'A kind of death': life on the US Treasury blacklist
The United States in 2009 listed Kassim Tajideen as a financier of Hezbollah, the Iran-allied Lebanese party, leaving him shut out from banks with no legal redress
Gareth Smyth for Tehran Bureau
Wednesday 25 May 2016 12.44 BST
Put aside any image of a global terrorist in an Afghan cave or an armed camp in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Forget the triumphalism of an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander. Kassim Tajideen arrives in a Beirut restaurant wearing a flat cloth cap and chats over a lunch of spiced fish.
The fact he can’t pay with a Visa card is one of the lesser disadvantages of being listed by the United States Treasury Department as a financial supporter ofHezbollah, the Iran-allied Lebanese Shia Muslim group the United States classifies as a foreign terrorist organisation.
Ten months after Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers, its leaders complain that continuing US sanctions are deterring would-be foreign investors. Many of the remaining blocks to trade result from the US designation of Iranian entities, including the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), as terrorist, and a major reason for this designation appears to be their links to Hezbollah. A recent Supreme Court judgment has allowed the dispersal of $2bn of frozen Iranian assets to relatives of US marines killed in Beirut in 1983 by Shia militants allied to Iran, while Treasury officials are taking steps to implement legislation introduced in December threatening to sanction any bank dealing with Hezbollah.
A US Treasury Department spokeswoman has reiterated to Tehran Bureau that Kassim Tajideen has contributed “tens of millions of dollars” to Hezbollah. This Tajideen denies. His lawyer, Chibli Mallat, regards the process of listing as undermining the rule of law. Along with a leading Washington law firm, Mallat has conducted an extensive dialogue with the US Treasury over Tajideen’s case. While the Treasury is not required to present evidence - the details in such cases are classified as a state secret - some journalists and academics echo their charge that Tajideen is a terrorist.
Kassim Tajideen is reluctant to put a figure on the millions that his inclusion on the terrorism register since May 2009 has cost his businesses, based mainly in west Africa. But he says he has lost $8-10m with funds frozen in the US and the legal or accountancy fees incurred in his efforts to be delisted or, as he puts it, clear his name.
A self-made businessman, Tajideen was born to a humble family in 1955 in mainly Shia south Lebanon, long before Hezbollah existed. He left school at 11. Tajideen says he has no interest in politics and has never voted; that even inBelgium, where he has nationality and where voting is compulsory, his wife filled out his ballot paper.
He says this indifference goes back to childhood: “I left Lebanon for Africa in 1976, shortly after the [civil] war started. I never had any friendship with politics here in Lebanon.” Over the following three decades and more, Tajideen built up a network of trading and retailing businesses, dealing mainly in foodstuffs, in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Angola.
But in listing him in 2009, the US Treasury said Tajideen was “an important financial contributor to Hizballah (sic) who operates a network of businesses in Lebanon and Africa”,including “cover companies” for Hizballah, and who had “contributed tens of millions of dollars to Hizballah [sending] funds...through his brother [Ali], a Hizballah commander…”
The irony of the listing, says Tajideen, was that less than a month earlier a six-year legal process in Belgium had ended with the dropping of charges of financing terrorism and illegal diamond dealing. A Belgian court instead fined Tajideen and his wife 150,000 Euros each for financial irregularities unrelated to terrorism or diamonds. The Belgian investigation had begun with information provided by the Belgian security service, a letter from Tajideen’s Belgian lawyer Raf Verstraeten to Mallat in 2010 reveals, and ended with the conviction of Tajideen and his wife for “illegal capital gains, created by a system of underinvoicing …entirely accounted to the African customers” and unrelated to Hezbollah or “any other alleged terrorist organization”.
So the news from Washington in 2009 was a shock.
“I was surprised, as I’d thought America was democratic,” says Tajideen. “A friend called me at midnight to tell me, and woke me up. The next day I saw my lawyer [in Belgium], although he didn’t know exactly what it would mean.”
