Western anti-terrorism officials are increasingly concerned that Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim militia that Washington has labeled a terrorist group, is using Venezuela as a base for operations.
Linked to deadly attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina in the early 1990s, Hezbollah may be taking advantage of Venezuela’s ties with Iran, the militia’s longtime sponsor, to move “people and things” into the Americas, as one Western government terrorism expert put it.
As part of his anti-American foreign policy, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has established warm diplomatic relations with Iran and has traveled there several times. The Bush administration, Israel and other governments worry that Venezuela is emerging as a base for anti-U.S. militant groups and spy services, including Hezbollah and its Iranian allies.
“It’s becoming a strategic partnership between Iran and Venezuela,” said a Western anti-terrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the issue’s sensitivity.
Several joint Venezuelan-Iranian business operations have been set up in Venezuela, including tractor, cement and auto factories. In addition, the two countries have formed a $2-billion program to fund social projects in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America.
Threats against Israel:
Fears about the threat from Hezbollah’s global networks intensified after the slaying in February of Imad Mughniyah, a notorious leader of the militia, in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Hezbollah and Iran accused Israel and promised revenge, putting Western authorities on guard against attacks on Israeli or Jewish targets around the world.
In March 2007, the intensified ties between Venezuela and Iran led to the start of weekly IranAir flights from Tehran to Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, that stop in Damascus.
The flights were highlighted in the State Department’s annual assessment of global terrorism, which noted in April of this year that Venezuelan border officials at the Caracas airport often neglected to enter the arriving passengers into their immigration database and did not stamp passports. The Venezuelans have since tightened up on their procedures, informed sources say.
Despite those improvements, the IranAir flights also feature in recent intelligence gathered by Western anti-terrorism officials. Agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah have allegedly set up a special force to attempt to kidnap Jewish businesspeople in Latin America and spirit them away to Lebanon, according to the Western anti-terrorism official. Iranian and Hezbollah operatives traveling in and out of Venezuela have recruited Venezuelan informants working at the Caracas airport to gather intelligence on Jewish travelers as potential targets for abduction, the Western anti-terrorism official said.
Extortion and drug trade:
Hezbollah has long operated in the Lebanese communities of Latin America. In addition to receiving a multimillion-dollar infusion from Iran, the militia finances itself by soliciting or extorting money from the Lebanese diaspora and through rackets such as smuggling, fraud and the drug and diamond trade in South America and elsewhere, Matthew Levitt, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Congress in 2005.
Three years ago, police in Colombia and Ecuador broke up an international cocaine-smuggling ring that functioned in Latin American countries, including Venezuela, and allegedly sent profits to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The lawless “tri-border” region connecting Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina has been a center of organized crime activities and finance linked to Hezbollah, Western anti-terrorism officials say.
Jihad Watch also has a prior post on Hezbollah in Nicaragua and the Iranian expansion there.
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Thursday, August 29
Hezbollah in Venezuela…no shockers here