How Hezbollah funds terror through the global cocaine trade

In an exclusive extract from new book Chasing Shadows, a US narcotics agent’s attempts to smash a global drugs network leads him to the top of the terror group


Lebanese Hezbollah fighters take part in cross-border raids, part of large-scale military exercise, in Aaramta bordering Israel on May 21, 2023 ahead of the anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP) (Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s January 2014 and Jack Kelly, an agent with America’s Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA), has recently been reassigned. For several years he has been coordinating investigations into the narcotics trade’s biggest networks: being “an eye in the sky”, as it was called. Divorced and in his forties, on weekends Kelly would wake up early, drink his morning coffee, and then hit the gym before spending hours working on open source research.

The project was codenamed “Cassandra”, named after the Trojan princess who was fated to never be believed but whose prophecies were eventually proved correct. The closer Kelly looked, the more wiretap transcripts he studied and the more reports he read, it became clear to him that something deeply troubling was happening. It was like being at the centre of a panopticon watching cash, drugs and guns moving across borders.

A drug cartel in Colombia could be shipping cocaine to mafias in Europe, who in turn laundered their money through Middle Eastern banks holding cash for rogue regimes.

Those sanctioned governments could then use the funds raised on the international black market to purchase bombs and weapons.

The DEA had picked up numerous leads about Iran and Hezbollah exploiting these networks to circumvent US sanctions. Governments such as Iran’s still needed to procure hard currency and arms as before, but now increasingly had to turn to criminal schemes to source them. To do this they used procurement agents or “super facilitators” — cells that operated in the shadow dimension of international arms and drugs trafficking.

There was one man out there who was likely at the centre of it all: the end user. His name was Mustafa Badreddine, and he was a legendary Lebanese terrorist who had been dispatched to Damascus to lead Hezbollah special forces fighters in support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Everyone knew that 30 years before it was Mustafa who had executed the deadly attack on the US marine barracks in Beirut, watching through his binoculars from the roof of the nearby building.

A bunch of DEA agents were never going to get close to a guy such as Mustafa. He was a ghost, a phantom who had evaded the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies for decades. But Kelly knew that they could at least go after some of the people sending weapons to people like him and others supporting Assad in Syria. They just needed the right leads.

Even Mustafa’s enemies — and he had many — had to admit that he wasn’t just good: he was one of the best. For more than three decades he had presided over one of the longest uninterrupted sprees of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings the world had ever seen. And he had always managed to slip away.

The truth was, officially at least, Mustafa barely existed. Since he was a teenager, he had carefully avoided ever being photographed, and had never been issued a passport in his own name, nor a driving licence. There was no record of him ever holding a bank account. There was no record of him ever having entered or left Lebanon.

He had paid no taxes, owned no property. More than three decades earlier, Mustafa, a teenager with a long thin nose and a shock of black curly hair, walked into his parents’ house in the southern Beirut district of Ghobeiry.

He had come home that day with a guest, his cousin and best friend Imad Mughniyeh. Saada, Mustafa’s younger sister, was always excited when Imad came to visit. He was a serious, brooding boy a year younger than Mustafa who lived a short walk from the Badreddines in a cinder block house with no running water.

The poverty- stricken Shia slums of southern Beirut, battered by conflict, were fertile grounds for the radical theocratic ideas that had inspired the 1979 Iranian revolution. As she listened to her brother and cousin’s conversations, Saada felt something important was stirring in their neighbourhood.

Young, disenfranchised Shias were openly challenging the older generation at the mosques. And the teenage girl could see that Mustafa and Imad wanted to do more than just talk.

At the time, Lebanon was awash with opportunities for young militants seeking to learn their craft. At first the two boys had been tempted by communism, reading texts by Leon Trotsky translated into Arabic. Then, as teenagers patrolling their neighbourhood during the fighting in Beirut, they ran into groups of Palestinian militants. Soon after, they were drawn into the orbit of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, attending training camps in the south of the country.

Several years before Kelly was reassigned as an “eye in the sky”, the DEA discovered that drug money was being laundered via a complex scheme involving trading second-hand cars through West Africa, and was then being sent to a bank in Beirut.

