top of page
  • Helen Gelbart

Hezbollah is Thriving in Europe. Why Are Its Governments Silent?

The radical Shi’ite organization is invested in drug trafficking, money laundering, and arms sales in the old continent. Yet most European countries insist on maintaining the artificial distinction between its ‘military’ and ‘political’ wings. This allows the organization to continue profiting from criminal activities that also fund terrorism, including on European soil. For Europe to block Hezbollah’s penetration, it must designate the entire organization as a terrorist entity

Cocaine seized by German police in the port of Hamburg, in 2017 | Photo: obs/Generalzolldirektion

In late February 2019, the British government added Lebanese organization Hezbollah in its entirety to its list of terrorist organizations. Home Secretary Sajid Javid said that the decision was made because Hezbollah was "continuing in its attempts to destabilise the fragile situation in the Middle East." [1] Shortly after the UK’s announcement, Germany declared that it will not follow Britain’s lead and will uphold the distinction it, and many others, make between Hezbollah’s political and military arms. Germany’s State Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Niels Annen, made clear that outlawing Hezbollah would hurt diplomatic relations and dialogue with Lebanon.[2] Both the British and German ministers have raised some valid concerns about such a step. But what the EU states fail to realize (or perhaps choose to ignore), is that Hezbollah also deals in money laundering, drug smuggling, arms trafficking and terror financing – much of it on European soil. Its vast criminal network and diverse ‘portfolio’ making it the richest terrorist organisation in the world, with an estimated annual budget of $1.1 billion. This essay will briefly survey Hezbollah’s criminal activity in Europe and highlight the absurdity of the distinction between its "military" and "political" wings, which allows the organization to operate almost uninterrupted in the continent. If Europe truly wants to eradicate terror – globally, and on its own soil – it must take down Hezbollah’s sources of funding. And to do that, it must take the obvious step: designating the organization, in its entirety, as a terrorist entity, and allow its security and police forces to put and end to its criminal activities.


Authorities in Germany estimated last year that there are over 1,000 Hezbollah operatives in the country


Hezbollah’s Criminal Enterprise in Europe

Hezbollah (Arabic, "Party of God") is a political and militant Shiite group based in Lebanon. The group emerged following the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, with the goal of driving Israel out of Lebanon and establishing an Islamic state there.[3] The organization operates under the auspices of the Iranian Republic and has close ties to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Since its establishment as Lebanese-based Shi’ite guerrilla network, Hezbollah has evolved and is today simultaneously a political party, a social welfare movement, an international terror organization, an international criminal enterprise, and a militia larger and more powerful than the entire Lebanese army. While it relies on terrorism as well as other forms of violence and coercion to achieve its goals, the group simultaneously insists on portraying itself as a legitimate political party. Hezbollah, together with groups and individuals that are politically aligned with it, won at least 70 of the Lebanese parliament’s 128 seats in the 2018 election.[4] While the numbers vary between different estimations, Hezbollah’s annual budget is estimated at $1.1 billion, of which $700 million are provided by Iran.[5] Of the remaining estimated $400 million (though some claim the figure is much higher), the majority comes from Hezbollah‘s heavy investment and involvement in drug smuggling, money laundering, and arms sales on four different continents. The group relies on a worldwide network of supporters who provide it financial, logistical and operational support. Dozens of Hezbollah cells outside Lebanon have been exposed over the years, reaching as far as the US, Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.[6]

According to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Europol, a significant portion of Hezbollah's criminal activity is being conducted on EU soil, especially in Germany and France, which have both refrained from designating Hezbollah as a terror organization.[7] In Germany alone, local authorities estimated last year that there are over 1,000 Hezbollah operatives within its borders.[8]


Many EU member governments have expressed concerns that black-listing Hezbollah will harm Europe’s relations with Lebanon


An example for such a criminal network is the transnational ‘Joumaa Network’, headed by Lebanese-Colombian drug kingpin Ayman Joumaa. An extensive DEA investigation revealed in 2011 that the network laundered as much as $200 million a month from the sale of cocaine in Europe and the Middle East through operations located in Lebanon, West Africa, Panama, and Colombia.[9]

