Disclosure by the Obama Administration earlier this month of the disruption of a plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States reportedly directed by highly placed Iranian military officials utilizing Mexican drug cartel operatives as proxies exploded throughout the global media. Given the questionable credibility for the Administration on many fronts, including foreign affairs and national security, some quickly doubted the purported scheme as a fabrication out of the White House to distract from several escalating scandals. Regardless of the plethora of reasons to be suspicious, this time I'm going to give the benefit of the doubt to the Administration.
While there may be much about this particular situation yet to be learned, the evidence is overwhelming that Iranian influence – specifically through terrorist and criminal networks – extends well beyond their own borders or even the Middle East. Consider the following statement from July 7, 2011 Congressional testimony by Robert F. Noriega, former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States and now at the American Enterprise Institute:
"The more broad implication for U.S. homeland security is that Hezbollah – via Iran and Venezuela – has engaged the United States in an offensive strategy of asymmetric warfare on our doorstep. It is aiming to win the mental battle of attrition and the moral battle of legitimacy – particularly with the youth in Latin America. Unless our government recognizes and responds to their efforts, our ability to protect our interests and our homeland will be gradually and dangerously diminished."
In Part I of this series, I examined Iran's publicly announced agreement with Hugo Chavez to establish a military missile base on the extreme northern coast of Venezuela to be stocked with Russian provided weapons. The stated purpose of the base was to provide a platform for Chavez to fire missiles at "Iran's enemies" in the Western hemisphere. Part II, described the intelligence reports confirming Iran's continued quest for nuclear weapon capability and the technology to deploy it, along with the very real threat and devastating consequences of an possible EMP attack (electro-magnetic pulse).
This third feature will focus on the "boots on the ground" that are, as Ambassador Noriega warns, at our doorstep – and, inside our borders – either directly from Iran, or proxies of the same anti-American, radical Islamic Jihadist ideology.
The principal agent in exporting and expanding Iran's reach is Hezbollah, the all too familiar terrorist organization identified by the United States and many other nations. On a parallel path, is the Quds, the special operations paramilitary arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), identified by the Obama Administration for directing the recent plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador.
The Revolutionary Guard was originally charged with "exporting the ideals of the revolution throughout the Middle East," and the Quds was established as the "de-facto external-affairs branch" of the IRGC mandated to conduct "foreign policy missions."
One of the first forays by the Quds was in Lebanon in 1982 where it is credited with establishing Hezbollah, now identified by many experts as the most significant terrorist organization on the planet. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said, "Hezbollah may be the A-team of terrorists, and maybe al-Qaida is actually the B-team." Most experts agree with Armitage's assessment. At least one, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch says it is an "understatement."
Many experts link the Quds to weapons shipments to Lebanon used in terrorist strikes against Israel. Likewise, the Quds have armed Hamas in Gaza, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Shiite militias in Iraq responsible for the death of many Americans.
In Bosnia, the Quds backed the Bosnian Muslims during the civil war in the mid-1990s. More recently both the U.S. and European Union accused the Quds of assisting the Assad regime in Syria with the brutal, murderous crackdown on civilians demonstrating for reform during the "Arab Spring." In addition to the Quds plot against the Saudi Ambassador, the U.S. says the plan also included a plot to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Saudi and Israeli Embassies in Argentina.
Yet, for all the evidence to the contrary, the common misconception with the American public as well as many in Washington is that Iran and Hezbollah are largely an Israeli problem. That would be both a false and dangerous assumption, according to Spencer who documents that in March 2003 Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah threatened, "When the Marines were in Beirut, we screamed, 'Death to America!' Today, when the region is being filled with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, 'Death to America!' is still, and will always be, our slogan."
Hezbollah was attracted to South America in the 1980s, specifically to the Tri-Border Area (TBA) where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay intersect. This is a largely ungoverned, lawless region where Hezbollah essentially operated invisibly and with impunity. Hezbollah saw the area as ideal to expand its already established drug-trafficking and smuggling operations from Lebanon's Beka'a Valley. The RAND Corporation estimates Hezbollah nets at least $20 million annually from the TBA region, making it the single largest "fundraising" effort for the terrorist organization.
