Italy announced last July 1 the seizure of 84 million counterfeit pills of the amphetamine Captagon, widely used by combatants in the Syrian civil war that began in 2011. The pills, seized in the southern Italian port of Salerno and said to be worth 1 billion euros, were immediately attributed to ISIS, one of the primary parties to the Syrian conflict.
But the narrative quickly did an about-face, and blame was reassigned to ISIS’s mortal enemies: the Syrian government and—perhaps more importantly—Hezbollah, the Syrian government-allied Lebanese political party and militant organization that has long been a thorn in the side of the US empire and its integral Israeli appendage.
On August 4, coincidentally the same day that the Beirut port explosion devastated Lebanon’s capital city, the Washington Post ran a dispatch by Joby Warrick and Souad Mekhennet, headlined “Hezbollah Operatives Seen Behind Spike in Drug Trafficking, Analysts Say.” While the authors concede that “whether Hezbollah was directly involved in the Italian shipment is not yet known,” the ultimate takeaway is that “investigators say the episode fits a pattern of recent drug cases in the Middle East and Europe linked to the powerful Lebanese militia.” The idea that “Hezbollah operatives began manufacturing [Captagon] more than a decade ago” is presented as fact without need for evidence.
As is par for the course for such articles, the “analysts” are largely unnamed, consisting of the usual assortment of anonymous “intelligence officials” and the like. Among the few named officials are John Fernández, head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s Counter-Narcoterrorism Operations Center—whose briefing on Hezbollah at the fervently pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) is quoted—and Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury official and FBI analyst now ensconced at WINEP, where he is perennially available to link Hezbollah to any and every narco-terrorist plot on the planet.
In their piece, Warrick and Mekhennet plug Levitt’s latest pride and joy, an interactive map that purports to implicate Hezbollah operatives in “drug smuggling, money laundering and other criminal enterprises in dozens of countries around the world, while also charting terrorist attacks financed by such illicit proceeds.” A quick perusal reveals that key global enterprises have unfortunately been overlooked, such as the “Hezbollah pig farm in Liberia” that was dutifully exposed in 2018 by US State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan A. Sales. Other essential components of the fearmongering arsenal do, however, appear in Levitt’s database, including Hezbollah’s alleged narco-ties to Venezuela—a country that must be demonized at all cost on account of its refusal to subscribe to US-prescribed systems of right-wing oppression—as well to as the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), myriad drug cartels and other preferred imperial bogeymen.
In his book Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, Levitt retails all of the traditional neoconservative talking points about said party, such as Hezbollah assisting the cartels in constructing narco-tunnels from Mexico into the US—because, obviously, “the terrain along the southern US border, especially around San Diego, is similar to that on the Lebanese/Israeli border.”
Then there’s the old rumor of a “rise in imprisoned gang members with Farsi tattoos” in the American Southwest—which, as Fox News noted in 2010, had also elicited a letter to the Homeland Security Department from then-US Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), who fretted:
We have typically seen tattoos in Arabic, but Farsi implies a Persian influence that can likely be traced back to Iran and its proxy army, Hezbollah.… These tattoos in Farsi are almost always seen in combination with gang or drug cartel tattoos. These combinations have been increasing in number and point to the fact that these criminals are tied to both Hezbollah and gangs and drug cartels.
And there you go. Though the beloved “Communist menace” of the Cold War is making a comeback in both Russian and Chinese forms, it’s still helpful to have a narco-jihadi menace—in bed with socialist regimes in Latin America, no less—festering along the United States’ southern border. This justifies increased US militarization of the hemisphere, global antagonism vis-à-vis Hezbollah’s backers in America’s current pet enemy Iran, and all sorts of other good stuff.
Levitt’s book also covers other popular anti-Hezbollah would-be trivia, such as that it was possible (at least in pre-pandemic times) to travel with minimal difficulty between Caracas and Tehran by air—a trajectory known as “Aero-Terror” by the likes of Roger Noriega, former US assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs and current permanent accessory at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. Noriega in 2011 sounded the alarm at Fox News that the Venezuelan state airline was ferrying “terrorists and weapons to our own neighborhood,” with merely a single stop in Damascus. Never mind that it is also possible to travel between Caracas and pretty much everywhere else on earth.
According to a 2011 Foreign Policy Research Institute missive titled “The New Nexus of Narcoterrorism: Hezbollah and Venezuela,” by Caracas-born socialite-cum-“terrorism expert” Vanessa Neumann, Aero-Terror appears to have departed Venezuela with a “cargo of cocaine” and returned “full of Iranians, who boarded the flight in Damascus, where they arrived by bus from Tehran.” Neumann never deigned to explain why the Iranians could not have simply boarded the flight in the Iranian capital rather than riding on a bus for more than 1,000 miles.
As if Farsi tattoos weren’t enough, Levitt unveils in his book additional alleged nefarious activities by Hezbollah in the US proper, including “food stamp fraud, misuse of grocery coupons and sale of unlicensed T-shirts.” One envisions Hezbollah guerillas diabolically stockpiling buy-one-get-one-free Cocoa Puffs to sell on the international black market, along with fake Hypercolor apparel featuring Kalashnikovs. Levitt is consistently cited as an authoritative source in corporate media reports on Hezbollah and related themes, and relied upon in US government circles as the expert of experts.
As for the July seizure in Italy of the billion-euro amphetamine shipment, it wasn’t only the Washington Post that jumped on the Hezbollah/Captagon bandwagon with no evidence. In an August Foreign Policy article headlined “The Islamic State Isn’t Behind Syria’s Amphetamine Trade,” Tessa Fox insists that “Captagon production flourished in Syria after 2013, when a crackdown in neighboring Lebanon likely forced Hezbollah to relocate its drug production operations next door,” and that Syrian “drug operations would likely not be possible without the technical knowledge of Hezbollah, which has links to Captagon production in [the Syrian cities of] Homs, Tal Kalakh and Qusayr, near the Lebanese border.” A December video courtesy of BBC Mideast correspondent Quentin Sommerville confirms that the “Syrian regime” and Hezbollah are both “deep in the drugs trade,” which is for them a “major source of funding.”
