Iran In Latin America: Identifying The Problem and How We Need To Confront It

Center for Security Policy, by Luis Fleischman, Feb. 1, 2018:

Originally posted on the London Center for policy research

Last December, Politico uncovered a story with serious and far-reaching implications.The Obama Administration undermined and blocked a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) program in its eagerness to secure a nuclear deal with Iran.This program targeted a billion dollar per year Hezbollah cocaine and arms trafficking operation in Latin America and the United States.

The Hezbollah operation also involved arms trafficking and money laundering. According to the report, cocaine trafficking originated inLatin America, specifically through Venezuela and Mexico, with profits generated in the U.S. and laundered through the purchase of used cars. According to U.S. agents involved in the investigation, the criminal operation was directed and planned by Hezbollah’s innermost circle and “its state sponsors in Iran.”

According to Politico, the money collected by Hezbollah went directly toward its military activities in the Middle East, particularly to the Assad regime in Syria where more than half a million people have been killed and millions more have been displaced. Furthermore,the drug profits aggravated issues at home; tons of cocaine were sold in the U.S.at a time when drug addiction constitutes one of America’s most pressing crises, having claimed close to 50,000 American lives in the past year alone.

The DEA sought approval to continue investigations, order arrests, extraditions and prosecutions of suspects, and impose financial sanctions on some of the operation’s major players. However, the Departments of Justice and Treasury rejected, delayed, or blocked those requests. Likewise, the State Department rejected requests to pursue cooperation with countries that could have helped target key suspects involved in those criminal activities.

The story reported by Politico is not merely about a criminal operation; rather, it follows a larger trend that has serious security implications for the entire Western Hemisphere. Iran has had a presence in Latin America for decades. However, its role in the region expanded and intensified after Hugo Chavez took the reins of the Venezuelan state in 1999. Chavez based his rule on a revolutionary transnational agenda that included a quasi-socialist authoritarian revolution at home, and an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy aimed at spreading his revolution throughout the region.

Unlike Napoleonic France or the Soviet Union, Venezuela did not have armies to expand its revolution by force. Rather, Chavez began to funnel money to candidates in different countries in the region who held views akin to his ideology and proceeded to establish alliances with regional guerilla movements to organize subversion across Latin America.Indeed, Chavez believed that to expand the revolution abroad, he needed to count on the power of asymmetric warfare. Thus, Chavez saw groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as a necessary force that could create subversion abroad and expand his so-called “Bolivarian Revolution.” The FARC took part in the rebellion that toppled the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in Bolivia. Likewise, theystrengthened relationswith the Shining Path guerrilla Maoist movement in Peru and other subversive groups in the region. Theyalso trainedmembers of the Paraguayan Popular Army (EPP) who kidnapped and murdered the daughter of a former Paraguayan president.Chavez followed the same trajectory and established relationships with other militant groups, such as the Basque ETA and most importantly, the Iranian backed paramilitary, Hezbollah.As such, the alliance between Venezuela and Iran has strong foundations. They both are anti-American and seek to reduce U.S. power in their respective regions and, if possible, in the world. Chavez defined the Islamic and the Bolivarian revolutions as “sister revolutions.” Venezuela needed Iran’s subversive capabilities and its “valuable” experience in building a totalitarian-revolutionary regime to complement what Cuba had already been doing.

Hezbollah and Iran’s IslamicRevolutionary GuardsCorps (IRGC) have also established a presence in the region, training “soldiers of the revolution” in Venezuelan camps, and even helping to design and build the ALBA school, a military training camp in Bolivia. The school’s main purpose is to ideologically indoctrinate soldiers and strengthen the bonds between the armed forces and the new Latin American revolutions. The revolution promoted a civic-military alliance, a situation that has enabled the regime to survive. Venezuela’s own Vice President,Tarek Al Aissami, has been a key liaison between Venezuela and Iran.

For its part, Iran needed Venezuela to expand its presence in Latin America. According to the late Argentinean prosecutor Alberto Nisman, Iran has a presence in 12 countries in the region including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, and Uruguay. Iranhas sought to increase political alliances in the region for which Venezuela and its allies provided a great opportunity. Italso sought a strategic position in the region to increase deterring capabilities against the U.S. Additionally, Iran has aspired to reach out to the Muslim community in Latin America. Indeed, Iran has established a number of networks in the region with mosques and even a TV channel(HispanTV) in Spanish.(HispanTVhas given wide coverage to groups that promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories). Iran also sought to use Latin American countries, particularly Venezuelan banks, to curbthe effect of international sanctions.

