“I am a Lebanese businessman who left his homeland on the eve of the Lebanese Civil War hoping to get an education and pursue his dreams. I started from scratch, creating the success story of the family man I am today. Along the way, like all successful people, I had my ups and downs.”
These are the words of Ali Khalil Myree. Born in 1968 as Ali Khalil Merhi, he left Lebanon in 1984 to try his luck and establish himself in the Lebanese diaspora of Paraguay before being appointed as South Sudan’s honorary consul to Lebanon in 2019.
By “ups and downs” Myree most likely refers to his journey between Lebanon, Paraguay and Sudan, which remains full of mystery and unanswered questions, as he stands accused of illicit activities alongside establishing a thriving business empire that arguably benefits from its relations with South Sudan’s corrupt and tyrannical regime.
In 2000, Myree was still named Merhi, and he was still living in the city of Ciudad del Este, a tax-free hub in the far east of Paraguay, when he was charged with pirating CDs, video games and software. According to Paraguayan media reports, the authorities suspected he was funneling part of his proceeds to the Lebanese political party and paramilitary group Hezbollah.
While Myree was in custody, his brother Mustafa was arrested in Argentina on charges related to the 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina. The Argentine government submitted two requests to interrogate Ali in connection with the terrorist attack, yet the Paraguayan courts fulfilled neither.
Myree at that time was well connected to the ruling party in Paraguay. A judge hearing his case did not deem it necessary for him to remain in custody during the investigation, as there was no flight risk. Yet, by June 2000 Merhi had slipped across the border to Brazil and by October he was back in Lebanon.
The Sentry, an investigative platform that seeks to uncover networks profiting from international conflict and crime, in 2019 published a long feature called “The metamorphosis of Ali Khalil Merhi.”
The Sentry discovered that the South Sudanese government had harbored Merhi for over a decade and granted him citizenship under the name of Myree. He had grown extremely close to Salva Kiir Mayardit, who in 2011 became President of South Sudan. Human rights organizations have called upon the international community to impose sanctions upon Mayardit due to his responsibility for war crimes.
Myree founded a company with President Mayardit’s daughter and transferred large deposits into the bank account of General Malek Ruben Riak, who later was sanctioned by the United Nations (UN), the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) over corruption charges and suspected human rights abuses.
According to The Sentry, Myree’s South Sudanese company Skyline Contracting in 2009 became an approved UN vendor supplying the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) with $2.23 million over five years. Between 2012 and 2014, Skyline made several suspicious payments to Riak.
In May 2014, Myree completed construction of his flagship enterprise in South Sudan: the 120-room Crown Hotel, which was inaugurated by President Mayardit himself. The latter in 2019 appointed him as South Sudan’s honorary consul to Lebanon – a move that sparked controversy at the time: how could one appoint an honorary consul suspected of international crime?
According to The Sentry, Myree received his certificate for consular representation in July 2020. A few days later, Lebanese newspaper Nida al-Watan published an article decrying the appointment, calling it an “example of diplomatic mismanagement.” It also claimed the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had initially rejected Myree’s application due to concerns about his personal history.
Myree’s attorney, Ali Fayez Rahal, condemned the allegations. Rahal is a member of the political bureau of the Amal Movement, Lebanon’s “other” Shiite party and Hezbollah’s strongest ally.
Myree’s name re-emerged as part of the international investigation Shadow Diplomats by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in cooperation with ProPublica and the participation of some 160 journalists in 46 countries shedding a light on the role of the honorary consul in international diplomacy.
Daraj was one of the partners in the cross-border media alliance, which sent Myree a series of questions. While he did not respond to all of them, he did say the following:
“In the year 2000, the economic situation in Lebanon was improving, so I stayed in my country and built a successful construction company. I saw an opportunity for my construction business in 2008 in Sudan (today known as “South Sudan”). Through my work I have built very good business relationships with the United Nations and the Government of South Sudan.
Today, I am the owner of one of the largest contracting companies in Juba and I have many agreements with governmental and semi-governmental agencies. My relationships are merely professional, and I will not cross the line with any of my clients, especially if they are politically involved, because I am against any kind of corruption.
During my time in Sudan, I met the basic needs of the people of South Sudan, some of which for free, including [building] wells and bridges, [offering] food, clothes and medicine for the needy. Others were by contract, such as building the first airport, public infrastructure, hotels, government institutions…
The President of South Sudan appreciated all my donations to the community and has been impressed by my goodwill. In honor of my efforts, I was honored with a special passport, even before I assumed the position of Honorary Consul.”
