WASHINGTON -- These are tough times for terrorists and the despots who back them. On Jan. 28, Abu Laith al-Libi, No. 3 in al-Qaida, was killed by a missile strike in Pakistan. Two weeks later, Lebanon's Hezbollah terror chieftain, Imad Mughniyah, met his demise in Damascus, Syria, when his car exploded. Then March 1, Raul Reyes, second-ranking commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was killed in Ecuador. Three days later, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the al-Qaida "mastermind" of the 1998 attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was killed by a missile strike in Somalia.
Despite ideological disparities and geographic separation, all these terrorists were wanted for murdering and kidnapping American citizens. They all had benefited from the patronage and protection of dictators and warlords. All were tracked down through patient, persistent intelligence work. Their deaths demonstrate contemporary relevance of Ronald Reagan's maxim following the capture of the terrorists who hijacked the Achille Lauro: "You can run, but you can't hide."
Given the dramatic demise of these terror leaders, it also should be apparent that those who provide refuge and support for terrorists will be found out eventually. That's a lesson that Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez ought to heed. He has long provided refuge and safe passage for the FARC, and now he is threatening Colombia for exercising its inherent right of self-defense against an international terror organization that has killed thousands of Colombians and currently holds more than 700 hostages, including three Americans.
Last Saturday, just hours after Chavez talked by telephone with Reyes, the Colombian Armed Forces and National Police raided a FARC sanctuary two miles across the Ecuadorian border. During the operation, Colombian commandos killed Reyes and nearly two dozen other FARC operatives. The Colombians also seized a treasure-trove of intelligence on the terror organization's internal and international connections and contacts. The computers, records and documents seized in the raid reveal extraordinary complicity by the Chavez regime in sustaining and supporting the FARC.
In the aftermath of the raid, Ecuador's socialist president, Rafael Correa, ordered 3,200 soldiers to the Ecuador-Colombia border, recalled Ecuador's ambassador to Bogota and expelled the Colombian ambassador from Quito.
Chavez, as he does every Sunday, took to the airwaves in Caracas, promising, "Ecuador can count on Venezuela for whatever it needs, in any situation." He then announced that he was ordering "10 additional battalions, tanks and war planes" to the Venezuelan frontier and baldly stated, "This could be the start of a war in South America."
That's just nonsense. Neither the pitifully outfitted Ecuadorian nor Venezuelan militaries are capable of conducting operations against the well-trained, equipped and combat-experienced Colombian armed forces. A former intelligence officer told me in the aftermath of the Chavez bluster: "The Venezuelan military can't go on a camp out without a caterer."
Another old friend -- a former military officer with long and current contacts in the region -- put it this way: "Chavez is trying to distract the Venezuelan people from their disastrous economic straits -- despite record prices for petroleum -- and divert the international community from focusing on what's in the captured FARC computer records." As for the troop deployments, "any Venezuelan soldiers ordered to the border region will be there to make sure that FARC founder Manuel Marulanda Velez -- 'Tirofijo' -- doesn't get 'taken out' by the Colombians like Reyes was last week."
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents have long suspected that Tirofijo -- now 77 and believed to be ill -- is being protected in Venezuela. Though Chavez rejects charges that he is providing refuge to the much-wanted terrorist, e-mail exchanges in the captured computers cast serious doubt on his regime's denials.
Having now seen some of these files, there is much to substantiate serious concern in Venezuela -- and elsewhere -- about what Chavez and his friends in the FARC have been up to. The captured computers provide details of long-term financial connections between Chavez and the FARC leadership; records of drug transactions; and conversations with American emissaries, who assure that "Obama will be the next U.S. president." There is even a reference to FARC obtaining 50 kilograms of radioactive material.
The record also shows that while Chavez was portraying himself as an "honest broker" in negotiating the release of hostages, the real goal was to obtain "belligerent status" for the terrorist organization. Diplomats at the U.N. and the Organization of American States, who have criticized the Uribe government in Bogota for last week's raid into Ecuador, ought to weigh the evidence carefully before granting moral equivalence to a raid against a terror group and the overthrow of a democratically elected government.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.
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