Accusing Hezbollah of drug trafficking is kind of like accusing the US government of trafficking in glow-in-the-dark Joseph Stalin figurines; it makes no ideological sense on any level. If the organization were really up to its ears in drugs, there presumably would not be a need to resort to such patently ludicrous arguments as that “Venezuela’s geographic proximity to West Africa make[s] it an ideal launching pad” for trans-Atlantic narco-shipments that help expand Hezbollah’s coffers. This insight was delivered during a 2009 presentation to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations by former United Press International bureau chief in El Salvador Douglas Farah, who refrained from explaining how 6,000 miles constitutes “geographic proximity.”
Lebanese scholar Amal Saad, author of Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion, commented in a recent email to me that the “baseless charges” against Hezbollah “don’t merely clash with its ideology and identity as an Islamist party whose adherents are socialized in the Islamic way of life, which obviously has zero tolerance for drug use,” but that they also “undermine Hezbollah’s strategy of combating drug use” in various areas in Lebanon, where other Shia clans are known to distribute drugs. She went on to remark that drug trafficking and use are “anathema to Hezbollah for organizational reasons” and that there is “no room for drugs for a party with strong internal discipline,” for which drug trafficking would “severely undermine its internal cohesion, popular support, and organizational and military efficacy vis-à-vis Israel and jihadi groups.”
Which brings us back to Israel, which, it bears mentioning, is entirely responsible for Hezbollah’s existence in the first place. In 1982, the Israeli military invaded Lebanon, in the middle of that country’s civil war of 1975–90, slaughtering some 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians—as Noam Chomsky emphasizes, the vast majority of them civilians—and prompting the rise of the militant organization. Hezbollah then undertook to combat the brutal, torture-happy 22-year Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, ultimately driving Israel out of Lebanese territory in May 2000.
From a “terroristic” point of view, Hezbollah has never even come close to inflicting the human and infrastructural damage that Israel has. During the 1982 invasion, for example, the Israeli army engaged in phosphorus shelling of Muslim-majority West Beirut, which caused patients to start arriving at hospitals literally on fire. In his book Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, journalist Robert Fisk quoted a doctor on the situation of five-day-old twins who were dead upon arrival: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour later, they were still burning.”
The list goes on. In April 1996, Israel massacred 106 refugees sheltering at a United Nations compound in the south Lebanese village of Qana. In summer 2006, Israel killed some 1,200 people in Lebanon over the course of 34 days, including children in the back of a pickup truck evacuating their village in accordance with Israeli orders, only to be slaughtered at close range by an Israeli helicopter.
For this particular conflict, the United States conducted rush shipments of weapons to the Israeli armed forces. Not that the US has ever been a stranger to abetting carnage in the diminutive Levantine nation; a certain civil war episode from 1985 comes to mind, when CIA-trained operatives endeavored to assassinate Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah—the Lebanese cleric forever vilified as Hezbollah’s supposed “spiritual leader”—via car bomb in Beirut, and instead dispensed with more than 80 civilian lives, among them many women and children. But, again, Hezbollah are the “terrorists”—if only because they happen to effectively thwart imperial designs in the region.
The hypocritical logic of empire furthermore permits the US to sensationally denounce Hezbollah as narco-terrorists while blissfully backing regimes that objectively qualify as such. For instance, one of the highlights of Levitt’s interactive map is Operation Titan, a two-year collaboration between the DEA and Colombian authorities to investigate the “Colombia-based cocaine smuggling and money laundering operations” of an alleged Hezbollah operative.
Titan was launched in 2004, on the watch of then–Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who not only appeared on a 1991 US Defense Intelligence Agency list of “the more important Colombian narco-traffickers contracted by the Colombian narcotic cartels,” but also presided over the terrorization of swathes of the Colombian population, like the more than 10,000 civilians murdered by the military and passed off as FARC guerrillas. The so-called “false positives” campaign enabled individual soldiers to accrue bonus pay and extra holiday time, while also justifying—what else?—yet more US military aid.
Were the US actually opposed to narco-terrorism, it might have abstained from utilizing right-wing Contra mercenaries to terrorize Nicaragua in the 1980s while simultaneously enabling those same Contras to enrich themselves via the drug trade—an arrangement that resulted in a crack cocaine epidemic that destroyed Black communities in South Central Los Angeles. So much for protecting Americans from foreign terrorists.
America’s narco-terror hype begins to make more sense when one considers Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ginger Thompson’s 2015 New Yorker article “Trafficking in Terror,” in which a former senior money-laundering investigator at the US Justice Department tells her that, following the 9/11 attacks and the funneling of resources into “terrorism” rather than drug enforcement, the concept of narco-terror “became an ‘expedient way for the [DEA] to justify its existence.’”
Thompson writes that after the crime of “narco-terrorism” was appended to the new iteration of the Patriot Act in 2006, the DEA was able to claim “victories against Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban and the FARC.” Disturbingly, however, in every last one of the cases that were prosecuted, the “only links between drug trafficking and terrorism entered into evidence were provided by the DEA, using agents or informants who were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure the targets into staged narco-terrorism conspiracies.”
Now, as the Captagon conspiracies take off and the US and allied media continue trafficking in propaganda—poisoning the public mind with narco-terror fantasies that justify all manner of belligerence and terror for the foreseeable future—that old image of frying eggs from US drug war TV adverts comes to mind: “This is your brain on drugs.”