Over time, Hezbollah has developed a number of significant relationships in the region that on the surface would have seemed unlikely for a Persian Shi'ite organization committed to radical theocratic ideology of Jihad. But, the alliances forged have been based not so much on common interests as on a common aim. Douglas Farah of the International Assessment Strategy Center says the tie-that-binds Hezbollah and many of the governments as well as other terrorist and criminal organizations in Latin America is the "common aim of the asymmetric defeat of the U.S."
Anti-American sentiment is ripe and likely expanding throughout Latin America with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela at the forefront of the parade. Other Socialist and anti-American regimes in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Cuba, and other members of The Bolivarian Alliance are also fertile territory for Hezbollah to capitalize on massive profits from the illegal drug trade and also to recruit and train new members. These countries, and particularly Venezuela, also support another identified terrorist organization, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) that produces 70 percent of the world's cocaine. Ilan Berman, Vice-President of the American Foreign Policy Council told Congress that FARC is believed to have "forged close and collaborative ties" with Hezbollah as a result of their shared interests in narco-terrorism.
Chavez support of the Iranians has been so significant in recent years that the aforementioned Ambassador Noriega says Venezuela's Margarita Island off the northeastern coast has "eclipsed the infamous Tri-Border Area as a principal safe haven and center of Hezbollah operation in the Americas." As a measure of Iran's dubious success in Latin America the Ambassador says, "We can identify more than 80 operatives in at least 12 countries throughout the region."
The key operative for Hezbollah in Latin America is Ghazi Atef Slameh Nassereddine Abu Ali, who was born in Lebanon but became a Venezuelan citizen about ten years ago. Today, he is Venezuela's second ranking diplomat to Syria, and has leveraged his diplomatic and Hezbollah connections in the Middle East. A younger brother, Oday operates from Margarita Island setting up training operations for Hezbollah. A third brother, Abdallah, extends the family influence to the broader Islamic community through the Federation of Arab and American Associations, FEARAB, with affiliates throughout South America and Caribbean. According to Ambassador Noriega, the three brothers manage a network that "raises and launders money and recruits and trains operatives to expand Hezbollah's influence in Venezuela and throughout Latin America."
Operating in tandem with Nassereddine in Latin America, the Quds chief operative is Mohsen Rabbani, a high ranking Iranian. Although wanted for his role the deadly bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, Rabbani has "networked" well enough to move about freely particularly in Brazil, where he was reportedly "protected" by former President Lula as well as his Chavez connections. He, too, operates with a brother who lives in Brazil – a country with more than a million Muslims – where they reportedly have recruited many followers to the radical cause. According to Brazilian intelligence sources, at least 20 operatives from Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and the Islamic Jihad are currently using Brazil as a hub of terrorist operations.
"Hezbollah has a very clear modus operandi that it is applying to the Americas," according to Ambassador Noriega, and it should sound eerily familiar to anybody that has been paying attention in the U.S. "By infiltrating or establishing mosques or 'Islamic centers' throughout the region, Hezbollah is spreading its influence, legitimizing its cause, and advancing its violent jihad on our doorstep. It also is raising funds through various criminal and commercial operations, recruiting converts from among disaffected youth and others, and developing its operational capabilities in our own Hemisphere."
Following his ascent to power in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took efforts to expand Iranian influence in Latin America to a new level, and Hugo Chavez was more than willing to provide a receptive audience and help open doors. The gains for Iran have been huge including access to financial institutions, bilateral trade agreements, state to state shipping by land and sea that is subject to no customs review or inspections, and security forces and intelligence training.
Ahmadinejad has visited Latin America so frequently that he is almost considered a resident. There have been eight visits in the last five years between Chavez and the Iranian President. The number of Iranian embassies has increased from six to ten; evidence of the acceptance of the Tehran regime in Latin America.
Particularly worrisome are the visa-free flights to and from Caracas, Tehran, and Damascus provided by the Venezuelan airline, Conviasa. Hezbollah networks use these flights to shuttle operatives, recruits that are sent to terrorist training centers in Iran, and cargo in and out of the region.
As Iranian influence has increased, the regard for U.S. interests has taken a hit. Chavez flagrantly defies sanctions against Iran. One of the least well-kept secrets is that Venezuelan mines are the source of the uranium for Iran's nuclear program. Chavez has also agreed to supply Ahmadinejad with up to 20,000 barrels of gasoline daily to mute U.S. led sanctions aimed at Iran's dependence on foreign refined petroleum.
