Hunting for Hizbullah: The Latin American Adventure

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Hunting for Hizbullah: The Latin American Adventure

After a recent expose of the Obama administration turning a blind eye towards Hezbullah collaborating with drug cartels in Latin America to bring drugs into the United States, the Trump administration vowed to go after Hezbullah and formed a specialized Hizbullah Narcoterrorism task force that would go after Hizbullah financing.  Obama administration’s meddling in Project Cassandra was to stop DOJ from arresting and prosecuting Hizbullah members, in order not to derail the nuclear deal with Iran. Department of Justice investigation followed, monitored by Congress, which is also conducting its own investigations through various committees.. This development follows last year’s earlier story of the Obama administration’s disruption of the law enforcement’s investigation against hundreds of Iranian suspects – all, apparently, in an effort to secure the nuclear deal.

Meanwhile, in Argentina, former president Christina Kirchner has been charged with treason for her collusion with Iran and cover-up of the AMIA bombing. It is unclear whether her own case ever actually go to trial, but lower-ranking  officials such as Hector Timmerman, most likely will be convicted. This development is not unrelated. In the course of the investigation of the AMIA bombing and cover-up, the prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who found evidence of the collusion between Kirchner’s government and Iran’s, including the fact that the now-president of Iran Rouhani, a much-touted “moderate” likely had advance knowledge of the terrorist attack, was murdered.  Although it is clear that his untimely and violent demise was directly related to his work, to date Argentine justice system has failed to establish whether Kirchner’s thugs or Iranian terrorists or intelligence operatives were responsible for his death.

Last night, The Algemeiner, in partnership with the Jewish Latin Center and the American Sephardi Federation, hosted a follow up discussion concerning the progress of the investigation. Earlier, The Algemeiner hosted the screening of “Los Abandonados”, a documentary which Matthew Taylor bravely shot in Argentina when Christina Kirchner was still president, and the fear of retribution was real. At that point, the judicial system was still controlled by the president, and the circumstances of Nisman’s death were deemed inconclusive.

Indeed, the story appeared much more complicated and obscure than under exposure to light, when the Argentine government’s involvement in the cover up has been restored, despite the fact that Nisman’s assassins destroyed 9 years of thorough investigation.  Yet Nisman’s work involved a great deal more than investigation of the older terrorist attack. He was also in pursuit of the Hezbullah-cartel connections, which very well may have been a contributing factor in his assassination. Iran has been pouring money into “cultural center” all over Latin America, including Argentina, for many years, making them in essence, recruitment centers for spies, terrorists, and drug smugglers. The border area between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay harbors Hezbullah membership and other terrorist organizations. All of that is funded by Iran, likely many of the same people who funded and planned the AMIA bombing and many other terrorist attacks around the world. However, getting to these individuals is nearly impossible without visiting to Iran. Nisman was granted a visa to continue his investigation, but also had a fatwa against him, which would have gotten him killed. He also had six red notices against him issued by the Interpol as per request from the Islamic Republic officials, who clearly felt threatened by the results of his probe.

Despite having a friendly Argentine government dedicated to transparency, and bringing this story of unbridled government corruption culminating in a murder to life, to bring Iranians, ultimately responsible for the AMIA bombing and everything that followed, to justice, remains, for the time being a pipe dream. Until the regime falls, and its former members can be held accountable in courts, not much can be done. And most likely the same people know who exactly is responsible for Nisman’s assassination. However, there are still things that can be done to bring more light to this story, and give some degree of accountability to the culprits:

  • Follow up on Nisman’s investigation of Rouhani’s potential involvement
  • Publicize the names of any acting Iranian officials and intelligence who were connected to the bombing, the cover-up, or other elements of collusion with the Argentine government
  • Make these “civil servants” personas non grata in the international community. Have them arrested in connection to support of terrorism the moment they step foot anywhere outside Iran. Political immunity should be stripped away if there is enough evidence to prosecute, and particularly if there is evidence that the same people continue funding Hizbullah, a terrorist organization.
  • Publicize the tapes and evidence of Iranian-Argentine collusion. Argentina is far from the only country, where Iran seeks to actively work with its members to change policy to its benefit in an aggressive and illegal manner. The # 2 in Venezuela is a Hizbullah man, and of course Cuba enjoys a close relationship with the Islamic Republic. But would we find criminal conspiracies and facilitation of active measures in European countries as well? What about some of the most corrupt African governments?

