Honorary consuls are meant to foster ties between countries. But criminals and others accused of exploiting the position have infiltrated their ranks according to the latest report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and ProPublica.
The report identified at least 500 current and former Honorary Consuls who have been accused of crimes or embroiled in controversy. Some were convicted of serious offenses or caught exploiting their status for personal gain; others drew criticism for their support of authoritarian regimes. This is because consuls have invoked diplomatic credentials to avoid searches and arrests — even to avoid tax bills and parking fines. They have stood accused of hiding cash and contraband in their offices and pouches.
The ICIJ report states that one of such alleged rogue diplomats is Mohammed Bazzi, who was appointed Honorary Consul in Lebanon under the regime of then-Gambian President Yahya Jammeh between 2005 and 2017. In the ICIJ ProPublica investigation, Retired U.S Drug Enforcement Administration supervisory special agent Jack Kelly, who spent a decade investigating Hezbollah until his retirement in 2016 worries that dangerous consuls go undetected. “What people actually do with that diplomatic immunity,” Kelly said, “most of the time we’ll never really know” he said.
In late 2008, numbers on a cellphone being tracked by the U.S. government led Kelly to an elusive Lebanese businessman who would quickly become a top DEA target. From a cubicle in a secret government facility in Chantilly, Virginia, Kelly had studied contacts on the said phone used by a Hezbollah envoy suspected of helping to advance Iran’s secret nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Kelly eventually settled on a single phone number in Lebanon. The number was for Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi.
How Mohammed Bazzi used the shield of Honorary Consul
Kelly and his colleagues were focused on Bazzi’s alleged criminal activities but eventually discovered that Bazzi was an honorary consul, appointed by the government of Gambia in 2005.
Bazzi presented himself as a consul in 2017 when he stood before the Janneh Commission of Inquiry, accused of paying bribes to Yahya Jammeh and contributing to what Gambian officials called the “near ruin” of the country. Gambian officials said that Bazzi’s Honorary Consul status had been revoked several months earlier.
“He had no respect for Gambians or Gambian institutions,” authorities concluded in a final report. “In his quest for wealth, he focused only on profits mostly unlawfully obtained.”
That same year, Bazzi sought to install his son as a consul because he could “exert his influence” over him, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Though Bazzi was never criminally prosecuted in the United States, he was designated a Hezbollah financier and sanctioned in 2018. His son was sanctioned one year later for allegedly working on his father’s behalf.
An attorney for Bazzi declined to respond to questions by the ICIJ. Bazzi’s son, Wael, could not be reached for comment. In 2019, the men separately sued the U.S. government, seeking to overturn the U.S. sanctions. In court records, the elder Bazzi said the government exaggerated transactions and events that had occurred years earlier and failed to provide evidence that he financed Hezbollah.
Bazzi said that one of his duties as honorary consul was to “strengthen foreign investment ties between Lebanon and The Gambia” and that he ended his relationship with Jammeh in 2016 after a series of threats. He also said he had previously agreed to work as an informant for the U.S. government and was told that he would not be sanctioned.
In 2020, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit brought by Bazzi’s son. Last year, Bazzi settled his own lawsuit with the U.S. government. Bazzi and his son remain under sanctions, and the State Department is offering a reward of up to $10 million for information on Mohammad Bazzi and others that leads to the disruption of Hezbollah’s financial network.