14 February 2008

Ending Mugniyah and missing the point

From the period of its stand-up in 1982 to the present, there has been no more effective organizer for Hezbollah than Imad Mugniyah.  From the US Embassy bombings in '83 and '84, the Marine Barracks bombing in '83 and the TWA highjacking he left an early calling card for the US in Lebanon:  get out and stay out. Additionally Hezbollah would set up shop in Kuwait via the Al-Dawa group (one of its first expansions in the 1980's), which would serve as the first group to attack outside of Lebanon and would involve Mugniyah's brother-in-law Mustafa Yousef Badreddin, although the exact nature and role Imad Mugniyah would play in that is still unclear, the close familial contact does indicate a connection of some sort between the two, beyond organizational identification.  But later events (the TWA hijacking) would demonstrate that Mugniyah had some control on this organization by 1985.

In any event, from there he would consolidate Hezbollah operations first in Lebanon, gaining a local leadership position, and then move to head up the External Security Organization of Hezbollah.  This operation was critical to expanding Hezbollah's reach beyond Lebanon into other parts of the world.  His early work with other terrorist organizations like HAMAS, IRA and PLO would set him up to be tapped into the ESO slot for two of the largest expansions of Hezbollah operations outside of the Middle East:  the Balkans and South America.  These operations ran along dual tracks in the late 1980's with the worsening position of the former Yugoslav Republics suffering their normal bouts of ethnic tensions, religious rivalries and political factioning.  Early operations there helped to expand Iranian presence and put a small foothold in Bosnia-Herzegovina that still is there to this day.  The other track I have looked at from the side of organized crime, arms shipments and narcotics traffickers and that was with the Syrian luminary of those things, Monzer al-Kassar.

This match of methodical and vicious terrorist, with methodical and ruthless transnational criminal made for a deadly and potent combination that would bring Carlos Menem into the fold for a period of time that would allow al-Kassar and Mugniyah to set up operations in South America.  al-Kassar came to that by way of his credentials, having worked with North, Hakim and Secord during the Reagan Administration and his facility with weapons procurement.  His affability and ability to deceive others on his background opened up the potential for IRBM and nuclear technology to flow from Argentina to Syria.  When the Reagan/Bush Administrations made their displeasure known, and Menem backed down, Kassar had already set himself up with control of airports and overland routes, as well as sea ports via having the inspectors answerable to his operatives.

To strike back at the US and Israel asymmetrically, he brought in Imad Mugniyah to create and carry out plans not only for the AMIA Jewish Center bombing in Argentina, but to establish a network of agents, mosques and contacts that interoperated with al-Kassar's powerbase.  Together these two would not only bring in radical Islam to South America, via immigrant populations, but would also utilize those contacts to ship South American arms illegally to the Balkans even when it was under UN embargo.  To their contacts al-Kassar added the heavy weapons and equipment dealer Bernard Lasnaud (Lasnosky) who would deal with Islamists, Communist terrorists and, generally, anyone who had serious money to spend on helicopters, artillery and aircraft.  Throughout the early 1990's those arms shipments would go into the hands of Iranian and Hezbollah operatives in the Balkans and set up terrorist training facilities in the region. 

This gave Imad Mugniyah the operations skills and contacts to further spread Hezbollah's contacts and he would follow al-Kassar's lead with the South American FARC organization.  It is during this period of the early 1990's that FARC is cited as working with and being supplied via Hezbollah, augmenting its pre-existing contacts with ETA, IRA and PLO.  The al-Kassar family, by controlling the Bekaa Valley drug trade was an integral part of Syria's ability to train agents and terrorists there from around the world (including folks like the Baader-Meinhof gang, Shining Path and Japanese Red Army, beyond standard Islamic groups like Abu Sayyaf), and Hezbollah utilized that and the FARC personnel who trained there to cement contacts with the narco-syndicate organizations of FARC and al-Kassar.  Grabbing any substantial fraction of the drug trade going through the Balkans would allow Hezbollah to gain a steady, non-Iranian based income source.  Likewise local distribution networks as wholesalers in South America for FARC would also put Hezbollah into a similar cash flow there.  al-Kassar would work to coordinate the various criminal elements including the Cali and Medellin Cartels so as to properly understand market sharing and cooperation, so that there would be integrated overlap in distribution to North America and Europe.

