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Latin America and the Hezbollah Connection: A Threat to US National Security

As the Biden administration faces backlash for failing to suitably address pro-Iranian militias attacks on US forces in the Middle East, it is the Latin America angle that should be viewed as having direct links to this threat to US national security. The continent harbors terrorist, narcoterrorism and influence campaigns by Iran and Hezbollah, and poses a challenge to the US both in terms of illegal migration and some of its countries’ ties to Iran

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The October 7 attack by Hamas against Israel killed 1,200 people, including 32 U.S. citizens, renewing the global focus on radical Islamic terrorism. Those fears include the possibility that Hezbollah forces in Latin America could join the fight against Israel and carry out terrorist attacks in Latin America or in the United States and the Middle East.

On November 8, Brazilian Federal Police uncovered a plot by alleged Hezbollah operatives to attack Jewish targets. On December 7, the FBI presented Brazilian authorities with an urgent alert about the possible planning of an imminent terrorist attack in the country. Also in early December, Israel raised the travel alert level for its citizens in 80 countries, including Brazil and Argentina. This raise alert level was in response to Iran’s rising efforts to target Israelis and Jews[1]. Brazil is home to Latin America’s second-largest Jewish community, after Argentina, and the arrests further raises fears about the region’s vulnerability to terrorism[2].

Given Latin America’s history of terrorism and the conflict in the Middle East, there is a clear need for greater cooperation to combat terrorism in the region. Latin America’s proximity to the United States, and its significant problems with endemic corruption, organized crime and economic dysfunction, calls for the Americans to act in the current climate. Without greater US support, it is not clear that Latin America’s law enforcement and intelligence efforts have the capacity to detect and dismantle Hezbollah. Yet the U.S. national security focus has generally been tilted toward power politics with China and Russia and away from combatting international terrorism.

Fortunately, there are counterterrorism cooperation mechanisms to build upon. Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States, Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay established the 3+1 Group on Tri-Border Area Security. Yet whilst these entities are useful, they may not be sufficient to meet the current threat. Without greater intelligence and law enforcement resources dedicated to countering Hezbollah, Latin America will remain a soft target for the type of international terrorism that the region has suffered in the past.

Argentinian President Milei has yet to officially designate Hamas as a terrorist organization, even though Hezbollah has been on their list since 2019. Paraguay meanwhile designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization less than a month after Argentina. Hezbollah’s extensive operations in Latin America will likely mean that more countries in the region will follow in Paraguay and Argentina’s lead and blacklist the group.[3]

In the first half of 2023, 160 migrants on the terrorist watch list have been stopped from trying to enter the US from Mexico[4]. Numbers of illegal migrants have consistently grown throughout President Biden’s presidency. It is unclear how many terrorists are included in the one point five million illegal migrants who have entered the US since he took office.  The Biden administration have cancelled the “remain in Mexico” policy which was proving to be a significant deterrent to abuse of asylum claims. Guatemala offered Washington a comprehensive deal in 2021 on managing border migration, which the Biden administration rebuffed[5].


Defying US Sanctions

Migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East often use Venezuela as a point of entry in the Western Hemisphere for illegal migration to the U.S. Recently, the U.S. offered sanctions relief to Venezuela in exchange for promises of free and fair national elections, effectively ignoring the increasingly prominent role the Caracas regime plays in global human trafficking.

On February 12, The United States seized a Boeing 747 cargo plane that Iran sold to a Venezuelan state airline, drawing condemnation from Tehran. Washington says that the sale of the plane to Venezuela in 2022 by Iran’s Mahan Air violated its sanctions on Tehran. The US has imposed sanctions on the airline due to its affiliation with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Mahan Air – known to transport weapons and fighters for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah – violated our export restrictions by selling this airplane to a Venezuelan cargo airline. Venezuela’s government called the transfer a “shameful rapacious operation” and vowed to “take all actions to restore justice and achieve the restitution of the aircraft to its legitimate owner.”.[6]

It is unlikely that Hezbollah will use the clandestine immigration stream into the US, because every Hezbollah agent that has come into America has been eventually exposed by the authorities. Instead, would-be agents have always come into the US legally, then have applied for green card citizenship. Once they have a passport, their Hezbollah activities begin. There have been 4 cases between 2017 and today of such agents, and there is this visible pattern[7]. Individuals are also coming into the US from the Middle East, Asia, Africa all of which exacerbates the likelihood of a future US domestic terrorist attack.

It has become clear therefore that the current US foreign policy is not sufficient. The US wants to export its own values of good governance and transparency, sanctioning perpetrators of other issues such as human rights violations such as Nicaragua. The Biden administration also wants to create the impression it is finally getting tough on Hezbollah. Recent Treasury Department sanctions against 3 Colombian-based Hezbollah operatives seem to suggest the White House is taking the threat more seriously[8]. But by the time the sanctions were imposed and Colombian officials had a mandate to investigate, the operatives had disappeared[9].

The US treasury does not have the capacity and its effect is often underwhelming. There are also the almost unprecedented challenges from US domestic political contentions. If Republicans were to win the presidency in 2024, U.S. foreign policies would likely shift dramatically. Conversely, should President Joe Biden win re-election, the administration may struggle to further develop sustainable policies. Either way, Latin American policy will prove uniquely challenging for the U.S., which usually does not make hemispheric relations a priority, particularly in the latter stages of a presidential term.


A Presidential Visit in South America

Iran’s President Raisi recently visited Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua in defiance of the US and in violation of sanctions. Iran is exporting its Islamist ideology into Latin America, creating terror cells as well as influential cultural centers. Mostly Iran sees a potential in the ideological sphere to emphasize its worldviews with authoritarian Latin American leaders, penetrating academia and reaching out to influencers.