It remains unclear how Myree traveled from Paraguay to South Sudan, and how exactly he was named honorary consul in Lebanon, given the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had at first rejected his appointment. A bit of context is in place here.
In his letter, Myree admitted he had done wrong in the past, yet denied that he had anything to do with bombings or other terrorist activities.
“I have learnt from my mistakes and paid my due during my younger years. I am not ashamed of my bad experience. Nor do I ignore or hide it. On the contrary, I have served my sentence. I started again and raised a good family.
For 16 years, I imported CDs from Lebanon and Asian countries in large quantities at low prices making a huge profit. [Yet,] I have never had any relationship with any terrorist organization or person. I have never been associated with any terrorist attack.
I had no information whatsoever, and had absolutely nothing to do, with any terrorist attack in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and I have not been approached or pursued by any Argentine institution, prosecutor, court or police.
I travel around the world on business trips, as well as on holiday with my family, and I have never been arrested or interrogated in any country. The media spread false information just to attract the public eye and produce propaganda.
At this point in my life, I am proud of the son, husband, father, businessman and honorary consul I am today. I have nothing to hide. I have worked hard to build a decent family. I have worked hard to achieve and get to where I am now. In fact, my motto is and always will be ‘the sky is the limit.’ This motto is very important for me and my children.”
Ali Khalil Myree is not alone. The Shadow Diplomats investigation by the ICIJ, ProPublica and partners has identified at least 500 current and former honorary consuls publicly accused of wrongdoings or otherwise embroiled in controversy. Some were convicted of serious crimes or were caught exploiting their status for personal gain. Others were criticized for their support of authoritarian regimes and organized crime or terrorist networks.
The number is almost certainly higher, as there is no international agency tracking honorary consuls, while dozens of governments do not publicly release their names. ICIJ, ProPublica and partners found convicted drug traffickers, arms dealers, murderers, sex offenders and fraudsters. They have been able to aid some of the world’s most corrupt governments, including those of North Korea, Syria, South Sudan and Iran.
Based on findings by human rights groups, the United Nations, anti-corruption watchdogs and media organizations, the investigation was able to identify 57 consuls who were criminally convicted while in offices, which shows the extent to which they were able to abuse their position.
Unlike ambassadors and other diplomats, consuls work in their home country, relying on their connections and clout to promote the interests of the foreign governments that appointed them. In exchange, they gain entry into the world of diplomacy and receive some of the protections and perks provided to career diplomats.
Under the international law governing diplomatic and consular work, archives and correspondence of honorary consuls cannot be seized. Among the honorary consuls identified in the investigation, feature a significant number of Lebanese suspected of crime and corruption.
Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi
As part of Shadow Diplomats, ICIJ, ProPublica and their partners compiled a list of cases in which honorary consuls were named in criminal or civil lawsuits that did not receive much media coverage. The team was able to view court documents and other files not previously published.
Their journalists were also able to meet with Jack Kelly, a retired supervisory special agent of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who spent a decade investigating Hezbollah as part of Project Casandra. Launched in 2008, Project Casandra was an effort by the DEA to undercut Hezbollah funding from the drug trade.
In 2008, Kelly worked on a file that included a cellphone that was being tracked by the US authorities, which led him to an elusive Lebanese businessman named Mohamed Ibrahim Bazzi. Kelly and others suspected him of being a major Hezbollah financier and money launderer. He was also Gambia’s honorary consul to Lebanon between 2005 and 2017.
Bazzi has an extensive business network in Africa, especially in Gambia. His name is closely linked to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who grabbed power in a 1994 coup and stayed in power until 2017.
A former army colonel, Jammeh installed an authoritarian regime. He banned political parties and launched numerous arrest campaigns. When he left office, he was accused of looting about a billion dollars from the state treasury. A government commission furthermore accused him of kidnapping, rape, murder and torture.
While Jammeh’s political network kept him in power, it was his ties to the corporate world that enabled his illicit enrichment. He allowed foreign companies to bypass tender procedures, essentially just handing out government contracts and opening up the country’s treasury for plunder. It is here that Bazzi’s name emerges.
In 2019, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an investigation in which it analyzed thousands of documents, revealing how Jammeh’s patronage network diverted and misused public funds.
