“Moi, c’est Monsieur X.” The man before us at the table is already on his third cigarette before he speaks his first words.
We are on the patio of a bar in Abidjan, the economic capital of the Ivory Coast and one of the most important port cities in West Africa. For security reasons, we cannot indicate when the interview took place.
Our source is a Shia Muslim, an Ivorian of Lebanese origin who, after much hesitation, wants to tell us about the role of his community in the cocaine traffic throughout the port.
The information he is going to give us, he says, could cost him his life. He wants complete anonymity and asks three times how we can guarantee it.
“You see, I live among them. I have a family. They can easily get to me.”
We came here to investigate Highway 10, the cocaine route from South America to Europe, via West African ports.
Abidjan, the port city where we are located, appears for the first time in an investigation by the Italian investigative journalistic collective, IRPI. They traced a shipment of cocaine back from Antwerp to here. At the end of March this year, the French navy intercepted six tons of cocaine destined for Abidjan on the open sea, according to information from the Dutch police.
The UN Security Council already sounded the alarm a few years ago: drugs threaten to destabilise the African continent and endanger development goals. The Security Council’s thematic session was presided over by Ivory Coast.
In Abidjan the Italian ‘Ndrangetha and Camorra mafias are present, but our source wants to tell us about an important, indispensable third player in illicit drug trafficking.
After some effort and hesitation, he takes off and immediately gives us a detailed insight.
“The drugs come in via the port, the money goes out via the airport. Seventy per cent of the drug traffic here is in Lebanese hands. The rest is divided among Brazilians, Nigerians and Italians.
“Suppose I am a Lebanese trader and I earn money from illegal activities such as the import and export of weapons and drugs. I am paid in cash for my services because no one wants the money to be traceable.
“Some of it has to be returned to Lebanon, possibly to a commissioning party, but using the international banking system is too risky. I will pay someone here the money in cash and they will order someone in Lebanon to pay the same amount to the right person.
“In Abidjan, three people provide these operations. They have ten employees and demand a five per cent payment. Those five per centare then laundered by investing in supermarkets, restaurants, buying up large areas and erecting new buildings.
“Most apartment buildings that you can see in Zone 4 in Marcory (see below) have been built with that money. Ten years ago there was nothing in that place. Now there are skyscrapers. The government does not control where the money you use to build new buildings comes from, unlike in Europe.”
According to our source, the money laundering system then enters a second phase.
“The apartments are supposedly rented out, but the official residents are often children under eighteen. Every month the equivalent of the rent is put in the bank and thus crime money is brought into the formal economic system.”
Some of the money still has to be returned to Lebanon in cash.
Our source referenced Hachem Ahmad, a 20-year-old Lebanese with a French passport, who was arrested at Abidjan airport on May 31, 2019. The police found 4.5 million euros in cash in his suitcase. Ahmad was on his way to Beirut.
“A modus operandi that is often used,” says the man before us. “Those who arrange the money transport approach poor, unemployed Lebanese youth of barely twenty years old. They propose a trip to Lebanon with their suitcase. He gets $ 20,000 for that.”
“His family will receive $100,000.00. He must not know what is in the suitcase. After that, the aviation authorities are informed, who know which man to let pass. The youngster will receive a three-year prison sentence, but will often be released after a few months. Judge is part of the plot,” he claimed.
Money laundering on a large scale
Does the man know about the recipients of the cocaine shipments leaving the port?
“To my knowledge, Greeks, Italians, Belgians,” he says, and immediately afterwards turns the tables. He now asks the questions: “Are you Jewish? Why don’t you ask me about the role Hezbollah plays in all of this? ”
From the account that follows, Hezbollah appears to be the missing link in the story we have just been told.
According to our source, Hezbollah is financing busing services to the various mafias that use the port. Both in facilitating cocaine traffic and in providing money-laundering services. All this results in an organised money laundering operation on a large scale.
“I know of twenty Lebanese-owned companies who, employed by Hezbollah, register the crime money in their accounts. The organisation injects dirty money into the formal economy and then asks for donations. This happens in car sales, import-export, real estate. And it doesn’t just happen here: also in Togo, Benin and Nigeria.”
The reason our source is so loose-lipped?
“Anyone who is not a member of Hezbollah can forget it. You have no chance of getting a job. Within the Shia community, there is a division between who is and who is not a member. I don’t exist. We don’t exist. Just like in Lebanon. In the meantime, they go make their prayers to make millions and millions afterwards.”
The man promises to send us a list of people who are part of the network of drug trafficking and money laundering operations at the end of the meeting. We didn’t hear from him anymore.