The listing of ‘terrorist financiers’ is the province of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a section of the Treasury first developed in the Second World War to track Nazi assets. Its role expanded after the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington as the US found that barring individuals and groups from the American financial system not only disadvantaged them but led third parties, like banks, to shun them. OFAC collates information supplied from government and security agencies, both US and foreign.
When listed as a ‘foreign terrorist organisation’ in 1997 (it had been listed as a ‘Designated Terrorist’ two years earlier), Hezbollah was carrying out armed attacks on Israeli troops occupying south Lebanon. The US also suspected that both Hezbollah and Iran had been involved in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 American servicemen died.
Over ten years earlier, in 1983, suicide bombers in Beirut probably linked to the group had killed 63 people, including 17 Americans, in the US embassy, and 241 marines in the US and French military headquarters. The Beirut attacks were crucial not just to how Washington saw Hezbollah but how it saw Iran, which had at the time deployed hundreds of Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon’s Beqaa valley to train Shia militants.
When he was listed 26 years after these attacks, Tajideen felt no part of any conflict between the US and Iran. To clear his name, he first approached a lawyer in the US but then, dissatisfied with progress, turned to Lebanese lawyer Chibli Mallat, known as both an author and human rights practitioner, indicting Ariel Sharon in Belgium for crimes against humanity and launching a campaign in 1997 to indict Saddam Hussein. His magnum opus is perhaps Philosophy of Nonviolence, published last year by Oxford University Press; Mallat has also offered a legal critique of the whole concept of the “war on terror” as a way of dealing with violence, writing in 2002 that “9-11 was a crime against humanity, a category which, unlike ‘terrorism,’ is well defined in international law and carries the common responsibility of humankind”.
When Tajideen went to see him, Mallat set stringent conditions for his involvement.
“I told Mr Tajideen that if he had nothing to hide and would open up all his files, there was a chance of removing the listing,” says Mallat. “I told him that if he wanted to hide anything, it was better not to start; and that if I took the case and later found any fact showing he had supported Hezbollah financially, then I would simply walk away.”
Mallat has what he calls “a history of disagreements” with Hezbollah, including his accusation that it started the 2006 war with Israel, and he has more recently told the Orient news TV channel that Hezbollah’s military support for president Bashar al-Assad in Syria is illegal.
Tajideen agreed to Mallat’s conditions and the lawyer swung into action. Mallat recalls: “I said at the meeting at OFAC that I have a reputation, that I think my client is genuine, that he doesn’t support Hezbollah and should be let off the list. I told OFAC he was ready to open whatever paper they wanted. But with OFAC, they don’t tell you what they want. It’s more, why don’t you try to do things, we’re happy to listen and to read...”
After a first petition to Treasury was rejected in 2010, Tajideen also hired WilmerHale, the leading Washington law firm, and then a major international accountancy firm. The latter, according to Mallat and Tajideen, has done over 4,000 hours’ forensic investigation into Tajideen’s business affairs.
Tajideen and his lawyers began a lengthy, discursive dialogue with the Treasury, with face-to-face meetings as well as interchanging letters and documents. He wound down all his companies listed in 2009, and when he opened new ones he informed Treasury, meaning these companies have been operating even with Tajideen listed.
The accountants – Mallat and Tajideen will not disclose their identity, saying confidentiality is a condition of their role – drew up both for Tajideen as an individual and for his companies a series of SOPs (standards of operation), measures designed to ensure transparency. According to Tajideen, these led to significant financial losses for his companies, for example in holding local currencies at higher than desirable levels.
The accountants monitored the application of the SOPs and presented their findings to Treasury, including two quarterly reports submitted in 2013. This was all before Treasury relisted Tajideen in October 2015, six years after the original listing.
A long explanation sent to his Washington lawyer was essentially a classified document of which large chunks had been blacked out. Much that was not blacked out was, according to Tajideen, factually wrong or inconsistent in describing his businesses: it confused real estate companies with other companies, confused the Chouf region of Lebanon with the south, gave the wrong number for his companies in Angola, misunderstood the nature of shell companies, and ignored many steps taken to increase transparency.
