Hizballah may have lost the ability to move tens of millions of dollars tied to international money laundering and drug trafficking after U.S. Treasury officials acted against two Lebanese based money exchange operations. Each handled money from a drug network led by Ayman Joumaa.
When Joumaa was indicted in late 2011, Treasury officials also moved against the Lebanese Central Bank, which allegedly was moving as much as $200 million a month for Joumaa. The Halawi Exchange and Remeiti & Co. helped fill that void, a Treasury statement Tuesday said . The action marks the first time the Treasury Department used a provision in the Patriot Act to go after an informal financial operation.
Officials say Hizballah takes profits from drug sale and mixes the money with proceeds from West African used car sales. It all goes into the money exchanges, then the money is sent to the United States for other business, before making its way back to Africa and Lebanon.
"Hizballah is operating like a major drug cartel, and we're going to actively investigate them as such with all our law enforcement partners acting as one team," Drug Enforcement Administration Special Operations Special Agent Derek Maltz told reporters Tuesday. "This is another of many clear links between global drug trafficking and terrorism. Drugs and terrorism coexist across the globe in a marriage of mutual convenience. As state-sponsored terrorism has declined, these dangerous organizations have looked far and wide for resources and revenue to recruit, to corrupt, to train, and to strengthen their regime."
Hizballah increasingly has turned to criminal enterprises for money because Iran cannot provide the same financial support it used to, said David Cohen, Treasury's Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. The money funds global terror operations, he said, referring to a suspected Hizballah bombing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last summer, and its ongoing support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's crumbling regime.
Hizballah "has long sought access to the international financial system in order to move its terrorist funds and to launder the profits from its involvement in illegal activity," Cohen said. "Make no mistake, [Hizballah] is both a full-fledged terrorist organization, lavishly funded over the years by Iran, and an enterprise that increasingly turns to crime to finance itself as the economic pressure on Iran mounts and Iran's financial situation becomes more tenuous."
The Treasury action requires American banks to report any new transactions by Remeiti and Halawi for the next 120 days. The department hopes to make that reporting requirement permanent.