Hezbollah's Procurement Channels: Leveraging Criminal Networks and Partnering with Iran.

Author:Levitt, Matthew

Hezbollah has long prioritized its weapons and technical procurement efforts, but with the group's heavy deployment in the war in Syria, its procurement officers have taken on even greater prominence within the organization. Today, in the context of the war in Syria, some of Hezbollah's most significant procurement agents have teamed up with Iran's Quds Force to develop integrated and efficient weapons procurement and logistics pipelines that can be leveraged to greatly expand Hezbollah's weapons procurement capabilities.

The latest sign of how closely Quds Force and Hezbollah procurement officers now work together came to light when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Tehran for surprise meetings with President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on February 25, 2019. For the purpose of operational security, Assad's visit reportedly dispensed with traditional protocols. The Iranian President was only informed of Assad's visit shortly before he arrived, and Iran's Foreign Minister was neither informed nor included in the meetings. (1) Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani reportedly oversaw the security protocols for the visit himself and flew with Assad on the plane to Tehran. (2) And the person Soleimani chose to accompany him to these meetings and serve as a notetaker was Mohammad Qasir, (3) the head of Hezbollah's Unit 108--the unit "responsible for facilitating the transfer of weapons, technology and other support from Syria to Lebanon," according to the U.S. Treasury Department. (4)

Based in Damascus, Qasir and other senior Hezbollah officials work closely with officers from Quds Force's Unit 190--which specializes in smuggling weapons to Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza--under the supervision of Qassem Soleimani. (5) This smuggling operation is significant in its own right, but it could also be used to assist Hezbollah's own longstanding procurement efforts around the world, which are often intimately intertwined with the group's transnational organized criminal networks raising funds through criminal enterprises.

Recent events underscored the scope and scale of these efforts. In November 2018, a Paris court found Mohammad Noureddine and several of his associates guilty of drug trafficking, money laundering, and engaging in a criminal conspiracy to finance Hezbollah. (6) The result of an international joint investigation involving seven countries, the conviction marked the first time a European court specifically found defendants guilty of conspiracy to support Hezbollah. (7) But it was telling for another reason, too: authorities revealed that at least some of the proceeds of these Hezbollah drug and money laundering schemes were "used to purchase weapons for Hizballah for its activities in Syria." (8)

The weapons connection likely raised some eyebrows among analysts and investigators, given the very high levels of state sponsorship and support Iran provides to Hezbollah. But despite that support, Hezbollah, as also detailed in this article, has an established track record of procuring and smuggling weapons through its own channels, parallel to the weapons regularly funneled to the group by Iran. Hezbollah weapons procurement agents oversee this program, though they often rely on criminal facilitators--weapons dealers, smugglers, money launderers, and more--who are uniquely situated to provide the kinds of services necessary to purchase weapons on the black market and deliver them to Hezbollah in Lebanon. These relationships often first develop through criminal financial and money-laundering schemes that broaden out over time to include weapons deals. And then there are other types of procurement activities focused not on weapons themselves but on dual-use items with military applications like computer programs, laser range finders, night-vision goggles, and more.

This article details how now, in the context of the war in Syria, some of Hezbollah's most significant procurement agents--such as Muhammad Qasir--have teamed up with Iran's Quds Force to develop integrated and efficient weapons procurement and logistics pipelines through Syria and into Lebanon that can be leveraged to greatly expand Hezbollah's international weapons procurement capabilities. The Syrian war elevated the importance of such efforts, which quickly increased in scale and scope. As Assad gains control over more of Syria, Hezbollah and the Quds Force will be well placed to leverage their position in Syria along with their newly refined procurement and smuggling pipelines through various channels to secure and send weapons and sensitive technologies back to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Hezbollah's Early Procurement Efforts

Hezbollah has a long history of independently procuring weapons and dual-use technology through its own networks abroad. A 1994 FBI report stated that Iran, as Hezbollah's primary sponsor, "provides most of the group's funding and weaponry." And yet, the report added, Hezbollah still engaged in what it described as "domestic weapons procurement" activities in the United States, such as an unnamed New York Hezbollah member who was reportedly involved in acquiring night-vision goggles and laser-sighting equipment and sending them to Hezbollah in Lebanon. (9)