At the request of Iran, Chavez hosted a "terror summit" in Caracas in August 2010. Logistics for the meeting were handled by Nassereddine. In addition to Latin American terrorist operatives, the senior leadership of Hamas (Khaled Mesal, "supreme leader"), Hezbollah (an unnamed "chief of operations"), and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (Secretary General Ramadan Abdullah Mohammed Shallah) were in attendance.
Ahmadinejad, Chavez, Hezbollah, the Quds and their growing network aren't going to all this effort just to keep it confined to Latin America – they are in the terror export business. As Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY) summarized during the July 2010 Congressional Counterterrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee hearing, "You don't infiltrate an area without intent. And that intent clearly is – it's not benevolent. We know that."
At least by 2006, the Homeland Security Committee was aware that "members of Hezbollah…have already (illegally) entered to the United States across our Southwest border." Indeed, according to Ilan Berman, in 2006 the FBI broke up a Mexican smuggling ring organized by Hezbollah to transport operatives across the U.S.-Mexican border. Berman explains that these and other arrests point to the extensive network established by Hezbollah operating "in places such as Tijuana, and which partners with drug cartels active in the country."
In a June 2010 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, cited reports of Hezbollah partnering with the drug cartels to tunnel under the border; technical skill developed by the terrorist organization in Lebanon to move people and weapons to attack Israel. Myrick also noted reports of Venezuela facilitating issuance of counterfeit identification documents and passports for Hezbollah and Hamas operatives, as well as Spanish language and cultural immersion programs for Middle Eastern operatives to learn enough to "pass off as Mexican" even if apprehended by U.S. Border Agents.
Also in 2010, WSBTV-Atlanta broadcast a two-part report on the alarming number of OTMs, (Other-Than-Mexican) apprehended by the Border Patrol from over a dozen different nations identified as state sponsors of terror including Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, and Somalia. "Hundreds and hundreds" according to the government documents had been captured, but according to former Agent Dave Stoddard, for every one that was caught "there was at least ten that would escape apprehension."
For whatever reason, many government officials are in denial of the reality as Ambassador Noriega says, that Iran and her terrorist proxies have deployed a "strategy to carry their fight to our doorstep." Regardless of the vast amount of evidence of the threat, as recently as this summer, a State Department official testified to Congress that Hezbollah activity in the Western Hemisphere was confined to "fundraising." Noriega fired back saying, "that assertion grossly understates the growing Hezbollah threat" that represents "a grave and growing threat to the U.S. homeland."
Berman agrees, and adds that Hezbollah's network in the Western Hemisphere stretches from Canada to Argentina, and includes cells and/or supporters within the United States "in no fewer than fifteen metropolitan centers, stretching from New York to Los Angeles."
One of the first to articulate the possible merging of the Iranian brand of radical Islamic terrorism and the Marxist aspirations of destroying capitalism and U.S. dominance was a Venezuelan named Illich Sanchez Ramirez, better known as the international terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Hugo Chavez is a devotee of Sanchez Ramirez and has called him a "Distinguished Compatriot…friend…true revolutionary," according to Douglas Farah.
Arrested and jailed since 1994 for the murder of two French policemen, Sanchez Ramirez converted to Islam and wrote from his cell in praise of Marxism tied to the revolutionary, violent Palestinian uprisings. In his 2003 book, Revolutionary Islam, he praised Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks as a "lofty feat of arms" and part of a "justified struggle" of Islam against the West. "From now on terrorism is going to be more or less a daily part of the landscape of your rotting democracies," he wrote.
Chavez was not the only acolyte of Sanchez Ramirez. Jorge Verstrynge, the Spanish radical anti-American Socialist picked up the mantra of Carlos the Jackal, and also authored a book; Peripheral Warfare and Revolutionary Islam: Origins, Rules and Ethics of Asymmetrical Warfare. According to Farah, the Verstrynge continues the Jihad message of Sanchez Ramirez including an explicit endorsement of the use of weapons of mass destruction to destroy the United States.
Although he is not a Muslim, Verstrynge lauds radical Islam for expanding the limits of asymmetric warfare, including what he calls "super terrorism, divided into chemical terrorism, bioterrorism, and nuclear terrorism." The book also includes extensive explanations of how to make chemical weapons and the manufacture of an entry-level nuclear bomb that "someone with a high school education could make."
