March 06, 2020

The threat of an attack by Hizballah, a Shi'a Lebanese militant group, or from other Iranian proxy groups, in Latin America remains low despite increased tensions between the US and Iran. A US effort to persuade Latin American governments to designate Hizballah a terrorist organization is unlikely to be related to increased regional activities by the militant group. Hizballah undeniably has a long history of illegal interests in Latin America, particularly in the Triple Frontier, also known as the Tri-Border Area (TBA), that comprises parts of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Historical patterns, however, suggest that while Hizballah will continue to engage in actions involving money laundering and drug trafficking, a terrorist-related attack by the group in Latin America remains much less likely. Hizballah likely benefits from averting a concerted multi-government effort to undermine the group’s presence and operations in the region.


Recent Developments in the Region

Paraguay, Guatemala, and Argentina categorized Hizballah a terrorist group in 2019. The governments of Honduras and Colombia declared their intent to designate the group a terrorist organization in early January 2020, while Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will likely soon follow suit. Several governments from around the world, particularly those aligned with US interests, blame Hizballah for multiple planned attacks across the globe. However, labeling the Lebanese group as a terrorist organization is largely symbolic, as no terrorist-related plot by the group has been made public or apparent. Consequentially, other Latin American governments have not changed the militant group’s categorization.

The decision by certain Latin American administrations to adopt a more serious posture toward Hizballah in recent years is likely largely due to US encouragement on the issue. At the Western Hemisphere Counterterrorism Ministerial hosted in Buenos Aires in mid-2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted that there was a concerted effort by Hizballah to increase its influence in the western hemisphere. In another ministerial meeting held in Colombia in January 2020, Pompeo reiterated on Iran’s increasing influence in the region, largely exacerbated by Hizballah’s developing relationship with the Nicolas Maduro Administration in Venezuela. While such assertions could hold grains of truth, the rhetoric does not tell the full story. International developments and relations, such as the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani by the US at the beginning of 2020, and the ever-worsening relationship between Maduro and other heads of state, are likely contributing factors in Pompeo’s statements.

Some Latin American governments that are worried about the escalation in the Middle East seemingly fear that Hizballah could pose a significant threat in the region. While the threat indeed exists, it is possibly exaggerated, particularly as the group seems to lack any centralized hierarchy decision-making structure in the Americas. The group’s activities appear fragmented, from financial operations in the TBA to alleged involvement in drug-trafficking ventures in Colombia and Venezuela. The Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, has repeatedly reiterated US concerns regarding Hizballah in Latin America, and particularly in Venezuela. The Maduro Administration has allegedly been providing a haven for a spectrum of clandestine groups, including Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN), dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), and alleged Hizballah sympathizers. Venezuela’s Minister of Industries, Tareck El Aissami, was recently sanctioned by the US for links to drug trafficking and has also allegedly been connected to Hizballah operations. Such Hizballah-linked activity, however, does not explicitly indicate a novel strategy by the militant organization in Latin America.


Hizballah Historical Presence

Hizballah presence in Latin America stretches back to the 1980s, when the organization reportedly began planting agents and sympathizers in the TBA with the intention to later operationalize Hizballah cells in the region. Latin American governments considered the group a significant threat from the 1990s, especially following two infamous bombings in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The first attack targeted the Israeli Embassy in 1992, while the second involved a suicide bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building. The AMIA bombing killed 85 people and remains the most lethal terrorist attack the country has suffered. Authorities have since exposed several terrorist-related schemes by the militant organization. One high-profile example relates to a 2007 plot to bomb JFK airport in New York City. This plan was linked to Mohsen Rabbani, a radicalized Iranian cleric indicted by Argentina and wanted by Interpol for his alleged involvement in the AMIA bombing. However, terrorist-related plots have been uncovered sporadically since the 1990s.


Hizballah raises USD 300-500 million every year in South America and used most of this capital to finance operations elsewhere.

Most of the Hizballah-linked activity in the region is financial in nature. According to the United States Southern Command, Hizballah raises USD 300-500 million every year in South America and used most of this capital to finance operations elsewhere. In July 2018, the Argentinian government froze assets belonging to 14 individuals who formed part of the Hizballah-linked Barakat clan, widely considered an intrinsic financier to Hizballah, and in September of that year arrested the group’s leader, Assad Ahmad Barakat. The militant group’s activities in the TBA reportedly also extend to drug trafficking operations, forming part of their strategy to build capital. The arrest of Ali Issa Chamas, a Hizballah-linked Lebanese-Paraguayan national who was extradited from Paraguay to the US in 2017 for conspiring to transport cocaine into the US, underscores the organization’s drug-trafficking connection. Hizballah’s financial crimes in Latin America, as well as its links to drug-related activity, have the potential to raise significant capital, which likely incentivizes further related activity in the region.


Terrorist Threat Remains Low

There is no substantial evidence of increased terrorist activity linked to Hizballah in the TBA, or in Latin America in general. While geopolitical tensions and the rising political friction between the US and Iran suggest that the threat of such activity by the proxy group could increase, no credible threat exists at this time. Instead, the recent history of Hizballah’s economic enterprise in the region, including engagements in money laundering and drug trafficking, indicates where the group’s principal interests lie. The decision by certain Latin American governments to classify Hizballah as a terrorist organization is likely largely inspired by political and symbolic reasons.


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