In aggressively pursuing crime as a source of revenue, Hezbollah has created a model which other groups are liable to copy, creating further regional destabilisation. The UK can help combat this by promoting greater global financial controls and supporting a crackdown on suspected criminal revenue streams.
Hezbollah emerged in the 1980s from a critical mass of social and political unrest in Lebanon. Shi’ites in Lebanon were disenfranchised by dismal economic prospects, and inspired by the Iranian revolution. The exporting of revolutionary ideals by Iran in the 80s and the revolutionary bent of Hezbollah allowed for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to effectively militarise Hezbollah. The IRGC reportedly sent 1,500 advisors, who transferred operational experience in small unit tactics and warfare from the ongoing Iran-Iraq War to the nascent Hezbollah. This culminated in catastrophic attacks on French and US forces in Lebanon in 1983.
As an organisation, Hezbollah grew rapidly through the favouritism shown to them by Syria in the 80s during their occupation of Lebanon. The Lebanese civil war and Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon provided them with opportunities for legitimation through anti-Israeli operations. However, Hezbollah’s provision of social services, reconstruction efforts, and need for advanced weapons forced the organisation to aggressively pursue crime as a form of income. Today, this drive has created a large criminal network operating across the globe.
Hezbollah has developed an international criminal operation which profits from what Europol describes as the “use of legal business structures, cross-border opportunities, identity theft, document forgery and violence”. Their ongoing operations in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil raises tens of millions of dollars annually. As a testament to Hezbollah’s global footprint in illicit drug trafficking, operations have been uncovered in Germany, Poland, Romania, the US and Canada, to name but a few. This expertise has also been transposed into different areas, such as human trafficking, arms trafficking, counterfeit currency operations, and ‘blood diamond’ exports. While it is difficult to calculate revenue from these activities exactly, the proceeds are estimated to run in the millions of dollars.
This has allowed the group to gain some independence from Iran. While Iran remains the key supplier of Hezbollah’s vast missile arsenal, they have diversified their income, covering multiple criminal trades across the globe. Iranian support remains significant. Iran provides complex weapon systems, training, and as much as US$200 million annually. However, the relationship has matured into one of near equals, with Hezbollah providing key forces in Syria and intelligence operatives to support the IRGC Quds Force. Looking to the future, Iran’s co-operation with Hezbollah is only going to grow as tensions with Israel increase and the Syrian Civil War moves to a close.
Hezbollah, then, provides a viable blueprint for non-state actors in today’s globalised world. Hezbollah has demonstrated the benefits of involvement in international crime. This is not just the case financially, but also in developing organisational experience and capability which can be easily harnessed for violent ends. Many violent groups operate in areas with weak states or complicit governments, and within communities that are pliable to the benefits of organised crime.
This is especially true for other Shi’ite groups which receive Iranian support; the Houthis in Yemen and the Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria. The Houthi’s proximity to the horn of Africa provides access to a variety of criminal enterprises for groups in search of income. Potential criminal activities overlap with Hezbollah, with opportunities in human trafficking, the drug trade and more. This may be less true with Shi’ite militias in Iraq, whose range of possible ventures are limited by potential blowback of criminality for Iran given their geographical proximity.
The potential for non-state actors and violent groups across the world to follow the ‘model’ of Hezbollah is a concern which merits greater focus from British policymakers, especially as the UK pushes its post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ agenda. With a major financial centre and strong diplomatic and intelligence capabilities, the UK is well positioned to take up a leading role in combating violent groups that adopt the ‘Hezbollah model’.
The British government should expand its scope from an initial crackdown on illicit Russian money to examining the financial channels from criminal networks associated with violent groups. Disrupting the illicit financial practices of violent groups can serve not only to promote global stability, but also to highlight the UK as a key player in the nexus between organised crime and terrorism.
Jack Sargent is pursuing a Masters in the History of International Relations at the LSE, with a particular interest in non-state actors in the Middle East.