The document, says Mallat, justified the continued terrorism listing on the grounds that Tajideen had failed to prove his case, in other words to prove his innocence.
This is the crux of Mallat’s argument. In a usual legal process, the lawyer would seek to disprove a charge, and would do so by exercising his primary instinct as a lawyer: examining the evidence. But Treasury does not present evidence.
Mallat explains: “The people at OFAC say, ‘Sorry we can’t give you the evidence’. In any court of law that would be laughed at as surreal, because you can’t convict someone without presenting evidence his lawyer can rebut. The great advance of the rule of law in history is precisely to establish the basic premise that someone is innocent until proven guilty.”
Listing – without presenting evidence – is a major tactic in the “war on terror”. In an email, Mallat compares being listed to mort civile (civilian death) under the French ancien regime: “You suddenly see yourself completely shut out from basic amenities like having a cheque book, transferring money, or using a credit card. Except that this is worse, there is no due process and no available remedy.”
Tajideen’s legal team does draw satisfaction that the charges against him – according to what they say was in the Treasury letter to them of October 2015 – now have moved from giving “tens of millions of dollars to Hizballah”, as was alleged in 2009, to making unspecified donations to Hezbollah schools and employing two party members.
“The SOPs drawn up by the accountancy firm involve higher diligence on all kinds of activities, including hiring employees,” says Mallat. “If he [Tajideen] knows they are members of Hezbollah he will fire them. Regarding the 12 schools, we have gone to land records, which show most were all established way back before Hezbollah existed, and that several are public [state] schools.”
Mallat believes this is where US policy starts to unravel. Many state employees in Lebanon – teachers, soldiers, civil servants – are members of Hezbollah. As are three government ministers, not one of whom is listed.
Tajideen’s sense of being lost in a twilight world of shadows has been increased over the years by media reports calling him a “terrorist financier”, and in particular blurring his relationship with his brothers, two of whom - Ali and Hussein - have been described by the US as supporters of Hezbollah, as indeed according to election results are hundreds of thousands of Lebanese including Christians. “We haven’t taken out legal action against a variety of claims in the media about my client because we chose a route of dialogue and co-operation with OFAC,” says Mallat. “Suffice to say, there are a number of media claims based solely on Treasury statements or on hearsay.”
There is evident circularity between media reports, books, the Treasury and what is more or less gossip. The fullest published account of Tajideen is in Hezbollah: the Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, a book written by Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who is a former Treasury counter intelligence official and who in March testified before Congress on Hezbollah. Levitt has also recently been appointed associate fellow of the Henry Jackson Society, who describe him as “a leading authority on illicit finance related to terrorism” .
A section in Levitt’s book features Tajideen and is sourced almost entirely to Treasury press releases and the strongly anti-Hezbollah NOWLebanon website.
Levitt’s account of Kassim Tajideen’s arrest in Belgium in 2003 refers to charges of “large-scale tax fraud, money laundering and trade in diamonds of doubtful origin, to the value of tens of millions of Euros”. But he does not mention that six years later, all charges related to terrorism and diamonds were dropped.
Levitt’s book, published in 2013 and reprinted in 2015, makes great play of the links between Tajideen and his brothers, of whom two - Ali and Hussein - were listed in 2010 for “providing support” for Hezbollah, when the Treasury press release also suggested Ali was a former Hezbollah commander.
Levitt portrays Ali Tajideen not just as a commander but as a major player in Jihad al-Binna, a construction company designated by the Treasury in 2007 for links to Hezbollah, and asserts “the Tajideen brothers” had used another company to purchase land on behalf of Hezbollah.
Here Levitt relies on Warriors for God, a 2011 book by the British journalist Nick Blanford, in stating Ali Tajideen bought land between Jezzine and the Bekaa valley in an area, writes Levitt, where “Hezbollah was said to be building Shi’a communities aimed at linking Shi’a communities in the east near Nabatiyah with others in the west”.
