By Sirwan Kajjo
A United States initiative toward three key figures within Hezbollah’s financial networks would be the first in a series of actions against the Lebanese militant group to drain it of resources, analysts predict.
The U.S. on Monday offered $10 million for information on three financiers of the Lebanese terror group.
“This looks like it will be one move of many targeting the funding streams Hezbollah uses,” Phillip Smyth, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told VOA on Tuesday.
“While some offers for rewards have been better with some groups over others, this may show further cracks within the group regarding overseas financiers and those linked to them,” he added.
Cash rewards program
The U.S. announcement is part of the State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program, which has largely focused on offering cash rewards for information that leads to the capture of wanted terrorists around the world.
U.S. officials said this announcement marks the first time that the U.S. State Department has offered a reward for information on Hezbollah financial networks.
“In previous years, Hezbollah has generated about $1 billion annually through direct financial support from Iran, international businesses and investments, donor networks, and money-laundering activities,” Assistant Secretary for State for Diplomatic Security Michael T. Evanoff said during a press briefing on Monday.
Evanoff said the Shiite group uses these funds to support its destructive activities throughout the world, including Syria and Yemen, and surveillance and intelligence gathering operations in the U.S.
Hezbollah has been increasingly targeted by U.S. sanctions over the past few months.
In 1997, Hezbollah was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. In October 2018, the Department of Justice named Hezbollah as one of the top five transnational criminal organizations in Latin America.
The three Hezbollah figures targeted in the cash rewards program — Mohammed Bazzi, Ali Charara and Adham Tabaja — are key figures in the group’s financial network that operates on four continents, U.S. officials said Monday.
“Together, these individuals comprise key parts of Hezbollah’s financial modus operandi, and they have networks that span four continents, with links to the formal financial sector as well as the drug trade and corrupt foreign governments,” said Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing.
In 2015, the U.S. Treasury designated Tabaja, who has direct ties with Hezbollah’s senior leadership, and three branches of his business in Lebanon and other countries including Iraq, Ghana and Sierra Leone.
In 2016, the Treasury designated Charara, Hezbollah’s personal wealth manager, and his Lebanese-based company, Spectrum Investment Group Holdings SAL.
And Bazzi, who funded Hezbollah from his transcontinental business holdings, was designated as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the Treasury in May 2018. Bazzi has closely worked with the Central Bank of Iran to expand banking access between Lebanon and Iran, U.S. officials said.
Ties with Iran
Iran, Hezbollah’s main sponsor, also has been targeted by U.S. sanctions in recent months. Since May 2018, when the U.S withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the U.S. has imposed a series of sanctions against Tehran.
“We’re talking about Hezbollah today, but any conversation about Hezbollah must begin in Tehran,” said Nathan Sales, ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism, who was also at the Monday’s briefing.
This week, the U.S. ended its sanctions waivers for five countries importing Iranian oil, with the hope to put new pressure on Tehran to curb its military aggression in the Middle East.
“Iran remains the world’s leading state-sponsored terrorism… The regime spends nearly a billion dollars a year on its terrorist proxies around the world, and that includes up to $700 million for Hezbollah alone,” Sales said.
Sales added that Iran also actively engages in terrorism itself.
Earlier this April, the U.S. labeled Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization for what U.S. officials call its destabilizing role in the Middle East.
With concurrent sanctions on Iran and Hezbollah, U.S. officials hope both sides will be forced to reduce their military activities in the Middle East and beyond.
“If Hezbollah can’t count on the same levels of support from Tehran, the group increasingly will need to raise money to support terrorism itself. In this administration, we use every tool at our disposal to dismantle Hezbollah’s global financing network,” Sales said.