An early example is Fawzi Mustapha Assi, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Lebanon who was caught trying to smuggle night-vision goggles, a thermal-imaging camera, and global-positioning modules to Hezbollah in July 1998. Described by U.S. authorities as a Hezbollah procurement agent, Assi successfully smuggled goods to Hezbollah from 1996 until his arrest. (10) Assi pled guilty to material support charges and acknowledged in his post-hearing sentencing memorandum that "the material he provided was meant to support the resistance in south Lebanon in their armed conflict with the Israeli Defense Force." (11)

At the same time, according to U.S. authorities Hezbollah operative Mohammad Hassan Dbouk and his brother-in-law, Ali Adham Amhaz, ran a Hezbollah procurement network in Canada under the command of Hezbollah's chief military procurement officer in Lebanon, Haj Hassan Hilu Laqis. Dbouk allegedly described Assi as "'the guy' for getting equipment on behalf of Hezbollah." According to court documents, Dbouk added that he himself "personally met this individual [Assi] at the airport in Beirut to ensure Hezbollah got the equipment he obtained," including night-vision goggles and GPS systems. (12) According to court filings, Hezbollah procurement officials in Lebanon would later stress to Dbouk that such equipment was desperately needed because "the guys were getting lost, you know, in the woods, or whatever, and they need compasses." (13)

According to the FBI, Dbouk turned out to be "an intelligence specialist and propagandist, [who] was dispatched to Canada by Hizballah for the express purpose of obtaining surveillance equipment (video cameras and handheld radios and receivers) and military equipment (night-vision devices, laser range finders, mine and metal detectors, and advanced aircraft analysis tools)." (14) According to Canadian authorities, Dbouk's, Amhaz's, and Laqis' efforts bore fruit. For example, after hearing that Hezbollah roadsides bombs in south Lebanon killed an Israeli general, Ali Amhaz allegedly congratulated Dbouk for his part in improving Hezbollah military capabilities. (15)

Allegedly, Dbouk recognized that his procurement efforts for Hezbollah came under the ultimate authority of Imad Mughniyeh, who served as the head of Hezbollah's Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO)--the organization's external operations group--until U.S. and Israeli intelligence agents reportedly teamed up to kill him in Damascus in 2008. (16) In April 1999, Dbouk allegedly sent a fax to Laqis, informing him that payment was needed for several items Dbouk had purchased. Dbouk allegedly boasted that he had sent Laqis "a little gift" in the form of a PalmPilot and a pair of binoculars and added, "I'm ready to do any thing you or the Father want me to do and I mean anything...!!" (17) "The Father," according to U.S. Attorney Robert Conrad, is a reference to Mughniyeh. (18)

These cases are typical of the type of small-scale weapons procurement and somewhat larger scale dual-use technology procurement Hezbollah engaged in directly in the run-up to the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. But Hezbollah's procurement efforts only increased in the wake of that withdrawal. According to a 2003 Israeli assessment, "Hezbollah uses its apparatuses throughout the world not only to strengthen its operational capabilities for launching terrorist attacks, but also as a means of purchasing the advanced arms and equipment needed for the organization's operational activities. To transact these purchases, Hezbollah uses its operatives who reside outside Lebanon (either permanently or temporarily), 'innocent' businesspeople (including Lebanese), and companies founded by the organization (some of which are front companies)." (19)

Consider the case of Riad Skaff, who worked as a ground services coordinator at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport from 1999 until his arrest in 2007. For a fee, Skaff smuggled bulk cash and dual-use items like night-vision goggles and cellular jammers onto airplanes. Prosecutors argued that Skaff's conduct "in essence was that of a mercenary facilitating the smuggling of large amounts of cash and dangerous defense items for a fee," which he knew were destined for Lebanon, "a war-torn country besieged by the militant organization, Hezbollah." (20)

In other cases, Hezbollah operatives in the United States raised funds for the purchase of weapons elsewhere, including in Lebanon. Mahmoud Kourani, a convicted Hezbollah fighter trained in Iran, was a one-time resident of Dearborn, Michigan. Bragging to a government informant about his ties to Hezbollah, Kourani once let slip that before he came to the United States...

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