Capital Bucureşti
Time Zone EEST (GMT+2)
Country Code 40
Mobile Codes 71,72,73,74,75,76,77,78
ccTLD .ro
Currency Leu nou (1EUR = 4.1 RON)
Land Area 238,391 sq km
Population 22 million
Language Romanian
Major Religion Orthodox Christianity

DEA and Multi-National Police Operations Highlight Narcotics, Terrorism and Role of the Balkans

By Chris Deliso

A two-year DEA undercover operation, which played out in exotic international locales in cooperation with police forces of several states, demonstrates that the Balkans is still perceived as a safe haven for ‘business’ and logistical activities by major international terrorism and organized crime entities.

The operation, part of which came to light when arrests were made in July of 2011, resulted in November with Romania’s extradition to the US of two foreign nationals reportedly seeking to use drug money to fund weaponry for Hizbollah.

In December 2011, further charges were laid against three financial institutions allegedly linked with money laundering for Hizballah, which has come under increased scrutiny as tensions with Iran continue to increase.

The intriguing details have been revealed in press releases from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. These documents affirm the complexity of today’s global terrorism-organized crime nexus and also, though details are not given, raise some interesting questions regarding operational activities and what can be understood from them.

On November 17, Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced the Romanian government’s extraditions of Siavosh Hehareh, from Iran, and a Turk, Cetin Aksu. The press release (.PDF) detailing the charges stated that the two had been “conspiring to provide narcotics and, in the case of Aksu, material support to Hizballah through an individual whom they believed to be an associate of Hizballah, but who was in fact, a United States Drug Enforcement Administration (‘DEA’) confidential source.” It is not clear whether the latter was an actual undercover operative or a low-level terrorist financier who had possibly struck a plea bargain to cooperate. It was also not made clear whether the accused persons were representing a larger group.

The US Attorney stated that the Turkish citizen was also charged “with agreeing to buy a deadly laundry list of weapons on behalf of an associate of Hizballah,” and added that “this case provides fresh evidence of the growing nexus between drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and terrorists, a nexus with the potential to threaten our national security.”

Operational Chronology and Details

Since the background of the DEA’s ‘confidential source’ remains unknown, as does much else about the government’s planning rationale, it is difficult to estimate whether the Balkans was chosen as a major theater for the operation because of specific pre-existing links with the persons involved, or because it was deemed an advantageous or preferable area in which to operate by the US. Probably both are true.

However, what it does show beyond doubt, by virtue of the fact that the suspicions of those charged were not aroused, is that the region is perceived as safe ground for conducting negotiations between terrorist and criminal organizations. Perhaps one effect of this operation will thus be to make such groups more cautious about operating in the region in the future.

The government indictment makes visible a timeline for the operation (though pre-planning must have been extensive and thus date the whole process back by several months or longer). Apparently, back in June of 2010, the Iranian had “a series of meetings in countries including Turkey, Romania, and Greece with DEA confidential sources (the ‘CSs’), at least one of whom represented himself/herself as an associate of Hizballah.”

These meetings and a series of phone calls thereafter, resulted in an agreement to sell “hundreds of kilograms of high quality heroin” to the supposed Hizbollah associate, with it being made clear that the profits would be used to purchase weapons for the group.

The operation became significantly bigger several months later, when as a result of these meetings, the DEA source was introduced to Aksu and another individual, Bachar Wehbe, according to the press release.

“Beginning in February 2011, in Romania, Cyprus, Malaysia, and elsewhere, Aksu and Wehbe agreed to purchase military-grade weaponry from the CSs on behalf of Hizballah. In those meetings, and in telephone calls and email messages, Aksu and Wehbe discussed the purchase of American-made Stinger surface-to-air missiles (“SAMs”), Igla SAMs, AK-47 and M4 assault rifles, M107 .50 caliber sniper rifles, and ammunition, from (among other places) an American military base in Germany.”

Then, in April 2011, the action resumed in the Balkans when the DEA source received a heroin sample (of 1kg, according to the press release) “from a co-conspirator of Henareh’s in Bucharest, Romania, in order to inspect its quality, and in anticipation of a subsequent, multi-hundred kilogram load.”

Things proceeded smoothly, and on June 13, 2011, Aksu and Wehbe “signed a written agreement for the purchase of 48 American-made Stinger SAMs, 100 Igla SAMs, 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles, 1,000 M4 rifles, and 1,000 Glock handguns, for a total price of approximately $9.5 million” in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The press release further adds that while negotiating the arms deal, Wehbe “stated that he was purchasing the weapons on instructions from Hizballah. Shortly thereafter, Wehbe and others caused approximately $100,000 to be transferred to the CSs as a down payment for the weapons purchase.”

The alleged plan was thwarted, however, when the go-ahead was given for a coordinated international police operation. Henareh and Aksu were arrested in Bucharest on July 25, 2011, while authorities in the Republic of the Maldives arrested Wehbe on the same day.

In the November 17 announcement of Romania’s extradition, Attorney General Bharara praised the “outstanding work” of several domestic and international partners. On the US side, these included the DEA’s Special Operations Division and its Country Offices in Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Copenhagen, New Delhi, Athens, Cyprus, and Kabul, as well as the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs, its National Security Division, and the State Department.

