LONDON – With the elimination on January 3 of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general who oversaw the network of regional armies of the Islamic Republic, attention will be focused sooner or later on Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group whose undercover operations have been detected in places as distant as South America and Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Deeply carved over the years in South America, Hezbollah is possibly the only Shiite militia belonging to the Soleimani network that has the double advantage of its ability and proximity to consider retaliating against the Trump administration for the selective murder of the commander of the Quds Force with a direct attack on the United States.
As recently as in September, the New York authorities arrested Alexei Saab, aka Ali Hassan Saab, an alleged Hezbollah operative who “carried out surveillance of possible destinations in order to help the foreign terrorist organization to prepare for possible future attacks against the United States.”
Unlike China and Russia, the United States is a declared enemy of Hezbollah, having long designated the entire group, including its political wing, as a foreign terrorist organization. In recent months, the Washington State Department and the intelligence community have concluded that there is sufficient evidence to support the claims that link Hezbollah with criminal activities, including drug trafficking, in South America and Europe.
Much has been written about the presence of Hezbollah in the “triple border” area along the border between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil in South America. Since the attacks of Al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001, the Americans have warned of the possible formation of terrorist cells in this little guarded corner of the continent.
Hezbollah has been able to find a place in the triple border area thanks to the presence of the Lebanese diaspora. The ancestors of the South Americans of Lebanese descent began arriving in the area before 1930 and were mostly Christians. The fact that today more than 5 million Lebanese immigrants and their descendants live in only two countries (Brazil and Argentina) has proven to be a clear advantage for Hezbollah, which seeks to cultivate intelligence assets across the religious spectrum.
Hezbollah has developed local contacts to facilitate and hide its drug trafficking, money laundering and terrorist financing operations. Since 2009, several Lebanese citizens have been sanctioned by the United States Department of the Treasury for their connection to organized crime, particularly drug trafficking and money laundering.
Just last month, the United States Department of Justice sentenced naturalized U.S. citizen Ali Kourani, born in Lebanon, to 40 years in prison for his “illicit work” as an agent of the “Organization of Islamic Jihad,” the ” external attack planning component ”of Hezbollah.
Maximilian Brenner, from the Berlin-based Security Institute, sees a mixed picture that emerges from recent events. “Significant progress has been made in the United States in terms of taking advantage of crime-fighting operations to curb Hezbollah,” said Brenner. “However, the international community is divided into the issue, with divergent interests that prevent organized action to deal with Hezbollah also in the criminal context, not only in international terrorism.”
“The Americans will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to combine the war on terrorism with the war on drug trafficking, especially considering the differences in the infrastructure of agencies, personnel and local assets,” he said. The bureaucracies that move slowly are not equipped to fight the guerrilla-style tactics of criminal and terrorist groups without law and without scruples. ” While terrorists and criminals certainly collaborate in many cases, it is incredibly difficult to point out any great strategy at stake in Latin America between the two elements. ”
What is certain, however, is that the logic behind Hezbollah’s “South American strategy” is closely linked to its origin as the most successful export of revolutionary Iran. Even when Hezbollah’s internal position was strengthened by electoral successes and sectarian polarization, its aggressive anti-Western rhetoric and the fact that it pointed to the interests of the United States and Israel placed it firmly in the sights of both countries.
On the other hand, distant South America, with its political parties and leftist regimes, was a study in friendship. The sympathetic governments of South America granted Hezbollah a high degree of operational freedom. For example, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the socialist politician who was president of Brazil between 2003 and 2010, invested a lot of diplomatic capital in trying to forge an rapprochement with Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as with the main sponsor of both groups, Iran.
The Da Silva initiative was part of a broader strategy to increase Brazil’s reach and strengthen bilateral relations with Russia and Iran and their Middle East allies, while effectively ignoring Washington’s concerns regarding the presence of Hezbollah in your country.
According to Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of the strategic and management consulting firm Cornerstone Global Associates, Hezbollah has been active in Latin America for decades. “The organization has been operating at the grassroots level, as well as trying to infiltrate the upper levels of government,” he said, noting the arrest in 2015 of Dino Bouterse, son of the president of Suriname, for inviting Hezbollah agents to establish a base in his home country in exchange for 2 million dollars that were not finally paid.
Under the current conservative government of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has taken a 180 degree turn in its policy towards Iran. As an inevitable corollary, the country now has little tolerance for Hezbollah’s activities in the region.
Argentina’s foreign policy has also moved in the same direction as Brazil’s. A consequence of the change in trend in the region’s policy was the arrest in September 2018 by the Brazilian authorities of Assad Ahmad Barakat, a man whom the Americans have long regarded as one of Hezbollah’s main funders.
In contrast to the hardened positions of Brazil and Argentina, the government of Venezuelan socialist president Nicolás Maduro sees Hezbollah as a natural ally as part of a policy first adopted by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, who deepened ties with Iran when he arrived to power in 1999.
In this mixed context, security analysts claim that subterfuge and crime remain the key elements of Hezbollah’s strategy in South America. They say it will not be easy to reduce the size of Hezbollah and deny it the ability to influence governments, or carry out terrorist attacks if it wants to avenge the murder of Soleimani.
Possibly there are active drug traffickers in South America who sympathize with the Hezbollah cause, analysts say, adding that the fact that a group that controls 12 seats in Beirut’s parliament is involved in drug trafficking and fundraising on the other side of the world is deeply worrying, even without its terrorist connotations. Nuseibeh says that “Latin America is likely to be an even more important border for Hezbollah in the coming days, as it is a region in which the group has invested so many resources.”
Clearly, in the absence of a firm and consistent response to Hezbollah’s activities in South America, the organization, fired with a zeal to avenge the death of Soleimani, could pose a serious threat to the security of the region and beyond in the coming days .