Joumaa and Hezbollah were connected through the now-defunct Lebanese Canadian bank (LCB). The bank served Joumaa’s network as the main money laundering point, where illicit transactions worth tens of millions of US Dollars took place. According to US Government information, Hezbollah derived significant financial benefits from the criminal activities of the Joumaa network, and various LCB managers are also linked to Hezbollah officials outside of Lebanon.[10] In 2012, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen stated that “[t]he Joumaa network [...] launders the proceeds of drug trafficking for the benefit of criminals and the terrorist group Hizballah [sic]”.[11] In 2016, multi-national law enforcement authorities simultaneously targeted multiple Hezbollah criminal operations in Europe. During this series of raids across Europe, security and police forces in Germany and France arrested 16 individuals involved in drug trafficking and money laundering, working with Hezbollah’s financial apparatus to transfer funds.[12] They additionally seized 500,000 EUR in cash, 70 watches worth an estimated nine million USD, weapons, a luxury vehicle, and property valued several million USD.[13] These goods also reveal the trade-based money laundering scheme which Hezbollah has set up in Europe: The proceeds from drug trafficking in Germany, for example, are being used to purchase luxury goods, then shipped to Lebanon to be sold. The earnings of the sale are then used to pay back drug traffickers in South America.[14] Hezbollah is also profiting from the high levels of cocaine smuggled into Europe, as there is excessive supply coming from South America. In 2017, a total of eight metric tons of cocaine were seized in Germany. This August. authorities confiscated 4.5 tons of cocaine (worth and estimated $1 billion) shipped from Uruguay to the port of Hamburg - the largest single cocaine bust in German history.[16] However, a former senior DEA agent has stated that authorities only succeed in seizing 5%-10% of all smuggled drugs.[17] This cocaine supply represents a significant threat for Germany, but also for the rest of Europe. Ignoring public health concerns, if only a small percentage of this drug money is used for perpetrating acts of terrorism, it would be more than sufficient for groups such as Hezbollah to finance its activities.

A short 2019 film on Hezbollah's threat to Europe | Source: Youtube

Banning Hezbollah in Europe

The UK, the United States, the Netherlands, Canada, Israel, the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and recently also Argentina and Paraguay are among the few that have officially declared Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization. Others - including the EU - do not designate the entire organization as a terrorist organization, but only what has been labeled its "military wing." The EU argues that the organization has a political wing separate from the military wing, which plays a relevant factor in Lebanese politics as well as in maintaining diplomatic relations. In debating the blacklisting of the Iran-backed group,[18] many EU member governments expressed concerns over maintaining Europe’s relations with Lebanon.[19] The artificial division between a military and a political wing has two detrimental effects. First, designating only the military wing allows the political wing to continue its activities almost uninterrupted. The result is that Hezbollah can continue to fundraise in Europe, carry out criminal activities with relative ease, and spread its propaganda.[20] Second, it legitimizes Hezbollah's activities in Lebanon, where it uses force and terror to advance its political goals. Moreover, by maintaining a paramilitary force stronger than the Lebanese army, it simultaneously undermines the Lebanese government’s sovereignty while serving as a predatory actor in Lebanon’s political system.


Designating Hezbollah can provide law enforcement agencies in Europe the tools to prosecute Hezbollah members and disrupt its criminal activities


As this account on Hezbollah drug trafficking and money laundering demonstrates, the distinction is patently absurd. Hezbollah itself has made it clear on several occasions that there is no distinction between its military and political organs, which both serve similar ends and rely on resources generated from the same criminal activities.[21] Furthermore, its Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah personally controls and authorizes political and terrorist activities.[22] Ultimately, there is enough evidence to argue that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization which represents a significant threat to domestic security in Germany (in contrast to Annen’s statement) and Europe. Those who truly wish to fight terror and crime must reject the detached distinction between "military" and "political" wings. As described above, Hezbollah exploits this made-up differentiation to carry out its criminal activities in Europe, which it uses inter alia to finance terror, with little scrutiny. Therefore, Hezbollah must be recognized in its entirety as a terrorist organization.

