Hizbollah in South America
between Jihad and narco-terrorism
Alessia DE CARO
Since 1992, following the first attack of an Islamic matrix in Buenos Aires, Latin America and, above all, the Triple Frontier, the bordering region of the three countries, (Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina), has been considered a terrorist paradise and a free zone for illegal traffic. Hizbollah and other Islamic groups manage to operate quite freely in this territory; financing themselves from the profits of weapon and drug trafficking; gaining advantage from the growing corruption; organizing training camps and lastly, providing a logistic base for terrorist attacks. Hizbollah’s connections with Farc and with other local opposition groups, and Al Qaeda’s interest in participating in such a remunerative illegal traffic, make very clear the threat which such an area can represent - always more the hub of Islamic extremists’ interests.
The 17th of March 1992: An attack against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, provokes 29 deaths and more than 200 injured. Investigations, drawn out for years, lead to well-founded suspicions of the involvement of Hizbollah and Iran. Hizbollah, in fact, had acted under the cover of Iranian diplomats, it seems. With no definite or conclusive evidence, Teheran rejects all accusations.
The 18th of July 1994: a dynamite attack destroys the AMIA centre (Asociaciˇn Mutual IsraelÝ Argentina, - Israeli Assistance Association in Argentina) in Buenos Aires and provokes 96 deaths. Once again, those responsible for the attack seem to be Hizbollah.
Argentina is shaken for the first time by terrorist acts of an Islamic matrix and Hizbollah will be held responsible for these two operations.
Furthermore, it is necessary to recall that the day after the attack on AMIA, the 19th of July 1994, a bomb on a Panama aircraft exploded in flight over Panama and there were 21 dead, among which were 12 Jewish people. The attack was claimed by Ansarollah (Partisans of God), the name of a faction tied to Hizbollah. Once more Hizbollah denies any involvement.
On the 26th of July 1994, Hizbollah strikes also the Israeli Embassy in London. Only a few hours earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, King Hussein of Jordan was shaking hands with Ytzhak Rabin, the then Israeli Prime Minister, under the patronage of Bill Clinton. The hand shake signified the end of 46 years of war between the two countries.
In both the attacks of Buenos Aires, the targets of Hizbollah were Israel and the Jewish community in Argentina ( circa 300.000 people), the second, in order of importance on the American continent, after that of the United States. In the case of the attack on AMIA, the investigations officially led also to Iran, allied to the Party of God, which, according to analyses by specialists in the field, had wanted to take revenge against Argentina for their unconditional adherence to North American politics.
Other unofficial clues lead, instead, to Syria, another of Hizbollah’s allies, country of origin of the then president of Argentina, Menem and of the Yoma, relatives of his wife, all very close to the family of the Syrian President, and of the known trafficker, Monzer al-Kassar. If this is the right track, besides the first Hizbollah motive of revenge, we have to consider another line of reasoning, i.e. a possible vendetta against President Menem for his failed commitment to deliver to Syria and other Middle East countries, nuclear and missile technology, in exchange for ‘under the counter’ funds for the electoral campaign.
In addition, such funds seem to come not only from the Syrian government, but also from Egypt and from the Libya of Quaddhafi. The only certain information is that the authors of the Buenos Aires attacks passed through the Triple Frontier, where a numerous Islamic community of Lebanese immigrants, connected with Hizbollah, has been residing for very many years.
The Triple frontier, zone of the borders of three countries, (Paraguay Brazil and Argentina) is the kingdom of illegality. The destination of tourists making for the Falls of the Iguaz˙ River, is situated in a zone surrounded by forests and hosts illicit traffic of every possible denomination. The three main towns, Foz do Iguaz˙ for Brazil, Ciudad del Este for Paraguay and Puerto Iguaz˙ for Argentina are linked by a system of bridges. In Ciudad del Est, anything can be smuggled, from electric appliances to stolen cars, from stereos to computers.
The smuggling of the Triple Frontier includes the traffic of marijuana, drugs in general, and arms trafficking. For many years now, the area has been under observation of Washington, being considered an undisturbed place for the passage and stay of Islamic terrorists linked with Hizbollah, Hamas and, according to some, also with Al Qaeda.
