WASHINGTON — Fifteen hundred times in the past two weeks, an Israeli jet has taken off with a load of bombs. But as NBC News has learned, the targets have not just been military.
Israeli intelligence sources tell NBC News that 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.
In an exclusive interview, Israel's top counter-terror official says these attacks are a warning.
"The message is for all the Lebanese banks,” says Brig. Gen. Dani Arditi, advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister for Counterterrorism. “Assistance to Hezbollah is direct assistance to terrorist organizations."
Among the targets: Eight offices of Hezbollah's unofficial treasury, called Beit el Mal. The Israelis claim the attacks caught Hezbollah by surprise.
"We know that they are looking for money. They are very desperate to have some cash and they don’t have [it],” Arditi says.
The Israelis say they also struck branches of two major banks — Al Baraka and Fransabank — which they claim help Hezbollah receive and move money around the world. A senior bank official at Al Baraka confirms one of his branches was bombed, and says several other nearby banks were hit, too. Arditi tells NBC News that a third bank — the Middle East and Africa Bank — also is on Israel's hit list.
All three banks deny any ties to Hezbollah.
"We have no relation to any organization like Hezbollah," says the Al Baraka official. The Fransabank General Manager tells NBC "We have no relationship with Hezbollah or any other political party anywhere. We don't have any relation and we refuse to have one." And the Administrative Manager for the Middle East and Africa Bank says someone tried to open a suspicious account with the bank, but no money was accepted and the bank employee involved has been fired.
But a fundraising appeal that aired last week on the Hezbollah-connected Al Manar television station asks that money for the Hezbollah resistance be sent a specific account at the Middle East and Africa Bank.
An Arabic speaking NBC News producer called the number listed on the television ad, and was told to go to any U.S. bank and wire the money. Our producer was advised to not tell anyone the money was meant for Hezbollah.
The Middle East Africa Bank has a relationship with the U.S. bank Wachovia. After NBC News informed Wachovia of the Hezbollah fundraising appeal, Wachovia immediately terminated the relationship.
In a statement, a Wachovia spokesman said, "Wachovia confirms that it has very stringent procedures and policies in place to monitor accounts and ensure compliance with the Patriot Act, including not conducting business with any organization identified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization or supporting terrorism."
Later, NBC News called back the same number advertised on Al Manar and, this time, was provided with the name of a separate bank. Here's an edited transcript of that conversation:
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.
Tuesday, the head of the Corporate Banking Division of the Lebanese-French Bank (Banque Libano-Française) informed NBC News that it had closed the account that the Hezbollah facilitator had set up at his bank.
"With regard to the account referred to in your message, it appears that the said account belongs to an individual person and shows insignificant movements and balances. Following the information in your e-mail, our Compliance Unit has closed the said account," says Lebanese-French Bank official Maurice Iskandar.
He adds that the bank has strict anti-money-laundering policies and that the bank will not "open any account for, deal with, or transact on behalf of, any political or military organisation or their affiliated entities and/or known individuals."
The Lebanese-French Bank has a relationship with two prominent U.S. banks — Citibank and the Bank of New York. A Bank of New York spokesman says: "We are aware of this situation and we have taken appropriate steps." A Citibank spokesman says, "Hezbollah has been designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization since 1995. If we received any payment from a correspondent bank that referenced Hezbollah it would be stopped and blocked."
U.S. intelligence officials confirm the Israeli bombing campaign against the banks. But how much difference can that really make?
"If they have a hard time moving money, they’ll have a hard time funding their operations,” says terrorism analyst Daniel Benjamin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
That means trouble paying fighters' salaries and providing services that engender support from the Lebanese people. The Israelis hope it also means more difficulty getting money from Iran.