This important step can provide law enforcement agencies in Europe the tools to prosecute Hezbollah members and disrupt its criminal activities in the continent. These include freezing bank accounts, confiscating assets, and imposing sanctions against Hezbollah companies for money laundering and against individual members of the organization. Hezbollah isn’t on Europe’s figurative doorstep - it’s already inside and is making itself comfortable. Unless it wishes to see an experienced and dangerous global terrorist organization and criminal syndicate embed itself in the continent, Europe must wake up from its daydreaming and start treating Hezbollah for what it really is.


[1] BBC, 25 February 2019. "UK to ban Hezbollah as terrorist organisation", BBC (link)

[2] Niels Annen, 9 March 2019, "Auswärtiges Amt - Atomabkommen mit Iran: Wir setzen auf Dialog" (link)

[3] Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2019, "Hezbollah | Lebanese Militant Group & Political Party", Encyclopaedia Brittanica (link)

[4] Reuters, 22 May 2018, "Factbox: Hezbollah and allies gain sway in Lebanon parliament", Reuters (link)

[5] Itay Zehorai, "The Richest Terror Organizations: #1 Hezbollah," Forbes (link)

[6] Matthew Levitt, 7 August 2019. "Inside Hezbollah's American Sleeper Cells: Waiting for Iran's Signal to Strike U.S. and Israeli Targets," (link)

[7] DEA, 1 February 2016. "DEA And European Authorities Uncover Massive Hizballah Drug And Money Laundering Scheme" (link)

[8] Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, “Yearly Report by the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution,” p. 178. (link)

[9] Matthew Levitt, 2016. “Hezbollah’s Criminal Networks: Useful Idiots, Henchmen, and Organized Criminal Facilitators”, in: Hilary Matfess and Michael Miklaucic (eds.), Beyond Convergence: World Without Order, Washington, D.C.: National Defense University, pp. 155-176 (available here).

[10] US. Dept. Of Treasury, 10 February 2011, "Treasury Identifies Lebanese Canadian Bank Sal as a ‘Primary Money Laundering Concern'" (link); and US. Dept. of Treasury, n.d, "Finding that the Lebanese Canadian Bank SAL is a Financial Institution of Primary Money Laundering Concern" (link)

[11] US. Dept. Of Treasury, 27 June 2012, "Treasury Targets Major Money Laundering Network Linked to Drug Trafficker Ayman Joumaa and a Key Hizballah Supporter in South America" (link)

[12] Toby Dershowitz, 19 November 2018. “FDD | Hezbollah on Trial in Europe,” FDD (link)

[13] Matthew Levitt, 2 September 2018. “Hezbollah’s Criminal and Terrorist Operations in Europe,” AJC (link)

[14] Emmanuelle Ottolenghi, 17 April 2018, "State Sponsors of Terrorism: An Examination of Iran’s Global Terrorism Network, Congressional Testimony: Foundation for Defense of Democracies" (link)

[15] European Monitoring Centre fur Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2019, "Germany Country Drug Report 2019“ (link)

[16] AFP, 2 Aug. 2019, “Record 4.5 Tonnes of Cocaine Worth €1 Billion Seized in Hamburg,” The Local (link)

[17] Derek Maltz interview for the 2019 short film, ‘Hezbollah - A Global Threat’, produced by the Janus Initiative.

[18] Benjamin Weinthal, 20 October 2013, “Für Ein Verbot Der Gesamten Hisbollah,” Die Presse (link)

[19] Justyna Pawlak and Adrian Croft, 22 July 2013, "EU adds Hezbollah's military wing to terrorism list," Reuters (link)

[20] Andreas Kopietz, 3 June 2019, “Der Lange Arm Des Terrors,” Frankfurter Rundschau (link)

[21] Chararah Nasser, 26 July 2013, "No Separation in Hezbollah Political and Military Wings," Al-Monitor

[22] Eitan Azani, 2006. "Hezbollah, a Global Terrorist Organization: Hearing of the House Committee on International Relations – Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation" (link)


Helen Gelbart is a research analyst at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy in the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. She previously worked at the German-Israeli high tech company ‘Zeitgold’ in Berlin and volunteered at the Middle East Peace Forum (NAFFO) in Germany and Israel. She holds a B.A. in Business Administration from the IDC Herzliya and the University of Pennsylvania..

bottom of page