Everybody needs to have a side hustle these days, and in recent years Hezbollah has been diversifying from its core business model of political terrorism. With its key sponsors in the Iranian and Syrian governments feeling the pinch owing to Western sanctions, the Lebanese militant group has been raising funds through money laundering schemes and drug smuggling. According to a US official, “Hezbollah [has] become one of the biggest transnational organised crime groups in the world.”
Now reporter Miles Johnson has written a book mapping out the mazy route by which profits from drug deals in Europe and the US end up funding the Hezbollah fighting forces propping up President Assad in Syria. It’s part geopolitical essay, part toothsome slice of true crime, focusing on three individuals: an American cop, an Italian Mafioso and a Hezbollah terrorist mastermind.
The cop is Jack Kelly, mainstay of the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s “swashbuckling Special Operations Division” – known, less prepossessingly to British than to American ears, as the SOD. The SOD was founded in 1994 to extend the DEA’s international reach; Kelly had made his reputation pursuing drug dealers in Brooklyn and the Bronx and “barely knew the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite” when he was recruited, but was able to apply his street smarts on a global level and expose Hezbollah as a player in the global drug smuggling trade.
Johnson details the various sting operations and subterfuges that Kelly mounted to disrupt deals with which Hezbollah was connected, hampered by a US intelligence community that had little interest in the theories of jumped-up drugs cops and took the view that “it made no sense that a militarily disciplined and religiously devout organisation like Hezbollah would be involved in illicit activities”.
The second figure Johnson focuses on is Salvatore Pititto, a lower-league Mafia capo in Calabria, who in 2014 made the disastrous decision to expand his horizons and try importing cocaine from a Colombian drug cartel in league with Hezbollah. The scheme rapidly descended into a farcical catalogue of mishaps and double-crossings, relayed with deadpan relish by Johnson. The Italians and the Colombians swapped gang members as hostages when the deal was first under way, and you can’t help feeling a twinge of sympathy even for the appalling Pititto when he ends up playing host to a bumptious Colombian known as “The Colonel” who is rude to his wife and eats him out of house and home.
Contrasting sharply with the incompetence of the Italians are the seemingly preternatural gifts of the book’s third central figure, Mustafa Badreddine of Hezbollah. He masterminded fiendish but ingenious terrorist atrocities that ranged from the suicide bomb attack on the US Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon in 1983 – at the time the largest non-nuclear explosion ever detonated – to the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri.