The US Justice Department announced Thursday the creation of a special task force to investigate what it called “narco-terrorism” by the powerful Lebanese organization Hezbollah, which the US, along with Israel and other countries, has classified as a terror group.
The unit will comprise specialists on money-laundering, drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime, targeting Iran ally Hezbollah’s sprawling network, whose reach extends across Africa and into Central and South America, the department said.
“The Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats to our citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating drug crisis,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“The team will initiate prosecutions that will restrict the flow of money to foreign terrorist organizations as well as disrupt violent international drug trafficking operations.”
The move comes amid a stepped-up effort to battle Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East and expanded military capabilities of Hezbollah, one of the dominant forces in Lebanese politics.
But Sessions said the creation of the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team was also a response to criticisms that former president Barack Obama held back from cracking down on Hezbollah’s global networks, investigated under the previous Project Cassandra, in order to achieve the nuclear deal with Iran.
“The HFNT will begin by assessing the evidence in existing investigations, including cases stemming from Project Cassandra, a law enforcement initiative targeting Hezbollah’s drug trafficking and related operations,” the department said.
Officials in Washington and US allies Saudi Arabia and Israel, have increasingly raised the alarm over Hezbollah’s growing power in Lebanon and around the world.
On Wednesday, former top Treasury Department sanctions official Juan Zarate told Congress that Hezbollah’s drug smuggling and money laundering operations are global in scale.
“Recent actions by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Treasury to dismantle networks of Hezbollah’s ‘Business Affairs Component’ have exposed financial and trade nodes that the Hezbollah operates and led to arrests and enforcement actions around the world,” he told a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.