By J.D. Gordon
As world leaders from throughout the Western Hemisphere gather in Lima, Peru for the Summit of the Americas VIII on April 13th – 14th they should agree to target Hezbollah and dismantle their crime-terror empire in this part of the world.
While Hezbollah, aka Lebanon’s Shia Islam “Party of God”, is most well-known for both raining down rockets on Israel and fighting in Syria on behalf of Bashar Al-Assad, its growing profile in Latin America has been gaining attention. That’s because it has grown into a billion dollar syndicate through illicit financing in Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay, Panama and beyond to fund global terror at Iran’s bidding.
Its reach beyond the Middle East exploits the vast Lebanese expatriate community throughout Latin America to traffic in drugs like cocaine, while money laundering via black market used car sales to Africa and cigarette smuggling. It counts on the Hawala system of money couriers to help avoid detection, as well as friendly faces like Venezuela’s Vice President Tareck El-Aissami, an ethnic Syrian-Lebanese 43-year old former governor with deep ties to the Arab community in his home country. In February 2017, he was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury department as a “Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker.”
Though Hezbollah’s strength in the Americas partly comes from an imploding Venezuela, the physical threat extends far beyond its borders.
In 2016, Peru held a terror trial against an alleged Hezbollah operative from Lebanon, then-30 year old Mohammed Ghaleb Hamdar. He was caught in 2014 with traces of nitroglycerine on his hands and apartment, plus photographs of Peruvian landmarks and buildings. During questioning, he even admitted to being a member of Hezbollah on a surveillance mission – bogus passport from Sierra Leone and all. Had Iran and/or Hezbollah decided to punish Peruvians, the Jewish community, or Americans in Peru, by blowing up a building or attacking a conference in Lima, all the Ayatollah would have needed to do is launch sleeper agents like Hamdar.
Though the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency created “Project Cassandra” to target Hezbollah ten years ago, they were stifled by the Obama White House which made signing the Iran nuclear deal a priority over cracking down on the Ayatollah’s terror proxy. It’s only been in the past year that Americans have learned of what happened through Congressional hearings and media reports. According to Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC), “The witnesses providing account of the Obama Administration derailing and stonewalling the prosecution of this illicit funding investigation has resulted in the most serious consequences of the misguided and injudicious actions of President Obama and his team.”
In effect, the Obama Administration rewarded Iran’s terror-supporting regime twice. First, it ushered in the nuclear accord which only slows, not stops, Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Second, it allowed Hezbollah to balloon in size and strength, enabling even more crime and terrorism.
Hezbollah, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization over 20 years ago, has carried out terrorist attacks in the Middle East and beyond. Iran, designated by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism for supporting groups like Hezbollah, targets enemies wherever they are vulnerable. Let’s recall the bombings against the AMIA Cultural Center and Israeli Embassy both in Buenos Aires, Argentina in the early 1990s. They were the deadliest Islamist attacks in the Americas prior to 9/11. Let’s also recall that Argentina’s Chief Prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, was assassinated in 2015 just days after releasing his damning report about the former Argentine government’s efforts to cover up Iran’s role in the attacks.
In December 2017, Argentina’s former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was charged with treason by an Argentine judge over this scandal.
Fortunately, things are beginning to change in Washington with respect to Hezbollah. In January 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wisely announced the creation of the Justice Department’s Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team (HFNT) which will pick up where Project Cassandra left off.
Now it’s time for partner nations throughout the Americas to join these robust efforts to stamp out crime-terror networks like Hezbollah. The Summit of the Americas is an ideal venue to focus on this important task. Countless lives literally depend on it.
J.D. Gordon is a former Pentagon spokesman, 2005-2009, and a retired Navy Commander. He has served as a full time National Security & Foreign Policy Advisor to three Republican Presidential Candidates including Donald Trump and is a Senior Fellow at the Washington, DC based Center for a Secure Free Society.