Series: Shadow Diplomats
The Global Threat of Rogue Diplomacy
A former Lebanese diplomat sanctioned by U.S. authorities for allegedly funneling money to the terrorist group Hezbollah was arrested last week in Bucharest, Romania, and U.S. officials are seeking his extradition.
Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi, 58, is accused by federal prosecutors of attempting to evade sanctions by trying to launder and move more than $800,000 from the United States to Lebanon, according to the Department of Justice.
Bazzi was one of 500 current or former diplomats identified last year in an investigation by ProPublica and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that revealed widespread abuses in a little-known and poorly regulated system of international diplomacy.
So-called honorary consuls work from their home countries to represent the interests of the foreign governments that appoint them. In exchange, the volunteer diplomats are afforded some of the same legal protections offered to career diplomats, including travel benefits and political connections unavailable to most private citizens.
The “Shadow Diplomats” investigation found that a number of consuls have stood accused of crimes or were embroiled in controversy — many while they held their posts. Thirty current and former honorary consuls have been sanctioned by the United States and other governments; nine have been linked to terrorist groups by law enforcement and governments, including Bazzi.
Bazzi was appointed honorary consul in Lebanon by the government of Gambia in 2005 under the regime of then-Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, according to court records. The Gambian government terminated his appointment in 2017.
A year later, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Bazzi a “global terrorist,” accusing the businessman of funneling money to Hezbollah, a militant group that has attacked U.S. service members, civilians and others in countries including Israel, Argentina and Iraq. The designation blocked Bazzi’s interests in domestic real estate and prohibited American citizens from conducting any business that would benefit him.
In 2019, Bazzi sought to overturn the U.S. sanction. In court records, he said the government failed to provide evidence that he had financed Hezbollah. The sanction is still in place.
Bazzi’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
In a three-count indictment unsealed last week in New York, Bazzi and a second man were charged with conspiring to launder money and to cause U.S. individuals to conduct unlawful transactions involving a global terrorist. Recorded communications revealed that the men proposed numerous strategies to move money, including transferring funds through a fake restaurant deal and a family loan scheme in Kuwait, according to the Justice Department.
“The defendants in this case attempted to provide continued financial assistance to [Hezbollah], a foreign terrorist organization responsible for death and destruction,” Daniel Kafafian, acting special agent in charge at the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New Jersey division, said in a statement.
John Marzulli, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office in New York’s Eastern District, declined to comment on Bazzi’s prior status as an honorary consul. Marzulli said he could not say when the men will arrive in the United States; the government is seeking extradition. Each count in the indictment carries up to 20 years in prison.
The Eastern District U.S. attorney, Breon Peace, said in a release: “Mohammad Bazzi thought that he could secretly move hundreds of thousands of dollars from the United States to Lebanon without detection by law enforcement.” This “arrest proves that Bazzi was wrong.”
Matthew Levitt, a counterrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Bazzi was especially skilled at finding ways to establish relationships with people in power.
“This is someone who is a player for senior Hezbollah operatives and senior Iranian leadership,” Levitt said. “His arrest and extradition is significant.”
Evan Robinson-Johnson is a student at Northwestern University's Medill Investigative Lab.
Debbie Cenziper contributed reporting.