Expose’ of Hezbollah, Iran, Latin America and Mexico
The greatest terrorism threat to America does not come specifically from the Middle East. The twisted, distorted, convoluted relationship of drugs, weapons, fraudulent documents, money laundering and terrorist infiltration from our southern border is currently the greatest threat to the American public.
Iran and Syria have been the most prominent financial supporters of Hezbollah. As Iran’s economy suffered from economic sanctions relative to its nuclear weapons program and Syria experiences its own internal struggles, Hezbollah has been forced to gain funding through increased participation in drug and weapons smuggling, document fraud and money laundering.
A 2011 DEA investigation found that Hezbollah raises up to $200 million a month from cocaine sales from operations in Lebanon, West Africa, Panama and Latin America, but most surprisingly comes from its operations in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, and much of Hezbollah’s smuggling takes place on unregulated flights between Iran and Venezuela.
A very recent Treasury Department investigation found that the Lebanese Canadian Bank was directly involved in hiding financing acquired from Hezbollah’s illegal drug smuggling from South America to Europe, the Middle East and West Africa, and involved money laundering through the purchase of used cars in the United States. Cigarette smuggling – reaching even into the U.S. southeast and southwest – also seems to be prominent a venture.
In the U.S., law enforcement officials in the southwest report a rise among imprisoned gang members with Farsi tattoos expressing loyalty to Hezbollah.
A recent assassination attempt on a Saudi Arabian ambassador in the U.S. originated from Mexico – not the Middle East – and very recently, Hezbollah operatives took pictures of FBI agents on a covert mission in South America, then maliciously faxed the pictures to an FBI field office in New York.
Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations have gained an increasing foothold in the TBA at the same time that business relationships between Iran and Venezuela became stronger. Mexican cartels have begun to use car bombs in their attacks – a tactic taught to them by Hezbollah operatives – at the same time Hezbollah operatives are known to be using Mexican cartel smuggling routes into the U.S. Gone is the distinction between drug activity and terrorism and the inherent violence of drug activity is spilling across our southern border at the same time terrorist activity in the U.S. is traceable not only to the Middle East, but to Latin America.
TRI-BORDER AREA DEMOGRAPHICS
The Tri-Border Area (TBA) refers to that area where the Parana and Iguanzu rivers meet to form the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, and is home to three important cities in Latin America. Ciudad del Este, Paraguay has a population of about 250,000. Its largest ethnic group is Chinese, with many said to be illegal immigrants. Still, the population is very diverse, also including Taiwanese, Korean, Syrian and Palestinian immigrants, and has seen an increase in the number of Shi’a immigrants from Lebanon.
Because of lax governmental controls, much of the economy in Ciudad del Este is said to be “informal” (evading taxes and license) with the Chinese community dealing primarily in the trade of electronics and the Arab community dealing in textiles, arms and information technology. Of the total Arab population in Ciudad del Este, an estimated 90 percent are said to be of Lebanese origin. Cuidad del Este is the busiest city in the TBA, serving as the region’s economic center, and is said to rank third worldwide in cash transactions, averaging some $12 billion annually.
The neighboring city of Foz do Iguacu, Brazil has a population of about 300,000. This city has a large Arab population, the majority of which are of Palestinian and Lebanese descent. The cities of Ciudad del Este and Foz do Iguacu are separated by the Friendship International Bridge, which carries about 20,000 vehicles and 30,000-40,000 people per day, allowing that the economies of these two cities are intricately linked.
In Ciudad del Este and Fuz do Iguacu, “Arabic is heard as much as, or perhaps more than, Spanish.”
The third city of Puerto Iguazu, Argentina – which has a population of only about 30,000 – relies heavily on tourism. Unlike Ciudad del Este and Foz do Iguacu, the population of Puerto Iguazu is fairly homogenous, composed primarily of ethnic Argentineans. As late as 2007, U.S. trade with the Latin America represented about 29 percent of our total trade, about double of that with the European Union (15 percent) and triple that with China.
