizbullah's ambitions aren't limited merely to the neighborhood marketplace, but extend far beyond, stretching from Europe to South America to the United States. In November 2007, for example, authorities in Los Angeles indicted a criminal gang involved in cocaine and counterfeiting activities, and at least one of the suspects had links to Hizbullah (The Los Angeles Times, November 7). And earlier this year, a report by the Bulgarian parliament's Interior Committee found that terrorist groups such as Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad were actively involved in Bulgaria's drug trade and were using it to fund their terrorist activities back home (Sofia News Agency, April 9). Likewise, Hizbullah has an active presence in the southern hemisphere, where it is said to be heavily involved in drug trafficking and other illegal activities. In remarks delivered two weeks ago at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Michael Braun, the assistant administrator and chief of operations at the US Drug Enforcement Administration, said that "the nexus between drugs and terror is growing at light speed... One of the most prominent regions where the drug-terror nexus is at its strongest is the tri-border area in Latin America, where the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay join. Both Hamas and Hizbullah are active in this region." It is clear, therefore, that Hizbullah increasingly poses not just a terrorist threat to Israel and the West, but a narco-threat as well. The group's tentacles literally extend around the globe, and it is actively involved in helping to spread the poison of illegal drugs far and wide, from which it profits handsomely. Indeed, some analysts estimate that Hizbullah earns upwards of $500 million annually from the drug trade alone, which in part helps to explain its ability to rearm so broadly and quickly. It is therefore essential that steps be taken to tackle this menace. After months of political turmoil, Lebanon finally has a president, so it is high time for the US and Europe to press Beirut to take a far more aggressive stance regarding stamping out drug cultivation in the Bekaa. No more excuses must be accepted, and any further Western aid to the Beirut government should be linked to its performance on eliminating bumper drug crops that are being grown right under their noses. And at home, Western governments need to start underlining the direct link that exists between drugs and terror. Many Americans now understand that when they fill up their cars with gasoline, they might be putting money into the pockets of those who are hostile to them. The same is no less true when it comes to illegal narcotics, which often help to fund terrorist groups abroad that aim to harm the West and its interests. For by doing drugs, users are not only betraying their own health and well-being, but that of their country too.