“Was said”? By whom, exactly?
This is what Blanford wrote: “An Iran-funded NGO, the Iranian Organization for Sharing the Building of Lebanon, which was contracted to repair war-damaged roads in the south, turned a little-used, potholed lane that crossed the mountains between Jezzine and the southern Bekaa Valley into a gleaming asphalt highway. I began hearing stories of vast tracts of land in the area being snapped up by Ali Tajieddine (sic), a Shia businessman who had made a fortune in Africa and whose alleged connections to Hezbollah in December 2010 earned him a designation on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of terrorist financiers. In the tiny Druze hamlet of Sraireh, squeezed on to the side of a narrow valley above the Litani, a resident told me Tajieddine was paying between $2 and $4 per square meter of land, often accepting the seller’s initial asking price and paying in cash.”
So what are the facts?
Mallat says Levitt’s charges over land purchases by the “Tajideen brothers” conflate land bought by his client with land bought by his brother Ali: “The origins of all this appear to be in 2007 [two years before Kassim Tajideen was listed, and four years before Blanford’s book was published] when Walid Jumblatt [the Druze leader] accused the Tajideens of buying land as a front for Hezbollah. For all I know, that might have been a trigger for his listing.”
Jumblatt was, and remains, an opponent of Hezbollah. Like Mallat, he supported the Cedar Revolution of 2005 against the presence of Hezbollah’s ally Syria in Lebanon. In May 2008, when Hezbollah asserted military control over west Beirut after a dispute over security at Beirut airport, Jumblatt’s Druze militia fought back Hezbollah’s attempt to take over Druze territory, with clashes involving artillery and mortars.
This did not deter Mallat when he took on Tajideen’s case in 2009: “I arranged a meeting between my client and Walid [Jumblatt], which was held in Mukhtara [Jumblatt’s family seat]. Walid was sceptical at the beginning. There were a lot of maps [showing the location of land]. They met more than once, and even became friendly. It was development land. In 2011 Jumblatt wrote to OFAC saying he’d investigated the issue and didn’t think Tajideen has anything to do with Hezbollah. This is probably a different piece of land to [that referred to in] Levitt, but it’s hazy. The plot discussed with Walid [Jumblatt] has nothing to do with Jezzine [it is well to the north].”
The letter from Jumblatt to OFAC, then, was fully two years before Levitt published his book, and four years before he republished it. While Blanford did interview Ali Tajideen, Levitt interviewed neither brother. Nor did he quote Jumblatt. Neither Blanford nor Levitt mentioned Jumblatt’s letter to OFAC.
Kassim Tajideen says Levitt’s account is simply wrong, that while he knows his brother Ali has bought land near Jezzine “for development”, he has never himself bought land with any of his brothers. “I own land in my village, in Beirut and in Delhamiya, near Jiyeh, but up the mountain [this is the land discussed with Jumblatt]. I am developing it now, for sale.”
Kassim Tajideen’s lawyers have reported details of this land ownership and development to OFAC – all according to the SOPs.
Levitt’s account has another interesting aspect. In January 2010, an Ethiopian Airways passenger jet heading for Addis Ababa crashed into the sea after taking off from Beirut. Among the 90 killed was Hassan Tajideen, a fourth brother, who was flying back to Africa with four employees from his food importing company, Arosfram.
“Speaking to the press at ‘the Hezbollah equivalent of a state funeral’,” wrote Levitt, “one of Hassan’s cousins said Hassan ‘had been living in Africa for over 30 years. He was a successful businessman, with ties to Hezbollah, a movement he strongly supported’.”
Levitt sources this to two articles on the NowLebanon website, one by Mona Alami that included a picture of the funeral. A second was written by Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Levitt acts as an adviser: this alleged Kassim Tajideen was part-owner of Arosfram (although Badran gives the name as Arosfran).
