Following the US decision against Hezbollah, the hashtag #Hezbollah_crime_organization was launched on Arab social media. One of the posters read, “Nasrallah’s Mafia” (Kamal al-Zaid’s Twitter account, October 16, 2018)
The US Attorney General holding a press conference in which he presented the five leading transnational criminal groups, including Hezbollah (US Department of Justice website, October 16, 2018)
The US president announcing the approval of extensive sanctions against Hezbollah, during a White House ceremony in memory of Marines killed in a Hezbollah suicide bombing attack in Beirut (White House YouTube channel, October 25, 2018)
In October 2018, the US administration adopted a series of legislative and law enforcement measures against Hezbollah and all those supporting it. These measures have met with broad bipartisan support in Congress and have been approved by President Trump. These measures provide law enforcement agencies with an improved “toolkit” in the struggle against Hezbollah and the international crime in which it is involved. At the political level, these measures reflect the Trump administration’s deep commitment to give high priority to the struggle against Hezbollah as part of the overall campaign against Iran.
- Following is a short summary of the American steps:
- Two law bills expanding the sanctions against Hezbollah (October 11, 2018): One expands the economic and financial sanctions imposed in previous legislation (2015) on Hezbollah and anyone who supports the organization and its criminal activity around the world (individuals, companies, and government entities). The second bill imposes sanctions on Hezbollah and Hamas which make use of civilians as human shields and on individuals, institutions and countries that help them do so.
- The inclusion of Hezbollah in the list of the five leading transnational criminal groups and the establishment of a task force for the struggle against them (October 15, 2018): US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the inclusion of Hezbollah in the list of the five leading transnational criminal groups. Aside from Hezbollah, four other international drug and criminal cartels based in Latin America were included in the list. In order to manage the struggle against these leading groups, a special task force headed by the Deputy Attorney General was set up, with the participation of prosecutors and experts with experience in the war against drugs, terrorism, organized crime and money laundering.
- These measures were designed to streamline the US campaign against Hezbollah as part of the overall campaign against Iran and the terrorist organizations that it handles. The designation of Hezbollah as a leading transnational criminal group, together with four major cartels trafficking in drugs and engaged in other criminal activities, indicates that the US administration is determined to prioritize the struggle against Hezbollah. The new legislation and the task force that was established provide US law enforcement agencies with additional tools, taken from the world of crime, in order to address the extensive criminal and financial activity carried out by Hezbollah abroad, especially in Latin America and West Africa.
- Senator Marco Rubio, one of the sponsors of the law bill expanding the sanctions against Hezbollah, said the following after the sanctions were approved:
- “Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, and continue to pose grave threats to the United States and our allies, including the democratic state of Israel.” “The legislation will strengthen international efforts to combat the financing and expansion of Hezbollah’s terrorist and missile threats, as well as its narcotics trafficking and other transnational criminal activities.”
- In the ITIC’s assessment, the new US legislation is likely to affect Lebanon and the Lebanese economy first and foremost. This is because Hezbollah is an integral part of Lebanon’s political and social fabric and is assisted by the state and its institutions in managing its military, terrorist, social and economic activities. In particular, the Lebanese banking system is liable to suffer. Hezbollah uses the system to receive funds originating in Iran and to allocate funds to its military and social infrastructure in Lebanon. It can be assumed that Hezbollah, as usual, will attempt to exert pressure on the Lebanese banking system not to cooperate with the US. For example, since 2015, in the wake of the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, the Lebanese Central Bank has blocked bank accounts of entities and individuals affiliated with Hezbollah. After blocking the accounts, the Lebanese banking system received a violent message from Hezbollah about what might happen to it if it continued to yield to American pressure (the explosion of an IED near Bank Lubnan wal-Mahjar (BLOM Bank) in Beirut, June 12, 2016). In addition, the sanctions are liable to harm individuals, banks and companies around the world that are involved with fundraising for Hezbollah from Shiite businessmen abroad and with its criminal activities (especially in South America and West Africa).
