Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images
‘For U.S. policymakers, synergy between the LAF/ISF and Hezbollah is baked into their policy.’ Hezbollah fighters during a military exercise in the Lebanese village of Aramta, May 21, 2023.Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images
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Team Biden Mainstreams Terror Financing in Lebanon

Fifteen years of U.S. aid to ‘state security’ arms like the LAF and ISF have cost American taxpayers billions while harming Israel and strengthening Hezbollah

Tony Badran
June 05, 2023
Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images
‘For U.S. policymakers, synergy between the LAF/ISF and Hezbollah is baked into their policy.’ Hezbollah fighters during a military exercise in the Lebanese village of Aramta, May 21, 2023.Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images

So obsessed is the Biden administration with the dubious art of using taxpayer dollars to underwrite the Lebanese pseudo-state run by the terrorist group Hezbollah that it has spent its two years in office coming up with legally questionable schemes to pay the salaries of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), setting new precedents in the abuse of U.S. foreign security assistance programs. In January, the administration rolled out its program to provide direct salary payments, in cash, to both the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Internal Security Forces (ISF). This time around, the White House won’t be delivering the cash on pallets, as Obama did when he bribed Iran. Rather, it will disburse the crisp dollar bills through the U.N. Development Program. The result is the same: The U.S. government’s giant cash pump is working overtime to benefit a terror group that has purposefully maimed and killed hundreds of Americans.

The scale of U.S. financing of Lebanon’s Hezbollah-dominated military apparatus cannot be understated: around 100,000 Lebanese are now getting cash stipends courtesy of the American taxpayer to spend in Hezbollah-land. But a small thing like the U.S. becoming massively complicit in financing terrorism hardly causes Team Obama-Biden to bat an eyelid. As the administration’s nominee for the next ambassador to Lebanon, Lisa Johnson, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, if confirmed she would “continue to advocate for very strong, robust security assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces and Internal Security Forces.” And that’s because “they’re doing a great job of bolstering stability and security in this part of the world.”

No doubt. And as a testament to the exceptional job the LAF is doing, Johnson’s comments came a couple of weeks after Hezbollah fired or allowed the firing of 34 rockets across the border and dispatched a bomber from Lebanon deep into Israel, and a few days before the group put on a large military exercise to which it invited local and international media.

Whereas the LAF’s standing as a U.S.-equipped military support system for Hezbollah is well-established, the ISF usually doesn’t receive as much attention. A recent ISF accomplishment, however, did make headlines: “Lebanon busts suspected Israeli ‘spy networks,’” read an AFP headline last year. According to the Lebanese authorities, the ISF’s hard-working Information Branch uncovered no less than 17 networks inside Lebanese territory supposedly spying for Israel.

The Hezbollah mouthpiece, al-Akhbar, which first reported the story, said the ISF uncovered a breach within Hezbollah’s ranks, which it shared with the group, leading to that person’s detention by Hezbollah’s security apparatus. Other alleged spies were said to be collecting intelligence on Hamas in Lebanon; another was a Syrian in Damascus who was said to have been providing intelligence on various locales there. Within a month, the ISF had busted more individuals in south Lebanon for supposedly spying for Israel. News of this feat was even carried by Iranian media.

Echoing Lisa Johnson, Hezbollah heaped praise on the ISF for doing a great job of bolstering stability and security and encouraged further coordination. And no wonder: If your definition of Lebanese security is for Hezbollah to grow stronger, then having a U.S.-equipped and trained security service to do your counterintelligence dirty work is certainly a boon. Although the ISF had regularly uncovered alleged Israeli spies before, al-Akhbar noted that the bust of the 17 networks represented one of the largest such operations since 2009.

It was in the spring of that year, shortly after the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) launched its assistance program for the ISF, that the Lebanese counterintelligence force helpfully uncovered an Israeli infiltration of Hezbollah’s ranks. The then-head of the ISF shared the intelligence with the group. An article in the Los Angeles Times, citing Lebanese officials and an unnamed Western diplomat, reported that the Lebanese redirected for use against Israel signal-detection equipment provided to them to fight Islamic militants. Israeli national security reporters likewise reported similar claims. Meanwhile, a Hezbollah intelligence official told Time that the investigations involved the ISF and Hezbollah exchanging information.

