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Hezbollah drug trafficking should spur Trump to appoint DEA head


President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national health emergency, but has yet to appoint a new Drug Enforcement Administration administrator to confront it.

The new DEA administrator should have a clear vision for addressing the international dimension of the drug crisis, as well as the wreckage at home. In particular, the president should choose a DEA chief who not only understands the complex and global nature of drug cartels but is also cognizant of the growing convergence between transnational organized crime and terrorist groups like Hezbollah.

On that front, the first item on the new chief’s agenda should be to remove the handcuffs the Obama administration put on the DEA’s efforts to fight Hezbollah, for fear of scuttling the nascent Iran nuclear deal.

{mosads}In the past decade, Hezbollah’s growing involvement in transnational organized crime has evolved into a multi-billion dollar global enterprise endorsed and coordinated by the group’s top leaders. Hezbollah’s involvement in producing and selling counterfeit medicines such as Captagon — a powerful amphetamine — is well documented and so is its growing involvement in cocaine trafficking.

Cocaine consumption has not reached the pandemic levels of the opioid crisis but is nonetheless an acute and growing threat. The use and availability of cocaine is on the rise; overdose deaths in 2015 were the highest since 2007. Less well understood are the close ties between cocaine trafficking and terrorism. One clear illustration is the recent extradition, from Paraguay to Miami, of suspected Hezbollah drug trafficker Ali Chamas. Court documents show that he was part of a larger network, likely based in Colombia. At the time of his arrest, he was conspiring to export as many as 100 kilos of cocaine a month to the U.S by air cargo.

For years, the DEA led the battle against Hezbollah’s drug trafficking through Project Cassandra, a decade-long operation run by the DEA through the Special Operations Division, a multi-agency coordination center that enables stakeholders from the law enforcement and intelligence communities to share information and cooperate more effectively.

Project Cassandra had some remarkable achievements, including the Lebanese-Canadian Bank investigation, which shut down the bank and led to the 2011 indictment of Hezbollah kingpin Ayman Joumaa, a Lebanese-Colombian dual national who laundered money for Mexican and Colombian cartels to the tune of $200 million a month. A DEA official discussing the case said that Hezbollah operated like “the Gambinos on steroids.”

He was right — in early 2016, Project Cassandra took another network down. In a joint operation with European agencies, the DEA disrupted a Hezbollah operation that was using revenues from cocaine sales in Europe to fund arms purchases for its fighters in Syria.

Project Cassandra’s success proved its undoing — as the Obama administration was busy negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, going after Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, became increasingly impolitic. Project Cassandra was shut down, its team scattered to unrelated assignments. The agency’s strategy against Hezbollah was left in disarray.

It is time for the Trump administration to reverse that. Project Cassandra should be revived and resourced, because the narco-terrorist threat did not go away — if anything it became more sinister.

Last June, two Lebanese-Americans were arrested for surveilling potential targets for terrorist attacks against the U.S. and Israel. The targets included JFK airport and the Panama Canal. Drugs, meanwhile, continue to flow into the United States, while a leadership void and the neglect of the Obama years continue to weaken the DEA.

That’s why the Trump administration should urgently appoint a new DEA administrator. It should be a strong candidate who has the vision and experience necessary to go after criminal terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and also has the skills to coordinate government agencies, navigate bureaucracy, and build friendships and alliances abroad in order to pursue international investigations.

Likewise, a new administrator should be given the necessary authorities and resources to revive structures such as Project Cassandra or create other specialized units that could work with sanctioning entities and allied governments abroad to build a comprehensive U.S.-led approach to dismantling Hezbollah’s global network.

Hezbollah poses a formidable threat both to U.S. national security and to the countless Americans who consume its drugs or have seen their loved ones succumb to addiction. Without further delay, America needs to put equally formidable people in charge of combating this enemy.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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