Moreover,Venezuela issued passports to Iranians and Hezbollah members to facilitate their free travel around the region and the world. Likewise, several Caribbean countries thatallied with Chavez established dangerous liaisons with Iran. Guyana signed an agreement with Iran in which Iran would map Guyana’s mineral resources, including uranium. Dominica signed an agreement with Iran that enabled citizens of Iran, parts of the Middle East and Central Asia to obtain a second citizenship and a passport. The islands of St. Kitts and Nevis have also sold passports to Iranians.

These could have potentially harmful consequences. In 2007, a Hezbollah member stationed in Guyana attempted to carry out a terrorist attack at Kennedy Airport.Likewise, in 2011 Iran tried to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington. Furthermore, sophisticated tunnels built along the U.S.-Mexican border have been designed in the image of the tunnels found along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Intelligence officials have raised the possibility that Hezbollah has been enlisted by drug cartels to design and improve the tunnels along America’s southern border.

These actions can place the U.S. at the mercy of terrorist attacks not just by Hezbollah, but by any other terrorist group that establishes an alliance with Iran, including the Islamic State or al Qaeda. There has been evidence of a relationship betweenIran and al Qaeda over the past several years;therefore,similar cooperation should not be ruled out in Latin America.Indeed, in August 2016 the U.S.Southern Command reported the infiltration of 30,000Sunni individuals from the Middle East, which is the equivalent of 10 percent of the total illegal smuggling coming from the southern border.

In 2016, an officer who worked in the Venezuelan embassy in Baghdad charged that the embassy sold passports to whomever would pay. The officer witnessed embassy officials selling Venezuelan passports to individuals from the Middle East, including criminals and terrorists from Iraq and Syria.Given reports of ISIS activity in these countries, it would not be surprising if some of these passports were sold to affiliated individuals.

The drug cartels also play a role in the Venezuelan and Iranian schemes. Venezuela has opened its airports and seaports to drug trafficking. Chavez, like his mentor Fidel Castro, saw drug trafficking as a means to corrupt and destabilize American society—the main consumer of drugs, as well as generating large quantities in profits.Spanish journalist Emilio Blasco has estimated that 95 percent of Colombian drugs bound for Europe and the U.S. depart from Venezuela. Blasco, who authored the book Boomerang Chavez in 2015, also claimed that Diosdado Cabello, a former general, Minister of Interior, and speaker of the Venezuelan National Assembly, directed these drug operations alongsideVice President Al Aissami and Hugo Carvajal, a former director of military intelligence.

For Iran, their involvement in drug trafficking served as a source of revenue and as a means to deepen its logistical penetration in the region. Other actions indicate that there is indeed a link. There were reports that indicated that the assassination attempt against the Saudi Ambassador mentioned above was carried out with the help of Mexico’s Los Zetas, a notoriously violent drug cartel. Furthermore, there have been reports that members of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel received weapons and explosive training in Iran.

According to Rafael Isea, a former Deputy Minister of Finance and President of the Bank of Economic and Social Development, current Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro, then foreign Minister, travelled to Damascus in 2007 to meet with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. The purpose of his trip was to negotiate the installation of Hezbollah cells in Venezuela. This agreement protected Hezbollah’s drug trafficking and money laundering activities as well as its arms supplies and provision of passports. These passports and visas were prepared by Ghazi Nasr El Din, a counselor in the Venezuelan embassy in Syria, who was born in Lebanon and later became a Venezuelan citizen. El Din, who was blacklisted by the FBI, helped Hezbollah raise money and repeatedly facilitated the travel of more than 300 Hezbollah members. Their role, according to Isea, was to participate in drug trafficking and money laundering to secure funding for Hezbollah.

Therefore, what was uncovered by Politico in December was not just a criminal activity aimed at securing financial support for Iran’s wars in the Middle East. This isthe tip of the iceberg. There is an ominous marriageof conveniencebetween Iran, transnational crime, and regional states led by Venezuela that may have severe consequences for the United States and the region.The Trump Administration will have to take a holistic approach by focusing its energies on Iran, Venezuela and transnational crime. In terms of Iran, I outlined a strategy in a recent article. In terms of Venezuela, Trump must extend sanctions to the entire political and military operation. However, the current policy of gradual sanctions on a handful of military officers and politicians is insufficient and ineffective. The entire military and political elite must feel the effect of economic sanctions and restriction of movement.

