The U.S. and allies are “targeting”, “clamping down”, on Hezbollah activity in West Africa according to Friday’s headlines. Not a moment too soon, if Treasury Undersecretary Cohen is correct that Hezbollah may “not just be collecting money” but is using these African outposts for planning and training. This Iranian proxy has proven quite adept at diversifying funding streams, building multi-tiered support networks, and expanding its reach to project its brand of terror to virtually every corner of the globe. That said, I found it curious that little, if any, mention was made in related news stories about the Latin American connection to Hezbollah-West Africa operations.
Perhaps the most notable and illustrative case is that of the Lebanese Canadian Bank, designated in 2011 for its pivotal role in a drug trafficking scheme involving Ayman Joumaa. Joumaa was charged with trafficking large shipments of cocaine from Colombia to Europe and West Africa that ultimately benefitted Hezbollah. According to U.S. law enforcement, the proceeds were laundered through the U.S. financial system and via used cars, but the complex network also involved exchange houses and a range of front-businesses in the drug-smuggling nations of West Africa.
The evidence led law enforcement and intelligence officials to believe high-level Hezbollah operatives are directly involved in the drug trade originating in South America, changing their initial assumptions about Hezbollah as a “passive beneficiary of contributions from loyalists” involved in illicit activity.
Then, there’s the case of Moussa Ali Hamdan, who was detained in Paraguay three years ago and subsequently extradited to the U.S. where he is facing 31 charges ranging from arms trafficking, smuggling, and passport forgery, to terrorism and conspiring to provide material support to Hezbollah. There are numerous others.
The Barakat brothers are of increasing concern. Hamze Ahmad Barakat, was arrested in Brazil in may of this year for laundering but also suspected of ties to Iran’s terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. His brother, Assad Ahmad Barakat, is suspected by U.S. and Latin American intelligence and law enforcement authorities of being Hezbollah’s leader in the tri-border area of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil.
The 1994 bombing of the AMIA Center in Buenos Aires supported and orchestrated by Iranian regime officials and carried out by Hezbollah, demonstrated the capacity and willingness of this terrorist group to operationalize its plans and activate cells in the region.
The AMIA attack clearly shows that, what Undersecretary Cohen fears has begun to take place in West Africa, has already occurred in our own Hemisphere. Yet, Latin America and the Caribbean continue to be forgotten by much of the U.S. intelligence and policy community. Current and emerging threats will be minimized, as evident from the whitewash of the Congressionally-mandated report covering Iranian activities in the Hemisphere. This will endure until an attack takes place closer to home and we must deal with the grave consequences of ongoing U.S. neglect.
My grandparents would always say: “Hay que prevenir para no tener que lamentar”—a saying in Spanish akin to: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It needs to be applied on this issue of regional threats.