- It is noteworthy that Hezbollah is designated as an international criminal organization, and not only as a terrorist organization, along with four drug and crime cartels based in Latin American countries. This designation and the establishment of the task force were apparently intended to provide US law enforcement agencies with additional capabilities taken from the war on crime, in addition to imposing sanctions. These capabilities include detaining suspects, investigations, filing indictments, and extradition requests that the US Department of Justice can carry out through the task force. Moreover, designating Hezbollah as an international criminal organization is also a “signal” on the part of the US Department of Justice that it intends to prioritize the pursuit of Hezbollah and its operatives through the new task force.
US Congress approved two bills expanding the scope of the sanctions imposed on Hezbollah and its supporters
On October 11, 2018, the US Congress approved two bills expanding the scope of the sanctions imposed on Hezbollah and its supporters in a previous bill (from 2015). The two bills that were approved are the result of bipartisan activity which took place over several months in Congress. Both bills have been approved by US President Donald Trump (October 25, 2018).
- The first law bill expands the economic and financial sanctions imposed on Hezbollah and its supporters (Hezbollah Transnational Financing Prevention Amendments Act of 2018 (s1595)). The bill imposes sanctions on Hezbollah; on individuals, companies, and government entities that help Hezbollah raise funds or recruit people, and on anyone who supplies arms to Hezbollah. The bill also imposes sanctions on drug smuggling networks and on individuals and entities that support the serious crimes committed by Hezbollah (see the US Congress website for the full text of the bill).
- The second bill imposes sanctions for the use of defenseless civilians as human shields (Sanctioning the Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act, H.R.3342). The bill imposes sanctions on members of Hezbollah and Hamas who use innocent civilians as human shields and on individuals, institutions and countries that assist Hamas and Hezbollah to do so (see the US House of Representatives website for the full text of the bill).
The announcement of the five leading transnational criminal groups by the US Department of Justice
- On October 15, 2018, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared Hezbollah and four other criminal cartels as the leading transnational criminal groups. The declaration states that these groups are threatening the security and prosperity of the United States and its allies. This declaration was the implementation of a Presidential Executive Order (February 9, 2017), in which federal law enforcement agencies were instructed to define the leading transnational criminal groups. This was in order to grant top priority to the war against them, and to allocate adequate resources to activities that would disrupt and dismantle these groups (US Department of Justice website, October 15, 2018).
- Apart from Hezbollah, four other groups involved in drug smuggling and other criminal activity are also included in the definition of “transnational criminal groups.” The four other groups, based in Latin America, are: MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha): A gang of immigrants from Central America, mainly El Salvador, which was established in Los Angeles; Cartel De Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG): the most powerful drug cartel in Mexico; Sinaloa Cartel: an international Mexican crime syndicate considered one of the largest and most powerful drug cartels in the world; Clan Del Golfo: one of the largest drug cartels in Colombia.
- The Attorney General announced the establishment of a special task force for the war against these five “transnational criminal groups,” headed by the Deputy Attorney General and with the participation of a team of prosecutors and experts with experience in the war against drugs, terrorism, organized crime and money laundering. The task force will be organized within the framework of subcommittees, each of which will be responsible for one of these five groups. The US Attorney General ordered each of these committees to submit specific recommendations on how these groups could be eliminated by various means: prosecution, diplomacy, or other legal means (US Department of Justice website, October 15, 2018). According to the Attorney General, when the task force is established, the actions taken against these groups will become more effective and focused than ever (Reuters, October 15, 2018).