Based on his book, Hugo Chavez invited Vestrynge to deliver the keynote address to military leaders in a 2005 conference held at the Venezuela military academy. According to Farah, Vestrynge was such a hit that the General in charge of the Venezuelan Army ordered a special pocket-size edition of the book to be printed and distributed to all officers with "explicit orders that it be studied cover to cover."
Let's return for a moment to the recent plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador, Adel Al-Jubeir. The details given by the DOJ and widely reported place Manssor Arbabsiar, now under arrest and charged, as the middleman in the scheme. Arbabisar's cousin and highly placed member of the Quds Force, Abdul Reza Shahlai, is believed to have directed the plot including the idea to co-opt the Los Zeta Mexican drug gang to make the hit.
If true, this is very significant. Hezbollah's involvement in criminal drug trafficking has been long understood. And, while it has been suspected that the Quds were also in the narcotics trade, it had yet to be proven.
Yet, strangely, the criminal complaint against Arbabsiar makes no mention of drug smuggling even though it was a DEA informant that uncovered the assassination plot including the effort by Arbabsiar to connect with the Zetas.
More perplexing is the case of Walid Makled Garcia, arrested in Columbia on a U.S. warrant in August 2010. He is accused of shipping up to 10 tons of cocaine a month from Venezuela to the United States. Columbia originally wanted to extradite him to the U.S., but the Obama Administration failed to act. Chavez, however, wanted Makled in Venezuela where he is wanted for murder – plus, Chavez wanted him silenced.
Makled was Venezuela's most want drug kingpin – which takes some doing. He had also gotten politically crossways with Hugo Chavez. Once jailed in Columbia, Makled started to sing. Makled said he had evidence tying scores of Venezuelan government officials to his criminal activities, as well as information about Venezuela's collaboration with Hezbollah and other Islamic terrorist organizations. All this evidence he said in a Univision interview "I will tell to the prosecutor" in New York where Makled's indictment on drug charges had been issued. As the Washington Post explained in a scathing editorial against the fecklessness of the Obama Administration, the chance to interrogate Makled "could give the Justice Department the evidence to indict, and the Treasury Department the grounds to sanction, scores of Venezuela's top leaders."
But, that won't happen. While the U.S. failed to request extradition, Chavez acted immediately. In addition to the extradition paperwork, Chavez offered a cease-fire to hostilities with Columbia, $1 billion in export fees, and extradition of Columbian drug traffickers captured in Venezuela. As the Washington Post pointed out, there is no love lost between Venezuela and Columbia, if fact there is much enmity. But, the Columbians view Obama as weak, detached, and unwilling to deal with Chavez.
Not only did the U.S. loose an opportunity to bring one of the planet's most wanted drug traffickers to justice, but we also lost the chance to blow open the Chavez regime and expose it to the world.
The decision to not extradite Makled left many Members of Congress, DEA officials and others furious. But, according to the Washington Post, "Obama seems to have shrugged it off." Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos visited President Obama last April at the White House. According to Santos when the Makled situation came up in their discussion, Obama said he "understood."
If the Administration is unwilling to act, there are at least signs that some in Congress are fed up. Following the exposure of the assassination plot, Peter King, Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said the Iranians had committed an "act of war" against the United States and Saudi Arabia, and that "all options should be on the table for President Obama to respond." Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs said Iran "wants to destroy us."
One of the strongest and most accurate statements came from Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), a member of both the Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs Committees. "It is well documented that Iran is using the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Quds Force, and Hezbollah as tools to further its strategic and political objectives in the Western Hemisphere, especially in Latin America. Hezbollah has also established a presence in the U.S. and Canada," Duncan noted.
But, Duncan didn't stop with just strong words. He has introduced legislation that would require the Administration to include the Western Hemisphere as an "Area of Focus" in the 2012 National Strategy for Counterterrorism. In addition his bill would require an examination by DHS and members of U.S. Intelligence Agencies of "Iran's presence, activity, and relationships in the Western Hemisphere including its activity in the U.S."
One of the findings of the 9/11 Commission was that prior to the attacks America suffered from a "failure of imagination." As Co-Chair Les Hamilton told me, "We just couldn't imagine people could hate us that much."
If the Administration is incapable of dealing with the realities of the very real threats to our national security from those that hate us today, then I call on the 535 Members of Congress to live up to the oath they all took to defend this nation "against all enemies foreign and domestic." Iran, as Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said, wants to destroy us. They are both at our doorstep and inside our borders. Ignoring the problem, denying reality, and delaying action will only intensify the threat. It is time to act.