In the Balkans the primary organized crime families, already working with Algerian terrorist groups would likewise have their market reach expanded via Hezbollah.  In that cooperation, Imad Mugniyah would have contact with some Algerian terrorist organizations in Albania via the more well known GIA, but Hezbollah would also have its own organization there, too.  Yes, these are all through the reach of Imad Mugniyah and his now extensive operative network which, for Hezbollah, was now stretching into Europe and, with Algerian and Albanian help, into Canada and the US (particularly Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Los Angeles and North Carolina), each of which would act in coordination to deliver drugs, commit bank and credit card fraud, sell grey and black market goods from the far east, smuggling and commit tax evasion.  Thus when a Hezbollah operative is picked up driving three tons of pseudoephedrine from Canada to Mexico for processing by drug gangs in Mexico to methamphetamines, one should not be surprised to see the long arm of Hezbollah at work.

al Qaeda would look towards Hezbollah early on with contacts in the Sudan forming by an outreach between bin Laden, Zawahiri and Turabi to Hezbollah and Mugniyah.  Here the plans and commercial contacts of Mugniyah would start to work some magic, that would allow al Qaeda to understand how to create a dispersed operation for income and actual attacks, and start the flow of goods into Somalia in the late 1990's using those same contacts of Monzer al-Kassar and, now, Italian Mafia to ship drugs into Somalia in containers of toxic waste.  Even with al Qaeda having to shift its operational HQ multiple times (Sudan, Egypt, Afghanistan) the ability to deliver recruits to be trained in each of those Nations allowed al Qaeda to grow, particularly as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.  Later al Qaeda would make the acquaintance of Viktor Bout, notorious arms dealer from Russia, either via the Syrian side of things (via the business dealings with al-Kassar) or via missed arms drop-off meant for the terrorist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Afghanistan.

Imad Mugniyah would offer the ability to train al Qaeda personnel in Sudan, the Bekaa or in FARClandia in Colombia.  That latter set of introductions would allow al Qaeda to get some  much needed contacts to also augment the ones Mugniyah had in the Balkans.  By utilizing that part of the drug trade that was more associated with Sunni Islam in Kosovo, al Qaeda recognized an opportunity to get its own foothold for training outside of Bosnia.  Mugniyah's contacts with al-Kassar would also allow al Qaeda to get in contact with the Red Mafia from Russia in the form of the Red Don, Semion Mogilevich.  Mogilevich had demonstrated ability to delivery arms, equipment, narcotics (from China and the Golden Triangle), human trafficking, explosives and the one thing that no other supplier could get to - radioactive material that had been processed.  From its early days in Egypt then in the Sudan, al Qaeda was working to make deals to get its hands on radioactive material and this was something that Pakistan was not going to provide to terrorists.  Mogilevich, having his hands in the energy industry in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, also had access to nuclear materials via those routes in the left over Soviet facilities or through his wider contacts in other criminal organizations based in Moscow.  This is one of the few places that Mugniyah would need to cede initial regional outlook to al Qaeda as Hezbollah was not immediately prepared to deal with an area called Chechnya.  Over time Iran would help Hezbollah establish its own groups there, but al Qaeda, already cooperating with Hekmatyar, had an 'easy in' with supplying fighters and arming them via Mogilevich.

That said, al Qaeda and Hezbollah were more than willing to cooperate in the US Embassy Bombings of Kenya and Tanzania, the USS Cole bombing and even go to the extent of sharing network contacts in the drug running business.  Further the earlier cooperation had led towards extension of both networks into Saudi Arabia (as seen in the Khobar Towers attack) and into Yemen not only for the USS Cole attack but for funding and recruitment.  al Qaeda would extend its contact network into Kenya post-bombing, to include Islamic charity front organizations and would later stage attacks on a Jewish owned hotel and attempt to use a SAM to shoot down an Israeli airliner.  Somalia, itself, continues to suffer problems from radical Islamic groups, although the Islamic Courts have been forced out with cooperation between the US, Ethiopia, Kenya and the provisional government in Somalia.  Those fleeing from this went to Eritrea and Yemen, with a few winding up in Saudi Arabia.

By the 9/11 attack, al Qaeda and Hezbollah had shared resources and even operational capability on commonly held targets, while differing with each other on some other targets (mainly al Qaeda's willingness to work with Saddam Hussein).  By the 2003 ouster of Saddam from power and the fall of Iraq, these two networks led by Mugniyah and bin Laden would share resources, again, in staging a two front insurgency into Iraq from Syria and Iran.  They both would be aided in this by the man who would be #1 on the most wanted list in Iraq for supplying the insurgency: Monzer al-Kassar.  Together these organizations brought in men, training, arms, money and expertise in not only recruitment and training, but in how to form a criminal network to support terrorism while under seige by hostile forces.  Iran would utilize Mugniyah's skills for the Kazali (and other) southern networks and Syria would use al-Kassar's skills in the north of Iraq.  These two networks interoperated along the river valleys and then across Iraq, making the very first moves to bring control to Iraq post-2003 a north-south one.  The expansion of operations, particularly the riverine work in 2005, started to address this sophisticated set-up and the 'surge' campaign of 2007 addressed it directly with a pre-surge attack on the criminal organizations.