IRAN IN SOUTH AMERICA
Iran has increased its economic ties – including bank mergers – with several countries in Latin America. Some fear these financial mergers are designed to circumvent sanctions imposed by the U.S. in order to launder drug money and finance terrorist activities.
Iran has purchased control of at least one gold mine in Bolivia that is “reported to produce uranium” (Bailey, 2011; Brookes, 2001) and has long been providing “diplomatic training” to government employees from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and El Salvador for some time. The training is said to actually involve courses on “intelligence, counterintelligence and crowd control.”
In March 2007, Iran and Venezuela began international flights connecting Tehran (Iran), Damascus (Syria) and Caracas (Venezuela). Upon arrival in Venezuela, passengers from Iran are not subject to immigration and customs inspections. In addition, Bolivia has also reportedly lifted flight restrictions on passengers arriving from Iran.
In 2008, a shipment of 22 containers traveling from Iran to Venezuela was intercepted by Turkish authorities. Though the containers were marked “tractor parts,” they actually contained bomb making materials.
HEZBOLLAH AND TBA
Hezbollah’s most infamous attacks include the 1983 bombing of the Marine Barracks and U.S. embassy in Lebanon; kidnapping U.S. citizens in Lebanon to trade during the Iran-Contra affair; the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina 1992 and the Argentina Jewish Center in 1994; and the bombing of the Khobar housing complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996
Surprising to many, the first Islamist attack in the Americas actually occurred in Argentina in 1992 – before even the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 – when Hezbollah operatives bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 30 people.
Two years later they were responsible for bombing the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA), which killed 85. It was later reported that Iran offered (then) Argentina President Carlos Menem a bribe of $10 million to keep quiet Iran’s involvement. In 2013, former President Menem was sentenced to seven years in prison for illegally smuggling weapons to Ecuador and Croatia. It is known that Iranian support for Hezbollah activities in the TBA goes back to the 1990s. Although, not much information is known about Hezbollah activities in the TBA because, as Miryekta (2010) notes, there are few actual experts on Hezbollah, and fewer still on Hezbollah activities in Latin America.
It is no secret that the modus operandi of Hezbollah is to launch, “young, bright operatives into many foreign countries with no money and no assistance. They are expected to establish a network as well as funds to ship back to Lebanon, conduct surveillance, and map out and practice operations which can be launched shortly after the decision is made to do so.”
In the lawless area of the TBA, Hezbollah members are free to generate revenue and recruit new members with little fear of reprisal. Reports are that Hezbollah operatives in the TBA are said to raise about $10,000,000 a year and the wearing of Hezbollah T-shirts is very common among young men in the TBA. It has been widely reported that both Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad spent some 20 days in the TBA in 1995. In 1996, Brazilian police found Marwan al Safadi – an explosives expert accused of participating in the first U.S. World Trade Center attack in 1993 – living in the TBA. In 1999, a raid by authorities in the TBA uncovered a Hezbollah/Al Qaeda plan coordinated by Osama bin Laden and Hezbollah leader Imad Mounniagh to stage simultaneous attacks on Jewish targets in Buenos Aires, Cuidad del Este and Ottawa.
In 2000, authorities uncovered a plot to attack U.S. and Israeli embassies in Ascuncion, the capital of Paraguay. The plan involved over two dozen other terrorists who were to carry out diversionary attacks elsewhere in the city.
On September 12, 2001, a Paraguayan SWAT team raided Assad Ahmad Barakat’s closet-sized shop and confiscated more than 60 hours of videotapes and CD-ROMs which showed military marches and attacks with explosives in various parts of the world, as well as professional training courses for suicide bombers. In 2013, Brazilian police arrested his brother – who the U.S. had listed as a Hezbollah operative – under suspicion of operating fraudulent clothing schemes.
Moussa Ali Hamdan – a naturalized U.S. citizen from Lebanon who fled the U.S. in 2005 – was apprehended in Ciudad del Este for attempting to purchase 1200 machine guns for Hezbollah.
