Prosecutors in the United States have filed a civil suit against three Lebanese-based companies which they claim laundered drug-related money in the U.S. for Hezbollah, the Shia Muslim militant group designated as terrorists by Washington.
According to the suit, in a highly intricate scheme, more than $300-million was laundered by the now-defunct Lebanese-Canadian Bank and two money-exchange firms (the Hassan Ayash Exchange Co. and Ellissa Holding) in the second-hand auto market in the States. The cash was then allegedly used to purchase and ship cars to West Africa. Subsequently, the cash proceeds from these car sales were smuggled to Lebanon.
South American and Mexican drug cartels were also reportedly involved in this spider web of a conspiracy.
Substantial portions of the cash were paid to Hezbollah, said the U.S. Attorney's Office in a statement.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency forced the shutdown of the Lebanese-Canadian Bank after a six-year probe revealed that the bank was mixing in money generated by drug trafficking with cash generated by legitimate sales of used cars to Africa. According to the New York Times, man named Ayman Joumaa, who is believed to be at the center of this drug-cash-car conspiracy, was indicted in Virginia on Tuesday, However, his whereabouts are unknown.
Prosecutors in Manhattan, where the suit was filed, are seeking damages totaling $480-million from the three Hezbollah-linked firms. They also want to freeze and confiscate the assets of the three companies, as well as those of more than 30 U.S. companies which allegedly assisted with the laundering and vehicle sales.
“We are putting a stranglehold on a major source of that funding by disrupting a vast and far-flung network that spanned three continents,” said U.S. attorney Preet Bharara. “[This scheme revealed the] deviously creative ways that terrorist organizations are funding themselves and moving their money, and it puts into stark relief the nexus between narcotics trafficking and terrorism.
Hezbollah, which has denied the charges as US propaganda, is a pre-eminent military and political force in Lebanon.