Monday, December 3, 2012

Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America: A new House subcommittee report on threats to the southwest border

On November 15, the House Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management released a report that examines "the increased presence and influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America and their relationship with drug cartels." It also looks at the turf wars between Mexican drug cartels and the threat they pose to the Southwest border.

The 50-page document, titled “A Line in the Sand: Countering Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border,” determines that "While Latin American bases serve as a finance mechanism for Hezbollah, it is believed the ability exists to turn operational if the need arises. There is no doubt that the enemy is at our doorstep and we must do something about it now."

While cited evidence from congressional reports, experts and news articles supports some of the report's findings regarding increasing Iranian presence in the region, the subcommittee's broader claims about established links between Mexican drug cartels and Hezbollah/Iran posing an imminent threat are largely unsubstantiated.

Several previous government statements and investigations on transnational crime take note of Iran and Hezbollah's engagement in the region, indicating it is something officials are aware of and monitoring, but show no solid transnational links between the groups or an immediate threat to homeland security.

"A Line in the Sand" details Iranian political and economic involvement in Venezuela and other Latin American countries, funding sources for Hezbollah in the region, incidences of criminal links between Hezbollah-supporting individuals and/or Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking organizations, and a failed 2011 Iranian assassination attempt on the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.

With regards to Iran, much of the report relays what several other government sources and analysts have found:

  • Hezbollah receives funding from individuals, primarily within the large Lebanese population in the region and especially those in the tri-border area between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, who support the group, providing a large portion of its extra-state financing.
    • Of note on this matter is that according to the State Department, this has been occurring since the mid 1980s. However, Iran is Hezbollah’s primary funding source, donating at least $200 million in 2008, with income from criminal enterprises in general only representing a sliver of the group's financing.

  • Individuals who support Hezbollah are involved with criminal networks and illicit activities.
    • An important note to this point is that while the cases of individuals arrested for drug trafficking and human smuggling highlighted in the report were linked to Hezbollah, the document did not identify any of them as actual members of the group.

  • Iran has increased its cultural and political presence in the hemisphere and now has 11 embassies in the region.
  • Iran has been able to circumvent sanctions because of its economic partnership with a few countries in the region, most notably Venezuela. It is either economically involved or looking to become economically involved with several countries in Latin America.
  • Iran has strengthened ties with Venezuela, with which it is ideologically aligned. According to testimony from analyst Douglas Farah, a 2011 Univision documentary showed Hezbollah training Venezuelan troops.
    • A testimony from Ambassador Roger Noriega, visiting fellow from the American Enterprise Institute, claims Hezbollah cells and Sinaloa cartel members are operating together in Venezuela, but cites unnamed sources and fails to footnote this part of the testimony.

  • In 2011 Iran attempted to hire an alleged member of the Mexican Zeta cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington D.C. for a fee of $1.5 million. The Zeta operative turned out to be a DEA informant and the plot was foiled.

Aside from more detailed expansion on these points, the report in many cases uses these findings t make overreaching conclusions are often not sourced, cite the same subcommittee's previous report or cite individual's previous testimonies with unchecked sources.

In his opening statement to present the report, subcommittee Chairman Michael McCaul sets the stage for the report, claiming "Iran’s strategic migration and its relationships in Latin America are a clear and present danger to American national security" and that it "is also attempting to lay the foundation for military and covert operations within the U.S. by partnering with Mexican drug cartels."

Nowhere in the report are either of these statements corroborated. As security analyst Steven Dudley from Insight Crime and Samuel Logan from Southern Pulse both contend, Mexican criminal groups are not likely to commit acts of political violence in the U.S., much less involve foreign governments.

The document goes on to state, “Iran and Hezbollah have been involved in the underworld of Latin America long enough to become intimately familiar with all of its inhabitants and capitalize on their capabilities.”

It substantiates this claim with a testimony from former DEA executive Michael Braun, who says, "If you want to visualize ungoverned space or a permissive environment, I tell people to simply think of the bar scene in the first Star Wars movie. Operatives from FTOs (foreign terrorist organizations) and DTOs (drug trafficking organizations) are frequenting the same shady bars, the same seedy hotels and the same sweaty brothels in a growing number of areas around the world. Based upon over 37 years in the law enforcement and security sectors, you can mark my word that they are most assuredly talking business and sharing lessons learned."

According to the report, the 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador was the result of these links established in "shady bars." The incident is the strongest established connection between Iran and Mexican drug cartels that the report examines.

While the plot was real and revealed developments to which policymakers should pay attention, many analysts and major media were skeptical of the details and whether the incident truly denotes Iranian-Zeta links. As Adam Isacson pointed out on border fact check blog, there was no evidence that the Zeta organization knew about the plan.