Kelly was convinced these schemes went far beyond that one bank. While some of those operating in these shadow networks were simply criminal opportunists who provided illicit services to the highest bidder, the DEA possessed evidence that others were in direct contact with senior Hezbollah officials and were seemingly acting under their protection. The DEA called this Hezbollah’s Business Affairs Component, or BAC, and Kelly believed it was possible to prove the various criminal nodes connected directly to the very top of the organisation.

The DEA’s assessment could be diplomatically explosive. Hezbollah had always staunchly denied any involvement in crime or drugs, both of which were anathema to its religious beliefs. But not only had the DEA found evidence connecting criminal super facilitators to the top of the organisation, it also believed it had credible evidence that showed the BAC dated to the 1990s, when Imad Mughniyeh had set up such a network to raise covert funds for his operations.

By spring 2015, an intricate picture of Hezbollah’s money-laundering network operating across Europe was emerging.

The network employed various techniques to transport the cash to Beirut. One of these was purchasing luxury cars with the money, including Porsches and Range Rovers, which were shipped from Europe to Lebanon or Africa, where they were sold for cash. Another was to buy expensive watches, such as Rolexes or Patek Philippes. The group had bought €14 million of watches from a single store in Münster, Germany, in little over a year. Some of the watches were taken by boat to Lebanon, and some were brought into Beirut airport by couriers, who were waved through by customs and airport intelligence.

But Kelly sensed that the network went much further. The DEA had been busy finding out as much as they could about Mohamad Noureddine, a money launderer moving cocaine proceeds around the world for European mafias and Latin American cartels.

Wiretaps showed that he was in almost daily phone contact with another Lebanese businessman called Adham Hussein Tabaja. Kelly was stunned when he learned this. Tabaja was one of the top targets on the DEA’s list of Hezbollah super facilitators.

US intelligence agencies had identified Tabaja as one of the organisation’s most important financiers, reporting to the highest level of its leadership and its Islamic Jihad covert operations unit. Tabaja, they knew, was working alongside operatives under the control of the Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani to smuggle large sums of money through the Middle East to fund Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. The DEA could now connect Noureddine with the weapons flooding into Syria.

On May 16 2016, Hezbollah’s media arm reported that a huge explosion ripped through Damascus. Mustafa, it said, was dead — killed by anti-Assad rebels. Some later claimed there had been no explosion, but that he had been assassinated, it is thought, by a bodyguard on the orders of Qassem Soleimani.

Surrounding Mustafa’s coffin in Beirut were his mourning family and a cadre of Hezbollah’s most important figures. Mustafa’s son, Ali, was flanked by his grieving uncles, including Mustafa’s older brother. He, the DEA believed, had been in regular contact with Noureddine, who had been sanctioned as a Hezbollah financier by the US government. Noureddine, the intercepts had also shown, spoke on a near-daily basis to Tabaja, one of Hezbollah’s most senior financiers.

In the middle of the wiretap investigation into the Beirut cell, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Tabaja for maintaining “direct ties to senior Hezbollah organisational elements, including the terrorist group’s operational component, the Islamic Jihad”.

On the same day, the French police listened in to a phone call in which the normally reserved Tabaja ranted at Noureddine about the sanctions and the problems they would cause his business operations. But it soon became clear that Noureddine’s calls to the associates who worked with him in the Beirut office where he coordinated the money-laundering scheme in Europe were as interesting as those with Tabaja.

Noureddine, the DEA had discovered, ran the money-brokering operation in Beirut with the assistance of three other men. They included and a close friend of his called Mazen al-Atat. And that was the name that really jumped out at the investigators. He seemed to have a less formal role at Noureddine’s money-exchange operation, picking up phones for him and speaking on occasions with couriers collecting cash in Europe. He also regularly went on business trips with Noureddine, and had proposed launching various businesses with him in Iran. But as his friend laundered tens of millions of euros from European cocaine deals through Lebanon, al-Atat was busy working to procure weapons for the Syrian government.

In late January 2016, two months after the terrorist attacks in Paris, the French police and the DEA learned that Noureddine was planning another trip to the city. The operation that the French police had codenamed “Cedar” was suddenly back on, and they were going to have to move fast.