The Venezuelan military, like many other authoritarian regimes, has been given control of parts of the economy and food distribution. It has been reported that some officers practice “food-trafficking,” taking advantage of the people’s desperate need for food. If the army abandons Maduro, this could be a good first step towards regime change. This is why heavy sanctions must be applied over the entire armed forces, and not just on a few officers. Supporters of the regime continue to desert Mr. Maduro; it is important to make sure that more members of the military do the same.

Finally, the Trump Administration must intensify the war on drugs and cartels that operate across many countries in Latin America.  Venezuela and its ally regimes in Ecuador and Bolivia expelled the DEA years ago. The crackdown on the cartels must be uncompromising.The challenge is significant.This important fight was lost in the last decade as former president Barack Obama attempted to seek normalization with Cuba and reconciliation with Venezuela.  Part of such appeasement was to surrender to several Latin American governments that opposed the U.S war on drugs.Now, we have no choice but to confront all these challenges heads on.

Also see:

WATCH: Tillerson Says U.S. and Argentina Will Cooperate to Fight Hezbollah’s Illicit Activities in Latin America

No Latin American Country Has Branded Hezbollah a Terror Group Despite Ties to Major Attacks

YouTube

Breitbart, by Edwin Mora, July 19, 2017:

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Latin American countries have failed to register Iranian proxy Hezbollah as a terrorist organization despite the threat it poses to the region, a Peruvian official revealed during a discussion on Capitol Hill.

The Shiite group is involved in various illicit activities in Latin America to generate money that some experts believe is used to fund terrorist activities in the Middle East.

During a discussion Wednesday on Capitol Hill hosted by the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), Moises Vega de la Cruz, a public prosecutor for the Peruvian government specializing in terrorism cases, revealed that “in Latin America, Hezbollah is not recognized as a terrorist organization.”

“I think Hezbollah is a threat to Latin America. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that is advancing not only in Peru but in other Latin American countries as well,” he told Breitbart News.

Joseph Humire, an expert on Iranian activity in the Western Hemisphere and executive director of SFS, noted that no Latin American country has registered Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

The United States and the European Union have deemed Lebanon’s Shiite group Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

In the United States, Hezbollah’s main supporter Iran has been officially labeled a state sponsor of terror.

Peru recently adjudicated a case involving an alleged Hezbollah operative accused of explosives-related crimes in 2014. The individual avoided prosecution, but De La Cruz has appealed the decision.

“Most Latin Americans don’t view Islamist terrorism as a significant threat in their region and little public pressure has been placed on the establishment, reform, or improvement of weak or non-existent anti-terrorism laws across the region,” SFS pointed out in a statement. “Consequently, the Islamic State [ISIS/ISIL], Hezbollah, and other Jihadist networks and sympathizers are spreading throughout South America with impunity.”

The U.S. government has acknowledged the presence of both Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni ISIS in Latin America.

De la Cruz noted that Hezbollah maintains a presence in Peru, where it is reportedly converting people and trying to get involved politically.

The Peruvian Latina news agency reported last year that the Shiite group has registered as an official political party in Peru’s Abancay province, home to the largest concentration the country’s small Muslim community.

Hezbollah has established itself as an official political party in its main base of Lebanon.

Argentinian authorities have linked Hezbollah to fatal attacks against the South American country’s Jewish community, including the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA)—the deadliest terrorist attack in the Western Hemisphere before September 11, 2001.

The U.S. military and the Department of State have expressed concern about the group’s presence in Latin America.

According to the U.S. State Department, Venezuela has provided a “permissive environment” that has allowed Hezbollah to thrive in the region.

Last year Michael Braun, a former DEA operations chief, told American lawmakers that Hezbollah is generating hundreds of millions from a “cocaine money laundering scheme” in Latin America that “provides a never-ending source of funding” for its terrorist operations in Syria and elsewhere.

Hezbollah is fighting on behalf of Iran on the side of the Russian-backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

In an annual report to Congress issued earlier this year, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) noted that “Hezbollah members, facilitators, and supporters engage in licit and illicit activities in support of the organization, moving weapons, cash, and other contraband to raise funds and build Hezbollah’s infrastructure in the region.”

