scorecardThe US caught two members of Iran's Lebanese proxy running an amusement park in Nigeria
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The US caught two members of Iran's Lebanese proxy running an amusement park in Nigeria

The US caught two members of Iran's Lebanese proxy running an amusement park in Nigeria
DefenseDefense4 min read

Kataib Hezbollah

Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters

These guys have a connection to the

The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control added two individuals to its specially designated nationals list on February 26: Fouzi Reda Darwish Fawaz and Mustapha Reda Darwish Fawaz, two Lebanese men living and working in west Africa.

And according to the Treasury designation, the two men are both members of a Hezbollah terrorist cell, tying them to an Iran-backed extremist organization active in every continent on earth, as well as on the battlefield in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Three of the men's businesses were added to the sanctions list, meaning that the US believes that those businesses in some way furthered Hezbollah's activities. A supermarket and a second, innocuously named enterprise are now on the SDN list, along with a more surprising inclusion: the Wonderland Amusement Park and Resort in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.

Consequently, it's now much harder for individuals and companies to do business with one of the populous west African nation's top amusement destinations.

A theme park is pretty risky, as criminal fronts go. It's probably one of the most conspicuous investments one can make, a business that can't survive unless thousands of complete strangers pass through it each day. And even if it isn't specifically being used in the furtherance of terrorism, an amusement park is a major piece of real estate that's sure to draw extra scrutiny to its ownership.

Hezbollah theme park

Wonderland Amusement Park

A map of the park

At the same time, the Fawazes did not exactly keep a low profile. A Haaretz article from 2013 reported that the Fawazes had used the amusement park to store weapons. The supermarket alone was worth an estimated $35 million, Haaretz noted, while the two commanded a "multimillion-dollar retail enterprise" that benefitted Hezbollah.

Mustapha Fawaz even seemed to have fruitful diplomatic contacts: according to the Treasury citation, he "provided Hizballah with a report of his visit to the US Embassy in Nigeria." Treasury also alleged that he exploited his supermarket's international clientele, using special cameras to "monitor the movements of expatriates, especially Israelis."

Developing a theme park was an especially brazen move, since by all accounts, Wonderland remains a well-known landmark in the Nigerian capital. The park's opening ceremony in 2007 was attended by then-president Olsegun Obasanjo in an event still documented on the park's website:

Hezbollah park

Wonderland Amusement Park

According to its Facebook page, the park occupies some 330,000 square meters. It's "an ultra modern world class recreation centre, the first and the biggest most equipped amusement park in the whole of Nigeria," a country of over 170 million people.

The Park has a Ferris wheel, a small roller coaster, restaurants, an arcade, a climbing wall, and an attractive entry gate designed like a medieval castle. It hosted a holiday bazaar during the Christmas season - the Fawazes were apparently highly public, well-known, and well-connected entrepreneurs with a diverse assortment of businesses.

The Fawazes were charged in Nigeria over their Hezbollah connections in 2013. While their businesses are still operating, it took the US Treasury nearly 2 years to sanction them.

Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former terror finance analyst for the US Treasury, says that the US might have waited to list the Fawazes and their businesses because they wanted a comprehensive idea of the size of their business network and its connection to US-designated groups.

"This story likely tipped off Treasury to a wider network that appears to have taken a year and a half to wrestle to the ground," Schanzer told Business Insider.

Schanzer says that a Treasury listing of Hezbollah-linked entities may be a subtle way to maintaining pressure on the Lebanon-based group's main state sponsor: Iran. "On a broader level, we have seen increased congressional interest in going after Hezbollah because Treasury's hands are somewhat tied so long as the [nuclear negotiating] process drags on." Listing these entities at this point digs into Hezbollah financing "without explicitly hitting Iran," Schanzer says.

There's longstanding concern that Hezbollah has penetrated Nigeria. In May of 2013, a Hezbollah arms cache was found in northern Nigeria, while an illicit Iranian weapons shipment was impounded in a Nigerian port in 2010.

Business Insider has reached out to Wonderland Park for comment and will update when we receive a reply.

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