Hezbollah has been exploiting a diplomatic loophole to freely funnel money from around the world into its coffers in Lebanon, a joint report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and ProPublica found.
The investigation, published on Monday, found 500 cases of individuals “accused of crimes or embroiled in controversy” who currently or were previously designated as an “honorary consul,” a special designation that provides an individual with diplomatic perks and freedoms.
The honorary consul system was devised centuries ago to allow countries that could not afford to establish embassies overseas to designate a foreign citizen to operate on its behalf in another country.
The investigation indicated examples of Lebanese citizens receiving honorary consul status by other countries, as well as foreign nationals using their diplomatic privilege to aid Hezbollah.
Much like career diplomats, honorary consuls are granted diplomatic immunity, allowing them to pass through “annoying customs checks” and “unlimited entry and exit privileges” without hassle. Those who enjoy the designation can also travel with a “diplomatic bag,” the contents of which go unchecked.
Out of the 500 individuals exposed, nine were linked to terror activities, including to Hezbollah. The report noted that due to a lack of official monitoring of the honorary consul system, the total number of problem individuals is likely higher than 500.
The report cited US officials, who have previously investigated Hezbollah’s use of honorary consoles to move money around, as saying the terror group’s misuse of the system is well-organized and “woefully unexamined.”
Hezbollah “can basically move stuff with impunity and no one is ever going to bust them — you flash your diplomatic passport, no questions asked,” said David Asher, a former Department of Defense senior investigator.
“It’s a huge seam in our international law enforcement capabilities sweep.”
Hezbollah has long been the IDF’s most significant adversary on Israel’s borders, with an estimated arsenal of nearly 150,000 rockets and missiles that can reach anywhere in Israel.
In March, the US Treasury sanctioned Ali Saade and Ibrahim Taher, Hezbollah financiers operating in Guinea. Both men had been operating under honorary consul status.
New Jersey attorney Gary Osen, who represents more than 1,000 Americans in legal action against Lebanese banks suspected of financing Hezbollah’s terror activities, attested that throughout his team’s investigations the honorary consul loophole was ubiquitous.
“Everybody who is a big shot in that world is an honorary consul,” he said.
Osen’s case, which is currently active in a New York Federal Court, accuses 13 Lebanese banks of violating anti-terror laws by knowingly providing funds to Hezbollah, which Osen said were used to carry out deadly attacks against US military personnel in Iraq.
The ICIJ report said that the title of honorary consul is considered a status symbol in Lebanon. “It’s something like lordships in the British system,” Mohanad Hage Ali said, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Ali continued: “If you have a connection to another sovereign state, whether you know the president or someone in his entourage, you get this honorary consul title. It’s one Lebanese way of saying ‘I’m important.'”