Hezbollah's Procurement Channels: Leveraging Criminal Networks and Partnering with Iran

March 1, 2019

Weapon Program: 

  • Military

Author: 

Matthew Levitt

Publication: 

Combating Terrorism Center at West Point - Sentinel

Hezbollah has long prioritized its weapons and technical procurement efforts, but with the group’s heavy deployment in the war in Syria, its procurement officers have taken on even greater prominence within the organization. Today, in the context of the war in Syria, some of Hezbollah’s most significant procurement agents have teamed up with Iran’s Quds Force to develop integrated and efficient weapons procurement and logistics pipelines that can be leveraged to vastly expand Hezbollah’s weapons procurement capabilities.

The latest sign of how closely Quds Force and Hezbollah procurement officers now work together came to light when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Tehran for surprise meetings with President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on February 25, 2019. For the purpose of operational security, Assad’s visit reportedly dispensed with traditional protocols. The Iranian President was only informed of Assad’s visit shortly before he arrived, and Iran’s Foreign Minister was neither informed nor included in the meetings. Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani reportedly oversaw the security protocols for the visit himself and flew with Assad on the plane to Tehran. And the person Soleimani chose to accompany him to these meetings and serve as a notetaker was Mohammad Qasir, the head of Hezbollah’s Unit 108—the unit “responsible for facilitating the transfer of weapons, technology and other support from Syria to Lebanon,” according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

Based in Damascus, Qasir and other senior Hezbollah officials work closely with officers from Quds Force’s Unit 190—which specializes in smuggling weapons to Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza—under the supervision of Qassem Soleimani. This smuggling operation is significant in its own right, but it could also be used to assist Hezbollah’s own longstanding procurement efforts around the world, which are often intimately intertwined with the group’s transnational organized criminal networks raising funds through criminal enterprises.

Recent events underscored the scope and scale of these efforts. In November 2018, a Paris court found Mohammad Noureddine and several of his associates guilty of drug trafficking, money laundering, and engaging in a criminal conspiracy to finance Hezbollah. The result of an international joint investigation involving seven countries, the conviction marked the first time a European court specifically found defendants guilty of conspiracy to support Hezbollah. But it was telling for another reason, too: authorities revealed that at least some of the proceeds of these Hezbollah drug and money laundering schemes were “used to purchase weapons for Hizballah for its activities in Syria.”

The weapons connection likely raised some eyebrows among analysts and investigators, given the very high levels of state sponsorship and support Iran provides to Hezbollah. But despite that support, Hezbollah, as also detailed in this article, has an established track record of procuring and smuggling weapons through its own channels, parallel to the weapons regularly funneled to the group by Iran. Hezbollah weapons procurement agents oversee this program, though they often rely on criminal facilitators—weapons dealers, smugglers, money launderers, and more—who are uniquely situated to provide the kinds of services necessary to purchase weapons on the black market and deliver them to Hezbollah in Lebanon. These relationships often first develop through criminal financial and money-laundering schemes that broaden out over time to include weapons deals. And then there are other types of procurement activities focused not on weapons themselves but on dual-use items with military applications like computer programs, laser range finders, night-vision goggles, and more.

This article details how now, in the context of the war in Syria, some of Hezbollah’s most significant procurement agents—such as Muhammad Qasir—have teamed up with Iran’s Quds Force to develop integrated and efficient weapons procurement and logistics pipelines through Syria and into Lebanon that can be leveraged to greatly expand Hezbollah’s international weapons procurement capabilities. The Syrian war elevated the importance of such efforts, which quickly increased in scale and scope. As Assad gains control over more of Syria, Hezbollah and the Quds Force will be well placed to leverage their position in Syria along with their newly refined procurement and smuggling pipelines through various channels to secure and send weapons and sensitive technologies back to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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Read the full report at the Combating Terrorism Center