Kassim Tajideen laughs at the notion his brother Hassan received a Hezbollah funeral, even if party officials were there, as would be common in south Lebanon: “There were many people there, especially as he was the first person [who had died in the crash] to be buried.” Tajideen says he has never heard of Ali Badran, the “cousin” quoted by Mona Alami, and points out that the blue baseball caps worn in the picture of the funeral printed in NOWLebanon are those of the municipality, not the yellow ones worn by members of Hezbollah.
Kassim Tajideen does not deny that his brother Ali supports Hezbollah. But he says he does not know what role, if any, Ali has in Jihad al-Binna, and doubts he was ever a military leader: “If he were a commander, anyone would know, even a small child. If someone is a commander, can he be in his office all the time, and have 50-60 engineers or whatever working in his construction company?”
But Tajideen’s wider point is that he is not responsible for Ali, or any other of his brothers. “I cannot answer for them. And after all, isn’t the brother of [Osama] bin Laden a business partner of the Bush family?”
Nonetheless, after he was listed in 2009, Tajideen says he broke off all business links with his brothers and even reduced social contacts. “Of course I see them at family gatherings, like the funerals of my father and mother.”
The whole story leads back to west Africa, where Lebanese fleeing poverty at home began arriving in the nineteenth century. The Lebanese have vied with the Irish as the world’s largest diaspora, and their remittances home still make up around a fifth of Lebanon’s economy.
There was nothing unusual, then, in Kassim Tajideen going to west Africa. Nor was there anything usual in his doing business with his brothers, which is common among the Lebanese. And in Africa of the 1970s and 1980s, with instability and lack of effective government, business practices were far less transparent than in the west.
When Kassim Tajideen recalls arriving in Africa in 1976 as a young man of 21, his entrepreneurial juices are very evident.
“I started in Sierra Leone where I had family, my mother’s brother. They and other Lebanese had been there a long time, some back to the 19th century. They had a shop, and I helped. In the beginning, I had to learn. My family helped me, and when I knew a little of the business, I opened my own shop, in Kenema, the southern city. I was 23.
“After a few years, Hassan, my younger brother [later killed in the plane crash] came to join me and I opened in Freetown [the capital]. We each ran a shop. Business was easier then, people gave you more credit, especially if you had a good name. In the beginning, in Kenema and Freetown, we used to buy locally – food, sugar, rice, vegetables, oil. We bought and sold locally.”
Tajideen later brought out another brother, Hussein, and opened more shops. In 1986 he moved to Cote d’Ivoire and in 1989 opened a headquarters in Belgium. Conditions in west Africa were far from easy with instability in Sierra Leone that would lead to full-scale civil war in 1991, but Tajideen managed to succeed.
“Communications were a challenge, money transactions and transfers were hard, I saw we needed an office in Europe. Being a European company was seen as an advantage. Africa was only telexes, even the fax was only just starting. It was easier in Europe to open LCs [letters of credit], and having an office in Europe helped our expansion in Africa. I went to Angola because the [civil] war finished [in 1992] and as a businessman I could smell business.”
Given the difficulties of transferring money and enforcing contracts, and the lack of a functioning banking system, much business in Africa worked on trust. Trading partners often balanced out payments over time rather than transporting cash. With central banks lacking foreign exchange, diamond traders were one means of transferring payments.
“Ahmad [another brother] was in Congo. If he couldn’t finance some goods, I might put money and have some profit [in return]. It [co-operation with my brothers] was by deal, not partnership or joint ownership. When they had a shipment of rice and could not finance it, I would. With brothers, you trust each other, and you may not always have detailed official records. I dealt with registered diamond traders who had a licence to export and import, in Africa and Belgium, as a means of transferring money.” Tajideen insists he did not personally buy or sell diamonds, simply using diamond dealers to make financial transfers.