The Arab presence in Latin America is strong. There have been and there still are, many excellent Arab names in South American politics. Such as the Argentinean, Carlos Menem and the former Ecuador President, Jamil Mahuad. There are also numerous less known and invisible subjects, who carry forward the business of every kind of illicit traffic in the region of the three borders, even though, obviously, they are not only Arabs. In fact, it has always been a real ‘free for all’ zone, in every sense, from small trade to money transfer abroad; everything wrapped in a complete absence of rules or control.
Subsequent to the fight undertaken after the 11th September, against the financing of terrorist groups, Hizbollah is now, all the more, held under strict observation, particularly, in the Triple Frontier.
There is no clear evidence of the Movement’s liaison or, at least, of its Latin America affiliation with Bin Laden, since the Lebanese Hizbollah has always denied any contact, whatsoever, with Al Qaeda.
When speaking of financing, although the attention has always been focussed on the money stream (estimated around 60-100 million dollars a year) to the Party of God in Lebanon, from the neighbour and ally Iran, it has been demonstrated that the Movement has also been able to count on financial aid from the Lebanese Diaspora in West Africa, from the United states and, above all, from the Triple frontier. The total volume of financing coming from this area, but more generally, from Latin America, is still not known. It is only known that the Paraguayan Police, following investigations over the last few years, has discovered money transfers which oscillate around the figure of tens of millions of dollars.
Due to lack of control at the frontiers, the area is also considered a free zone for illegal immigration. In this regard, it is interesting to note the estimated figure of ten foreigners per week who enter Paraguay illegally. These “illegals” enter through the Ciudad del Este airport, paying about 5.000 dollars a head; and it is thought that even more illegal immigrants are able to enter via land.
Before the 11th of September 2001, controls were practically non-existent on the Puente del Amistad, the bridge that connects Foz de Iguaz˙ to Ciudad del Este, which is crossed by hundreds of Brazilians commuting to work, every day. The border checks are also lacking by the Brazilians at Foz de Iguaz˙ and on the borders with Paraguay and Argentina. Only the Argentinean Government has kept a relatively more stringent control at its frontier, after the 1992 and 1994 attacks. In the last four years, however, the departments of the anti-terrorist police forces of the three countries have worked, jointly, to keep the activities of foreigners under control.
The Arab population of the area is estimated around 20.000, the best part of which are of Lebanese origin, probably tied to Hizbollah and reside in the Paraguayan Ciudad del Este.
The Hizbollah involvement in that area came out when the Argentinean authorities concluded that in the bombing of Israeli targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, groups of the Lebanese organization, based in Ciudad del Este, were involved. Investigations into the attacks revealed, in fact, that the Triple Frontiers area had been transformed into a “paradise”, also for the criminal activities connected to Hizbollah and other Islamic extremist groups.
The proof of the funds paid out to Hizbollah:
the “jihad” of the Paraguayan Police
The investigations relative to the illicit activities of Hizbollah in the Triple Frontier led, in February, 2000, to the arrest, by the Paraguayan Authorities, of a Lebanese businessman, Ali Khalil Mehri, accused of selling counterfeit software for millions of dollars and of having sent part of the money to Hizbollah, in Lebanon. Furthermore, the police declared that a CD had been confiscated from the Mehri shop, in the Tripler Frontier area, containing pictures of the terrorist propaganda of the extremist group, al-Muqawwama, a group connected with Hizbollah.
Furthermore, other documents, found during the confiscation at the shop, testified to the sending of funds to the Al-Shahid organization, founded by The Party of God, dedicated to the protection of the families of the martyrs, and to other funds dispatched in the amount of 700,000 dollars to Lebanon, Chile, Canada and the United States.
The Paraguayan investigation activities into illicit funds to Hizbollah, met with a standstill before the 11th September attack. The government feared, in fact, that the numerous arrests that had been carried out, could have economic repercussions in the Triple Frontier, considered to be the biggest commercial centre of the country and where the Arab community is considered to be the pillar of the economic activity. If the same Arab community had abandoned the country due to the above mentioned arrest blitz, then the economy would have been devastated.