Jammeh offered deals to foreign businessmen in almost every sector of the economy. Yet, the by far most influential businessman in Jammeh’s inner circle was Bazzi, head of the energy companies Global Trading Group and Euro African Group.
It appears Bazzi was the architect of numerous government deals with the private sector and arranged for the payments to President Jammeh’s personal bank account. It is unclear just how much money Bazzi transferred to Jammeh. Based on the research of bank records and confidential correspondence, the OCCRP estimates it is likely to exceed tens of millions of dollars.
In addition, Bazzi monopolized the fuel sector in Gambia for over a decade in violation of procurement laws, causing the country to fall further into debt. Bazzi ran the fuel sector with another wealthy Lebanese, Ali Charara, who is believed to be yet another Hezbollah financier. The US Treasury imposed sanctions on him in 2016.
The two men appear to have created a scheme to launder money through government institutions. The OCCRP documents do not specify exactly how much Jammeh and Bazzi received as part of the transactions. But Bazzi’s companies channeled at least $10 million into Jammeh’s bank accounts between 2011 and 2013 alone, according to Bazzi’s testimony to the 2017 Jammeh Commission of Inquiry (JCI), which investigated the president’s financial dealings. Before the commission, Bazzi introduced himself as honorary consul.
“Bazzi had no respect for Gambians or Gambian institutions,” the JCI concluded in a final report. “In his pursuit of wealth he focused exclusively on the profits he obtained mostly illegally.” Bazzi lost his title of honorary consul in 2017. According to a US Treasury report, he then sought to appoint his son as honorary consul.
Lebanese Alienation in Africa
Bazzi is one of the many Lebanese businessmen in Africa, which historically has seen a significant Lebanese presence. Sectarian and political divisions are often reflected within the Lebanese community, and its business elite, in Africa.
While researching the biographies of the Lebanese honorary consuls who featured prominently in Shadow Diplomats, we met a Lebanese businessman who has worked for years between Lebanon and Congo.
According to him, there is an overlap between Lebanon’s political elites and economic interests, which he believed brought suspicion to all Lebanese expatriates living in Africa.
“We worked in Africa for many years,” he said. “Some succeeded and amassed wealth that may amount to $10 or $15 million. However, when we meet people who amassed fortunes in the tens of millions, it indicates abnormal financial growth. Because this is Africa. Not the Gulf. Such enormous wealth undoubtedly reflects suspicious activities.”
He made a distinction between the first generation of Lebanese expatriates in Africa, who had no direct connection to Lebanese political parties, and the new generation “which is closer and more devoted to those political parties.”
Lebanese honorary consuls are associated with a variety of sects and political parties. Yet, the parties the businessman referred to are Amal and Hezbollah. A significant number of Lebanese expatriates in Africa originate from southern Lebanon, which are firmly under the influence of those two parties.
According to the businessman, there are many questions regarding several personalities. One of them is Bazzi, whom he knows personally and believes to be “directly related to Iran, not Hezbollah.” He pointed at the fact that Bazzi in 2011 facilitated the visit of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Gambia, while he stayed at Ahmadinejad’s home during his visit to Iran.
Before being sanctioned, Bazzi visited Lebanon regularly. Although his public appearances as [South Sudan’s] honorary consul were rare, he met with high-ranking officials, such as the Lebanese army commander, and attended a ceremony alongside representatives of Amal and Hezbollah in his hometown Bint Jbeil.
Bazzi was never criminally prosecuted in the US, yet he was designated a Hezbollah financier and sanctioned as such by the US Treasury Department in 2018. His son was sanctioned one year later.
In 2019, the two men filed separate lawsuits against the US government, seeking to overturn the sanctions. According to the court records, as published by ICIJ and its partners, Bazzi argued that the US government had exaggerated transactions and events that occurred many years earlier, while failing to provide evidence he financed Hezbollah.
Bazzi told the court that his duties as honorary consul were “to strengthen business relations between Lebanon and Gambia,” explaining he had terminated his relationship with former President Jammeh in 2016 after receiving a series of threats. He also said he had previously agreed to work as an informant for the US government and was told that he would not be subject to sanctions.
In 2020, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit brought by Bazzi’s son. Last year, Bazzi settled with the US government. Yet he and his son remain under sanctions. The US State Department offers a reward of up to $10 million for information on Bazzi. Both he and his son did not respond to our request to comment.
