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Iran, Hezbollah and Latin America?

When I saw the following CNN headline, “Iran, Hezbollah mine Latin America for revenue, recruits, analysts say” my first thought was:  will this be the same old recycled story about an alleged growing threat of Islamic extremists terror networks in Latin America?  Here’s the basic check-list for any such story:  1.  Mention the 1994 bombings of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, 2) Mention the “Tri-Border Area” (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay), 3) Note the Muslim populations in Latin American countries, especially Brazil, and 4) have some vague statements from experts about possible threats.

Every article I have read about possible growing Islamic extremist threats in Latin America (and I have read a LOT of them) tend to have all the above elements and, indeed, they all tend to read  like the same story rewritten over and over and over again.

Let’s see how these article does,

1.  Mention 1994.

This is noted in the second paragraph as well as later in the piece.  Now, this always makes for an interesting bit of history and certainly helps fill column inches.  However, looking at the calendar I would note that 1994 is almost two decades ago.  If the best one can do as an illustration of the potential threat, then perhaps the threat is not all that, well, threatening.

For those unfamiliar, here are the details:

Iran has denied any connection to the July 18, 1994, bombing at the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (known as AMIA after its Spanish acronym), which also injured more than 100 people. Likewise, Iran denies any involvement in a bomb blast at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires on March 17, 1992, that killed 29 people and wounded at least 250 more.

In 1994 I was recently married, childless, and in the middle of graduate school.  I am now a Full Professor and Department Chair and have three children, one of whom can drive.  1994 was a long time ago.

2.  Tri-Border Area

Here we go:

Analysts agree that Hezbollah started its infiltration of Latin America in the mid-1980s, establishing its first major stronghold in the Tri-Border Area, a relatively lawless region along the frontiers of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. From this base deep in the heart of South America, Hezbollah set up illicit enterprises to fund its operations in the Middle East and elsewhere, analysts say. Among the organization’s reported major undertakings are money-laundering, counterfeiting, piracy and drug trafficking.

By all accounts, those illegal activities are quite lucrative. A 2004 study for the Naval War College determined that Hezbollah’s operations in the Tri-Border Area generated about $10 million annually. A 2009 Rand Corporation report said Hezbollah netted around $20 million a year in the area. As a result, says Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of the book “Funding Evil,” the Tri-Border Area constitutes Hezbollah’s most significant source of independent funding.

First, if 1994 was a long time ago, the 1980s are ancient history.

Second, this all sounds ominous.  It has a cool name that can be turned into an acronym (TBA!), and whenever you can call an area “lawless” it just seems all the more threatening.  Border areas also are notorious in literature, song, and real life.

I have no doubt about the funding issue—more on that below.

In regards to 1994 and the Tri-Border Area:

It wasn’t long after Hezbollah established its firm foothold in the Tri-Border Area that it became linked to the two terrorist attacks in Argentina, which has the largest Jewish community in South America and one of the biggest outside of Israel.

By September 1995, Philip Wilcox Jr., the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, was testifying to a U.S. House committee that Hezbollah had become “the major international terrorist threat” in the region.

I would note that rather than 1992 and 1994 being the portend of things to come, they were the zenith of radical Islamic terrorism in the Americas until 9/11 (which had nothing to do with Iran, Hezbollah, nor the TBA).

3.  Muslim populations

Although exact figures are difficult to come by, estimates by the Pew Research Center and the Islamic Population websites say Brazil and Argentina have the largest Muslim populations in South America, with more than 1 million members each. Those populations include converts to Islam, Arab immigrants and their descendants. Venezuela has more than 100,000 Muslims concentrated among persons of Lebanese and Syrian descent, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report.

Lot of scary Muslims, dontcha know. This just feeds the Islamophobic who see any increase in Muslim population as a threat.

4.  Vague Threats and Fears

Well, just the notion of Iranian or Hezbollah-linked “networks” is enough to excite great concern in some.  Further, we have a reference to two terrorist attacks and lawlessness in the TBA, so we are already well on our way to grave concern, if not freak-outs.

But, there is also:

Nisman’s report said Iran’s intelligence activities in Latin America are being conducted directly by Iranian officials or through a key surrogate, the Hezbollah Islamic militant group. “Criminal plans” by Iran could be under way in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, the report said.

Please note:  criminal plans could be under way.  Also:

“They are more involved in the cocaine trade than ever before, and have greater access in the region due their allies in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and elsewhere,” Farah said. “So they have more freedom of movement and fewer restrictions. This has greatly increased their capacity to carry out intelligence operations, train and position operatives and prepare attacks, particularly if Israel or the U.S. strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

In regards to the aforementioned hordes of Muslims:

Hezbollah also uses its new stronghold as a base for recruiting among Latin America’s diaspora of Lebanese expatriates, known throughout the region as ‘turcos,” and other Muslim populations.