However, after the 11th of September, Paraguay, always dependent on economic aid from the United States, was put under tremendous pressure by the Americans, to eliminate from that region, the financing network to Hizbollah. Ten days after the Twin Towers attack, 16 Lebanese who were illegally entering Ciudad del Este, were arrested, which testifies to the new start of police activities. Enquiries went ahead and on the 3rd October, 2001, a shop search in Ciudad del Este, demonstrated, once more, that funds had, in fact, been paid to Hizbollah.
The shop keeper turned out to be a certain Assad Ahmad Barakat, included in the terrorist list circulated by the Bush Administration. He had been accused of financing the Hizbollah network in the Triple Frontier. Barakat, escaped with his father from the Lebanese civil war and reached Paraguay in 1985. He is also accused of being involved in the recruitment of fighters. He is still wanted by police.
Among the material confiscated from the shop, there were numerous cassettes and videos containing speeches of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, inciting Moslems to the Jihad against the Israeli enemy. Police also found a letter in which Nasrallah personally thanks Barakat for the contributions paid to the organization, which, thanks to the confiscation, proved to be periodical payments amounting, in all, to between 25,000 and 50,000 dollars.
The same 3rd of October, following the search, two of Barakat’s co-operators were arrested: Mazen Ali Saleh and Saleh Mahmud Fayed.
Later, during another search, on the 8th of October 2001, the Paraguayan Police arrested Sobhi Mahmud Fayed, another Lebanese citizen linked with Barakat and the Hizbollah organization: according to investigators, Fayad himself, periodically sent funds to the movement in Lebanon.
A few days later, always in a shop at Ciudad del Este, in the attempted arrest of Ali Hassan Abdallah, involved in the financing ring and who managed to escape before the arrival of police, Kassen Hassan Baalbaki was arrested while trying to destroy a computer containing files which proved the illicit activities already transacted. According to Carlos Calcina, Public Prosecutor at Asuncion, responsible for the enquiries into terrorism and drug trafficking from 1995 to 2001, Barakat and his co-operators had financed Hizbollah with up to 50.000 dollars.
After all these arrests, Hisham Salim Hamdam, Lebanese Ambassador in Argentina and Paraguay, confirmed that Barakat had sent funds to Hizbollah, but in reality, these funds were intended for “humanitarian aids to the orphans of the Moslems killed in action”.
Starting from 11th of September, also the Chilean authorities began to investigate into funds assigned to the Party of God, coming from the Triple Frontier. On the 8th of November 2001, the Chilean Interior Ministry announced the opening of enquiries into two import-export enterprises, the Barakat Ltd and the Saleh Trading Ltd, owned by the famous Barakat and by another Lebanese, Khalil Saleh.
According to the accusations, these two companies were involved in money laundering. At the end of the investigation, two partners of Saleh, Arafat Ismail and Mohamed Ali were arrested on the charge of money laundering, while five more Lebanese were charged with illicit financing of terrorist groups.
Hizbollah and narcoterrorism
Terrorism and drug trafficking are, quite often, connected, due to the money which these illegal activities produce and which is utilized by the terrorists to sustain and expand their network and operations.
While individual acts of terrorist may not require enormous sums of money, attacks like the 11th September implicates a cost of not less than 500,000 dollars. The maintenance of a network of operative cells necessitates significant sums of money. As a result of the success of the efforts of the international community, intent on reducing money contributions to terrorism from certain States, it is easy to deduce the motive for which the terrorist groups are increasing their involvement in drug trafficking: to try to raise funds.
Notwithstanding the fact that, traditionally, drug traffickers and terrorists do not have the same scope, a vast area of common interests has recently allowed a pragmatic cooperation between these two protagonist groups.
The activities of Hizbollah in the Triple Frontier and, more generally, in Latin American, include arms and drug smuggling in this varied illicit traffic.