Insight Crime looked at the details of the case and concluded the failed plot served to show the lack of intimate contact and knowledge between Iran and the Mexican cartels, which many analysts have said are "not interested in committing acts of political violence on U.S. soil." Analyst James Bosworth also examines the case on his blog, saying "the clearly amateurish nature of Iran's involvement here shows that we have less to fear. The fact that an Iranian Qods-linked official is poking around the border looking for Zetas sicarios and ends up with the DEA informant suggests that Iran and Hezbollah have far less ties to the Mexican organized crime scene than some analysts would want you to believe."

In the "2012 Terrorism and Transnational Crime Report," Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said "It remains to be seen whether this alleged plot is indicative of greater crime-terrorism cooperation or a one-time departure from conventional IRGC-QF tactics." He did however note that the plot indicates some Iranian officials are more willing to conduct an attack in the U.S., but said nothing about established links to Mexican cartels.

Other government reports and statements acknowledge Iran and Hezbollah's presence as a potential threat, but not as an imminent danger. Similarly none of the security reports note any direct transnational connection between terrorist organizations and Mexican drug cartels, or highlight Iran's involvement in Venezuela as a threat to national security.

In the "World Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community" Clapper acknowledges the potential for links, but admits that the extent of connection between the groups is unclear. There is no discussion of Venezuelan-Iranian ties as a threat.

The State Department's 2010 "Country Report on Terrorism," published in August 2011, denied the existence of transnational terrorist groups actively operating in the country, saying, "There were no known operational cells of either al-Qaida- or Hezbollah-related groups in the hemisphere."

Similarly, the 2011 "Country Report on Terrorism" indicates no threat of a transnational terrorist attack in the Western Hemisphere and discovered "No known international terrorist organization had an operational presence in Mexico and no terrorist group targeted U.S. citizens in or from Mexican territory." It found "no evidence of signs of ties between Mexican criminal organizations and terrorist groups."

The findings from the House's Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012, passed by the body in September, follows the general trend of government statements by recognizing Hezbollah presence, funding sources and some involvement in illegal activity, but states no known operational links between Hezbollah and Mexican drug cartels, other than the assassination plot and a money laundering scheme between the Zetas and Lebanese Canadian bank, which has since been shut down.

"A Line in the Sand" also concludes that "the FARC is operating with Iran and Hezbollah in Venezuela, and the Venezuelan Government is complicit in these operations." For this reason, the subcommittee gives the recommendation that "the U.S. government should consider designating Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism."

In an interview with Polifact, Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, who testified in 2009 for the House subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs on illicit economies, organized crime, and their impact on U.S. and global security, said, "Allegations of al-Qaida, Hamas, and Hezbollah contacts with the FARC or these groups' penetration of the Latin American drug trade have not proven robust."

Kevin Casas-Zamora, former vice president of Costa Rica, added, "If Venezuela was indeed harboring a serious Hezbollah operation we would surely know it by now. The U.S. has had for years an official policy of toning down the confrontation with Chavez, but a serious terrorist threat is the one thing that the U.S. would not countenance."

When asked directly about Iran's involvement in the hemisphere during testimony to the Senate in March, former Southern Command leader General Doug Fraser highlighted the continued financial support the organizations receive from the region, saying, “Our concern remains their traditional connections with Hezbollah and Hamas, who do have organizations in Latin America. Those organizations are primarily focused on financial support to organizations back in the Middle East, but they are involved in illicit activity."

As far as the threat of these groups to U.S. security, he did comment on the connection between these groups and illicit activities in the region and said it is something SOUTHCOM will "continue to look for as we watch in the future, that connection between the illicit activity and the potential pathway into the United States," echoing the watchful caution presented in SOUTHCOM's 2012 posture statement.

Towards the end of the section on Iran, “A Line in the Sand” says "it is believed the ability exists to turn operational if the need arises. There is no doubt that the enemy is at our doorstep and we must do something about it now.”

The 2010 "International Terrorism and Transnational Crime: Security Threats, U.S. Policy, and Considerations for Congress," along with other government reports, supports this statement to a degree, noting the potential of Hezbollah supporters in the region to become more involved. It says, “If the organization decided to attack U.S. or Israeli interests in West Africa or South America, it is possible that these sympathizers could play a concrete role.” However no reports give the sense that "the enemy is at our doorstep."

The United States government, along with several security experts, has conducted many investigations into this issue. The overall conclusion seems to be that while the threat of Hezbollah in the hemisphere is there, it is relatively small and something that is being monitored.