SOUTHCOM is charged with overseeing American military activity in most of Latin America.

The group is believed to be operating throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Report: Growing Islamic Extremism In Latin America Poses ‘Major Security Threat’ To US

The ISIS flag is held up by demonstrators. (Getty Images)

Daily Caller, by Peter Hassan, March 30, 2017:

Growing Islamic extremism in Latin America constitutes a “major security threat” to the United States, according to an analysis published this month by the National Center for Policy Analysis.

“The threat from Islamic extremists in Latin America remains an overlooked aspect of U.S. national security strategy,” NCPA senior fellow David Grantham argued.

Grantham noted that “Saudi Arabia has invested millions to construct mosques and cultural centers in South America and Central America that expand the reach of its rigid version of Islam, known as Wahhabism.”

“The international spread of Saudi dogma, which the State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities worldwide, Farah Pandith, called ‘insidious,’ has laid the foundation for likeminded radicals to thrive in other areas of Latin America,” he explained.

Later in the brief, Grantham noted that the “threats to U.S. security in the Greater Caribbean region are even more alarming in Trinidad and Tobago. The small island nation off the coast of Venezuela, once the target of an overthrow by Islamic militants, has also become a breeding ground for ISIS — 70 of the 100 Latin Americans known to have joined ISIS originated from the small country.”

The ease of mobility Islamic extremists have in Latin America is also cause for concern.

“Islamic extremism thrives where there is illicit finance and relative ease of movement across national and international borders. The mobility of terrorists throughout Latin America poses a serious problem,” Grantham stated.

Perhaps the greatest Islamic extremist threat in Latin America, though, is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which Grantham said could potentially strike the US from Latin America as a retaliatory act.

“The Islamic Republic has the capability and infrastructure to strike the United States from Latin America, but experts disagree over whether it would take that risk,” Grantham writes. “Experts consistently discuss the likelihood of a preemptive or first strike attack on the United States, though, which creates too high a standard. Instead, the argument should focus on the prospect of retaliatory attack.”

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton also warned of Iranian sponsored terrorism through Latin American “proxies” during a 2013 off-the-record speech to Goldman Sachs employees that was made public by WikiLeaks.

“If we had a map up behind us you would be able to see Iranian sponsored terrorism directly delivered by Iranians themselves, mostly through the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the operatives, or through Islah or other proxies from to Latin American to Southeast Asia,” Clinton said.

“The growth of extremist activity in Latin America is a major security threat. The prospects of retaliation from Iran, in particular, should not discourage action against Iran where necessary but should heighten awareness regarding the high probability of revenge attacks,” Grantham concluded. “Iran’s influence in Latin America and extremists, in general, demand new national security strategies in the region. Such an approach could begin with U.S. support to allied governments that improves their intelligence capabilities, and with targeted financial interdiction strategies.”

The brief can be read in its entirety here.

Implications of Russian Presence in Latin America

putin2Center for Security Policy, January 23, 2017:

The Obama Administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats and imposed new sanctions on Russian spy agencies for espionage and involvement in hacking political sites during the last presidential election.

Let us be clear. Espionage is an act for which the U.S. has every right to take action against the country that perpetrates it. Since the Russians indeed committed these acts of espionage, the actions taken against the diplomats were justified.

Yet, this dramatic step taken by the Obama Administration constituted a rather puzzling action for an Administration that made reconciliation and reaching out to adversaries and enemies, a policy across the board . The “Obama Doctrine” as the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg called it, is that we do not get involved in conflicts that do not directly affect us. Obama believed that for Russia to claim a sphere of influence in the Ukraine is legitimate given the history and geography of both countries. Therefore, according to this view, let us stay away from unnecessary political confrontations, let alone military ones.

Russia later entered the Middle East with troops in support of its old client, the Assad regime. Russia, along with Hezbollah, helped Bashar Al Assad recover lost territory. Obama was not going to put American soldiers at risk in order to prevent genocide or disasters unless the situation constituted a security threat to the U.S. Following the same logic, in exchange for a nuclear deal, Iran was allowed to have influence in the Middle East raising panic among most countries in the region.

Latin America is the geographical neighborhood where the U.S. lives. Latin America is to the U.S. what Obama claimed the Ukraine is for Russia, namely an area where it can claim not necessarily domination but influence.