Although the Party of God is strenuously employed in Lebanon in the organization of agricultural formation courses, in an attempt to face the re-conversion of the hashish and poppy plantations, prohibited by the Lebanese State, in 1992, Hizbollah has never concerned itself with the illegal ways in which its members have procured the funds to sustain the organization. On the contrary, the drug trafficking profits, which arrive from Latin America, have always been used to solve the social problems of the Lebanese people, in order to win consensus in the country.
Affiliates and cells of Hizbollah are also active in Colombia and Venezuela; the weak governments of these areas and the loose and often uncontrolled borders, have favoured such a phenomenon.
Furthermore, the diffused narcoterrorism in that region is due to the liaison between Hizbollah and the local opposition terrorist groups such as, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
In the wake of the Hizbollah-Columbian example, links with the ‘Sendero Luminoso’, in Peru, have also been created.
The anti-American ideology, common to these organizations and, above all, the interest in smuggling and other illegal activities to accumulate funds have, substantially, united these different groups.
The level of cooperation between Hizbollah and these groups is still not clear even though it is important to note that in January of 2004, on the occasion of an exchange of prisoners between the Israeli authorities and Hizbollah, Ali Biro was freed: he was a Hizbollah militant and one of the most renowned Middle East drug traffickers connected with FARC.
With regard to the implications of Hizbollah in drug trafficking, one of the most recent arrests in this field, was made by the Paraguayan police in May, 2003. The man arrested was Hassan Dayub, while he was trying to send to Syria, an electric pianola, filled with cocaine. Dayub is a relative of the already mentioned Assad Barakat.
Imad Mughniyah Middle East Intelligence sources have indicated that behind the new threats to the American and Israeli interests in Latin America, is a certain Imad Mughniyah, a mysterious terrorist believed to be connected to Hizbollah, held as one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world and wanted by the FBI for over 20 years. Mughniyah, a military commander of Hizbollah, has probably been co-ordinating the activities of the terrorist organizations in South America. Although there is little information available about him, it would seem that he comes from a Shiite family from South Lebanon. He was born in 1962 and, at an early age, moved with his family to Beirut, where he became associated with the Islamic Shiite radicalism. Following the Lebanese civil war, it appears that Mughniyah joined the OLP of Arafat and was operative in the many training camps in Lebanon . In 1982, Mughniyah became a body guard of Sayyed Muhammad Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hizbollah, key ally of Iran. Mughniyah took advantage of this alliance, with the full approval of Nasrallah, to form the Jihad Islamic Group, to serve as a convenient cover for Hizbollah. However, it seems that Mughniyah did not wish to stay in Lebanon, and crossed the ocean to reach Latin America. It appears that behind the attacks on the Israeli embassy and AMIA in Buenos Aires, the Islamic Jihad group, led by Mughniyah, was also involved. An Iranian informer, Abdelghassem Mesbahi, an ex-member of the Iranian Revolutionary Council, testified to the Argentinean Authorities that one of the organizers of the two attacks was, in fact, Mughniyah. The two attacks revealed the intention of Imad to develop a stronger infra-structure in South America in support of the Party of God, with the scope of creating a network of training and indoctrination camps for the young who wished to embrace the cause of the jihad. In 1994, the leader of Hizbollah personally visited the Triple Frontier and the main Mosque of the area was blessed by the chief of Mughniyah, Sayyed Muhammad Fadlallah. In addition, Mughniyah was also responsible for the establishment of a network in South America, to facilitate drug smuggling in the region. Furthermore, he tried to extend Hizbollah interests in North America: in 2000, the federal authorities of North Carolina arrested 18 men for cigarettes smuggling and other illegalities. Later, the FBI revealed that the traffic was directed by a Lebanese immigrant, Mohammad Hammud, who had earned circa 8 million dollars, which were, subsequently, sent to Hizbollah. A series of further investigations brought to light that Hammud was connected to a certain Mohammad Dbouk, a member of Hizbollah, who had tried to extend illicit traffic in favour of the organization in Canada. The confirmation that Mughniyah was behind this project, arrived by a fax which was intercepted by the Canadian intelligence, in which Dbouk in contact with Hassan Hilu Laqis, a Hizbollah agent, operating out of Lebanon, states that he was doing everything possible “to help Hizbollah and the father”. The Canadian attorney in charge of the case, confirmed that “father” was the code name of Imad Mughniyah.