Iranian Oil Smuggling
In November, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) released the names of the suspected members of an oil smuggling network generating revenue for Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. The network includes many key figures, companies, and ships involved in blending oil to conceal its Iranian origin of the cargo which is exported worldwide.
According to OFAC, Ukrainian national Viktor Artemov and others used storage facilities in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates to mix Indian and Iranian oil to conceal the latter’s origin. The companies then created fake certificates of origin and quality, as the mixed oil was transferred to be sold abroad. The OFAC statement names Bazzi as one of Artemov’s partners.
Hezbollah’s media arm defined the latest round of sanctions as a form of pressure on the “social environment” in which Hezbollah enjoys great influence, as part of a plan to “besiege” the party and force it to concede in the conflict with Israel and Lebanon’s presidential elections.”
The honorary consul position emerged again as Project Cassandra advanced. Launched in 2008, Project Cassandra was an effort by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to undercut Hezbollah funding from the drug trade.
In 2012, undercover agents met with Fawzi Jaber, a Hezbollah-affiliated arms broker, at a hotel in Ghana. They posed as representatives of an internationally known guerrilla organization and drug cartel in Colombia, seeking to overthrow the government and attack US forces in the country.
According to a transcript of the conversation with Jaber, which was obtained by ProPublica and ICIJ, he not only offered to provide weapons, but also consulships.
“All the dignitaries, all the wealthy, have the status of consul,” he said. “African countries are the best.” Adding: “A lot of white European people work as consuls” from their home countries when there are no embassies nearby.
“We go to any country in Africa,” Jaber said in a second meeting three months later. “We appoint you as consul of Equatorial Guinea [or] Guinea-Bissau. In return, you pay $200,000. You become the country’s official consul and will have another passport.”
According to information gathered by ProPublica and ICIJ, in 2014 DEA agent Kelly traveled to Prague to secure the arrest of Jaber, as well as his associate Khaled Merebi and the DEA’s top target, Lebanese-born arms dealer Ali Fayad. The operation was a success.
However, the Czech Government later released Fayad and Merebi in exchange for five Czech citizens who had been kidnapped in Lebanon in 2015. This was a very mysterious affair at the time, which later led to the trade between Hezbollah and the Czech Republic.
Jaber was extradited to the United States and in 2017 pleaded guilty to conspiracy. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. During his trial, he claimed he had been under the influence of drugs when he made “a once-in-a-lifetime mistake.”
In an interview from a West Virginia prison, Jaber admitted offering honorary consul positions. However, he also said the US government had fabricated the transcripts of the meetings to “set him up.” And he claimed he opposes Hezbollah.
“I am aware of how honorary consuls operate and how someone can be appointed to such a position,” he said. “I know a lot of honorary consuls who do not hesitate to commit all kinds of follies.”
Ali Saade and Ibrahim Taher
One of Guinea’s wealthiest men, Ali Saade, is also on the list of honorary consuls whose names have been linked to allegations of money laundering. After working in his father’s textile business, the now 80-year-old founded Sonit Group in 1992. The government of Guinea in 2006 named him honorary consul to Lebanon.
Earlier this year, the US authorities sanctioned Saade and another prominent Lebanese businessman, Ibrahim Taher, alleging they are among Hezbollah’s most prominent financiers. According to OFAC, Taher was an honorary consul for Lebanon in Ivory Coast and used his status to travel in and out of Guinea with “minimal scrutiny.”
Saade stands accused of facilitating money transfers from Guinea to Hezbollah and granting Kassem Tajideen “unrestricted access” to the highest levels of the Guinean government. Tajideen in 2009 was sanctioned by the US for allegedly financing Hezbollah and later imprisoned for helping to move over $1 billion through the US financial system.
In 2020, he was released in what is believed to be a quid pro quo deal between Hezbollah and the US, whereby Tajideen returned to Lebanon in exchange for Lebanon’s release of the Lebanese-American Amer Fakhoury.
Fakhoury used to be a member of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia and stood accused of torture. He was flown out of Lebanon by helicopter from the US embassy. His release was extremely controversial in Lebanon at the time.
According to the U.S. government, Ali Saade and Ibrahim Taher in 2020 traveled by private jet to Lebanon with “a substantial amount of money.” Saade’s Sonit Group claimed it was meant for COVID-19 relief. The US authorities believe that was only a cover for transferring money to Hezbollah.