But diamonds figured in the start of Tajideen’s listing saga, in the initial charges he faced in Belgium back in 2003. He was visiting home in Lebanon at the time, and took a phone call from an employee in Belgium who said a colleague and the company accountant were in jail. Both Tajideen and his wife went voluntarily to Belgium, where they were arrested.
“My wife flew to Belgium before me, went to the police, and was kept there. When I followed three days later and reported to the police they told me to come back the next day.”
Tajideen suspects the arrests resulted from information slipped to the Belgian authorities by a commercial rival. But this did not diminish their seriousness.
The arrest warrant referred not just to blood diamonds from Angola. Tajideen was also alleged to be financing Hezbollah as well as an obscure organisation, the Arab European League. The charges were enough for Tajideen to be held for five months in jail under emergency legislation.
But he was then released. It took six years for most of the charges to be dropped, a period when Tajideen stayed mainly in Belgium, although he retained his Belgian passport and travelled internationally, including to the US and Lebanon.
When he and his wife were finally convicted of laundering and forging documents, the Belgian court made clear this was not linked to any ‘terrorist’ organisation or to diamonds. Tajideen and his wife faced a 150,000 Euro fine for financial irregularities, a small percentage of their losses through disruption to their businesses.
But then came the US listing, and this had a far bigger impact on his businesses, probably costing hundreds of millions. Among his suppliers had been Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest food processors.
“Any US company wanted to come to Angola, they contacted us - we organised a hotel, showed them places,” says Tajideen. “The USDA [US Department of Agriculture] used to send us suppliers, because they liked us and saw we were reliable, that we paid on time.
“We became the agent for Tyson in Africa for ten to 15 years, building up in the last five or six years to $100m [turnover] a year. They used to visit us in Belgium and Africa, I used to visit them in Atlanta. When my son and daughter went, Mr Tyson gave them his plane to go see the plant.”
A sense of being let down by the US is shared by one of Tajideen’s sons, Hussen, 30, who has followed his father into business, inheriting not just his acumen but the consequences of his listing.
“Recently I wasn’t allowed to transfer money from one of my accounts here [in Lebanon] to one of my accounts overseas,” says Hussen. “Another bank I went to made me close my account. My sisters and her kids, who are 12, ten and seven, had to close their accounts, because they are his [Kassim’s] grandchildren.”
Where the case goes now is anyone’s guess. When Tehran Bureau approached the US Treasury, a spokeswoman declined to confirm or deny various points put to them – including whether the department had met representatives of Tajideen, whether it had exchanged letters and documents with them, whether it had received results of forensic accountants’ examination of his business affairs, and whether it had received a communication from Jumblatt expressing his conclusion that Tajideen was not linked to Hezbollah. The Treasury spokesman refused to explain what was meant by a “Hezbollah school” or why Tajideen was listed while three Lebanese government ministers in Hezbollah were not.
“We stand by the press release of 2009, which notes that ‘he has contributed tens of millions of dollars to Hizballah and has sent funds to Hizballah through his brother, a Hizballah commander in Lebanon’,” the spokeswoman said. “We do not have any additional details on Kassim Tajideen to offer at this time and we generally do not comment on the possibility of future actions, engagement with specific SDNs, or delisting requests except with the parties themselves and their counsel.”
In the jargon, an SDN is a “specially designated national”. Treasury has a long list. Back in Beirut, Kassim Tajideen is finishing his lunch and pauses, in silence, before Arabic coffee arrives. He’s clearly left wondering what more he can do, but as a man who succeeded in business in west Africa it’s hardly surprising he’s not afraid of looking me square in the eye.
“I’m a Muslim, and I’m from the south of Lebanon,” he says. “Should I change my name? Will that solve the problem? The Americans have records of everybody, they know us very well. If somebody is lying, you know. Maybe you can’t be 100% sure, but most often you can tell.”
The Tehran Bureau is an independent media organisation, hosted by the Guardian. Contact us @tehranbureau. Gareth Smyth has reported from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran. He was nominated in 2005 by the Financial Times as foreign correspondent of the year in the British Press Awards