Nevertheless, it is thought and affirmed also by the Washington Post, that Hizbollah has affiliates in at least ten U.S. towns, but up till now, Mughniyah has never attacked targets in North America. However, the present growing tensions between the United States and Iran, due to the latter’s nuclear programme and their alliance with Hizbollah could give rise to preoccupation in this regard.
Furthermore, one could hypothesize that since the political leadership of Hizbollah has, by now, officially embarked on a successful path in the Lebanese political scenario, it could afford to detach itself from its foreign “armed wing”. With the network of social and economic activity created in Lebanon since 1992 and as a political party, Hizbollah could, perhaps, enjoy official financing to expand its social activity, without ‘dirtying its hands’ with illicit funds and without becoming open enemies of the United States and Europe.
Nasrallah has already been compelled, more than once, to justify the presence of its armed wing in the South of Lebanon. However, it defends itself on the grounds of continued Israeli presence in the Zone of the farms of Sheba. Mughniyah, instead, could be a too inconvenient ally to defend, and could cause closer relations between Mughniyah and Al Qaeda; the latter certainly very desirous of participating in a profitable illicit traffic such as the Triple Frontier, which would furnish that financing, vitally necessary to accomplish further attacks against the West.
To support this hypothesis, It should kept in mind that in 1998, the American Authorities arrested Ali A. Mohamed, charging him with having participated in the attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Africa. In touch with bin Laden, Mohamed admitted that in 1994, he himself, had arranged a meeting between Osama bin Laden and Imad Mughniyah, in Sudan and confirmed that at the time, Hizbollah supplied training to the men of Al Qaeda, in exchange for arms and explosives. Other testimonies regarding the meetings and cooperation between Mughniyah and bin Laden were subsequently gathered.
The cooperation between Hizbollah an Al Qaeda became stronger in the years that followed and could become even stronger now, if it is true, as it seems to be, that part of the Al Qaeda leadership has taken refuge in Iran (including Saif al-Adel, who has recently threatened Italy with terrorist attacks).
Although from the beginning of the War on Terrorism, the Bush Administration has succeeded in reducing the sources of financing to terrorist groups, the Lebanese movement, Hizbollah, is still receiving a huge flow of illicit financing.
In the last five years, the Shiite Party, with the money it has received, has not only been able to “help” the population of South Lebanon, but also to reinforce its military apparatus and, with good probability, also those of some Palestinian terrorist cells. The help received from the Iranian ally is estimated at around 100 million dollars per year, and it is not said that with the new Iranian president, Ahmedi-nejad, this support will not increase.
Furthermore, Hizbollah could also receive a large amount of financing from the Lebanese diaspora present in West Africa, through the diamond trade. One can realize to what proportions terrorist financing can reach, when the flow of money from the Triple Frontier is added to the amounts already mentioned.
Hizbollah and, perhaps, other Islamic groups are able to operate quite freely in this area, exploiting the growing corruption, organizing training camps, safe refuges and logistics bases for the terrorists: notwithstanding, the higher level of cooperation between the police forces of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
At the present, terrorism is not the major worry of the Latin American and Caribbean countries. However, it is a problem which, if not resolved soon, considering the turn it is taking, could mean that South America and, automatically, the western countries will have to pay a high price for neglecting the question.
In Latin America, Hizbollah could supply ever increasing logistic and financial support, not only to Al Qaeda, but also to local groups and extend the terrorist targets from the national interests to western and American interests within and outside of South America.
Furthermore, the question of financing could become increasingly difficult to extricate: now that Hizbollah is a majority party in Lebanon, many people – and not only the Arabs – would see nothing wrong in financing a party that has done and does so much good “for the needy people of Lebanon”. It will always be more difficult to discern which financing is legal and which is not.
This hypothesis is not advanced haphazardly. With the support of Iran, Hizbollah could start, through local groups, if it hasn’t already, to set up in Latin America, the same strategy used in Lebanon to gain popular consensus, by providing for the citizens those things that a weak government has not been able to provide. There are numerous people in Latin America who describe Hizbollah as a “provider of welfare to the needy citizens and defender of the Lebanese rights against Israeli aggression”.
