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April 17, 2009 / jeni

Lebanon’s Drug War: The Nexus in Action

lebTwo interesting articles this week on Lebanon and the drugs trade. First up, Mitchell Prothero writes in Abu Dhabi’s The National on Hezbollah’s withdrawal of protection for the major producers of hashish in their Bekaa Valley stronghold, and the subsequent clashes between the drug clans and the Lebanese Army.

An alliance of Shiite families involved in Lebanon’s hashish trade attacked an army patrol in the far eastern Beqaa Valley yesterday, killing at least four soldiers and wounding 13.

Members of the Jafar family set an ambush for an army patrol as it returned to its base on the outskirts of Baalbak yesterday morning, using rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns in one of the worst incidents of violence towards the army since the 2007 siege of the Nahr al Bared refugee camp. The family claims the attack was retaliation for the army’s killing of a key member of the family at the end of March.

In response to yesterday’s attack, the Lebanese Army deployed Special Forces commandos throughout Baalbak and sealed the highways into the city as they stepped up operations against the three largest families involved in the production of hashish in the predominately Shiite area, also a base of support for Hizbollah…

Over the past three months, a series of raids and arrests have increased pressure on the Zoitar, Jafar and Mouwla families over their involvement in both the drug trade and a wave of carjackings throughout Lebanon. These families dominate the farming and production of hashish in eastern Lebanon and can summon thousands of well-armed family members in the rural and mountainous region.

It is often presumed that militant groups cooperate with criminal actors purely for financial reasons — to raise cash — but the article raises another important driver, namely domestic political concerns.

“It has always been accepted that some of the families in Beqaa will grow hashish,” Abu Ali said. “The farmers are too poor, and growing normal crops will not be enough to survive so both the army and Hizbollah allow these families to grow hashish for sale. They pay bribes to the right people and are left alone as long as they stay quiet…”

Abu Ali, who left the drug trade a decade ago and has since joined Hizbollah, described this protection of the hashish farmers as political expediency for a group with major domestic concerns in rural Lebanon.

“Hizbollah is the most powerful Shiite movement in Lebanon but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to keep people happy,” he said. “Even though they hate these families, the sectarian system in Lebanon forces them to protect huge Shiite families in the heart of their main areas, like Baalbak.”

Also of interest is the fact that decisions to withdraw protection or confront other actors have been based not just on rationalist concerns — such as the increasing intrusion of the drug gangs into Hezbollah territory around Beirut — but the provocative nature of attacks on well-connected individuals (including, if you can believe it, the son of Imad Mughniyeh). This shows that high-impact decisions cannot always be predicted or explained through conventional strategic analysis; stupidity and emotions drive events as well.

In the past few months, however, the drug dealing and carjackings became increasingly brazen. They culminated when Ali Zoitar, a young gang leader based outside Beirut, assaulted and robbed the son of Imad Mughniyeh, a famed Hizbollah commander who was assassinated in Feb 2008 in a Damascus car bombing. “Ali Zoitar and his boys robbed Mughniyeh’s son,” Abu Ali said. “Even when he told them he was the son of a famous martyr and a fighter for Hizbollah himself, they cursed him and took the car anyway. When they saw how arrogant these boys had become, Hizbollah withdrew its protection of these families.”

As a result, the Lebanese police were then authorised for the first time by the group to begin arrests and operations in militant controlled areas, so long as police only targeted drugs and car theft. “Drugs are fine, cars are fine but the police have been told that if they enter a house looking for drugs and find 50 machine guns or RPGs, they had better pretend like they didn’t see anything,” a Hizbollah member confirmed. “Weapons are for the resistance.”

Without Hizbollah’s political protection, a Lebanese Army officer warned Noah Zoitar, the 39-year old warlord who controls thousands of hectares of cannabis fields, to end the car thefts and turn over some of the suspects to police. Noah agreed but Ali Zoitar refused and immediately targeted the same officer’s wife, robbing her in her home a few days later…

A now infuriated Lebanese Army swept into the Zoitar clan’s village of Kneisse, occupying Noah Zoitar’s home and dispatched teams to hunt down Ali Zoitar. In late March, they found and killed him in a shoot-out near Beirut and a few days later an army patrol ambushed Ali Abbas Jafar outside of Baalbak, killing him and several comrades.

It should be interesting to see how these events play out in the near term.

Down south, on the Israeli border, Matti Freeman writes for the AP on drug smuggling and cooperation between Lebanese and Israeli actors.

Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah guerrillas have been battling for years along this frontier. But a quieter war goes on here every night, one between Inspector Gal Ben Ish’s narcotics teams and the smugglers who have turned this jumpy border into the main conduit for heroin bound for Israeli drug markets. Police here believe the trade, worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, is controlled in large part by Hezbollah, and call it “narco-terrorism.”

In the nighttime bust caught on camera last September, Ben Ish’s men netted 55 kilograms of heroin, 10 of hashish, $650,000 in cash, and both drug mules. “We know that it’s not just criminal activity – here there’s always the aspect of national defense. We’re helping the country’s security,” said Ben Ish…

Israeli police say Hezbollah, the dominant power in the towns and villages of south Lebanon, takes a cut of the trade and uses the money to fund operations and recruit agents inside Israel, one of them an Israeli army colonel now in jail for trading secrets for drugs and cash.

Information freely changes hands between guerrillas and smugglers, police say. The hard-to-see spots along the fence where Hezbollah ambushed and captured Israeli soldiers twice in the past decade were previously used as drop points for drugs.

This is the more classic idea of militant-criminal collaboration — the two actors profiting from each other’s activities and benefiting from their respective intel and logistical innovations (such as the fence breaches).

Also familiar is the sight of supposed adversaries cooperating across the front lines in pursuit of profit.

On the Israeli side, the trade is controlled by Israeli Arab crime families with close ties to their counterparts in Lebanon. The couriers are Israeli Arabs. Drops are arranged ahead of time by telephone or e-mail, or in notes thrown across with the previous haul.

Criminal coexistence between Jews and Arabs begins at the urban distribution points inside Israel, where dealers and users of both ethnicities pick up the drugs.

Familiar — and yet this dynamic is not highlighted enough in strategic analysis that posits two stalwart actors engaged in zero-sum conflict. In reality, whatever the results on the military and political side, there will be actors on both sides who will profit thanks to their transgressive cooperation.

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2 Comments

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  1. Chris Glavin / May 7 2009 14:33

    Interestingly, Hussein Jaafar, a key Lebanese suspect from the Shiite al-Jaafar clan in the Bekaa Valley, was arrested by Turkish authorities in connection to the April 13 attack in Lebanon a few days ago.

    According to the report I read citing an unnamed source, Hezbollah managed to get four assailants safely across the border into Syria with the help of Syrian intelligence. From Syria, the suspects traveled by land into Turkey. After that, the source claims, the Syrians tipped off the Turkish authorities so that the Turks would be able to track the suspects down. The Turkish authorities apprehended Jaafar, but the three others are still at large.

    Considering the tense relationship between Syria and Hezbollah after last year’s assassination of Imad Mughniyah and Syria’s increasing intelligence presence inside Lebanon, it would appear to make sense for Hezbollah to protect the profit-bearing drug trade in the Bekaa Valley as a means of securing financing for the group if they feel they can’t trust the Syrians for aid in the future. And with Lebanese parliamentary elections coming in June, protecting and securing campaign funds would certainly be a major interest for a group like Hezbollah that is trying to maximise its political influence within Lebanon.

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