No, Hezbollah isn't coming over the southern border. Yes, they’re a growing threat in our backyard.
Republican domestic politics muddle a complex and evolving threat to American security.
Israel is valiantly holding off Hezbollah (approximate casualty counts put the IDF at 6 and Hezbollah at around 70 on the northern front) as the southern, Lebanon-based Iranian proxy repeatedly threatens to join the fray that another Iranian proxy, Hamas, started in Gaza. Meanwhile, in the United States, Republicans are fearmongering about Hezbollah and Hamas potentially infiltrating America through our southern border, beating their chests and threatening to treat the existing low-grade cartel threat as akin to Hamas.
Rooted in a one-off memo by Customs and Border Patrol’s (CBP) San Diego branch, the claim was later debunked in a statement by the CBP itself. However, behind this transparent attempt to weaponize an attack on Israel by rebranding it into a domestic political issue, Hezbollah’s presence in our hemisphere is largely overlooked and is a growing threat that should be taken more seriously in our Latin American policy.
Hezbollah is a Lebanon-based terrorist group and nominally, a political party founded with the express purpose of being an imperial outpost of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Hezbollah’s presence in South America is concentrated in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay intersect, a region chosen for its lawlessness and preexisting status as a hub for illegal trafficking and smuggling.
The recent success of the Mossad, in countering a would-be attack in Brazil against local Jews underscores the threat that Hezbollah poses in the Western hemisphere.
From Matthew Levitt’s Hezbollah - The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God:
“The result of these activities was that Hezbollah built formal and informal support networks in the tri-border area, a process made easy thanks to the large Lebanese and Shi'a populations. Hiding in plain sight, the Hezbollah operatives brought over through Piloto Turismo and other travel agencies found themselves in an ideal operating environment to raise funds, provide logistical support, and engage in operational activities in the region. This included, according to a protected witness, the formation of sleeper or "dormant" cells operating under strict operational security guidelines such that members of one cell were not aware of members of another. To avoid attracting attention, they reportedly settled and worked among friends and relatives in Ciudad del Este, where they used businesses, schools, and mosques to help establish their cover.”
Hezbollah's presence in Latin America dates back to the mid-1980s. During this period, the organization began sending operatives to the notoriously lawless TBA. The group has expanded its presence and the scope of its activities over time.
Hezbollah is known to engage in various illicit activities within the TBA, including drug trafficking, money laundering, smuggling, and counterfeiting, to fund its global operations.
The U.S. State Department's 2015 annual terrorism report highlighted financial support networks maintained by Hezbollah in Latin America, showcasing the group's global operational capacity.
In the TBA, Hezbollah has found substantial support among the significant Lebanese diaspora residing there, which aid its operations and activities in the region.
Also from Levitt:
“Hezbollah's growth into the narcotics industry began in the early 1980s but really took root later on. "Drug trafficking organizations based in the tri-border area have ties to radical Islamic organizations such as Hezbollah," according to the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) senior intelligence officer. Hezbollah's later involvement in the drug trade was a consequence of the growth in commercial narcotics cultivation in the Bekaa Valley in the late 1970s. According to an Israeli daily, "The civil war virtually destroyed all other economic fields; however, the production of marijuana became a key import sector in which almost all the ethnic communities and forces involved in Lebanon played a part." Over time, Lebanese Shi'a involved in narcotics in Lebanon began to work with criminal associates within the Lebanese Shi'a diaspora in South America.”
Hezbollah’s activities in Latin America contribute to rising geopolitical instability in the region. Its presence and activities, especially in the TBA, are among many factors exacerbating regional challenges.
The U.S. Treasury has imposed terrorism sanctions on a family network comprising seven individuals and businesses in these regions. One Lebanese individual involved in this network, Amer Mohamed Akil Rada, was notably implicated in two deadly attacks in Argentina during the 1990s, revealing interconnected networks that facilitate Hezbollah's operations in South America and its ability to carry out terrorism in the region.
Sobhi Mahmoud Fayad, a Hezbollah militant from the TBA, was found to have sent more than $50 million to Hezbollah since 1995. Additionally, Hezbollah's expansion into the South American narcotics industry began in the early 1980s, growing significantly over the decades. Working alongside drug cartels, Hezbollah opened avenues for money laundering and drug shipments.
A notable disruption occurred in January 2011, when the U.S. Department of Treasury identified a significant Hezbollah narcotics trafficking and money laundering scheme, revealing Hezbollah operative Ayman Joumma's involvement in laundering as much as $200 million a month from cocaine sales through operations spread across Lebanon, West Africa, Panama, and Colombia.
Hezbollah, often in collaboration with Iran, has been engaged in various operational activities in South America. Besides the well-known 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Hezbollah and Iran have continuously developed intelligence and logistical support networks in the region. Their activities have spread beyond well-known hot spots like the TBA, now encompassing not only logistics and financing but also terrorist operational planning.
Iran and Hezbollah's hyperactivity in Latin America is most notable for terrorist attacks directed against Jewish targets. The Iranian presence in the region expanded from a few missions to twelve by 2010, with a significant increase in diplomatic personnel, some suspected of being intelligence agents and terrorist operatives. This Iran-Hezbollah alliance in Latin America has continuously posed a threat, leveraging support from their networks to carry out attacks like the 1994 AMIA bombing that targeted a JCC in Buenos Aires.
In Brazil, specifically, Farouk Omairi was identified as a Hezbollah coordinator in the region, involved in narcotics trafficking operations between South America, Europe, and the Middle East. Furthermore, Brazilian authorities arrested Fadi Hassan Nabha, a Lebanese citizen affiliated with Hezbollah and alleged drug trafficker, emphasizing the interconnectedness of Hezbollah's criminal and terrorist activities in the country.
The U.S. has recently imposed sanctions on Hezbollah operatives based in South America and Lebanon, signifying a part of ongoing efforts to curb Hezbollah's activities in the region. One of the sanctioned individuals was linked to the 1994 JCC bombing in Argentina.
The ongoing operations of Hezbollah in South America, acting in unison with the interests of their patrons in Tehran, have broader geopolitical implications, not only threatening regional stability but also posing challenges to international security efforts. Most importantly, the depth of their foothold in our hemisphere presents a clear and present threat to the security interests of the United States and one that ought to be addressed if Washington is serious about resetting our policy in the region to counter the rising influence of the Iran-friendly CCP, and the new axis of evil that the two countries present along with Russia.
A personal note:
Yes, I have left public Twitter permanently. I did so for several compounding reasons, but most importantly for the toll that my public presence and the attendant personality I projected took on my attention span.
I think it’s safe to assume the same concern for other hyperusers of the platform and I encourage you to rethink your time allocation to that objectively decaying platform.
That said, I will always have things to say. This blog will be the sole repository of those thoughts, however in a more long-form and (hopefully) informative fashion. I will try to focus on our national security and Latin America. I hope to post weekly, but no promises.
If you would like to stay in contact, feel free to email me at email@example.com.