It's hard to uphold a reputation as a devoutly religious terrorist group if you make millions selling cocaine. Just ask Hezbollah.
Last month, the US government filed suit against a number of American and Lebanese businesses that allegedly helped bankroll the Lebanese terrorist group. The civil indictment in Manhattan blew the lid off a vast criminal network that included money-laundering, cocaine deals and more — including 30 US car dealerships that helped the group launder cash.
As one investigator quipped, Hezbollah is the "Gambinos on steroids."
The indictment charges Hezbollah kingpin Ayman Joumaa with smuggling more than 100 tons of Colombian cocaine with the Mexican Zetas drug cartel, yielding hundreds of millions of dollars for the terror group. Indeed, the feds show that Hezbollah relies on a carefully constructed system of criminal enterprises from America to Africa to the Middle East.
Since its 1982 birth, Hezbollah has worked hard to portray itself as a "resistance" organization, fighting against the alleged injustices of Israel, the United States and others, earning it wide respect across the Middle East.
But today the group's operatives — at home and abroad — are thugs who profit from drugs, fraud and more. This contradiction could help erode support among Hezbollah's pious Shi'ite followers.
In fact, the US government has for years warned of the growing Hezbollah drug and crime operations in the lawless "Tri-Border Area" of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.
In 2002, the problem hit closer to home. Two men were convicted of operating a multimillion-dollar cigarette-smuggling operation out of North Carolina, which funneled money back to Hezbollah.
Since then, US officials have grown increasingly alarmed by Hezbollah's activities in the Western Hemisphere.
In 2010, a Tucson Police Department memo warned of growing ties between Hezbollah operatives and Mexican drug traffickers, including the growing use of improvised-explosive devices and car bombs. Other evidence pointed to Hezbollah involvement in the tunnels Mexican cartel's use to smuggle drugs into the United States.
Last Jan. 26, the US Treasury designated a wide network of Hezbollah-linked drug figures, including Joumaa and nine other people, plus 19 entities. In February, Washington listed the Lebanese Canadian Bank as a "primary money-laundering concern." It all culminated in this latest indictment that Manhattan prosecutors unsealed last month.
Hezbollah denies the "false accusations about its involvement, directly or indirectly, in money-laundering or drug-trafficking." But the facts speak for themselves.
Ugly as the publicity is, the group's leaders may see little choice but to keep the rackets going — they need their cash. Israeli sources believe that Iranian financial support to Hezbollah has dropped precipitously, thanks to the pressure of international sanctions.
Meanwhile, thanks to "the Lebanese Bernie Madoff," Hezbollah's leaders are finding it harder to avoid or deny the obvious even at home. In 2009, Salah Ezzedine, a Lebanese businessman with close ties to the group, pulled off a billion-dollar pyramid scheme bilking many Hezbollah supporters. Hezbollah initially disavowed Ezzedine, but ultimately accepted responsibility and established a center to help supporters afflicted by his scheme.
Recent reports allege that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is worth some $250 million, with the group's leadership collectively worth as much as $2 billion. So much for fighting injustice.
Hezbollah supporters have also been scandalized by reports that the son of Imad Mughniyeh, the venerated terrorist mastermind who was killed by a car bomb in Syria in 2008, now flaunts his wealth on the streets of Beirut.
While Washington continues to track and freeze Hezbollah's finances, the frauds it uncovers in the process could also further weaken the group's credibility.
Lebanon's Shiites are increasingly asking themselves: Are Hezbollah's leaders fighting for justice, or just proceeds from crime?