US urges Lebanon to sever Hezbollah from its financial system

Laws passed by Congress in 2015 and 2017 and a new Justice Department task force seek to disrupt Iran-backed terror group’s funding

A member of the Hezbollah terror group holds Lebanese and Hezbollah flags during a press tour near the border town of Arsal on July 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Stringer)
A member of the Hezbollah terror group holds Lebanese and Hezbollah flags during a press tour near the border town of Arsal on July 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Stringer)

A top US finance official is urging Lebanon to sever links between the Hezbollah terror group and the country’s financial system.

Visiting Lebanon this week, the Treasury Department’s Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea “urged Lebanon to take every possible measure to ensure (Hezbollah) is not part of the financial sector,” according to a statement by the US embassy in Beirut cited by Reuters.

The visit came amid a renewed push by the US to disrupt Hezbollah’s sources of income, including its money laundering and drug trafficking activities worldwide.

In his talks with Lebanese officials, Billingslea “stressed the importance of countering Iranian malign activity in Lebanon,” according to the embassy.

Iran is Hezbollah’s political patron and chief source of funding.

Supporters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group hold portraits of its leader Hassan Nasrallah (R) and its former military chief Imad Mughniyeh during a protest in Beirut on December 11, 2017. (AFP Photo/Joseph Eid)

The issue is sensitive for Lebanon, which has close ties to the US and receives American defense aid, but whose unity government includes the terror group’s political party, one of the most powerful political forces in the country.

The US Congress passed the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Acts in 2015 and 2017, both attempting to separate Lebanon’s banks and other financial infrastructure from the terror group. Lebanese officials have lobbied against Washington implementing the demands of those laws, saying that attempts to sanction Hezbollah could result in destabilizing the entire country.

Billingslea met with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and top banking and political figures, according to Reuters, reportedly assuring the officials that Washington’s efforts against Hezbollah did not detract from its wish to ensure a “strong, stable, and prosperous Lebanon.”

Two weeks ago, the US Justice Department announced the creation of a special task force to investigate what it called “narco-terrorism” by Hezbollah.

The unit will comprise specialists on money-laundering, drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime, targeting Hezbollah’s sprawling network, whose reach extends across Africa and into Central and South America, the department said.

Fighters of the Shiite Hezbollah terror group attend the funeral in the southern Lebanese town of Kfar Hatta of a comrade who died in combat in Syria. March 18, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmoud Zayyat)

“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 US 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.”

A portrait of the head of the Hezbollah terror group Hassan Nasrallah is seen on November 5, 2017, in the southern Lebanese village of Adshit. (AFP Photo/Mahmoud Zayyat)

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.

Two weeks ago, former top Treasury Department sanctions official Juan Zarate told Congress that Hezbollah’s drug smuggling and money laundering operations were 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.

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