Andrew Lycett

An exposé of drug smuggling and terrorism reads like a first-rate thriller

In 2015, a dedicated DEA agent pursues a Mafia capo involved in a vast cocaine shipment, a Hezbollah militia leader and an elaborate Middle Eastern arms-trafficking ring

A Hezbollah supporter carries a photograph of the military commander Mustafa Badreddine, killed in Damascus in 2016. [Alamy]

The crucial moment in this vivid exposé of the murky world of transnational crime comes in 2015. Mustafa Badreddine, one of two Lebanese Shia cousins who for three decades had led the deadliest Iranian-linked terrorist network in the Middle East, was finally indicted by a UN special tribunal investigating the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri a decade earlier.

After an extraordinary career of mayhem, Badreddine had spent the previous three years leading an elite Hezbollah militia shoring up President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But the tide had turned, and in July 2015 Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds force in Syria, secretly flew to Moscow to beg for Russian military support. Otherwise, he argued, Assad would fall, mortally damaging the Shia axis between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah that kept the regional balance of power.

‘The latest government pay offer is final… until the next one.’

At almost exactly the same time Salvatore Pititto, a second-division hoodlum from Mileto in Calabria, southern Italy, was sweating because a huge drugs deal he had set up with a leading cocaine-producing cartel in Colombia was reaching its climax. An advance consignment of cocaine was making its way to Livorno among banana crates on the Liberian-registered container ship TG Nike. Pittito had invested a lot in the operation, which he hoped would catapult him and his family into one of the premier clans in the ’Ndrangheta or local mafia.

Despite fractious negotiations and meticulous organisation, the shipment was apprehended. A Lebanese intermediary called Castro absconded with the advance money to Beirut and Pititto was unable to resuscitate his game-changing deal. Beirut was significant, because of its central position in this book’s underlying theme – the trafficking which allowed the profits from South American drugs to be channelled, with Italian mafia assistance, to the Middle East and on to cash-hungry regimes which then paid extremist groups such as Hezbollah to buy weapons and do their murderous work.

Bolstered by court reports and first-hand sources, Miles Johnson explores his subject from three main angles.

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