The Lebanese people are notoriously proud of their diaspora around the world. It is common for visitors of Beirut to be reminded that Brazil’s recent president, Michel Temer, is of Lebanese origins, or that prominent US statesmen Ralph Nader and Philip Habib are the descendants of Lebanese immigrants. Shakira is as much a source of pride for the Lebanese in Lebanon as any local star. When the former CEO of Nissan and Renault, Carlos Ghosn, one of the most high profile Lebanese diaspora success stories, was arrested in Japan, his incarceration was met with an outpouring of sympathy and support on the Lebanese street.
This love does not go one way. Lebanese communities around the world, across generations, have kept ties with and supported Lebanon through remittances over the past century and a half. Lebanon received $7.2 billion dollars from the diaspora in 2018 – 12.7 percent of the country’s entire GDP.
Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia based in Lebanon, has been exploiting this dynamic for decades.
The recent arrest of dual Lebanese-American national Ali Hassan Saab, a 42-year-old IT expert from New Jersey also known as Alexei Saab, is the latest case of Hezbollah using Lebanese diaspora members to enact its dangerous project.
Saab, who originally hails from Hezbollah’s base in the south of Lebanon, is accused of scouting and surveilling possible targets for a terror attack, including the United Nations and Times Square. Saab is allegedly a Hezbollah member who has received “extensive Hezbollah training, including in surveillance, firearms, and the production and use of explosives.”
Saab is the second Hezbollah member to be arrested on suspicion of plotting attacks in the US this year. In May, Ali Kournai was found guilty of carrying out covert activities for Hezbollah. According to the US Department of Justice, “The evidence at trial showed that Kourani searched for suppliers who could provide weapons for … attacks, identified people who could be recruited or targeted for violence, and gathered information about and conducted surveillance of potential targets.”
While it is good that the US is cracking down on Hezbollah operations, numerous reports have detailed a much larger Hezbollah network among the Lebanese diaspora, which the organization uses not just for planning terrorist attacks, but also for money laundering and propaganda campaigns.
In September, 2018, Assad Ahmad Barakat was arrested on the Paraguay-Argentina border, accused of laundering $10m on behalf of Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s drug smuggling and illicit financing in the Tri-Border Area (where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet) is a key part of its global network, identified by the US Drug Enforcement administration’s Cassandra Project. These activities are enabled by the Lebanese diaspora, where Hezbollah often coaxes recruits through offering money and influence.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s Christian allies continue to court the diaspora for political support. The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) - Hezbollah’s main Christian ally since the memorandum of understanding between the two organizations in 2006 - has been extremely active in its appeals to the diaspora. The FPM has used Lebanese embassies around the world as hubs for recruiting Lebanese Christians to its brand of nationalism. The recent trip to the US by Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil – the FPM’s two most senior politicians – is a clear example.
As the Saab affair came to light, Aoun was preparing to make the trip to the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York, where he attempted to appeal to the international community to support Lebanon in dealing with its current challenges.
While Aoun spoke to the community of nations, Bassil addressed a convention hall of diaspora members in Washington D.C. Bassil praised the diaspora, appealing to the supposed superiority of the Lebanese race and recounting how their forefathers made the perilous voyage for a better life in the US. He also praised the Lebanese contribution to the American automobile industry in Detroit and the oil business in Texas.
Bassil tied his praise of the diaspora to a political appeal, saying “you have lived as members of the diaspora and transformed your adopted home into a second home, so preserve your first home. Your Lebanon is a blessed one so protect it.” For Bassil, supporting and protecting Lebanon means donating to the FPM and supporting its never-ending quest for more power. His extensive trips abroad and meetings with the diaspora are all tools used by the FPM-Hezbollah axis to expand and identify its network of business associates. They also aim to use these expatriate votes in upcoming parliamentary elections, after the last election law allowed registered expatriates to vote at Lebanese embassies.
The FPM continues to justify its pact with Hezbollah as the organization comes under increasing US sanctions, which are also hitting the Lebanese state. Bassil, speaking to BBC Hardtalk’s Stephen Sackur, recently stressed that Hezbollah “has 14 MPs in their parliament, representing a big part of the Lebanese population and so cannot be viewed as terrorists.” The recent arrests of Kournai and Saab undermine this narrative and reveal Hezbollah’s true nature: a terrorist organization which has spread its influence to the Lebanese diaspora.
It remains to be seen whether countries with large Lebanese populations will acknowledge Hezbollah’s influence, and how they will deal with it. Some countries have continued to provide the organization financial and political shelter, such as the regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, whose actions endanger the welfare of his own people. Others, however, are starting to combat Hezbollah’s malign influence. For example, Argentina recently designated Hezbollah as a terrorist entity, providing one example of how countries could potentially turn against elements of the Lebanese diaspora.
As Hezbollah comes under increasing pressure from US sanctions, it is likely to increase its money laundering activities. Both the international and Lebanese communities should be alert to this activity and reject Bassil and Aoun’s roadshow, which whitewashes Hezbollah’s behavior.
If Hezbollah’s influence is not combatted, then it is not just Lebanon, but the legacy of its diaspora, which is at risk.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975. He tweets @makramrabah.