President Donald Trump’s approval
- On October 25, 2018, President Trump signed two bills that would increase the sanctions imposed on Hezbollah and anyone who assists it. The laws were approved during an event marking the 35th anniversary of Hezbollah’s suicide bombing attack on the Marine camp in Beirut (which claimed the lives of 241 Americans). During the ceremony, the President reported that he had signed legislation that would increase the sanctions imposed on Hezbollah and this would harm the organization’s financial resources. He then said the following: “We will target, disrupt and dismantle their operational and financing networks of which they have plenty … And we will never forget what they did to our marines in Beirut.” The President took the opportunity to point out Iran’s role as the financier of Hezbollah and its main patron (White House website, CNN, October 25, 2018).
Reactions in Lebanon
- So far, the Lebanese government refrained from publicly addressing the new US legislation. Hezbollah also refrained from addressing it. The Lebanese news website Janubiyah reported that it had tried to make contact with Hajj Mahmoud Qamati, member of Hezbollah’s political bureau, to obtain his comments on the US decision. Qamati replied that his organization had decided not to comment on that in the media (Janubiya website, Lebanon, October 16, 2018).
- Editorials published on the Lebanese Forces website emphasized that the US decision was a severe blow to Lebanon, and that many Lebanese do not understand its significance and repercussions. According to the editorials, the US decision against Hezbollah will cause a problem for the future government of Lebanon and will affect its composition and Hezbollah’s presence there (the Lebanese Forces website, October 16, 2018). Fadi Abboud, the former Lebanese minister of tourism, said in response that they (i.e., the Lebanese) had become accustomed to Washington’s one-sided attitude. In his opinion, this decision will bring about a rift between Lebanon and the US. These sanctions may cause serious problems to the future government of Lebanon, which will include ministers from Hezbollah.
- According to the website of the March 14 bloc (affiliated with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri), the US measures against Hezbollah are part of an extensive US campaign against Iran and its branches in the Middle East (website of the March 14 bloc, October 16, 2018).
- Following the US declaration against Hezbollah, a Lebanese television channel dedicated a special program to this issue. This program hosted Lebanese commentator Maher al-Dana, who described the US steps as “punitive measures” against Lebanon and its economy. He also blamed Israel for being involved as a “US arm.” According to him, this step was intended to embarrass Lebanon and all the parties in the Lebanese government. During the program, it was claimed that, according to various sources, the scope of Iran’s annual support of Hezbollah was estimated at USD 700 million (Orient.tv, October 16, 2018).
- The Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh published (October 19, 2018) an article entitled “The End of the Forbidden Money… Hezbollah – a Criminal Persecuted Worldwide.” According to the article, the purpose of the US step was to “dry up” Hezbollah’s sources of funding due to its involvement in the destabilization of the region and limit the Iranian influence in the region since Hezbollah is supported by Iran. In addition, this US declaration will allow confiscating the funds and aid arriving from Iran to Hezbollah (Al-Riyadh, October 19, 2018).
Cartoons and posters denouncing Hezbollah for its involvement in drug trafficking
Posters published on social media denouncing Hezbollah for being involved in drug trafficking (Saad al-Khudary’s Twitter account, October 16, 2018)
Cartoon published on Twitter following the US decision against Hezbollah, which indicated Hezbollah’s involvement in the distribution of drugs
Following the US decision against Hezbollah, an Arab Twitter account holder posted a short video, in which Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, Hezbollah’s first secretary-general, attacks Hezbollah for flooding Lebanon with drugs and corrupting the younger generation. The date of the video is unclear (Shahd al-Assal’s Twitter account, October 16, 2018)
 For information on a current instance of Hezbollah’s involvement in crime in South America, see the ITIC’s Information Bulletin from August 12, 2018: “Hezbollah’s Tri-Border Area terror finance comes under fire at last,” by Emanuele Ottolenghi. ↑
 See the ITIC’s Information Bulletin from July 10, 2016: “Nasrallah’s Speech: Hezbollah’s Budget Is Entirely Funded by Iran, Including Weapons and Operatives’ Salaries Analysis of Significance and Implications.” ↑
 See Emanuele Ottolenghi’s article: “Department of Justice right to go after Hezbollah” (The Hill, October 16, 2018). ↑
 The Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 ↑