The U.S. Justice Department said it is setting up a new team to investigate alleged drug trafficking by Hizballah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shi'ite group that the United States has branded a terrorist organization.
The announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on January 11 came as Republicans in Congress are criticizing former President Barack Obama for allegedly stymieing a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operation that targeted Hizbillah's drug-trafficking activities out of concern it might hamper U.S. efforts to negotiate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
A Politico article last month reporting about Obama's alleged move to quash the DEA's so-called Project Cassandra investigation into Hizballah was cited by Sessions in setting up the new investigative team.
Sessions said the Justice Department will assemble leading investigators and prosecutors to man the Hizballah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team and ensure all investigations targeting Hizballah are completed.
"The Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats to our citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating drug crisis," Sessions said.
"The team will initiate prosecutions that will restrict the flow of money to foreign terrorist organizations as well as disrupt violent international drug-trafficking operations."
On January 10, former top Treasury Department sanctions official Juan Zarate told Congress that Hizballah's drug-smuggling and money-laundering operations are global in scale.
He told a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that recent moves by the Treasury Department and the DEA to dismantle Hizballah's networks "led to arrests and enforcement actions around the world."
The United States has long targeted Hizballah with sanctions.
In 2011, the Obama administration unleashed a crackdown on the group, designating Beirut-based Lebanese Canadian Bank a "primary money-laundering concern" for handling the funds of alleged Hizballah drug kingpin Ayman Joumaa.
The administration said at that time that Hizballah's far-flung operations involved Colombia and Panama-based drug traffickers shipping tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe and then laundering the drug revenues through various banks around the world.
Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah denied the allegations, saying that the group depends on Iran for funding and that drug trafficking is forbidden by Islam.
Former DEA official Derek Maltz on January 11 told the Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington that Hizballah uses the drug proceeds to buy weapons it uses in the civil war in Syria, where it backs President Bashar al-Assad, and has provided some of the funds to Shi'ite Huthi rebels battling the government in Yemen.