As a precaution, he refused to give us his contact details. So it is possible Monsieur X completely made up his testimony. It is also possible that he gave this testimony out of personal frustration or resentment.
Marcory Zone 4
However, the findings from our investigation corroborate most of what he told us.
First, there is the arrest of Hachem Ahmad, the eighteen-year-old with a suitcase worth 4.5 million euros.
A source close to the Ivorian police confirmed to us in June 2020 that Ahmad was indeed allowed to leave prison after a few months. Other sources had already tipped us off to take a look at Zone 4 in Marcory, the part of Abidjan where most Lebanese live, nicknamed “Little Beirut”.
A gilded mosque is Seagate to Marcory. Zone 4 is located on one side of the Boulevard Giscard D’Estaing, where the brothels and strip clubs are, and the very edge of an island in the tropical lagoon of Abidjan on the other side.
In August 2019, we counted 35 new buildings and 32 construction sites. When attempting to get out of the car with the camera around our neck, we were immediately surrounded by private security preventing us from taking photos.
We did a second count in May 2021. Seven new buildings were completed and 19 construction sites were added. Zone 4 was merely an area of four square kilometres where before 2004 no building was allowed to go higher than two floors due to the instability of the soil. All the buildings we count have seven to 20 floors. Some have “à louer”, which means “for rent” written in large letters, most of them are empty.
Is this hard evidence for large-scale money laundering operations? No, but the red flag was taken seriously by international crime and money laundering monitoring institutes.
For instance, the imam of the golden mosque of Marcory was put on the US sanctions list in 2009 for supporting Hezbollah.
Last September, a Lebanese construction company with operations in Abidjan was put on the same sanctions list.
The construction company had been commissioned by the Ivorian Islamic cultural association Ghadir, which in addition to a school network, runs a scout in Marcory. Besides the Lebanese and Ivorian flags, the uniforms of the scout leaders show a print of Imam Khomeini, according to documentation gathered and published by Israeli intelligence services.
Tehran, Rotterdam, Antwerp
There is, therefore, no doubt that Hezbollah is present in the economic capital of the Ivory Coast.
The fact that the organisation finances itself through its facilitation in drug trafficking is nothing new in the world of international crime monitoring. In the period before 2010, Interpol and the UN already wrote in several reports that the proceeds from cocaine transported to Europe via West Africa make up a substantial part of the funding of Hezbollah.
In June 2019, just before the start of this investigation, the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy in Israel went even further.
Based on information about recent police operations in Europe, the institute made a direct link to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, or at least that part of the Guard that takes care of Iran’s foreign military operations.
The members of Hezbollah operating on European soil receive their orders from Hezbollah’s envoy in Tehran. At the time of Abba Eban’s investigation, that envoy was responsible for Hezbollah’s foreign operations, in close cooperation and dialogue with Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general and popular hero who was killed in a U.S. air raid in Baghdad in early 2020.
Abba Eban estimates that one fifth to one-fourth of the proceeds from drug trafficking along the West African route ended up in the hands of Hezbollah. With that money, Hezbollah is armed, the wages of fighters are paid for the families of the dead, for example in the Syrian civil war where Hezbollah fights on the side of Assad.
From Tehran, through Hezbollah’s operations in West Africa, the arrow goes straight to European ports. Although these are strongly highlighted, Abba Eban lacks hard evidence of Hezbollah activity in Antwerp, Rotterdam or Hamburg.
We found no one in the Belgian or Dutch judiciary or police who wanted to confirm Hezbollah activities in these ports. The Abba Eban Institute did not respond to our requests for an interview.
Only a few traces can be found in the crime reporting of the past ten years.
In May 2011, Lebanese Zakaria Koleilat was arrested in Belgium, who, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), had made preparations to set up a drug line between Colombia and Benin.
His brother, Ali Koleilat, also arrested and handed over to the U.S., was behind a failed drug transport from the Dominican Republic to the business airport of Deurne near Antwerp. Ali maintains ties with Hezbollah, according to the U.S., although this has never been confirmed.
Crime journalists for De Telegraaf newspaper wrote in the autumn of last year that the Dutch judiciary suspected that top criminal Ridouan Taghi, known as the leader of the most dangerous drug cartel in Europe and Africa, was protected by the Iranian state during his stay in Iran and Dubai. just before his arrest. That protection would have come after mediation by Hezbollah. There is no certainty about this yet.
Hard evidence can be found just a little further back in time.
In May 2008, German customs found approximately 8.7 million euros in cash in the luggage of four Lebanese at Frankfurt airport. The money contained traces of cocaine and fingerprints of a Dutchman codenamed Carlos.