Realizing the danger and in an attempt to stem the swelling consensus for the Party of God, the Spanish Government, in the wake of what had been done in France, closed down, at the end of June this year, the Hizbollah television channel al-Manar, which was transmitted to Latin America. The satellite TV company, Hispasat, through which Al Manar was transmitted is, in fact, controlled by the Spanish Government.
The previous government in Colombia, in an attempt to open a series of negotiations with FARC, had ceded to them the formal control of a strip of territory, permitting, in addition, foreign governments to furnish economic assistance to the area in question. Iran, the principle financier of Hizbollah was included in the list of foreign countries permitted to operate in the FARC controlled area and, therefore, it naturally supported the Hizbollah organization.
In the Summer of 2001, the Colombian magistracy determined a scenario of international terrorist link-ups, among which was not only a stable cooperation between FARC, ETA, IRA and a foreign legion of more than 200 terrorists of 18 different nationalities, but also Hizbollah.
At a summit meeting at Cartagena de Indias in Columbia, in October 2003, the news of a regular alliance between FARC and Al Qaeda was announced by Gordon Thomas, Irish expert of terrorism and the secret services.
Thomas spoke again on the theme, in the Columbian weekly, El Espectador, referring to the possible cooperation between Islamic extremist groups and local groups, and after the Madrid massacre of the 11th March, 2004, he accused Al Qaeda. According to Thomas, the ETA did not have the capacity to realize attacks of this nature, unless they had been helped, organized and financed by the Bin Laden organization.
Moreover, arms supplies continue to arrive in the Latin American continent. The US are very worried by the news of the signing, in March of this year in Caracas, of about 20 cooperation treaties between Iran and the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez regime, together with an agreement, ratified with Russia at the beginning of April, regarding the supply of 100 thousand Kalashnikov AK-47.
In addition, there is ever increasing talk about dormant cells of Islamic terrorist groups in other Latin American countries like, for example, the Venezuelan Island, Margarita, at Trinidad and Tobago.
Over the last months, in Haiti, members of an Islamic group, which appears to have ties with Al Qaeda, have provided instruction in the use of arms and explosives to a pro-Aristide gang, at the same time trying to convert the gang members to Islam.
In the Dominican Republic, two radical groups seeking technical and financial support, seem to have established contacts with Islamic radicals. Al Qaeda appears to have had ties in the country of Nicaragua for some time, and it is believed that it is now pushing groups to undertake terrorist attacks against the government.
According to what the German newspaper, “Der Spiegel” published in June of this year, in the south of Mexico, a veritable conversion to Islam activity is underway, conducted by many Moslems of “doubtful origins”, who have carried out an activity of proselytism and have already recruited hundreds of Maya natives.
Also the US Department of State has, for some time, been talking of Shiite terrorist groups connected to Hizbollah.
Immediately after the 2001 attacks on America, numerous journalistic enquiries were carried out which revealed that the 11th September attacks had been organized, also thanks to financing from money laundering operations; sale of drugs and weapons of South America.
This hypothesis was confirmed when it was found that, in fact, besides a plan to attack Afghanistan, the Bush Government had foreseen a plan of attack for the Triple frontier; a plan which was subsequently put aside.
Experts in anti-terrorism have uncovered the presence of “terror networks” in Honduras, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Ecuador. The Quito authorities in Ecuador, announced last June, the dismantling of a network of drug traffickers. Also in this case, the said network appeared to be connected to Islamic fundamentalists of the Lebanese Hizbollah group. According to a Colonel of the Police, Edison Ramos, 70% of the drug proceeds was sent to Lebanon to finance Hizbollah.
As in other parts of the world, the same mosques which are often involved in terrorist activities, have transformed themselves into important indoctrination centres for new disciples.
The simple fact, confirmed many times, of the increase in the number of places of the Islamic cult in the Triple Frontier and in Latin America, provides in itself, the sensation of the growing level of the influence that Hizbollah and other Islamic terrorist groups are obtaining in that area.