Two years ago, we reported the existence of Russian military cooperation with countries in Latin America that are hostile to the United States, mainly Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.  This includes agreements between Russia and the above named countries that would enable Russia to place their naval logistic facilities within their territory. Russia clearly seeks to increase its political influence and geo-political strategic depth.

As pointed out in the above referenced article, while Russia views the former Soviet republics as naturally belonging to Russia’s traditional area of domination, the Obama Administration views similar attachment to its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere as antiquated.

Meanwhile, countries such as Brazil, Argentina and certainly Venezuela increased their cooperation with Russia. Venezuela even purchased arms for more than four billion dollars. Part of these weapons was handed over by the Venezuela government to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Brazil, a growing power, supported the idea of “a multipolar world”. On paper multi-polarity could be seen as the recognition of the existence of many world powers and not just one or two. However, in reality, this represents a euphemism for the reduction of American influence.

For many years the leadership of the Workers party in Brazil (2003-2016) along with Hugo Chavez and others ended up creating regional groups where the U.S. was intentionally excluded. Left-wing leaders such as Lula Da Silva from Brazil, Hugo Chavez from Venezuela, Cristina Kirchner from Argentina, Evo Morales from Bolivia, and Rafael Correa from Ecuador dominated the discourse. They all rejoiced over the emergence of a second independence. The first was from the Spanish and Portuguese empires, the second from the United States. That “second independence” did not preclude these countries from increasing alliances with Russia and China precisely because part of the process of seeking “independence” was to establish anti-American political coalitions and alliances. So increasing military cooperation with Russia was an attempt to challenge the traditional influence of the United States in the Western Hemisphere.

The Obama Administration did not think that losing influence in the Western Hemisphere would have consequences. Or if he did, he thought to regain such influence through symbolic gestures. One such “deed’ was the normalization of relations with Cuba, which demanded very little sacrifice on the part of the Castro regime in return. In fact, such sloppy normalization makes us more vulnerable.

Given the presence of so many anti-American dictators, terrorist groups, Iran, and the increasing number of countries that have succumbed to anarchy in our own neighborhood – losing influence in the region is a security liability. Cuba has had relations with all these adverse elements. How exactly does this improve our security, let alone our image in the international arena? As President Donald Trump has pointed out, image is crucial to generate respect. Respect is a function of strength, of assertiveness, of the ability to dissuade the adversary from taking an aggressive stand.

The importance of being influential and having a powerful presence does not mean we are going to fight a war right away. It means we will have a say and we will be an omnipresent force that the Russians or the Chinese will have to take into account before they take any action. Today we are unable to deter the Russians or the Iranians because we do not display the will. This is the source of weakening. We allowed the Russians to do what they wanted in the Ukraine, Syria and in our own hemisphere.

In the Western Hemisphere, we have not been able to daunt the Venezuelan dictatorship. The regime of Nicolas Maduro is not only anti-American but it violates human rights and starves its’ people. Yet, we have failed to recognize the dangers of the regime and the need to at least pressure for the reinstatement of democracy or convincingly frighten them over their heavy involvement in the drug trafficking business. Even Pope Francis, an apologist of populist left-wing regimes, declared that civil disobedience and rebellion against the Maduro regime is legitimate.

In contrast, Russia supports the Maduro regime with a great deal of geo-political conviction. The Obama Administration has not even expressed concern over military exercises and the presence of Russian troops in the continent. According to General John Kelly, formerly the head of the U.S. Southern Command and now the nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump Administration, pointed out that since 2008 we are seeing “an increased Russian presence in Latin America through propaganda, military arms and equipment sales”… As part of its global strategy, Russia is using power projection in an attempt to erode U.S. leadership and challenge U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere”

This does not mean that Russia is a military threat. However, if Russia reinforces military alliances with U.S. enemies such as Venezuela, Bolivia (the so-called Bolivarian Alliance or ALBA), Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Cuba is this a geo-political challenge that we can live with?

As Russian influence increases within the Alba countries, this alliance protects them from human rights condemnations in the Security Council (as journalist Douglas Farrah pointed out) but worse; it secures a Russian strategic advantage in our own backyard.

Trying to find a modus vivendi with Russia is a legitimate goal to pursue but as long as we do it from a position of strength. Denouncing and counteracting cyber-espionage is important. But unfortunately if this is done while ignoring geo-politics altogether, it is not as effective as it could be. The current debate on Russian espionage lacks credibility when we lack the assertiveness that in the past was expected from the United States of America.

