Opinion

Power Without Responsibility — Kassem Hejeij And Hezbollah’s Illicit Financial Network

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to make it clearer to readers that Kassem Hejeij, not Mohsen Hejeij, had retained public relation firms through MEAB.

“I have the Americans in my pocket and I can buy Washington.”

These are not the words of a man accustomed to operating above the board. They were spoken by Kassem Hejeij, according to a Lebanese government source who wished to remain anonymous for his own safety. Hejeij is an erstwhile pillar of the Lebanese banking establishment, and was chairman of the Lebanon-based Middle East & Africa Bank (MEAB) until June 2015Announced in a defensively worded memo that was quick to distance the bank from its former head honcho, this was no simple change of staff: it was a panic attack.

In the summer of 2015, the US Department of the Treasury targeted a key Hezbollah support network by sanctioning three of the group’s facilitators in Lebanon. Two of the men were known members of HezbollaOne was an active member of Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad unit, the section responsible for carrying out the group’s overseas terrorist activities. The third was none other than Kassem Hejeij.

Apart from the sanctions against him and the blow to his reputation however, Hejeij does not appear to have suffered too badly from his exposure as a cog in Hezbollahs clandestine global criminal enterprise. 

Sure, he resigned as chairman of MEAB, but he has been quick to assert that he has lost no control, whether he was pushed or he fell, saying, “After all turning the bank over to Ali changes nothing because me and my son are one and he is following my orders.” –  Ali Hejeij is the son of Kassem, who now holds his father’s former position as Chairman of the Middle East and Africa Bank. The sanctions against him mean that he has been added to the American counter-terrorist Specially Designated Nationals List, which prohibits US businesses and nationals from doing business with him and blocks his assets. But there are plenty of Russian, Chinese, African and Arab investors who are willing to do business in Lebanon. Business in Lebanon, sure, but that doesnt necessarily mean business with sanctioned people even assuming that the post-9/11 cutting of correspondent links by international banks to Arabs accused of links to terrorist groups has caused MEAB any business problems.

Hejeij’s brother, Mohsen Hejeij, has long since acted as a go-between for these proscribed groups, connecting them with US lawyers and lobbyists willing to represent Treasury sanctioned individuals. He boasts, in fact, that he never has to worry about business. When pressed by the source, Kassem Hejeij revealed that he has DC-based lobby firm BGR Group, and Squire Patton Boggs, a prominent Washington law firm, at his fingertipsBeing blacklisted from Washington has not stopped Kassem from buying the city, evidently. 

Hejeij has long protested his innocence. But, rewind the tape back to October 2014. A Beiruti company called Stars Group Holdings was placed under sanction by the Treasury. The charge: was that Hezbollah was using Stars Group Holdings as a front to “covertly purchase sophisticated electronics and other technology from suppliers across the world.” The Treasury’s investigation revealed that items channeled through Stars Group Holdings were used by Hezbollah’s military wing — including in drones that attacked Syrian targets and spied on Israel. And lurking in the background of this story was KassemHejeij, a close confidant of one Kamel Mohamed Amhaz, the manager of Stars Group Holdings. 

But Amhaz and his brother are small fry compared to Kassim Tajideen, who was arrested on March 12 by Moroccan authorities in Casablanca while in transit from the Guinean city of Conakry. After negotiations between the Moroccan and American governments, he was extradited to the U.S. to stand trial in March 2017, on charges of fraud, conspiracy, money laundering, and violating global terrorism sanctions.

He is accused, along with his three brothers, of using lucrative forestry concessions in Congo Kinshasa to channel millions of dollars to Hezbollah. “Big Boss,” as he is known, runs a network of companies under the umbrella of a holding group called Congo Futur, which holds Congolese government contracts allowing it to exploit hundreds of thousands of hectares of rainforest in the war-torn nation. The US Treasury also accuses the Tajideen brothers of using their network of companies to bypass sanctions, receiving dozens of proscribed shipments originating from US ports. Tajideenhas spent years trying to prove that he was set up, but there is no smoke without fire, and the actions of Tajideen, of Amhaz, and of Hejeij are in keeping with Hezbollah’s mobster-like grip on Lebanon. And who set up a meeting between the jailed Lebanese terror financier and BGR Group? It was none other than Kassem Hajeij’s brother, Mohsen, at the order of Kassem himself — and acting on behalf of the senior leadership of Hezbollah according to my senior Lebanese government source. 

Writing about life in the New York metropolitan area at the height of the Italian-American mob’s influence there in the 1970s, retired US journalist and author Selwyn Raab tells us: “For much of the twentieth century, New York’s municipal and law enforcement authorities seemed indifferent to these criminal inroads […] City Hall and many law enforcement agencies tacitly subscribed to a laissez-faire accommodation with the Mob. Almost everyone in power was content so long as food supplies reached restaurants and supermarkets, construction projects were completed, and refuse was picked up.” 

Such a description could equally apply to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but more so. In an unstable country where the central government struggles to pay for repairs to war damaged buildings or even to collect the garbage, a terrorist movement that can get things done can swiftly build both a popular following and make itself integral to the functioning of the wider political system. In the process, even more than the New York mafia did, it can embed itself into every facet of national life, from the streets to the board room. Hezbollah runs municipal areas, hospitals, dental clinics, TV stations and charities, and also has an active parliamentary presence. To help pay for all this it oversees a vast criminal empire which bribes, blackmails or simply threatens politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and even other criminals into cooperating with it. This can be as simple as paying the group protection money into order to continue operating, or more dangerously, acting as a legitimate front group for its multitude of drug trafficking and money laundering activities inside Lebanon and overseas — activities of which men like Kassem Hejeij stand accused, even indicted.

Like the US mob, Hezbollah counts on a large number of useful idiots, patsies, and stooges to carry out its criminal activities, specifically because they are not formal members of the group. Indeed, the very image of their distance from the organization is what is useful to the terrorist network, because it allows transactions vital to Hezbollah to go unnoticed by global financial regulators and law enforcement agencies. A key component of the group’s success in recent years has rested on its ability to constantly recruit facilitators like Kassem Hejeij and KassimTajideen, who act as go-betweens,channeling goods and funds between the criminal and legitimate business worlds.

Since 9/11 it has been US policy to target these same support networks to try to disrupt the funding terrorist networks depend upon to finance their operations and military establishments. But until powerful individuals like Kassem Hejeij face the type of serious criminal penalties available under Western legal codes for material support of terrorism, Hezbollah will most likely continue to get away with using ‘respectable’ fronts for its dirty work at home and abroad. The US’s policy is making inroads currently, but, Hydra-like, as soon as one of Hezbollah’s grasping tentacles is cut off, another one grows in its place.

Peter Ferrara is General Counsel and Principal at the Raddington Group. He served in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Reagan, and as Associate Deputy Attorney General of the United States under President George H.W. Bush