The task force was born of a Politico report finding that the Obama administration backed off of investigating Hezbollah out of fear of imperiling the Iran nuclear deal.
Because Hezbollah is capable of acting around the globe, the United States must take the threat seriously not only to protect our interests abroad, but to prevent Hezbollah from acting against us here at home. This task force is an important step toward achieving that goal.
The task force’s origin story is somewhat political in nature. Therefore, the team will have to be hyper-aware of any appearance of partisanship. It should not get caught up in potential political gains for the administration; instead, it should focus on the primary objective of protecting American interests. The goal is, and should be, combatting Hezbollah’s ability to participate in and gain from the drug trade and terrorist activities.
Hezbollah activities in Latin America are not a guarded secret. For instance, Navy Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, commander of Southern Command for the U.S. military, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2017 that “Hezbollah has been present in small pockets scattered throughout the region for decades. They’ve been actively engaged largely in criminal activities to raise funds to support the terrorist activities of Hezbollah in other parts of the world.”
Yet even with reports of Hezbollah participating in money laundering and drug trafficking in such close proximity to the United States, stopping the group’s illicit activities has not been a major priority as compared to combatting other terrorist groups, most notably ISIS. The creation of this task force will ensure that the Justice Department gives appropriate attention to the Hezbollah threat.
Experts say that Hezbollah not only threatens U.S. efforts to stem the drug trade in Latin America, but poses a growing threat to U.S. national security interests in the Middle East. For instance, in addition to being militantly anti-American and anti-Israeli, Hezbollah actively supports Syrian President Assad’s regime. Last year, the Trump administration chose to strike Syria’s military in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people and remains critical of the Assad regime.
The Trump administration has also initiated a public campaign to crack down on Hezbollah as part of a larger effort to counter Iran. The goal of the campaign is to “expose” Hezbollah officials for their illicit activities. Having become a leading political party in Lebanon, Hezbollah is now taking great strides to further establish its legitimacy. The administration’s campaign attempts to highlight not only for the United States and Lebanon, but for the whole world, that legitimating Hezbollah is unacceptable while it participates in terrorism, money laundering and the drug trade. To support the campaign, the administration is offering $10 million in cash reward bounties for aiding in the arrest of leading Hezbollah figures.
Now that the administration has renewed its focus on Hezbollah, Session’s decision to launch a task force may also have repercussions beyond the Justice Department. With such a public focus on combatting the Hezbollah threat, we should expect the Departments of Treasury, State, and Defense to similarly renew their focuses on the terrorist organization. Additionally, this task force and the investigations it conducts should put Congress in a better position to develop ways to help combat terrorist financing efforts in the future.
It is in America’s interest to combat Hezbollah’s illicit activities. This task force has the potential to bring much-needed focus to that job.