Donald Trump may well try to avoid interventionism and seek cooperation with Russia or any other country in the world but giving up our place and leadership in the world should not do such moves.

Why Are We Ignoring Jihadists in Latin America?

3e647fa7-e40f-4c70-b567-4aafeb7018ce

Town Hall, by David Grantham, January 4, 2017:

Famed Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz said Obama will go down in history as the worst foreign policy president of all time, after the U.S. chose to abstain in the U.N. Security Council vote on the resolution condemning the construction of Israeli settlements. Cataloguing the president’s foreign policy blunders and their consequences will keep scholars busy for some time. But his inability to craft a meaningful strategy for combating Islamic terrorism in Latin America with U.S. partners may be the most significant for U.S. national security. The American public will face the deadly consequences of Obama’s failure there unless Trump changes course.

The presence of Islamic terrorists in Latin America can be traced back decades to the Iranian-sponsored bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) headquarters in 1994 – together the attacks killed and injured over 650 people. The international community was reminded of those heinous events when, on January 18, 2015, Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found murdered the day before he was to present evidence to the Argentine Congress that showed then-president Cristina Kirchner and other Argentine officials had conspired with the Iranian government to cover-up Iran’s involvement in the AMIA attack. Joseph Humire, an expert on Iran’s influence in Latin America, called it the “most important political assassination in Latin America of the 21st century.”

Eight hundred miles to the north, Hezbollah and Hamas maintain a robust presence in the virtually lawless tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. This largely ungoverned locale is considered a breeding ground for terrorism and is known as a busy transit point for the sale and smuggling of contraband, which generates billions of dollars annually for groups like Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Author and senior Pentagon consultant Edward Luttwak describes the area as the most important base for Hezbollah outside of Lebanon. North Carolina-based Hezbollah cells involved in cigarette smuggling during the 1990s relied on assets in the tri-border area.

Infiltration by international terrorists of a region known for transnational organized crime has resulted in marriages of convenience. A report from Spain’s Defense Ministry in December 2016 outlined how Islamic terrorists have teamed up with drug trafficking organizations like El clan Barakat in Paraguay and Joumaa in Colombia to launder cash used to support terrorist activities. In fact, law enforcement officials in the southwest United States reported a significant increase in Hezbollah tattoos and imagery among imprisoned gang members.

Immigration stories naturally dovetail. A source for the U.S. State Department revealed in 2010 that Mexican drug cartels were likely smuggling known Arab extremists across the border into Texas. A lesser known story involves Hezbollah operative Muhammad Ghaleb Hamdar, who was arrested in Peru in October 2014 for planning a terrorist attack. He used an actual “marriage of convenience” to one Carmen Carrión Vela as part of his cover. She was arrested in November 2015 for material support to terrorism. The truly frightening detail of this episode: The convicted wife was a dual-citizen of Peru and the United States, and had twice traveled to the U.S. before Hamdar was arrested in Lima.

The Islamic State is now in the mix. The aforementioned Spanish report found that rapidly expanding Muslim communities have given rise to recruitment where as many as 100 Latin Americans have joined ISIS — 70 alone allegedly came from Trinidad and Tobago. That island nation says today’s radical Islamic elements operate like the local Jamaat al Muslimeen group that tried to overthrow the government in 1990.

These stories only gloss over a much bigger problem that also involves nation-state collaboration between the likes of Venezuela and Iran, nuclear technology in Argentina and the spread of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Islam in Latin America.

Despite all of this, the president shies away from confronting radical Islam. Despite all of this, the president helped enrich Iran to the tune of $10 billion. “Often considered a foreign policy backwater for the United States,” Joseph Humire writes, “Latin America has become a top foreign policy priority for the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Others like ISIS and Al Qaeda are not far behind.

Trump must reverse course and team up with Latin American partners to fight this war. Failure here will pale in comparison to failures elsewhere.

SOUTHCOM Raises Alarms on Sunni Extremists Infiltrating U.S. Southern Border

3688885704Center for Security Policy, by Dr. Luis Fleischman, Sept. 6, 2016:

On August 21st the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) confirmed what the Menges Hemispheric Security Project has been warning about for a long time: the susceptibility of our Southern border to the infiltration of Middle East Terrorism. Most recently we warned that ISIS has the potential to operate in Latin America.