Much of that recruitment takes place in mosques or “Islamic centers” that Hezbollah operatives infiltrate or establish to serve the region’s burgeoning Muslim communities.

Note the vagueness of that claim.  One expects that Hezbollah attempts to recruits where ever it can, but the questions becomes more what the success rate is and to what end, rather than whether they try and recruit.  Also, Hezbollah also seeks donations from ex-patriots for its more legitimate arms, so the act of Hezbollah recruitment and fundraising is not always as objectively problematic as some make it out to be.  Hezbollah is not just a militant organization, but also a political party and a social organization.

Also:

That’s not to say, though, that Hezbollah does not have the capacity to turn violent, particularly at the behest of Iran.

Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said Hezbollah “represents a significant potential threat to the United States.”

“Over the past decade, Hezbollah’s regional activities have shown a clear pattern of targeting U.S. interests and assets throughout Latin America. Among other indicators, Hezbollah operatives are known to have cased the U.S. embassy in Paraguay’s capital of Ascunción, and local organizational cells have colluded with al Qaeda to plot attacks on U.S. and Jewish targets in the region,” he said.

“Hezbollah also has the ability to strike at the U.S. homeland itself,” Berman said. “Given the lucrative nature of the organization’s illicit activities throughout the hemisphere, the likelihood of such a development remains low. Still, Hezbollah’s strategic calculus could conceivably change if it or its chief sponsor, Iran, were imperiled in a substantial way (for example, through military action that targets Iran’s nuclear facilities). In this sense, Hezbollah can be described as a potential insurance policy of sorts for the Iranian regime.”

And Hezbollah only stands to become more dangerous, analysts say.

Note the lack of much in the way of details (and the notion that Iran could, at a moment’s notice, weaponize Hezbollah, or something).  And there is a lot of plotting (and casing!) going on.  How we know this exactly it unclear.

5.  The Real Issue:  Funding

If there is a real issue, it is not so much Iranian influence in Latin America as it is using the illicit drug trade for funding.

analysts and observers disagree over Iran and Hezbollah’s ambitions. Hezbollah’s actions are mainly seen as financial, as evidenced by greater ties to Latin American drug cartels in recent years. At the same time, Iran may be returning to more violent acts, such as a reported attempt to recruit someone to assassinate a diplomat.

There is a lot of money to be made in the drug trade, in case anyone has noticed.  As such, it is not surprising that various groups would tap into the resources in question.  The opium trade helps

6.  Parting Thoughts

Yes, I am being more than a bit flippant here in tone (although the basic points are serious).  It is not because I do not see the significance of various criminal enterprises in Latin America nor that I do not understand the significance of fundraising by groups that may engage in political violence.  My flippancy is based in a few things.  First, the discussion of this exact topic has been redundant and poorly analyzed for years (again:  the degree to which these stories are near-identical year after year is truly amazing).  Second, the discussion of this topic typically had a veneer, if not a thick coat, of terrorism fear mongering about it.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. murray says:

    Time to find make up evidence of WMD and Al Qaeda links in Mexico. We’ve got some unfinished business down there for more than a century and a half.

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  2. john425 says:

    Just keep sticking your head in the sand, Mr. Taylor. Hezbollah fighters are now alongside the Syrian government troops and slipping “sleeper agents” into the USA via our southern border is probably a commonplace event given the porosity of it. Drug money merely helps it along.

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  3. murray says:

    @john425:

    We already have a potential winner.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  4. @john425: You do realize that Syria is not in the Western Hemisphere, yes? (And that the subject of the post is, in fact, the Americas). Just checking.

    That Hezbollah would be relevant to Syrian politics is not a surprise.

    and slipping “sleeper agents” into the USA via our southern border is probably a commonplace event given the porosity of it.

    I am aware of such claims. Upon would do you base your assertion?

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    Another reason to end the War on Drugs. Obama has ended the first of Bush’s wars, is well along on the second, and has announced plans to end the GWOT, Bush’s third war. Maybe he’ll still have time in his second term to wind down Nixon’s War on Drugs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  6. Scott says:

    @john425: Hezbollah is fighting Sunni jihadists in Syria. They are also linked with the Shiite-led government in Iraq which we also support. The “sides” are not very clear.

