Hezbollah-Linked Art Collector Hit by Another Round of U.S. Sanctions

Published: 24 April 2023

Hezbollah Khamnei

Hezbollah fighters at a ceremony. (Photo: Khamenei.ir, Wikimedia, License)

By Josef Skrdlik

The U.S. Treasury has announced new sanctions against a money-laundering network engaged in trading diamonds and luxury goods, allegedly for the benefit of Nazem Said Ahmad, a Lebanon-based art collector and gallerist who was in 2019 designated as a key Hezbollah financier.

According to the Treasury, 52 individuals and entities assisted Ahmad in evading the 2019 sanctions, allowing him to maintain his ability to finance Hezbollah and live a lavish lifestyle.

The network operates in multiple countries, including Lebanon, South Africa, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Belgium, the U.K., Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates.

It is involved in real estate development, trade in diamonds, luxury goods, and artwork, and uses shell companies and fraudulent paperwork to conceal its association with Ahmad. The group employs a complex scheme of bulk cash transfers, book transfers, and trusted cash couriers to avoid scrutiny by authorities.

Ahmad, a Sierra Leone-born Lebanese, owns an extensive art collection estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars. It includes works by Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. He also runs a gallery in Beirut and has a popular Instagram account dedicated to art with over 170,000 followers.

The network includes Ahmad’s son Firas and daughter Hind, who own art galleries in South Africa and Ivory Coast, respectively, along with other relatives and business associates.

Concurrently with the Treasury's sanction announcement, a court in New York charged Ahmad and eight members of the network with nine counts related to money laundering and sanctions evasion.

The charges follow an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which found that between December 2019 and December 2022, the charged suspects shipped goods worth over US$440 to and from the U.S., consisting primarily of artwork and diamonds, and transferred at least $6 million of the criminal proceeds to Lebanon.

British authorities also announced an asset freeze of Ahmad's U.K.-registered property. One of the charged suspects, Sundar Nagarajan, Ahmad's main accountant who was buying art for him at auctions and galleries worldwide, was arrested by British authorities in London.

Hezbollah is an Iran-backed Shia militant group and political party in Lebanon, designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and most Arab countries.

The group relies heavily on financial support from Iran and donations but has also been reported to derive significant revenues from drug trafficking, goods smuggling, and other illicit activities. Hezbollah's revenue inflows are believed to be facilitated by sophisticated money-laundering networks closely knit to Lebanon's sizable diaspora, particularly in Africa.