Among international partners, gratitude was expressed to the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative Regional Center for Combating Trans-Border Crime (SECI), the Romanian Police, the Turkish Police, the Malaysian Police, the Hellenic Police, the Cyprus Police, and the Maldives Police Service. Among these, it would seem that the Romanian security services (discussed by earlier in 2011) had a particularly crucial role in monitoring the suspects internationally and while in the country.

Balkan Connections and Interesting Particulars

This operation shows, as stated above, that the Balkans remains fertile soil for serious organized crime and logistics planning between criminal entities and terrorist backers. Security experts have frequently made the point that the reason why little actual terrorist activities occurs in the region is precisely in order to keep the area ‘safe’ for business.

It is not surprising that Turkey and Greece were sites of such meetings as these countries have a history of being used in this regard. Malaysia, a peaceful and moderate Muslim country, also has a similar history- for example, the so-called “al Qaeda Summit” was held there in 2000. And much business from Malaysia to the Balkans, whether legitimate or illegitimate, goes through Turkey and intercessors there.

Romania is a more interesting case, as it has a much lower profile among Islamist groups. Speaking at a conference in spring 2011 in Skopje, one Romanian mufti voiced concern that an Islamic extremist fringe group was presenting a major challenge to the moderate Muslim community. However, Romanian security sources were later skeptical of the charge, and have downplayed the risk. Nevertheless, Romania too has a historic relationship with the greater Middle East and (as a recent report indicated) there are several thousand investments in the country from Iran, the main supporter of Hizballah outside of Lebanon. This relationship could conceivably give the organization ‘legitimate cover’ to operate in the country.

The most fascinating detail of the press release, however, is the stunning claim that the DEA confidential source and the alleged plotters had planned to acquire some of their desired high-tech weaponry from “an American military base in Germany.” How could the latter have expected such an implausible outcome to be attained? This might indicate that the plotters knew of, or at least assumed, that they had at least one ‘true believer’ on base, whether a local employee or even a US soldier.

While both possibilities would be alarming, the inherent complexity of removing weapons from a US military base and transiting them internationally should have set off red flags with the plotters. And their own alleged signing of written agreements and indeed discussing such arms sales by email also seems remarkably reckless. An organization as secretive as Hizbollah would be expected to be cleverer than this. But with no further testimony given as to the level of contact the plotters had with the group, it remains difficult to speculate.

It is thus not clear whether the implosion of this plot in July 2011 lent any greater urgency to Hizballah’s famed internal security service, already on high alert due to heightening tensions between Iran, the US and Israel during the course of the year, and which has been on the offensive in recent months. Most notable was the roll-up of alleged CIA sources in Lebanon revealed in November 2011 by Hizballah- widely blamed on ‘sloppy tradecraft’ on the part of the US by analysts, who noted that Hizbollah’s counter-intelligence actions have significantly affected US capabilities.

The US is also increasingly concerned about a proxy war with Hizbollah coming from Latin America, where the group has established connections for decades. The US has taken further action against the group since the Balkan weapons-for-drugs case, including a freeze on a Lebanese-Canadian bank accused of laundering money for the group through a used-car resale program to West Africa.

A December 15, 2011 press release (.PDF) outlines the case, which also drew upon the resources of the Treasury Department. The US Attorney and DEA alleged in it the existence of “a massive, international scheme in which Lebanese financial institutions, including a bank and two exchange houses linked to Hizballah, used the U.S. financial system to launder narcotics trafficking and other criminal proceeds through West Africa and back into Lebanon.”

According to the official account of the scheme, “funds were wired from Lebanon to the United States to buy used cars, which were then transported to West Africa. Cash from the sale of the cars, along with proceeds of narcotics trafficking, were then funneled to Lebanon through Hizballah-controlled money laundering channels. Substantial portions of the cash were paid to Hizballah, which the U.S. Department of State designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997.”

The government, which is seeking over $480 million in civil money laundering penalties from a bank and two exchange houses in Lebanon, also announced in the press release the November 2011 indictment in Virginia of an alleged Lebanese narcotics trafficker. Among the charges is “conspiracy to commit money laundering related to drug trafficking by Mexican and Colombian drug cartels.”

A lengthy discussion of the case and the bank’s connections with the Latin American drug trade was published in the New York Times in November. The account gave further details on the complexity of the operation. “In all, hundreds of millions of dollars a year sloshed through the [Hizbollah-linked] accounts, held mainly by Shiite Muslim businessmen in the drug-smuggling nations of West Africa, many of them known Hezbollah supporters, trading in everything from rough-cut diamonds to cosmetics and frozen chicken, according to people with knowledge of the matter in the United States and Europe,” reported the Times. “The companies appeared to be serving as fronts for Hezbollah to move all sorts of dubious funds, on its own behalf or for others.”

US Attorney Bharara added that the government operations are “putting a stranglehold on a major source of [Hizballah] funding by disrupting a vast and far-flung network that spanned three continents. Together with our law enforcement partners in the U.S. and around the globe, our commitment to disrupting and dismantling Hizballah and other terrorist organizations is unwavering.”

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