German weekly Der Spiegel, cited by sources in the police investigation, wrote that the two alleged money sent to relatives were the direct link at the top of Hezbollah, including Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.
Hezbollah is not the first, certainly not the only political or military actor to finance itself with the help of drug money.
The Marxist FARC in Colombia, the French state in Indochina, and according to a growing number of researchers the CIA in Nicaragua, to name just three in a long list, preceded the Lebanese organisation. Drugs, and especially their proceeds, have played an important role since the birth of international drug traffic.
That is no different in the case of Hezbollah, as a recent incident in the White House shows. The DEA’s Project Cassandra aimed to curb the legal financing of Hezbollah.
It started in 2008 but was shut down by the Obama administration in 2016, according to White House and DEA sources over concerns that the project would displease Iran and jeopardise the nuclear deal. An article that Politico published on this in 2017 was dismissed by Obama administration functionaries as based on “biased sources and conjecture”.
One of the most well known and infamous chapters of Project Cassandra took place in Benin, a vertical strip of land in between Togo and Nigeria.
Over some time USD, 200-300 million would arrive in the country in the form of second-hand cars every month. The cars hailed from a network of 300 used car dealers in the US employed by Hezbollah.
The drug money was laundered for the feared Mexican cartel Los Zetas, which had released tons of cocaine onto the US market. A Lebanese businessman in Medellin had offered the Mexicans money laundering services from Hezbollah in the form of second-hand cars.
After the cars had been sold in Benin, the money went via cash couriers in cash and via bank transfers to Lebanon, from where it left for the Americas.
At the beginning of this year, our team was in Porto-Novo, the capital of Benin, just in time to attend the festive appointment of the new attorney of the Court for the Fight against Financial Crime and Terrorism.
The Court was erected in 2018, following international pressure and several scandals, including one showing particularly close links between the former president and a Lebanese holding active in the sale of cars and household appliances.
The director of the holding was extradited to the U.S. in 2011 on charges of supporting Hezbollah, after intense pressure.
Will the new Court succeed in making a stand against money laundering? It’s questionable.
The African Human Rights Court has repeatedly criticised Benin for the fact that since the start of its existence, the new instrument has been chasing opponents of the regime.
For example, a 47-year-old popular female politician is currently behind bars after a terrorism conviction. A magistrate who said in an interview that the Court’s decision had come under pressure from the regime, had to flee the country.
The booming sale of second-hand cars has now come to an end, but that is due to a decision by neighbouring Nigeria, which introduced an import ban in early 2017.
A change in the exchange rate against the Nigerian currency also thwarted the car business, local sources from the car dealer circuit say. It even caused a minor exodus of the Lebanese community to neighbouring countries. The remaining Lebanese car dealers we approached in Cotonou are silent or hostile.
“I had always seen car sales as a solution to the massive unemployment among Lebanese youth,” says Etienne Houessou, a veteran crime journalist from Cotonou. “The Lebanese who stayed after the ban started running casinos. Young people are still being arrested today at Cotonou airport with suitcases full of cash on their way to Beirut. Not one of them has ever been prosecuted to my knowledge.”
Until now, we mainly relied on the reports of the international crime prevention team to gain certainty about the role of Hezbollah in drug trafficking.
However, they take little account of nuances, shades, a political agenda and the broader African context. That happens when you look through the lens of security and self-defence
Two nuances are in order: Hezbollah does not equal the entire Lebanese diaspora and even if it is proven that Hezbollah is active in drug trafficking, this may have more to do with a network of individuals than with the entire movement.
We return to the starting point: Abidjan in Ivory Coast.
The historical role of the Lebanese community here has always been to be a middleman between the French coloniser and the native people, the middlemen who kept the French from becoming “Africanised” or “wild”, according to the ideas of colonisation.
Studies passed on to us by French anthropologists show this. At the same time, the discrimination and stigma against the Lebanese community in Africa have always fed fears of persecution, causing the Lebanese community to draw close to power and make payments to politicians for their protection and business benefits.
Combined with a context of weak institutions, extreme poverty, the majority of the population employed in the informal economy and abysmal corruption, this creates a perfect opportunity for those who enjoy political protection and at the same time can use a lot of money.
Not only Hezbollah, but also the Italian mafia in Africa, and a growing number of African leaders, presidents and ministers have been mentioned as pivotal figures in the international cocaine trade in recent years.
“You should never forget who allows this to happen, without whom all this would not be possible: the local regimes, the African political elite who share the profits in return,” says a human rights activist in Abidjan, under strict conditions of anonymity. “It’s a collaboration, a symbiosis, in which the Lebanese very often play the role of scapegoats and take the blows of local politicians hiding behind them.”
This project was made possible by The Money Trail.
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