Beirut Airport: Smuggling Hub?
Saade denies he transported money through Beirut International Airport meant for Hezbollah. Nevertheless, there are significant concerns about the security measures in place at Lebanon’s main airport and sea ports.
Daraj interviewed an operations manager of a private jet rental company based at the Beirut airport. There are three such companies at the airport. Having worked there for almost 10 years, he was very familiar with the airport’s inner workings.
“The majority of airport staff, including security personnel, are affiliated with Amal, Hezbollah’s main ally,” he said. The airport is located on the outskirts of Beirut’s southern suburbs, which places it straight in Hezbollah’s backyard. Its coastal location limits access by road, which allows it to be easily sealed off.
Hezbollah’s control of Beirut airport was evident during the May clashes of 2008, when Hezbollah occupied west Beirut, setting up roadblocks and cordoned off the airport.
“Over the past few months, there have been specific incidents of security violations at the airport, including the mock targeting of commercial aircraft by laser devices, as well as the discovery of a camera pointed towards the runway, apparently belonging to Hezbollah,” reads a leaked US embassy cable published by Wikileaks. “The discovery of the camera and the Lebanese government’s decision to remove it and replace the head of airport security led to the acts of violence in Lebanon.”
The events of May 2008 were pivotal in Hezbollah gaining control of Beirut airport. And with the party’s growth of influence within the government and parliament through such allies as Amal and the Christian FPM, Hezbollah secured a series of airport appointments.
“Amal controls airport security and no one interferes with them,” said the operations manager of the private jet company. In addition, it is a public secret that, neither at the port nor at the airport goods meant for the “resistance” are subject to custom control.
The issue of exempting “resistance goods” from custom control is of course strictly confidential as it is illegal. Shipments are overlooked under the guise they are for the resistance. Under this pretext, there is no control over what is smuggled through the port and airport. Employees not affiliated with this political viewpoint feel weak, powerless, and unable to challenge the practice.
The operations manager claimed that Lebanon’s economic collapse exacerbated the airport being used as a smuggling hub.
“As the value of the Lebanese pound has collapsed and the value of pensions has declined, anyone can bribe an employee,” he said. “The majority makes less than $50 a month. There are Lebanese, Syrian and other businessmen who travel by private jet and are inevitably able to smuggle cash. I have seen some of these things happen.”
Do honorary consuls benefit?
“In Lebanon we love spoiling people,” said the operations manager. “If there is a honorary consul, we will spoil him and open the VIP airport lounge for him. In Africa, honorary consuls are also spoiled, unlike in Europe, where there is more discipline.”
A source in the Lebanese MFA told Daraj about the regulations that govern the work of honorary consuls and what differentiates them from “real” diplomats.
“Honorary consuls do not receive diplomatic portfolios and have no direct relations with the official departments in Beirut,” he said. “They report directly to diplomatic missions abroad. Duly, they are subject to inspection upon arrival at airports and not protected by diplomatic immunity. All they have are special car license plates allowing them to overcome some security barriers and have a special parking space.”
“Additionally, a class of less diplomatic, ‘private’ passports was established as a privilege to distinguish honorary consuls,” he continued. “The question is if this is used to exclude personal belongings from being inspected?”
Saade and Taher were both sanctioned in March 2022. Following the sanctions, Guinean prosecutors froze their bank accounts and banned them from traveling abroad, while a criminal investigation was initiated.
In an interview with African media, Saade said he acted in his capacity as honorary consul when he connected Kassem Tajideen with Guinea’s former president. He also said he was unaware the US had sanctioned Tajideen. In a statement, he furthermore said he carried only $800 when he flew to Lebanon with Taher and eight others in 2020.
According to an investigation by the Guinean government Taher was never an honorary consul for Guinea, while Saade saw his Guinean consulship suspended once the US imposed sanctions on him.
“I never gave or transferred a single dollar to Hezbollah,” he asserted.
Taher did not respond to a request for comment from ICIJ and its partners. Last July, the Court of Appeal in Guinea terminated the criminal investigation of Taher and Saade, concluding there was no evidence they had financed terrorism. The Guinean authorities have appealed the verdict.
The Lebanese government, Hezbollah and the Local Association of Honorary Consuls in Lebanon did not respond to a series of questions posed by the ICIJ and its partners.