Throughout this the MSM and even most of the on-line media have ignored the work of the multiple operations going on by the likes of Imad Mugniyah.  Part of this is the complexity of the multi-organizational cooperation and partly it is through enforced and often partisan ignorance.  These are not 'quick and easy' story lines, nor things that can be wrapped up in a single article: events along a multi-year timespan do not make good 'copy' nor compelling viewing,while simplistic events *do*.  Thus the warned about melding of organized crime and terrorism not only went unnoticed by the population at large, but by the lawmakers who have been hearing about it for over a decade.  If lawmakers are unwilling to spend the effort to get to the bottom of BCCI and its international implications on US actors and agents, then how are they to demonstrate interest in something like the Taba banking arrangement or even more informal hawala payment systems that allow terrorism to flourish on the small scale?  These things were not unknown in the realm of law enforcement or treasury areas, and yet they went unaddressed even *after* having Interpol demonstrate the problems this was causing on a global scale and the impacts it was having on the US *before* 9/11.

While the ending of Imad Mugniyah is some cause for celebration, the actual hard work of pulling up the systems that he put in place has not only not begun in the US, but it has only started in the one area vital to the armed forces where it is present:  Iraq.  The borders of Iraq de-limit the scope and breadth of attacking these criminal networks that enhance and support organized crime far beyond the Middle East, and stretching all the way to small time crime in Ontario, Quebec, California, Washington State and North Carolina.  To date no one has found how complete cars are stolen, trans-shipped to the Middle East to show up in al Qaeda bomb shops in Iraq.  If we can't get law enforcement and our export system interested on the large scale like the Bank of New York scandal, then getting it interested in such a simple thing like stolen cars aimed at killing our servicemen seems far-fetched.  Without a foreign policy set up to approach these things across the scale, the ending of an Imad Mugniyah, and the pick-up of al-Kassar last year and the Red Don this year has ignored that their networks which they organized to work *without them* continue unabated.  For Mogilevich the Dmitry Firtash network of semi-legitimate businesses still serves as a facade to the larger system that got Firtash into business and the investments of Mogilevich to establish a large scale money laundering enterprise based on the energy business.  Likewise the bureaucratic system set up by Mugniyah to run charities and criminal operations were made to work in the eventuality of his sudden demise or capture, the latter of which would at least offer a chance to start unraveling them.  And for al-Kassar, his family has a long and established line in Syria and his associates and family members are well versed in picking up those loose-ends he left behind and in pressuring Syria to get him *back*.

In all the adulation of the end of Mugniyah, we miss the larger and nastier point that he was one of many capable individuals who have set up organizations with forethought: they can be taken out, but the systems they made will continue onwards.  It is very handy to take out such a skilled individual in a permanent fashion, as the likes of al-Kassar and Mogilevich are so skilled that they have yet to pay for their crimes because of their ability to use the law's loopholes to ensure they are not easily fingered with *anything*.  Considering that something a bit less difficult, like the Gambino Family in the US has been around and will continue to be around even after the recent spate of arrests, how does one address a system like Hezbollah that has the support of Iran and Syria or the al-Kassar family that stretches its syndicate across four continents?  And as Russia has moved into a 1/3 sharing arrangement for its industry between State, Private and Criminal investment, with the criminal part doing its hardest to *also* be in the private sector, what, exactly, is the long term solution to those crime groups that support terrorism from China to the US?

I am very, very glad that Imad Mugniyah finally met his end.

I am not convinced, however, that we actually understand the deep and complex threat that he was a part of that will continue to expand until it is addressed across all fronts of military, economic, law enforcement and foreign policy, with a strong and hefty back-up on law enforcement and border policing, coupled with shipment inspection at home.  Until we take them as seriously as the other organizations that have done this in the past, not only will the threat not be stopped, but it will continue its advances until civil society becomes threatened on a global scale.  If it has taken decades to see the equivalent of one skilled crime boss go down, what does this tell us about our ability to address the multiple 'families' of terrorism that all work together to delineate territory, share resources and kill wantonly without fear of reprisal?

Removing Imad Mugniyah is a very good thing.

It is, unfortunately, not even starting to get at the problem itself.

As a society and a Nation if we cannot get away from the 'sound-bite' culture driving our view of the world, then this will slowly erode us until it will be too late to address it.  It is *already* here.  And I have yet to hear any substantial proposals on how to roll it back and address it from either the Left or the Right.  The Left wishes to give up to it and society with it, by wishing there just weren't such nasty people in the world.  The Right is just looking for a lovely economy and doesn't want to put that at risk doing the things necessary to defend it.

Neither one of these is realistic nor sustainable in even the short term.  Both are lethal in the long term because neither address the threat nor deal with it.

Too bad our Presidential candidates won't address these things.

We may not get the leadership we need, but we will get the one we *deserve* at this rate.

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