The Committee on Homeland Security met on July 7th to discuss Hezbollah’s growing influence in Latin America. Testifying at the hearing were Roger Noriega, former Under Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere and American Ambassador to the Organization of American States; Douglas Farah, Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center and a former Washington Post journalist; Ilan Berman, Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council; and; Dr. Melanie Cammett, professor at Brown University.
Many of the points raised at the hearings have been written before including by authors at the Menges Hemispheric Security Project but new material was presented, as well.
Roger Noriega stated that Hezbollah continues to penetrate the Western hemisphere by establishing alliances with Mexican and other drug cartels and by trying to take control of existing mosques in order to spread its radical message.
Noriega also spoke about the Venezuelan government’s complicity in encouraging Hezbollah activities. A key operative in the Hezbollah network is the second highest ranked diplomat in the Venezuelan embassy in Syria. The man, Ghazi Nasserdine, along with two of his brothers, manages a network that raises and launders money and recruits and trains operatives to expand Hezbollah’s influence in Venezuela and throughout Latin America. One of Nassardine’s brothers maintains relationships in the broader Islamic community via a multi-national organization known as the Federation of Arab and American Associations (FEARAB) in an effort to spread Hezbollah’s ideas.
It is important to add to Noriega’s point that FEARAB has been in existence in Latin America since the early 1970’s as an entity organized to serve as a mutual aid society to immigrants and residents of Arab origin, even though it was founded with the help the Arab League. Yet, FEARAB has been radicalized in the last several years. Its leaders are making incendiary statements and decades of decent relations between Arabs and Jews in countries such as Argentina have met their lowest point as a result of such radicalization.
This shows the extent to which Hezbollah reaches out to local populations of Arab origin and mobilizes them. Nasserdine’s youngest brother is strengthening Hezbollah’s presence by recruiting adherents via the Circulos Bolivarianos, Chavez’s main political and social organization aimed at spreading and monitoring Chavez’ revolution at the local level.
Furthermore, Noriega added that the individual who oversees the parallel Hezbollah network on behalf of the Qods Force is Mohsen Rabbani, a high-ranking Iranian wanted by prosecutors in Argentina for his role in the 1992 and 1994 terrorist attacks against the Israeli embassy and the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires.
Noriega’s main point seems to be that the presence of Hezbollah in the region has metastasized. As a result of the support Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia and others are giving to the terrorist organization, a more active role for Hezbollah should be expected in the future. Since the State Department has not given this issue the attention it deserves, Noriega believes the problem is further aggravated.
Douglas Farah confirmed Hezbollah’s strong involvement in the trafficking of cocaine from Latin America. Such presence also extends to the U.S and Canada. Furthermore, Farah pointed out that Hezbollah is providing technology for the increasingly sophisticated Narco tunnels now being found along the U.S.-Mexican border, “which strongly resemble the types used by Hezbollah in Lebanon” to infiltrate Israeli territory.
Farah added that “the confluence of illicit networks and corruption in an enabling environment could facilitate not only the movement of drugs, arms, stolen or pirated goods, and trafficked persons, but also smuggling of terrorists, weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), WMD materials, and other dangerous weapons and technologies that threaten global security” Thus, criminality not only helps criminals but also terrorist activities that are unrelated to profit but are aimed at advancing a terror agenda.
Likewise, he confirmed Noriega’s assertions that Hezbollah has developed a significant presence in the region by augmenting the number of sympathizers and funders and also by increasing the number of alliances between Iran and various Latin American countries.
These alliances afford Iran and its proxy elements state cover and effective immunity for its covert activities, which include “unfettered access to global banking facilities, ports and airports; mining of precursor elements for WMD and advanced weapons systems fabrication; and, a regional base for infiltration and contingency operations aimed at undermining the U.S. and its interests, while also abetting corruption and the notable buildup in conventional arms manufacturing”. Moreover, Farah points out as the Menges Hemispheric Security Project has also done, that Bolivarian regimes such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia sympathize with Iran as a result of their desire to see U.S. influence and power in the world removed. Thus, Farah stated that “the threat grows when these governments and their armed non-state proxies, Hezbollah and the FARC, share a hatred for the United States and a publicly stated desire to inflict significant damage on the Homeland”. Thus, terrorist organizations from different extractions and ideologies such as ETA, Hamas, FARC and Hezbollah have come together in an organization called “Coordinadora Bolivariana” under the auspices of the FARC and Hugo Chavez.
