Adam Ciralsky, Lisa Myers and the NBC News Investigative Unit not only provided an important news story in "Hezbollah banks under attack in Lebanon: Israel seeks to destroy group's financial infrastructure," but they went beyond collecting information to make a real difference in the war on terror.
The news is that the Israeli aerial bombing of Hizbullah targets has not been just military but also financial: "among the targets hit in Lebanon are as many as a dozen financial institutions — part of a previously secret campaign to destroy Hezbollah's financial infrastructure. Some banks were demolished, others deliberately damaged but not destroyed. In one case, Israel also took out a bank manager's home." The targets have included eight offices of Hizbullah's treasury, Beit el Mal, plus branches of two major banks — Al Baraka and Fransabank. The Middle East and Africa Bank (MEAB) is also on Israel's target list.
The Israelis believe the attacks caught Hezbollah by surprise and that Hizbullah is "very desperate" for cash, says Brig. Gen. Dani Arditi, advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister for Counterterrorism.
All three banks predictably denied ties to Hizbullah.
- Al Baraka: "We have no relation to any organization like Hezbollah."
- Fransabank: "We have no relationship with Hezbollah or any other political party anywhere. We don't have any relation and we refuse to have one."
- The Middle East and Africa Bank: someone tried to open a suspicious account with the bank, but no money was accepted and the bank employee involved was fired.
In a conventional news report, the story would have ended here, but the NBC News Investigative Unit dug deeper. Noting that Hizbullah's television station, Al-Manar, broadcast a fundraising appeal last week asking that money be sent to a specific account at MEAB, an Arabic-speaking NBC News producer called the number at MEAB mentioned in the television ad. He was told to go to any U.S. bank and wire the money but not to indicate that the money is for Hizbullah.
MEAB has a commercial relationship with Wachovia, a major American bank. NBC News informed Wachovia of MEAB's role in fundraising for Hizbullah and Wachovia immediately terminated the relationship.
That done, the NBC News producer called back the same MEAB number mentioned on Al-Manar. This time, he was given the name of another bank, Banque Libano-Française. Here's how the conversation went:
NBC: I want to donate money to the Mujahideens [Hezbollah resistance], is this the right number?
Hezbollah Facilitator: You have to send to The Lebanese-French Bank.
NBC: Do you have the number?
Hezbollah Facilitator: There is an account number. You deposit the money and wire it to the Lebanese French Bank.
NBC: How can I know that this is accurate? I'm so worried to deposit the money, can you tell me and confirm that this money will be sent to the Mujahideen?
Hezbollah Facilitator: Yes, sure.
NBC: And where are you from? Are you from the bank or no?
Hezbollah Facilitator: No. I'm from the resistance.
NBC: How would we know? I'm so worried when I deposit the money it will reach Mujahideen.
Hezbollah Facilitator: You go to the bank and deposit the money, and they will wire it to the Lebanese French Bank. You have to go the bank. Where are you calling from?
NBC: I am from America.
Hezbollah Facilitator: You have to go to the bank — any bank.
NBC: That for sure will reach the Mujahideen?
Hezbollah Facilitator: For sure. Do not mention resistance or anything like that. If you do, they won't wire them.
NBC: Thank you - God be with you. Bye bye.
Hezbollah Facilitator: You are welcome. God be with you.
Maurice Iskandar, head of the Corporate Banking Division of the Lebanese-French Bank, informed NBC News on July 18 that the bank had closed the Hizbullah account. "Following the information in your e-mail, our Compliance Unit has closed the said account." NBC News then went to the Lebanese-French Bank's American partners, Citibank and the Bank of New York, and informed them of the situation. Both banks said they took the appropriate steps.
Comment: Bravo to NBC News for its intrepid and constructive work. But where is the vaunted financial counterterrorism effort of the U.S. government? If NBC can do all this from public sources, one has to wonder how effective law enforcement's can be. (July 25, 2006)