Whilst Iran cannot match China or Russia’s military, economy or technology, it is not an insignificant on the world stage as they all share the common goal of diminishing American global influence. But China and Russia are not promoting the same revolutionary ideology as Iran.

Brazil’s President Lula allowed Iranian warships to dock in ports in Rio de Janeiro in 2023[10]. He did so just after returning from a trip to Washington to meet with President Biden, where the US threatened further sanctions, which President Lula simply ignored[11].  The Iranian signal is that they are going to ignore US sanctions and pressure, even though Brazil has since signed more bilateral agreements with the US on the promotion of workers right internationally. President Lula is essentially telling the world that America will no longer dictate what he does.

Hezbollah has a pervasive presence in Latin America. We know that it is responsible for the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Cultural Center in Buenos Aires[12]. The country froze Hezbollah’s assets and branded it a “terrorist organization” in 2019. In December 2023, the United States charged an alleged Hezbollah member, Samuel Salman El Reda, accusing him of providing assistance for a 1994 bombing in Argentina.[13] Killing Jews may have been a benefit for its presence in Argentina at that time, but its criminal enterprises of drug trafficking and money laundering are a prime factor in its movement in Latin America.

Conversely, newly-elected President Milei is presenting a significant change of tone in the Latin country’s attitude toward Israel. Foreign Minister Israel Katz welcomes Argentinian President Javier Milei upon his arrival to Israel in February. Israel Katz thanked President Milei for his support for Israel against Hamas and for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “You are a person of values ​​who is committed only to the truth,” Israel Katz told President Milei, “And it is no wonder that you chose to come to Israel right away to support us in the just struggle for the defense of the Jewish people against the murderers of Hamas.”[14]


The Challenge of Hezbollah’s Narco Terrorism

Hezbollah works closely with other cartels including the Medellin cartel and cartels in Brazil and Mexico[15]. The principal service they offer is money laundering and Iran has bankrolled Hezbollah since its inception[16]. But as Hezbollah’s operational budget influence has grown over the years, its financial needs have grown too, so it engages in illicit activities in Latin America to help meet those needs. No evidence of a direct connection yet exists between these networks that launder money for crime and the criminal networks that bring fentanyl through Mexico into the United States, but given that Hezbollah has developed this money laundering infrastructure worldwide for decades now, a connection may well emerge. There is a role for US criminal investigation organizations like the DEA because Hezbollah’s illicit financial networks heavily rely on US jurisdictions to move money around. One of the reasons for this is that a lot of the money generated by illicit drug sales comes from America[17].

U.S. officials now assess that there is a rising risk that Hezbollah militants will strike Americans in the Middle East — and even potentially hit inside the United States[18].  This turnaround comes after the US publicly stated in October that it believed Tehran and its proxies were not seeking a wider regional war or a confrontation with the U.S. Either scenario — an attack domestically or on troops or diplomats overseas — would deal a blow to the Biden administration which has worked to prevent the Israel-Hamas conflict from broadening into a wider regional war and to keep American forces out of the fray. It would also likely draw Washington back into the Middle East at a time when it is trying to focus its national security resources on countering China and Russia.


Lack of American Deterrence in the Region

Since October 7, U.S. troops in the Middle East have been attacked by multiple other Iranian proxy groups, including Iraqi paramilitary group Harakat-al-Nujaba[19]. The Pentagon announced on February 12 that the number of US casualties in Iraq, Syria and Jordan since Oct. 18 now totals around 186.[20]  The U.S. has hit back multiple times, including a January 4 drone strike in Baghdad that killed a senior militia member[21].

“Iran, Hezbollah and their linked proxies are trying to calibrate their activity, avoiding actions that would open up a concerted second front with the United States or Israel while still exacting costs in the midst of the current conflict… their actions carry the potential for miscalculation,” Christy Abizaid, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said during a congressional hearing in October[22]. During his visit to the Middle East Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “this is a conflict that could easily metastasize.”

US intelligence officials have testified in recent months about the threats posed by Hezbollah, saying the group has significant capability to carry out overseas terrorist attacks and that its motivation to strike the U.S. has grown following the Trump administration’s 2019 strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, the leader of one of Iran’s top military units. “The arrests of individuals in the United States allegedly linked to Hezbollah’s main overseas terrorist arm, and their intelligence-collection and procurement efforts, demonstrate Hezbollah’s interest in long-term contingency planning activities here in the homeland,” FBI director Chris Wray said in a congressional hearing Nov. 15[23].

A preemptive attack on Hezbollah in the Middle East has faced sustained U.S. opposition because of the concern that it may draw Iran and other proxies into the conflict. But there has been broader concern about an escalation in the past weeks, particularly as Israel announced the temporary withdrawal of several thousand troops from Gaza on January 1 — a decision that could open up resources for a military operation in the north. Hezbollah, meanwhile, may want to avoid a major escalation and to steer clear of a wider war. In a speech on January 5, Hasan Nasrallah vowed a response to Israeli aggression, while hinting that he might still be open to negotiations on border demarcation with Israel[24]. A full-scale conflict between Israel and Lebanon would surpass the scale of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war on account of Hezbollah’s substantially larger arsenal of long-range precision weaponry.


Need for American Leadership

The United States must take more aggressive steps to moderate the Iranian and Hezbollah threats to its security and interests, which also include vast networks of narco-terrorism, information war and terrorist cells that are becoming increasingly epidemic in Latin America. Halting Iranian expansionism behooves taking stricter measures in places that often seem remote from the geopolitical public eye such as Latin America.





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