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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Congress bill urges designation of Hezbollah as a 'foreign narcotics trafficker'

The bill would give President Trump the authority to designate Hezbollah “a significant foreign narcotics trafficker" or "a transnational criminal organisation”.

Both Congress and the Trump administration have ramped up pressure against Hezbollah in the past year. AFP/SAUL LOEB
Both Congress and the Trump administration have ramped up pressure against Hezbollah in the past year. AFP/SAUL LOEB

The US Congress is considering a bill that will give President Donald Trump the authority to designate Hezbollah “a significant foreign narcotics trafficker" or "a transnational criminal organisation”.

It comes less than two months after the US Justice Department created the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team (HFNT) to investigate the Lebanese movement’s illicit activities.

The bill, officially named the "Hezbollah Kingpin Designation Act”, is now being considered by the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, a spokesperson for Congressman Ted Budd who authored the legislation told The National.

Mr Budd, a Republican, introduced the bill — which has been co-sponsored by Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin — on February 15. If passed it will require the president “to determine whether Hezbollah should be designated as a significant foreign narcotics trafficker or a transnational criminal organisation, and for other purposes” within 120 days. Either designation by the president would lead to the Lebanese militant group and political party facing further US sanctions.

Both Congress and the Trump administration have ramped up pressure against Hezbollah in the past year with several bills and Treasury Department sanctions already targeting the movement.

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The bill references Hezbollah’s alleged links to drug cartels in Latin America — which it says date back to 2010 — and cites evidence from the US's Drug Enforcement Administration and its so-called “Project Cassandra” operation to identify the Iran-backed movement “as a major supplier of cocaine into the United States”.

According to an investigation by the news site Politico last year, Project Cassandra was launched in 2008 after the DEA amassed evidence that Hezbollah “was collecting $1 billion a year from drug and weapons trafficking, money laundering and other criminal activities”.

Mr Budd’s bill mentions the US indictment in 2011 of Ayman Saied Joumaa, a Lebanese-Colombian dual national with ties to Hezbollah, and accuses the movement of “using a global network of companies operating out of Latin America, West Africa, and Lebanon to launder as much as $200,000,000 a month in drug proceeds for Mexican and Colombian cartels”.

The legislation will also require the Treasury to issue a report to several congressional committees within one year of the legislation being enacted “containing an estimate of the total assets under direct or indirect control by Hezbollah-linked leaders of political parties or movements who are located in the United States”.

Katherine Bauer, a former Treasury official and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The National that if the bill passes both chambers of Congress, “discussions will be ensued around the Kingpin Act requirements, and information as well as evidence needs to be compiled by the administration” to decide whether Hezbollah fits the categories of either "a significant foreign narcotics trafficker" or "a transnational criminal organisation".

Since the "Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act" was signed into law in 1999, almost 2,000 individuals and organisations have been designated "significant foreign narcotics traffickers", allowing the Treasury to freeze any assets held by the parties in US jurisdictions and to prosecute Americans who help these parties handle their money.

For Hezbollah to be designated under the so-called "Kingpin Act", however, the Treasury would have to prove that the movement “materially assists in, or provides financial or technological support for or to, or provides goods or services in support of, the international narcotics trafficking activities of a specially designated narcotics trafficker”, or that it “owned, controlled, or directed by, or acts for or on behalf of, a specially designated narcotics trafficker", or “plays a significant role in international narcotics trafficking”.

The president can designate Hezbollah a transnational criminal organisation, meanwhile, if he deems it to be either politically or economically destabilising to the US. Under a programme that began in 2011, such designation is followed by the freezing of assets and the prohibition of transactions with the entities or individuals in question, as well as those who "have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for" them.

If the "Hezbollah Kingpin Designation Act” passes the House Foreign Affairs committee, it will then go to a full vote in the House of Representatives, followed by the Senate. Passage in all three would then take the legislation to the desk of Mr Trump who will then have 120 days to consider the legislation.

A spokesperson for the House Foreign Affairs Committee contacted by The National said no information on when the body will consider the bill was currently available