Farah added that the Iranian Qods Forces usually reach out to the Shia Diaspora, while engaging in paramilitary operations to support extremists and destabilize regimes they consider unfriendly. This point is crucial since this particular expertise of the Qods Force can serve Chavez’s agenda of destabilization of perceived enemies. This is another important issue downplayed so far by American government agencies as the Qods Force is increasingly active in Latin America and particularly in Venezuela.
Farah also reminds us that the Qods force is behind some of the deadliest terrorist attacks of the past three decades, including the 1983 and 1984 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and annex in Beirut; the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut; the 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires; the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, and many of the insurgent attacks on Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq.
Ilan Berman followed with his testimony by describing Hezbollah as “a team of international terrorism”. He also stated that Hezbollah exists in 40 or more countries and on 5 continents, although their global footprint is not well understood. The fact that Hezbollah is trying to increase and expand their influence in Latin America is clear, and they have a particular stronghold in the tri-border region where Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina meet. Mr. Berman also spoke about how Hezbollah is involved in money laundering operations, as well as terrorist training camps in Venezuela. According to Mr. Berman, Hezbollah is establishing a base in Mexico in order to illegally infiltrate operatives into the United States. It is also estimated that Hezbollah exists in 15 American cities and key cities in Canada. Hezbollah has used Canada in order to launder tens of thousands of dollars. The presence of a Shiite community in the Toronto area makes these operations easier.
According to Berman, most Hezbollah activities in the Western Hemisphere constitute “supportive activities”. Yet, Hezbollah remains a potential threat as it has a pattern of targeting U.S interests. For example, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda cooperated to plan attacks against U.S and Jewish targets in Latin America. Likewise, Berman reminded us that FBI sources have pointed out that even Hezbollah cells in North American can carry out an attack in the U.S., itself.
By contrast, Dr. Cammett downplayed the will of Hezbollah to target the U.S. By providing a historical and sociological account of Hezbollah’s origins, she claimed that the organization is the outcome of the disenfranchisement of the Shiite population in Lebanon and the Israeli military operation against the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1982. She also stated that even though Hezbollah has been a militant organization tied to Iran, it has evolved since the early 1990’s into a more political institution that seeks integration with the Lebanese state. Thus, it has avoided internal political conflict in Lebanon while continuing the war against Israel and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Thus, it is now a political party in Lebanon and has even established alliances with non-Muslim parties and “not just out of convenience”. She affirms that Hezbollah gained popularity because of its welfare activities and for having pushed the Israelis out of Lebanon in the year 2000. Cammett claims Hezbollah has sought to differentiate itself from Al Qaeda and affirms that it will be a mistake to place Hezbollah in the same category like Al Qaeda. Thus, Cammett concludes that Hezbollah is not seeking to target the U.S, despite the fact that Lebanese resent U.S support for Israel in the 2006 war against Hezbollah. She sees no evidence of the dangers of Hezbollah in Latin America and claims that there is no real confrontation between Hezbollah and the U.S.
Dr. Cammett’s testimony, unlike previous speakers is deceiving. Carmett not only dismisses the evidence by those who testified before her but is also negating the fact that the “peaceful and politically integrated Hezbollah” has been reported by an international panel to be responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Harari. Iran is the country Hezbollah is accountable to and on its behalf it has launched wars against Israel that cost the lives of many Lebanese people which Hezbollah had no moral dilemma in using them as a shields. Hezbollah also owes its leverage in Lebanon to the ruthless and oppressive power of Syria that protects and helps arm Hezbollah.
Furthermore, as Berman pointed out Al Qaeda and Hezbollah have cooperated in the same way that Iran cooperates with Al Qaeda.
It goes without saying that if Iran is an enemy of the U.S so is Hezbollah. Al Qaeda has learned its methods of suicide bombing from Hezbollah which is the direct result of Iran’s training and own experience in its seven-year war against Iraq.
In other words, Cammett refuses to accept the fact that Hezbollah is more of a terrorist organization and an Iran proxy than a social entity that cares for the Shiite population in Lebanon or the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza.
We trust that our Congressmen will know how to distinguish between quality testimonies and frivolous apologetics.
THE AMERICAS REPORT
NANCY MENGES and
LUIS FLEISCHMAN, Editors
The Americas Report is the featured product of the Center for Security Policy‘s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. It features in-depth, original articles on subjects not regularly covered by the American press.
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