Reporting on cooperation between Iran or Iran’s proxy groups like Hezbollah and countries in Latin America such as Venezuela as well as drug cartels has been extensive. However, this time SOUTHCOM (which is responsible for all military activities in South and Central America) has explicitly talked about the infiltration of Sunni extremists from the Middle East, from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and from East Africa broaching our southern border.

These infiltrations, which are carried out with the help of professional smugglers trained in smuggling illegal immigrants from Latin America, represent a major problem given the threat of the Islamic State. What is more interesting is that neither the media nor even the Donald Trump campaign raised public concern over this report. It is particularly worrisome given the fact that Southern Command reported the infiltration of 30,000 individuals from the Middle East, which is the equivalent of 10% of the total illegal smuggling coming from the southern border.

It is obvious that the problem of our southern border remains a very serious issue that requires a solution as soon as possible. The security of our borders should be resolved before any other issue is resolved, whether the next president is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

But for this to happen it is also imperative to look at the Western Hemisphere and Latin America not only in economic terms but also as a region that poses serious security challenges.

We have extensively covered all these challenges but with the rise of ISIS it is important to look into why the region is a fertile area for ISIS. First, the proximity of Latin America to the United States makes us vulnerable and provides easy access to those wishing to cross over our rather porous southern border.

Secondly, the northern states of Mexico as well as Central America constitute anarchical areas, territories without effective government. Ungoverned territories are fertile ground for terrorist activities. Third, corruption prevails. It is extremely easy to bribe judges, police, governors, and public officials as drug cartels have widely proved. By the same token, cooperation between ISIS and drug cartels should not be ruled out. After all, such cooperation has taken place between cartels and the Shiite Hezbollah. Drug cartels provide logistics and know the territory extremely well.

By the same token, there have been countries in the region that sold passports in exchange for money like Venezuela, whose embassy in Baghdad sold passports to whomever paid for them. Given the intense activity of ISIS and Sunni extremists in Iraq, it should not be surprising that some of these passports were sold to ISIS members or individuals associated to ISIS. Likewise, small Caribbean countries associated directly or indirectly with Venezuela and the ALBA coalition have been involved in the selling of passports raising eyebrows about the possibility that ISIS may have been one of the beneficiaries of such transactions.

It is also worthwhile to point out that Tareq Al Assami, currently the governor of the Venezuelan state of Aragua and a former Minister of interior was in charge of providing visas and passports. He is known for his connections with Iran and Hezbollah and his father was a former Secretary of the Iraqi Baath party in Venezuela. Former members of Sadam Hussein’s Baath party now constitute an important presence in the ranks of ISIS.

By the same token it should not be ruled out that with the recent peace accord agreed upon by the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) there could be a number of guerillas that refuse to accept the binding power of the agreements. If those dissidents from the FARC join forces with ISIS as they have done in the past with Hezbollah, it could have disastrous consequences for the security of the region.

Finally, it is important to point out that Latin American countries are not paying due attention to terrorism and less to Islamic terrorism as we have already pointed out. For example, Brazil has denied that there is any terrorist activity in Brazil despite the fact that Hezbollah has major cells operating in the country and even some Al Qaeda operatives. They have been the least cooperative country in tracking activities in the tri-border area.  Brazil does not consider Hezbollah, Hamas, or even the familiar Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as terrorist entities. This hopefully will change with the new interim government in Brazil or if a new government is elected as a result of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment.

Therefore, the next president of the United States will need to take this issue very seriously. Failing to do so could place American lives at risk.

Dr. Luis Fleischman is a Senior adviser to the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC. He is also an adjunct professor of Political Science and Sociology at Wilkes Honor College at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of the upcoming book, “Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Security Threat to the United States.”

Iran Expanding Terror Network in Latin America

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, is welcomed by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, in Havana, Cuba / AP

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, is welcomed by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, in Havana, Cuba / AP

Washington Free Beacon, by Adam Kredo, Aug. 23, 2016:

Iran is solidifying its foothold in Latin America, sparking concerns among U.S. officials that the Islamic Republic will enlist these regional allies in its push to launch terror attacks on U.S. soil, according to conversations with congressional sources.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been on a diplomatic tour through key Latin American countries known for hostility towards the United States, including Cuba, Venezuela, and a host of other countries believed to be providing shelter to Iranian terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah.