Shortly after 7pm on Sunday 24th, Noureddine touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport accompanied by his friend Mazen al-Atat. At 7.45 pm they were arrested. Noureddine was travelling light, holding $1,174 in cash, a Rolex watch and Mastercard Platinum credit card. The next morning police in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium executed simultaneous European arrest warrants, raiding the houses of money couriers in Düsseldorf and a man codenamed “Jimmy” in a small town outside Milan.

Kelly and his colleagues from the DEA and US Customs and Border Protection raced to get on flights to Europe. The mood at the US embassy in Paris the morning after the arrests was triumphant. The operation against Noureddine and the others were still secret, but Kelly knew that when the news broke it was going to make headlines around the world. The DEA bosses began to work on a draft press release.

Kelly almost couldn’t believe it. The press release was going to make everything he had been working on for years public, and reveal the existence of Project Cassandra. It was going to reveal that Hezbollah’s Business Affairs Component had been working alongside Colombian drug cartels to move cocaine into Europe for years, and had been using the proceeds “to purchase weapons for Hezbollah for its activities in Syria”.

Even more explosively, the DEA was going to publicly reveal previously highly classified US intelligence about how far up in the organisation the conspiracy went. The Business Affairs Component, it said, had been “founded by deceased Hezbollah senior leader Imad Mughniyah and currently operates under the control of […] recent US-designated Specially Designated Global Terrorist Adham Tabaja”. Naming Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s most celebrated military commander, represented an unprecedented shift in the US government’s public statements about Hezbollah’s connections to international criminal schemes.

On the evening of the arrests, Kelly and the others from the DEA and the US embassy were invited to a reception at the Ministry of Justice to celebrate their joint success. Kelly was jetlagged, but the atmosphere was electric.

But as they sipped champagne, the feeling inside the room changed. The top French official who had arranged the reception hadn’t turned up. The next morning Kelly got a call from a colleague. They told him the press conference had been called off.

His head began to spin. The whole point of the operation was to issue a joint statement, to show international coordinated action. It was going to be the culmination of his decade of work at the Special Operations Division, the name of the DEA unit Kelly worked in.

At the hotel bar Kelly looked at the television. The French President François Hollande was greeting the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the Élysée Palace. The trip was part of a reset in relations between Iran and the West as a result of the nuclear deal that had been hammered out between Tehran and the United States, France, the UK, Germany, Russia and China. Two weeks earlier, diplomats in Vienna had formally allowed crippling international sanctions on Iran to be lifted.

The Iran nuclear deal had been hailed by both sides as a landmark in diplomacy: Rouhani celebrated what he called “a glorious victory”. For the first time in decades, Iran was going to be reconnected to the global economy.

It dawned on Kelly that the timings of the arrests couldn’t have been worse. While Rouhani was in Paris there was no way the French government would announce a major criminal investigation involving Hezbollah.

There was one bit of good news: the French sensitivity around the Rouhani visit was not going to stop the Americans from making the operation public. Back in Washington, the US Department of the Treasury had been working on sanctions against Noureddine, which would name him as a Hezbollah-connected financier. On January 28  — the same day Rouhani met with French business leaders in Paris and the Airbus deal was inked, and four days after Noureddine had been arrested at Charles de Gaulle airport — the US Treasury put out the announcement.

Both Noureddine, who is sanctioned by the US Treasury, and Al-Atat, were contacted through their lawyers but declined to comment. Al-Atat denied any connection to Hezbollah and his lawyer said his attempts to arrange arms sales to Syria had been legal. The French government later agreed to extradite him to the United States to face charges of providing support for Hezbollah, but Al-Atat left France and his whereabouts are unknown.

After the US Treasury announcement, the DEA then put out its own press release, saying that “working closely with foreign counterparts in France, Germany, Italy and Belgium” it had arrested “top leaders of the European cell of the Lebanese Hezbollah External Security Organisation BAC last week”.

Noureddine, Mazen al-Atat and the other members of the money-laundering cell were now in custody, being questioned by French police and DEA agents. The operation was over.

A bridged extract from Chasing Shadows: A True Story of Drugs, War and the Secret World of International Crime by Miles Johnson, out now (£25, The Bridge Street Press)

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