In 2006, authorities discovered two explosives devices in Caracas. Claiming responsibility for the devices – and threatening more attacks – was a group called the “Venezuela Hezbollah” – whose members are primarily from the Native American “Wayuu tribe” in northern Colombia and western Venezuela. The tribal members had just recently converted to Islam in the last few years. A stunning example of the intelligence and surveillance capabilities of Hezbollah – and why they are so dangerous – was displayed very recently. Just minutes after FBI agents arrived by plane in the TBA on a covert mission, Hezbollah operatives faxed photos of the agents departing their plane to the FBI Field Office in New York.
COLOMBIA, VENEZUELA AND FARC
Among the closest allies the U.S. has in Latin America is the nation of Colombia. Unfortunately, Colombia is surrounded by not-so-friendly states – specifically Venezuela to its east and Ecuador to its south.
By the 1990s – as a result of the guerilla operations of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC) – Colombia degenerated into lawlessness, terrorism and violence because of cocaine and insurgency.
FARC has long been suspected of having support from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and close working relationships with Hezbollah drug operations in the TBA.
In the mid-2000s, Venezuela purchased 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles from Russia and agreed to begin producing AK-47s in Venezuela.
In March 2008, the Colombian military attacked a FARC jungle camp near the Ecuadorian border, killing several FARC operatives including the group’s second in command, Luis Edgar Devia Silva (a.k.a. Paul Reyes). As a result of the operation, the military seized computer hardware belonging to Reyes which authorities say proved that Venezuelan President Hugo Chaves was directly supporting FARC.
It is important to note that once Chavez’s relationship with FARC was exposed, Chavez himself issued a statement denouncing FARC presence in Latin America, but many think this was only a guise.
As a result of Iran’s strategic financial and other dealings with Venezuela, several groups have prospered in the area, including FARC, the Zetas (professional assassins in the Mexican cartels), the very prominent criminal gangs of Central America, a number of other violent Latin American criminal gangs, as well as the infiltration and partnerships of Hezbollah in Latin America, and even the Chechens working with Hezbollah in the TBA.
As source put it, “terrorist attacks are much greater threats to hemispheric security than are conflicts between (nations)… terrorism is alive and well in the Americas and operating in different guises. Ungoverned spaces, porous borders, weak institutions, uncooperative regimes, and widespread corruption compound the problem.”
By the 2000s, drug violence in Mexico included the assassinations of several police officials and even the head of Mexico City’s police department. It is no secret that both drugs and violence originating in Mexico have already spilled into the U.S.
Growing evidence shows that Hezbollah has a very close relationship with Mexican drug cartels, including benefitting from their smuggling routes into the U.S.
On October 10, 2001, a group of ten terrorists belonging to a Lebanese Hezbollah cell were intercepted in Mexico City on their way to carry out a dual-pronged attack to assassinate (then) Mexican President Vicente Fox and attack the Mexican Senate. Reports are that they made their way to Mexico by way of the TBA.
In 2007, Mohsen Rabbani – who masterminded Hezbollah’s attacks in Argentina in the 1990s – assisted in the failed plot to bomb New York’s JFK airport.
In April 2009, Jamal Yousef – a former member of the Syrian military and senior agent of Hezbollah – was arrested in New York accused of acquiring U.S. arms stolen from U.S. forces in Iraq. The charges were that he was engaged in dealings with FARC to exchange the arms for drugs which would be carried into the U.S. by Mexican drug smugglers.
It was later discovered that Yousef had a cache of some 100 M-16 rifles, 100 AR-15 rifles, 2,500 grenades, C4 explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, and anti-tank weaponry, stored in Mexico. It was also discovered that Hezbollah in Mexico had been conducting explosives training for members of Mexican drug cartels.
In July 2010, Moussa Ali Hamden – a naturalized American citizen and known Hezbollah operative – was arrested in Mexico and indicted for passport fraud, counterfeiting, and financing weapons smuggling between the U.S. and Syria, including plans to smuggle 1,200 America-manufactured Colt M4 rifles to the Middle East.
A report in 2010 noted that, Al “Jamal” Basie – a Mexican national of Lebanese descent – was arrested in Tijuana. Interestingly, the source was a Kuwaiti news report, but both Mexican and U.S. officials would not confirm the report.