    I’m not sure how much interest Hezbollah has outside of its South Lebanon territory and its emnity to Israel. They seem to be focused there. If Iran uses them to make mischief in our backyard, that is basically what it is, mischief.

    I don’t see them as a threat to the US.

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  7. DC Loser says:

    This is par for the course for the lame American press when it comes to international affairs. There is no way that the BBC, CBC, or Al Jazeera English would ever have let something like this survive the editor’s review.

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  8. john425 says:

    @Steven Taylor…I know a bit about geography, thank you. As to my assertion…how can you “assert” that it is untrue?

    @ Scott, who says: “I don’t see them as a threat to the US.” Nobody saw the Boston Marathon guys as a threat either.

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  9. Matt Bernius says:

    @john425:

    I know a bit about geography, thank you. As to my assertion…how can you “assert” that it is untrue?

    Ahh… the classic response of a weak argument.

    How can you, for example, prove that you’re not secretly a radical islamist whose goal is to direct our attention to the Southern border, when, in fact, A-rab’s are currently sneaking across the wide, unprotected swaths of our Northern border aided by all those radical Québécois separatists?

    John, the rules of polite debate require the one who initially raised the claim to deliver evidence in support of that claim. It would be kinda nice… you know… if you actually followed those rules.

    @john425:

    Nobody saw the Boston Marathon guys as a threat either.

    Brilliant, because of course they snuck in illegally through the Southern Border. And their single act of terror totally destroyed the US, which had been previously destroyed by 9/11.

    Oh wait… neither things happened. Taking a potential threat seriously does not inherently mean overreacting to the size and scope of the threat. If, on the other hand, regular attacks by Islamists on soft targets within the country started to happen, then you would have a more substantial argument. But given the fact that, for the moment, more mass deaths have occurred to our own citizens going on shooting sprees, it’s a little hard to take you claim of impending Muslim doom particularly seriously.

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  10. Scott says:

    @john425: Well, I guess we have a different definition of threat. I don’t see the Boston marathon guys as threats to the US. After all we have far more deaths from guns and automobiles and we don’t consider them (or the people who operate them) as threats.

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  11. Andre Kenji says:

    1-) There are large numbers of people of Syrian and Lebanese descent both in Argentina and in Brazil(Carlos Menem was the son of two allawite Syrians, one of the best hospitals in São Paulo is the Syrian-Lebanese Hospital). Many of these people are Christians or descend from Christians, but they have, many times, sympathies with the Palestinians or even with Hezbollah.

    But Muslim population per se is relatively small.And it would make more sense to operate a Terror Cell in São Paulo or in Rio de Janeiro than in Foz do Iguaçu.

    2-) Yes, the since 1994 there was no specifically related terrorist threats in the region. I´ve never saw anyone in the Jewish community complaining about targeted antisemitism.

    3-) Paraguay is known for having poor institutions and poor rule of law, even for Latin American Standards. The border area is widely known for the commerce of counterfeit and smuggled goods, in Brazil “Made in Paraguay” is a slang for things that are falsified.

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  12. @john425: My flippant geography reference was to underscore that the discussion I started was about the Americas, not about Hezbollah activity in Lebanon and its environs. Since the Assad regime has long been a patron of Hezbollah, their involvement in that civil war is no surprise. However, said involvement tells us nothing about the degree to which they operate, let alone constitute a threat, in Latin America or the US.

    In terms of your assertion issue, I would note that a claim sans evidence is just that, a claim. If you are going to make claims and wish them to be taken seriously, evidence is required.

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  13. @Matt Bernius:

    Taking a potential threat seriously does not inherently mean overreacting to the size and scope of the threat. If, on the other hand, regular attacks by Islamists on soft targets within the country started to happen, then you would have a more substantial argument. But given the fact that, for the moment, more mass deaths have occurred to our own citizens going on shooting sprees, it’s a little hard to take you claim of impending Muslim doom particularly seriously.

    Indeed.

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  14. mantis says:

    @john425:

    As to my assertion…how can you “assert” that it is untrue?

    I think you are personally slipping sleeper agents into the country. Prove I’m wrong.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  15. Dave D says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Has there been reliable intelligence that these money making ventures in the TBA have been increasing in recent years? If so do you think the economic sanctions placed upon Iran may increase their need to find money elsewhere? In the same vein with an economically crippled Iran I would assume less money is funneled to Hezbollah.
    For all of this I blame Reagan he showed Iran and other Islamists just how easy it is to operate illegal activities in Latin America. I know the Sandinistas were farther north but in a similar environment along borders in poorly policed areas. Think that is a coincidence? / snark

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