Hezbollah operatives seen behind spike in drug trafficking, analysts say
At first glance, the shipping trailers that arrived at the Italian port of Salerno appeared to contain only paper, rolled up on giant industrial spools as tall as a man. But when an investigator sliced into one of the rolls with an electric saw, he unleashed an avalanche of little beige pills.
Police found more caches inside other paper rolls, and by the time the search ended on July 1, customs agents had recovered 84 million tablets of the amphetamine Captagon. It was a record haul, worth an estimated $1.1 billion, and even more jarring was the suspect initially named by police as the likely source: the Islamic State.
Yet, within days, suspicions began to shift toward different Middle Eastern groups. Intelligence officials concluded that the drugs did originate in Syria, but in factories located in areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The amphetamines departed Syria from Latakia, a coastal city with dedicated Iranian port facilities, and a known hub for smuggling operations by Tehran’s ally, Hezbollah.
Italian police learned of the shipment because they happened to be monitoring the communications of a local crime family that was supposed to pick up the drugs, the authorities in Italy said.
Whether Hezbollah was directly involved in the Italian shipment is not yet known, but investigators say the episode fits a pattern of recent drug cases in the Middle East and Europe linked to the powerful Lebanese militia. Facing extreme financial pressures because of U.S. sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic and Lebanon’s economic collapse, Hezbollah appears to be growing increasingly reliant on criminal enterprises, including drug smuggling, to finance its operations, U.S. and Middle Eastern analysts said.
Law enforcement officials have linked Hezbollah to a string of major drug seizures, in locations ranging from the empty desert along the Syria-Jordan border to urban centers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to central and southern Europe. Many of the cases involve counterfeit Captagon, a synthetic drug that Hezbollah operatives began manufacturing more than a decade ago and has gained prominence as a moneymaker as the group’s military and financial commitments have expanded, intelligence analysts say.
“They have stepped up the whole business with Captagon. There is no doubt about that,” said a Middle Eastern intelligence official who closely tracks Hezbollah’s illicit enterprises. The analyst, like several other officials interviewed, requested anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence assessments. “The thing is to find any way to bring money into the organization,” the official said, “and Captagon is additional income.”
In addition to last month’s historic Captagon seizure on Italy’s western coast, customs officials in several other U.S.-allied countries have confiscated multi-ton shipments of Captagon in the past year, with Hezbollah operatives identified among the suspects. In February, police in Dubai found more than five tons of Captagon tablets in hidden compartments inside reels of industrial cable. Lesser quantities of the amphetamine, along with other illicit drugs, have been seized in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greece and Jordan.
In June, a report by the European law enforcement agency Europol warned that Hezbollah operatives were believed to be “trafficking diamonds and drugs” and laundering the proceeds, using European countries as a base.
The most recent drug cases suggest a collaboration among a diverse array of actors, including Syrian business executives with ties to the Assad government as well as organized crime families, U.S. and Middle Eastern officials said. Coordinating the logistics — and sharing the profits — are operatives from Hezbollah, with support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the officials said. Both Shiite groups have shown a growing willingness to work with partners normally regarded as enemies, including even criminal affiliates of Sunni extremist groups such as the Islamic State.