Over the last several years Hezbollah and its patrons in Iran have greatly expanded their operations in Latin America to the detriment of inter-American security and US strategic interests. Today, Hezbollah is using the Western Hemisphere as a staging ground, fundraising center, and operational base to wage asymmetric warfare against the United States. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and other anti-American governments in the region have facilitated this expansion by rolling out the welcome mats for Hezbollah and Iran. US policymakers must increase their attention to this problem, expand their assets in the region, and develop a comprehensive strategy to combat this threat in a sustained and meaningful way.
Key points in this Outlook:
- To ward off its international isolation and undermine US influence in the region, Iran, with its Hezbollah proxy in tow, has made a major diplomatic and economic push into the Western Hemisphere.
- Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and other radical anti-American populists have made common cause with Iran and Hezbollah in waging asymmetric warfare against the United States.
- Hezbollah’s criminality in the region has multiplied as it has established deeper relations with transnational criminal organizations.
- Evidence indicates Hezbollah is sharing its terrorist experiences and techniques with Mexican drug cartels along the US border.
Hezbollah’s presence in Latin America dates to the mid-1980s, when it began sending operatives into the notoriously lawless region known as the tri-border area (TBA)—where the borders of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet—to use it as a principal safe haven for fundraising, money laundering, recruitment, training, plotting, and other terrorist-related activities.1 Their activity also includes drug and arms trafficking, counterfeiting, forging travel documents, and pirating software and music. Their resulting proselytizing has led to the creation of numerous Hezbollah cells, with an estimated 460 operatives in the TBA by mid-2000.2
It is impossible to quantify the level of criminal activity taking place in the TBA, but some estimate that Islamic extremist groups there and in other suspect areas in Latin America remit $300 to $500 million per year in illicit profits to radical Islamic groups in the Middle East.3 US authorities have been well aware of the wanton criminality occurring in the TBA through the years and have cited some individuals and entities for providing financing to terrorist groups and achieved some extraditions, but the overall effort to combat the menace has been hampered by uneven levels of cooperation from the governments of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.
It is not appropriate, though, to see this as simply a law enforcement issue, as if the illicit business activities and fundraising were ends in themselves. In fact, the nature of the threat has changed considerably. Hezbollah is a preeminent international terrorist organization dedicated to waging Islamic jihad against its enemies, which include the United States and its allies, and the threat it poses should be dealt with accordingly by all law-abiding nations.
The Hezbollah Modus Operandi
Building cells abroad in the service of Hezbollah’s mission involves substantial time and investment. The group sends only its most committed and intrepid operatives into new regions with no support. They must establish a network from scratch among which they can raise money to send back to the leadership in Lebanon, familiarize themselves with the territory and potential targets, and begin planning operations. Invariably, their missions involve infiltrating or establishing mosques or “Islamic centers” to help Hezbollah to spread its influence, legitimize its cause, and promote jihad on a global scale.
Each Hezbollah cell is a complex organization with multiple components: a dawa (proselytizing) and recruitment component, utilizing religious clerics, Islamic centers, Internet sites, and local media broadcasting; a fundraising component that oversees illicit and legitimate business activity and relationships; and an operational component, which covers logistics, planning, surveillance, and execution of missions.
Ultimately, every Hezbollah cell exists for the sole purpose of executing operations, with time and place decided on by the supreme leadership.10 The express purpose of building infrastructure in countries abroad is to minimize the time between deciding to pursue an operation and executing it.
Game Change: Ahmadinejad Meets Chávez
Hezbollah clearly acts as a proxy for Iran—specifically, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force—globally and in Latin America. Thus, Hezbollah’s escalating presence in the Western Hemisphere can be understood only in the context of its patron Iran’s pursuit of its strategic objectives. In the face of international sanctions for its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, Iran has invested heavily in a global strategy to break its diplomatic isolation, develop new sources of strategic materials, and undermine US influence wherever opportunities exist.
To these ends, Iran has made the Western Hemisphere a priority, expanding its number of embassies in the region from six in 2005 to ten in 2010.11 The real game-changer, however, has been the alliance developed between Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
Hugo Chávez’s track record of anti-Americanism and support for terrorist groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is well-established, but his making common cause with a radical Islamic theocracy in waging asymmetric warfare (unconventional and irregular methods used by a weaker opponent against a stronger opponent) against the United States truly speaks to the depths of his fanaticism. He has allowed Iran to mine uranium in Venezuela and has worked assiduously to undermine economic sanctions against the Iranian regime (for which Venezuela has, in turn, been sanctioned).12 In recent years, moreover, Venezuela’s Margarita Island has eclipsed the infamous TBA as the principal safe haven and center of Hezbollah operations in the Americas.
But Chávez has not stopped there. He has served as the principal interlocutor on Iran’s behalf with other like-minded heads of state in the region, primarily Rafael Correa (Ecuador) and Evo Morales (Bolivia), both members of the Chávez-sponsored Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and both of whom have established dubious networks with criminal transnational groups.13 According to recent congressional testimony by investigative journalist Doug Farah, this has led to “the merging of the Bolivarian Revolution’s criminal-terrorist pipeline activities and those of the criminal-terrorist pipeline of radical extremist groups (Hezbollah in particular) supported by the Iranian regime.”14 Such ties are invaluable to groups like Hezbollah, as they afford them protection, safe havens in which to operate, and even diplomatic status and immunity—with no other commonality of purpose than to inflict damage on the United States.
Our research from open sources, subject-matter experts, and sensitive sources within various governments has identified at least two parallel yet collaborative terrorist networks growing at an alarming rate in Latin America. One is operated by Hezbollah and aided by its collaborators, and the other is managed by the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. These networks encompass more than eighty operatives in at least twelve countries throughout the region (with the greatest areas of focus being Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile).
The Nassereddine Network