- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2018

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has created a team to focus on drug trafficking and other crimes by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant organization in Lebanon.

Dubbed the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team, it includes prosecutors and investigators experienced in narcotics, trafficking, terrorism, organized crime and money laundering cases. The HFNT also will target individuals and networks providing support to Hezbollah.

The Department of Justice’s Criminal Division will run the HFNT, but it will work with prosecutors from the department’s National Security Division and U.S. Attorneys’ offices as well as other law enforcement agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

Some say the HFNT could be an indirect way to strike at Iran. The U.S. views Hezbollah as a proxy for the country.

“I don’t know if the intention is to go after Iran, but that could be the outcome,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a foreign policy think tank.

Hezbollah was formed in 1985 as an Iranian effort to oppose Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon during that country’s civil war. It was among the first groups to be listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department.

If the HFNT is able to disrupt some of Hezbollah’s operations, that could ultimately hurt Iran, which the U.S. has classified a state sponsor of terrorism.

A December report in Politico alleged the Obama administration has thwarted DEA efforts to target Hezbollah’s U.S. drug operations for fear of endangering the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, evidence that Tehran has a vested interest in the terrorist organization.

“By going after Hezbollah globally you can kill many birds with one stone,” Mr. Ottolenghi said. “You are going after a criminal enterprise that is bringing drugs into the United States, and you can push back against Iran’s efforts to cripple peace in the Middle East.”

President Trump has taken a decidedly tougher stance toward Hezbollah since assuming office. However, given time some of those efforts have required, it is not clear if he has made the organization a priority or is completing the process started under the Obama administration.

“Some of these things take a long time to happen and may have come up just as the Trump administration took over,” said Matthew Levitt, chairman of the counterterrorism and intelligence program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In February, the Trump administration slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s new vice president, Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of being an international drug kingpin. Venezuelan opposition groups have long accused Mr. El Aissami of participating in drug trafficking and supporting Hezbollah.

The next month, U.S. law enforcement officials arrested Kassim Tajideen, a prominent financial supporter of Hezbollah. He was charged with evading U.S. sanctions imposed on him because of his financial support of Hezbollah.

HFNT’s creation is largely seen as a response to the Politico report.

“This didn’t happen in a vacuum,” Mr. Levitt said. “This would not have happened without the Politico story.”

The report angered Mr. Trump and Republican lawmakers, who have demanded investigations into the Justice, Treasury and State departments.

But former Obama administration officials have denied the story. One official, former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, calling it “a figment of the imagination of two very flawed sources.”

One of the Obama administration’s harshest critics, Sen. Ben Sasse, Republican Nebraska, pressed the Justice, Treasury and State departments for answers about their dealings with Hezbollah. He welcomed the new task force.

“This is National Security 101: Washington should be hunting down terrorists who fund global violence with domestic drug money,” Mr. Sasse said.

Mr. Sessions said the HFNT’s first goal will be to review evidence from one of the DEA programs detailed in the Politico story, known as Operation Cassandra. After the story hit, Mr. Sessions had promised a review of that operation.

“The Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats to our citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating drug crisis,” Mr. Sessions said in a statement announcing HFNT.

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at jmordock@washingtontimes.com.

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