Hizbullah and the $3 billion Bekaa Valley drug trade gets major boost from prisoner exchange


January 30, 2004

When Hizbullah drew up its list of Arab and Palestinian prisoners it wanted released in any exchange with Israel, the Shi'ite group was determined to touch all bases. Hizbullah cited leading terrorist operatives, agents in Algeria, Jordan, Libya and Tunisia.
And then there was Ali Biro.

Who is Ali Biro? He's one of the biggest drug dealers in the Middle East and the reason that Hizbullah leaders have been able to keep their pockets stuffed with cash. When he is released later this week, Biro will pay more tribute than ever to the most powerful terrorist group in the world.

There's no question that Israel cares about its citizens and soldiers. But in its ardor to free those captured or abducted by terrorist groups, Israel has unwittingly been encouraging these groups to continue their activities. Indeed, Israel, more than any other Western country, has been willing to negotiate and make major concessions to terrorists and their drug-related financiers.

On Thursday, Israel is set to release 436 Arab and Palestinian prisoners held mostly on terrorist charges. Several of them, particularly Biro, have been major drug allies of Hizbullah and responsible for much of the illegal narcotic traffic in the Middle East.

In its prisoner exchange with Israel, Hizbullah made sure to maintain its extensive ties with drug dealers. Much of Hizbullah's revenues come from providing protection for drug smugglers who bring a range of raw materials into the Bekaa Valley for processing illegal drugs.

The annual drug trade in the Bekaa Valley is estimated at more than $3 billion. It is based on the production of cocaine, heroin and other hard drugs in laboratories in the towns of Baalbek and Berital. During the winter, Hizbullah oversees the distilling of cocaine from raw coca paste, which arrives from the Tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

The cocaine is then shipped to the European market. In the summer, Hizbullah focuses on the processing of opium poppies from Southeast Asia as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Hizbullah operatives have strong ties with leading drug and terrorist groups in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela. They include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC], the National Liberation Army [ELN] in Colombia and the Sendero Luminoso [Shining Path] in Peru.

Western intelligence sources assert that Hizbullah's take in the drug trade is more than $50 million a year with some estimates reaching $500 million a year. Paraguayan Interior Minister Julio Fanego said Hizbullah received between $50 million and $500 million from the Tri-border region from 1999 to 2001. In 2000, Hizbullah received more than $135 million from its drug dealers in the Tri-border region.

Islam has banned drug use. But for Hizbullah that's no problem. The organization received a religious edict, or fatwa, from Iranian clerics allowing it to trade in what is termed "white death."

Hizbullah uses the proceeds from drugs to broaden its support in Lebanon.

Intelligence sources believe the funds pay for Hizbullah's huge bureaucracy and social welfare network in Lebanon. Hizbullah's parliamentary delegation provides political support to leading Lebanese drug dealers and growers so they can avoid pressure from Lebanese or Syrian authorities.

The issue is so important that at one point Hizbullah was threatened with a split because of a dispute over the drug trade. Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah wanted to keep the drug trade low profile and honor a Lebanese and Syrian ban on growing opium poppy crops in the Bekaa. Nasrallah's predecessor, Sheik Tufaili, sought to establish a splinter group through an alliance with Shi'ite farmers who had been stopped from growing poppies.

That's where Ali Biro comes in. He is the son of Mohammed Biro, a former Lebanese customs agent regarded as one of the biggest drug dealers in the Middle East. When it suited him, Biro was a friend of Israel during its presence in Lebanon. Indeed, then-Defense Minister Moshe Arens was even invited to Biro's house in southern Lebanon. In many cases, Israeli authorities closed their eyes when Biro and his associates smuggled and peddled drugs in southern Lebanon and Israel.

Mohammed and Ali Biro have been serving long sentences in Israel for drug trafficking. Associates of Biro, Hassan and Kais Obeid, were also arrested for participating in the drug trade in Israel and for smuggling weapons to Palestinians.

Hassan died in prison and Kais was released and later joined Hizbullah in a plan to hand the organization an Israeli colonel connected to the Mossad.

Ali Biro will be included in the prisoner exchange thanks to Obeid, who comes from a prominent family in the Israeli city of Taibeh and whose grandfather was a Knesset member. Obeid was said to have arranged for the abduction of Elhanan Tannenbaum in October 2000. The two men were friends but that didn't stop Obeid from tempting Tannenbaum to a shady business deal in Brussels where he would make hundreds of thousands of dollars. From Brussels, Hizbullah operatives disguised as businessmen, lured Tannenbaum to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. From Abu Dhabi, Hizbullah took Tannenbaum to Beirut and captivity.

Hizbullah tried to lure other Israeli businessmen into captivity by the promise of huge business deals in the Arab world. At one point, former Israeli Energy Minister Gonen Segev was approached with the prospect of winning a huge natural gas deal with Qatar. The Israel Security Agency warned Segev that Hizbullah was targeting him for abduction.

The Israeli deal sets a deadly precedent for the West. For the first time, Israel is freeing terrorists in exchange for an Israeli civilian.

This means that anytime Hizbullah wants to achieve political gains, it knows that it only has to kidnap an Israeli or Jew anywhere in the world. The bill will be presented to Israel.

What's worse is that Israel has been pressuring Germany to release Iranian terrorists jailed on charges of the bombing of a Berlin restaurant in 1992. This could take place in the second stage of the prisoner release with Hizbullah.

Count on Hizbullah to ask for as many of its drug allies as possible in this deal as well.