ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now a look at Hezbollah's financing. The organization has deep coffers. Iran is believed to provide it with more than $150 million a year. Beyond that, the group raises money among Lebanese outside the country, including those here in the U.S.
NPR's Guy Raz reports.
GUY RAZ reporting:
Ken Bell thought the telephone call was somewhat strange. The FBI needed to speak to him urgently. That was back in 1999 and Bell was a U.S. attorney working in the sleepy district of Charlotte, North Carolina. He was gathering evidence against members of a cigarette-smuggling ring.
Mr. KEN BELL (Attorney, Charlotte): And while that case was still under investigation, the FBI came to us in a classified setting and let us know that the targets of that investigation were members of a Hezbollah cell in Charlotte.
RAZ: Over a 6-year period, the cell members generated $8 million by smuggling cheap cigarettes from North Carolina to Michigan. A portion of the money was then sent on to Hezbollah handlers in Lebanon. Mohammed Hamoud, the ringleader of the group, was processing the money.
Mr. BELL: Hamoud would convert it generally to cashier's checks or some other form of bearer instrument and just hand it to the next guy going home on a plane, who'd put it in his coat pocket and fly to Lebanon.
RAZ: In 2003, Ken Bell successfully prosecuted the case that sent six of those members to prison. Among the items the group managed to buy, night vision goggles, communications equipment and even drone technology.
At the time of the investigation, Ken Piernick was running the Hezbollah desk at FBI headquarters. Sitting in a northern Virginia park, Piernick described how the group initially raised money here in the United States.
Mr. KEN PIERNICK (Federal Bureau of Investigation): They were collecting money and shipping that over, usually under the guise of the Shahid Foundations or the Widows and Orphans and various groups like that, which were reportedly and purportedly helping widows, orphans and people who were indigent.
RAZ: Piernick says before 9/11, the primary focus of counterterrorism agents at the FBI was actually Hezbollah. At that time, Hezbollah had killed more Americans than any other foreign terror organization.
Mr. HASAN NASHRULLAH (Hezbollah leader): (Speaking foreign language)
RAZ: This is Hezbollah leader Hasan Nashrullah in a 2004 speech recorded by the group Memory, a media-monitoring service that focuses on the Middle East. He tells a mass rally that “American aggression will have very grave consequences.” The crowd responds with chants of death to America.
(Soundbite of chanting crowd)
RAZ: There is considerably debate in U.S. intelligence circles over whether or not Hezbollah would carry out attacks domestically. One theory suggests Hezbollah wouldn't want to alienate its U.S. base of support. More importantly, the group wouldn't want to disrupt lucrative fund-raising schemes. Former Special Agent Dennis Lormel founded the FBI's Counterterror Financing Unit.
Mr. DENNIS LORMEL (Federal Bureau of Investigation): They raise funds through business fronts, through criminal activity, use of shell companies and certainly through some fundraising mechanisms.
RAZ: The FBI in recent years has uncovered schemes that include the sale of counterfeit Viagra, fake baby formula, credit card fraud and money laundering. Author Tom Diaz spent six years investigating Hezbollah's network in the United States.
Mr. TOM DIAZ (Author): Literally millions of dollars and uncounted dollars have gone from the United States specifically to Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations.
RAZ: The tide, say current and former FBI officials, has been stemmed. But no one in law enforcement, including former Special Agent Ken Piernick, has doubts about whether the group continues to raise money here in the United States.
Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.
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