ATbar Arrest of Hizballah Supporters in the U.S. - Successful anti-terrorist action?

Arrest of Hizballah Supporters in the U.S.A - Successful anti-terrorist action?

29/08/2000 | by Kritzman, Tally  


On July 21st 2000, U.S. federal agents arrested 18 alleged supporters of the Lebanese Hizballah. The arrested were suspected of being part of a ring that raised and sent funds and military equipment to Hizballah in Lebanon, through illegal means.

At this point it remains unclear whether the ring was formed as a private initiative of its members or at the behest of the Hizballah leaders. The extent of the organizations’ actions in the U.S. is also still unknown. However, it’s seems likely that either at their own initiative or by direct request, some Islamist groups are exploiting “The Land of Unlimited Opportunity” as a base for gathering support (moral, financial and military), despite the traditional Shi’ite hatred of the West and the U.S.

The incident is an example of how terrorist organizations raise funds through supporters abroad. In this case, it seems that an investigation into the ring’s activitities would have been impossible had it used legal fund-raising methods. This is despite the fact that the U.S. legislated an anti-terrorism act in 1996 that forbade contributing money to any of the organizations listed as involved in terrorism. In fact, the anti-terrorism act has only been enforced once so far. The problem is the need to demonstrate causal relationships, entailing as it does tracking down the sources and final destination of the funds. The difficulties in finding direct evidence must first be overcome in order to push through a penal indictment.

Modus operandi

The Hizballah made effective use of the constitutionally protected freedom of occupation and assembly in the United States to gathered money in semi-legal and illegal ways. Headed by 26 year-old Mohammad Youssef Hammoud, some of its members evaded immigration laws through false marriages. Initially, luck was on the ring members’ side, as some of them gained American citizenship due to delays and mistakes on the part of immigration authorities.

The ring bought cigarettes in North Carolina and smuggled them to Michigan, selling them there to the local Arab community and gaining profits from the tax differences. The money was “laundered” through investments in the group’s assets, and, as FBI experts suspect, was afterwards transferred, along with donations gathered by the group, to the Lebanese Hizballah. No estimate is available of the groups’ profits or the amount transferred to Lebanon. According to Canadian Intelligence (CSIS) sources, some of the profits were used to purchase military equipment, including night-vision goggles, and other electronic paraphernalia.

There is also evidence that the group maintained active spiritual connections between local Moslems, with whom they met regularly, and the Hizballah organization via the Hizballah Internet site.

There is no evidence of a plan to carry out terrorist activities, though one investigative source cited the general willingness of the group leader’s (a trained militant) to conduct such acts, should he be instructed to.

The cigarette smuggling modus operandi should be regarded solely as an example, as many others fund-raising methods could be used. Any sufficiently sophisticated money laundering mechanism would make it far more difficult to track down the sources and recipients of the money, and to lay hands on those responsible for transferring the money to terrorist activity.

The current legal status of the detainees

Most of the group’s members were released on bail, and two were placed under a 24 hour house arrest. All except four pleaded innocent, with the rest requesting a trial by jury. Those who confessed to the immigration offenses have not addmitted any linkage to terrorism. The maximum punishment of each of them is between 6 months and 40 years.

None of the ring’s alleged members are accused of any terrorism-related activities; all are solely accused of domestic penal offences, such as smuggling, illegal immigration and money laundering. However, as the 3 year-old investigation continues it may be possible to find the legal basis such an accusation in the near future.

It should be noted that the U.S. forbids any financial aid to terrorist organizations, not merely the funding of actual terrorist activities. The offense of funding a terrorist organization carries a maximum of 10 years punishment. Islamic-American leaders and human rights activists argue that this should be declared unconstitutional, for it contradicts with the first amendment’s right of association; one should be able to donate to any cause one supports. Officials claim that the financial aid—even if earmarked for an organization’s social activities—increases the terrorist organization’s total budget, allowing it to dedicate more resources to military purposes. Legally speaking, by making any financial aid to terrorist groups illegal, the anti-terrorism bill reduces the state’s need to track down the exact use of the money, making it far easier to establish the causal relation necessary for a conviction. This law, too, can be evaded through money transference to an organization that is not listed as a terrorist group.

Responses to the arrests

Hizballah immediately issued a statement denying any connection to the smuggling ring. Hizballah senior activist Naim Kassem denied having any organized group outside of Lebanon. He claimed the U.S. could not arrest people for their support of Hizballah. Yet, he stressed that though the organization opposed U.S. foreign policy, it intends to maintain actions on the declarative-political level, and therefore posses no threat to the U.S. It should be mentioned that in the past the organization attacked U.S. navy targets in Lebanon.

Other Hizballah activists stated that Hizballah managed with donations granted by the people of Lebanon and other Arab countries. According to Abdallah Kasir, many immigrants donate money to the organization, but in an unorganized manner. Hizballah’s name was connected to this episode, according to these officials, due to the U.S. desire to cut back the Israeli humiliation in withdrawing from Southern Lebanon, and reflected a continuation of the American’s hostile policies towards the organization.

Iran, which is infamous for supporting Hizballah financially and militarily, claimed the U.S. published the reports regarding the arrests “in order to please the Zionist regime.” The local Arab community in the U.S. was furious with the way the arrests were presented to the public. They claimed that the criminal involvement was presented as terrorism-oriented without sufficient evidence, therefore re-enforcing a negative stereotype of Arabs and Muslims in the public eye. According to activists in the Arab-American community, the issue reflected prejudice against Lebanese Arabs on the part of the authorities.

A future prospective

Hizballah, “The Party of God,” is a Shi’ite Lebanese organization established after the 1982 “Peace for Galilee” operation. It has carried out hundreds of attacks, including terrorist attacks against Israeli and Jewish civilian targets. Though Hizballah’s annual budget was estimated to be around 50-100 million US dollars, received mostly from Iran (both for its social-political affairs as well as for its military needs), the organization does not waste any opportunity to enlarge its resources. Hizballah is reported to collect donations in South America through illegal means. If these allegations are, in fact, correct, it points to a bold and dangerously pragmatic approach on the part of the organization, in that it will make use of all possible methods to raise funds. This policy continues even now, after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon, which decreased the legitimacy of the organization’s military operations.

It should be noted that other anti-Israeli and anti-Western Islamist organizations are known to raise funds in the U.S., including the Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In this specific case, chance and the alertness of local policemeplayed a role in the prevention of more funds being transferred. However, the case of the North Carolina cigarette ring should serve as a wake-up call for other countries to enforce anti-terrorism acts to prevent transferring money to terrorist organizations, whether gathered by legal or illegal ways.