In 2011, Iran attempted to hire what it thought was a Mexican drug trafficker to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington, D.C. The would-be assassin turned out to be a U.S. undercover agent.
In September 2012, Raffic Labboun – a Lebanese naturalized U.S. citizen who attended the University of California, received a degree in Mathematics and was considered to be the San Francisco Bay Area Hezbollah leader – was arrested in Mexico for committing some $102,000 in bank fraud. Multiple open source accounts show the growing use of Improvised Explosives Devices (IEDs) among Mexican drug cartels, which they had not previously used to any significant degree. This new IED tactic among Mexican cartels is directly credited to the interaction between Hezbollah and Mexican drug cartels as Hezbollah is well known for its perfection in the use of IEDs.
Hezbollah members have actively recruited Mexican nationals to set up Latin American networks to attack Israeli and American interests and Hezbollah operatives have already been placed in the drug smuggling corridors on the U.S./Mexican border.
INTO THE UNITED STATES
Cigarettes “are the most profitable of the smuggled goods in the TBA” and “account for 20% of the world’s cigarette market.” Smuggling routes from Ciudad del Este reach “north to the U.S.’s East Coast and Indian reservations in the American southwest” and across the Atlantic to Europe.
South America’s drug networks – very substantially involving Hezbollah – have expanded into Venezuela, Colombia, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico, and Hezbollah’s wing of drug smuggling has partnered with Mexican drug cartels using Mexican smuggling routes into the U.S.
While perhaps not inherently Hezbollah-related, in 2006 two Trinidad and Tobago citizens were jailed in Canada for being involved in acts of terrorism. Both subjects were believed to belong to the Pakistani-based terrorist group Jamaat ul-Fuqra – the parent organization of Muslims of America (which has a compound in York, S.C. and some 22 other sites across the U.S.).
In one investigation in the Carolinas that began in 2009, Nasser Alquza – from the Central Mosque in Charleston, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood – was found to have links to cigarette smuggling, buying cigarettes below market price then selling them in other states to avoid paying taxes. Along with ten others – including members from Charlotte, N.C. – he paid $7.5 million to an undercover government agent for almost 7,000 boxes of cigarettes, which would have sold for over $15 million. The group used legitimate businesses to hide the money.
In 2011, Mohammed Yousef Hammoud – dispatched by Hezbollah to Charlotte when he was 21 years old, and lived in the U.S. by way of three sham marriages – was sentenced to 30 years for providing material support to Hezbollah, as well as conspiracy, cigarette smuggling, money laundering and immigration fraud.
Lastly, law enforcement officials are reporting an increase in Hezbollah-sympathetic tattoos among prison inmates in the southwestern U.S.
The prominence of drug activity and violence in Mexico and the TBA has occurred simultaneously with the increased infiltration of Hezbollah in Latin America. Hezbollah, FARC and Mexican drug cartels have formed tripartite partnerships to send drugs north into the U.S. in exchange for weapons – some of which are sent to the Middle East.
As a result, Hezbollah has access to Mexican drug smuggling routes into the U.S. and both Mexican and South American drug cartels have acquired expertise in Hezbollah bomb making applications and deployment. The ramification, of course, is that Hezbollah – and its parent Iran – is poised to insert Mexican drug runners and its own operatives into the U.S. with car bomb and IED expertise.
This occurs as Inspire magazine – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language magazine targeted specifically at U.S. audiences – has very recently called on “Lone Wolf” attackers and small groups in the U.S. to independently construct their own bombs and attack targets in the U.S.
Equally important is that the Muslim extremist/Latin American drug cartel relationships allow Iran a direct avenue of approach to U.S. targets, should it feel the need to use them.
Keith Pounds is a Lebanon/Grenada-era veteran having served as a corpsman (medic) in the U.S. Navy and with the Marines. He holds an MBA with a concentration in organizational psychology and now serves as the president and CEO of Countercon – a S.C.-based counterterrorism consulting company that provides consultations, inspections and training to companies and private groups across the southeast. In 2012, he was designated as an Honorary Green Beret by the S.C. Chapter of the Special Forces Association.