A little over a week ago Czech President Milos Zeman was reelected by a narrow margin, but he is haunted by a Hezbollah arms trader named Ali Fayad. Zeman is known as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most servile supporter among European leaders. His victory party was marred by drama when some of his staffers assaulted several journalists. Zeman has been referred to as a ‘mini-Putin,’ but the physical abuse of the media prompted comparison to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Bizarre Behavior and Putin’s Bagman
President Zeman’s bizarre behavior confounds even his own supporters sometimes. He has shown up drunk for official ceremonies. He stokes Czech nationalism and harnesses it to support Putin’s agenda, ignoring the decades of authoritarian occupation and oppression Czechs suffered under Communism.
Zeman’s chief advisor, Martin Nejedly, was the subject of a New York Times article called Russia’s Dark Arts: How Russians Pay to Play in Other Countries. He is considered Putin’s bagman in Prague.
Trump Meeting a Farce
After Zeman called President-elect Trump in December 2016 to congratulate him on his election, the Czech president claimed for months that Trump had invited him for an Oval Office visit. When the White House refused to invite him, he escalated his claims to the point of ridicule. He even claimed that Trump had sent him a letter apologizing for not scheduling a meeting. Just this week, Czech media reported that the response to their FOIA request for a copy of the apology letter was that no such letter exists.
Zeman Haunted by Fayad
The change in American administrations, however, may mean that Milos Zeman may finally have gone too far. Two years ago, Zeman played a major role in one of the most shameful acts of the Czech government since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although he presents himself as a friend of Israel, Zeman was responsible for pressuring his government to release a Hezbollah terrorist, Ali Fayad, rather than extraditing him to the United States.
Ali Fayad walked free from Lebanese confinement within a few weeks of arriving in Beirut, and has not been seen since.
Politico’s Josh Meyer ran a blockbuster story in December 2017 about the so-called Cassandra Project, a long-term U.S. investigation aimed at arresting arms and drugs trafficking networks among Hezbollah terrorists and South American cartels. A key intermediary in that arms-for-drugs scheme was Ali Fayad, a Lebanese arms dealer with a Ukrainian passport and Putinist connections.
Fayad was arrested in a DEA sting operation in Prague. The U.S. requested extradition, expecting a fairly routine procedure from a trusted ally. The Czech government held up the extradition, however, and ended up releasing Ali Fayad to the Lebanese government (which is dominated by Hezbollah).
Czech media reported that Zeman had telephone contact with Putin on the issue of Fayad’s release. Zeman boasted that he had pressured the Cabinet to release Fayad to Lebanese authorities instead of extraditing him to the U.S. Ali Fayad walked free from Lebanese confinement within a few weeks of arriving in Beirut, and has not been seen since. Keeping Fayad out of the hands of American law enforcement was a major victory for Putin.
U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies wanted Fayad badly. He was considered a very high value prisoner. The information he held on the connections between Hezbollah, South American drug traffickers, and Russia was unparalleled.
“Sessions has reopened the entire investigation. We took down names two years ago, and we haven’t forgotten them.”
American government reactions the Fayad’s release were swift and severe. The State Department spokesman condemned the action in the strongest possible terms. Privately, law enforcement and intelligence officials were furious. “This arrest was the culmination of several years of dangerous undercover work,” a knowledgeable source said at the time. “And he [Ali Fayad] conspired to assassinate an American official.”
A member of the House Intelligence Committee condemned Fayad’s release and called for an investigation. His call may have gone unheeded as the Obama administration drew to a close, but the Trump Administration is eager to unearth the truth. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a full investigation into the entire matter, two weeks after publication of the Politico article.
Sources within the intelligence community are eager to settle scores, and they are loaded for bear. An official told me earlier this year, on condition of anonymity, that they are still seething over the Fayad matter. “Sessions has reopened the entire investigation. We may not get another chance at Ali Fayad, but there are other avenues of investigation that can still cripple that network. We took down names two years ago, and we haven’t forgotten them.”
It is ironic that this issue never even came up in last month’s Czech presidential campaign, but it may bring more trouble to Zeman than he ever imagined. A man whose entourage harbors so many secrets is vulnerable on many fronts.