As Iranian-ally Russia boosts its spy operation in the region, sources have raised concerns about the rogue nations working together to foster anti-U.S. unrest.

Zarif’s trip through the region has raised red flags among some senior congressional sources familiar with the region. For example, Zarif took aim at the United States and touted the regime’s desire to align with anti-American countries during his stay in Cuba.

One senior congressional source who works on the issue said to the Washington Free Beacon that Iran is seeking to recruit “potential terrorists who want to cause the U.S. harm.”

Increased ties between Iran and these Latin American nations are setting the stage for terrorists to penetrate close to U.S. soil with little detection.

These individuals “can travel easily to Venezuela, and once there, they can get to Nicaragua or Cuba without passports or visas, which poses a national security risk for our nation,” the source explained.

Iran has also reopened its embassy in Chile, a move that has only added fuel to speculation among U.S. officials that the Islamic Republic is making moves to position its global terror network on America’s doorstep.

“The threat to U.S. national security interests and our allies should be setting off alarm bells,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement about Zarif’s Latin American tour.

“The Obama administration has failed to prevent Russia and China from expanding in our Hemisphere, and now Iran is once again stepping up its efforts to gain a greater presence to carry out its nefarious activities,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I urge the White House to stop downplaying the Iranian threat and take immediate action to prevent the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism from establishing a regional safe haven in the Americas.”

Asked to comment on Zarif’s trip and the potential repercussions on Monday, a State Department official said to the Free Beacon that the administration had no comment.

Ros-Lehtinen said the high-profile trip by Zarif should serve as a warning.

“The timing of Zarif’s trip is significant as Iran could use many of these rogue regimes to circumvent remaining sanctions, undermine U.S. interests, and expand the drug trafficking network that helps finance its illicit activities,” she said. “Tehran’s classic playbook is to use cultural centers, new embassies or consulates, or cooperative agreements on various areas to act as façades aimed at expanding Iran’s radical extremist network.”

The renewed concerns about Iran’s footprint in Latin America comes nearly two years after the State Department said Tehran’s influence in the region was “waning.”

“The timing of Zarif’s trip speaks volumes,” said the senior congressional aide who would discuss the issue only on background. It “is worrisome that as we just celebrated the 22nd year of the horrific terrorist attack against the AMIA Jewish community center in Argentina, Iran can now have personnel nearby in a new embassy in Chile.”

“Just recently, a Hezbollah member was picked up in Brazil, an explosive device was found near the Israeli embassy in Uruguay, and Hezbollah members are reportedly traveling on Venezuelan passports,” the source added. “It was not too long ago that Venezuela offered flights to Iran and Syria, and as of last week, Hezbollah cells were found in the West Bank where Venezuela lifted its visa requirements for Palestinians.”

Zarif slammed the United States on Monday during a speech in Havana.

“Iran and Cuba could prove to the U.S. that it cannot proceed with its policies through exerting pressure on other countries,” Zarif said, according to Iran’s state-controlled media.

“Now the time is ripe for realizing our common goals together and implement the resistance economy in Iran and materialize [Cuban dictator Fidel] Castro’s goals of reconstruction of the Cuban economy,” Zarif added.

Zarif went on to note that Iran “has age-old and strong relations with the American continent and the Latin American countries.”

Zarif is reported to have brought along at least 60 Iranian officials and executives working in the country’s state-controlled economic sector.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Free Beacon that Iran has boosted efforts to engage Latin America in the wake of last summer’s nuclear agreement.

“Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif is aggressively continuing Iran’s diplomatic outreach, a policy which began early in the Rouhani administration and was kicked into high gear in the aftermath of the JCPOA—last summer’s nuclear deal,” he said. “Zarif’s sojourn into the Western hemisphere follows on the heels of his May visit to the region. Zarif’s trip symbolically commences in Havana, Cuba, where the Iranian foreign minister harped on themes of steadfastness and resistance to American legal and economic pressure.”

The Iranian leader’s goal is to “build on this experience to help promote an anti-American and anti-capitalist world order,” he added. “What’s most clear however, is that in addition to seeking to solidify the anti-American political orientation of these states, Iran aims to capitalize on the increasingly detached stigma of doing business with it in the aftermath of the nuclear accord. Therefore, we can expect to see trade deals or memorandums of understanding inked. In short, Iran will be looking to deepen to its footprint in Latin America.”