In other words, the concurrence of the growth of ISF capabilities, thanks to U.S. support, and the intensification of counterintelligence operations against Israel was no coincidence. Nor was it an anomaly. Rather, enhancing Hezbollah’s internal security and its operations against Israel has been a feature of the U.S. assistance program since its inception all the way to the present.

Enhancing Hezbollah’s internal security and its operations against Israel has been a feature of the U.S. assistance program since its inception all the way to the present.

This is hardly an accident. For U.S. policymakers, synergy between the LAF/ISF and Hezbollah is baked into their policy, which is predicated on fostering and building up a common anti-Israel posture that joins Lebanon’s so-called “state institutions” with the country’s dominant terror group. The implicit meaning of the U.S. bureaucratic mantra that U.S. assistance aims to “undermine Hezbollah’s narrative that its weapons are necessary to defend Lebanon” is precisely that the LAF/ISF and the Lebanese terror group are jointly competing to achieve the same goals—namely, defending Lebanon from Israel. The LAF/ISF using U.S. and Western assistance to uncover Israeli cells, therefore, is well within bounds of the stated U.S. policy; in fact, it is proof that the policy is “succeeding.”

It should be emphasized here that the use of U.S. funding, training, and equipment to target Israel and secure Hezbollah’s interests is not an accidental byproduct of U.S. Lebanon policy; rather, it is the policy. The U.S. itself has used the Lebanese security agencies and military either as a backdoor to pass intelligence to Hezbollah, as it did in the early days of the Syrian war, when Hezbollah was facing blowback from its military intervention in Syria, or simply to allow the LAF and the security agencies to protect Hezbollah’s rear inside Lebanon.

The policy itself is the product of the moment when the Obama administration was openly talking about partnering with Iran and its IRGC militias (see, Iraq) to “defeat ISIS.” ISIS, therefore, became perfect cover for the broader regional realignment and for coordination between Hezbollah and the military and security agencies. The policy, therefore, puts on display the dividends of realignment while demonstrating to Iran the U.S. commitment to protecting Iranian “equities” that Obama directly promised in his letter to Khamenei.

Of course, Hezbollah, as the only power in Beirut, sets the parameters of this process. When the former head of the ISF’s Information Branch was perceived to have crossed a line with regard to involvement in the war in Syria against the Assad regime, he was eliminated in 2012.

With ISIS gone and Assad securely in power, Team Obama-Biden is pushing a new play to promote its policy of “regional integration”—that is, encouraging Arab states to invest in Iranian holdings to promote a U.S.-backed, Iranian-dominated regional order. Today’s excuse is fighting “captagon,” the cheap amphetamine pill popular throughout the region.

The administration, which has spent the last two-and-a-half years pathologically pressuring the Saudis to underwrite Lebanon, doubtless will trumpet the “outstanding effort” the ISF and LAF are making, despite severe economic challenges, to combat captagon smuggling, in order to prod the Saudis to open the spigots to finance everything from LAF/ISF salaries to the building of a new LAF naval base at the Beirut port—or whatever other pet project Team Biden-Obama dreams up to decorate Hezbollah-land.

Last October, a few months after the ISF uncovered the Israeli cells, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut celebrated 15 years of U.S. funding for the ISF. The current nominee for ambassador, who recently served as principal deputy assistant secretary for INL, and her two predecessors have all endorsed and promoted the underwriting of the Hezbollah auxiliary forces who run counterintelligence for the terror group.

Amusingly, former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard, during whose tenure LAF-Hezbollah coordination and joint deployment intensified under the American cover of “defeating ISIS,” and who oversaw the building of U.S. taxpayer-funded facilities for the ISF academy, is now the administration’s nominee for coordinator for counterterrorism. The current ambassador, Dorothy Shea, who pioneered the legally flimsy precedent of making direct cash payments to the LAF and ISF—a dodge that will probably implicate the U.S. in financing terrorism—has been nominated to be the deputy representative to the U.N. Meanwhile, current ambassadorial nominee Lisa Johnson assures us of her commitment to the policy of financing counterintelligence for Hezbollah.

The 15-year-long effort to fund and strengthen Hezbollah’s terror empire has cost the American taxpayer billions of dollars while doing untold damage to Israeli security as well as to the people inside Lebanon condemned to live under the terror group’s rule. Now it seems that price may pale next to the bizarre mainstreaming of terror financing as an arm of U.S. foreign policy.

Tony Badran is Tablet’s news editor and Levant analyst.