The Trump administration’s task force faces numerous challenges in advancing its mission. Not the least of them is the fact that it will take time to rebuild the cases and put together evidence against old suspects who have long since fled for greener pastures and out of reach of US or international authorities. It should, however, start by investigating any Iranian government officials or their children in the US on various types of visas, some even with green cards, and holding them accountable for the crimes their government funds and perpetrates, as the investigation continues.

Further, it should work closely with Latin American governments to get on the same page with investigation and pursuit of Hezbullah, drug cartels, and other Iranian proxies.  The sharing of best practices, memoranda of understanding on this important issue, and more on the ground intelligence sharing and collaboration are essential in moving forward.  Still, at the end of the day, while we can make the life of Hezbullah and narcotraffickers more difficult, playing wack-a-mole with terrorists does not ultimately solve the problem. First, it will inevitably be a long and arduous process. Career bureaucrats still scattered throughout the Trump administration are committed to the nuclear deal, and view anything that could be interpreted by the Islamic Republic as a challenge to the nuclear deal with hostility. They will likely be uncooperative and put up internal obstacles that may prevent the task force from being successful. Ultimately,to be effective, the task force should consist of a small, highly skilled, and flexible group of ideologically committed and supportive officials who are not dependent on the bureaucracy for resources or approval.

Second, Hezbullah should not be viewed in a vacuum. Today’s agent in Latin America can be relocated to Lebanon, Europe, or anywhere in the world, and much of the coordination is now down through encrypted networks at advance level. Not every Hezbullah member is going to be a criminal mastermind, but the network has state resources behind them and have shown a high degree of sophistication in planning operations, as well as strategical developments. At the same time, assisting our Latin American partners with countering Iran’s ideological influence is no less important. We should be studying the methods of recruitment and Iran’s human intelligence just as much, if not more, as we are studying counterterrorism, and law enforcement techniques of recruiting and “turning” informants. For Iran, Hezbullah’s drug trafficking is merely a way of financing its wars and other operation. However, to successfully resurrect an empire, it needs a constant flow of committed proxy units, which means that its presence in Latin America is not only about planning disruption, corrupting government officials, and smuggling drugs, arms, humans, or explosive, but about planning, and implementing a successful ideological war, which includes, of course, an element of information warfare, which cannot be easily captured, shut down, or reciprocated.

Cutting off the flow of funding towards all these activities is only part of the puzzle. Uncovering facilitating companies and individuals, of which, by now, there are many. Hezbullah’s agility will help it regroup quickly. Advance notice of the existing task force means that while the task force is still figuring out what to do, Hezbullah is already on the move, laundering money, restructuring its presence, hiding assets, and putting up distractions and disinformation. They will likely sacrifice a number of low level assets with little knowledge of long-term plans or infrastructure, just to keep the administration busy and make it appear successful. What is frustrating is that the scale of operation is quite significant and shifting, and even uncovering a number of operations and putting their participants on trial, may not, in fact, prove all that valuable in making a dent in the overall plan, grand strategy, or even day-to-day flow of activities.

At the end of the day, Latin American operations are just a tool, and if Iran sees that the US is becoming successful at disrupting operations, it will merely shift the bulk of its efforts to a new arena (as it is probably already doing), for which we are not yet nearly prepared. To succeed in this effort, the administration should be developing asymmetric, unorthodox approaches, which seek to prevent, rather than to react to or disrupt existing operation. This means not merely following in the heels of Hizbullah operatives, but understanding Iran’s ultimate goals and strategy, and setting up traps long before their operations are set up, much less begin to bear fruit.

And ultimately, it means going directly after Iran, cutting off the head of the snake, and making it costly and unmanageable for Iran to support a para-military like Iran. This should be an intelligence effort of covert operations, disruption, and disinformation internally, as much as a law enforcement effort of preventing terrorist attacks and arresting participants. Do we have it in us? The answer is irrelevant. We have no choice but to develop the tools, and the complex operational mindset to outsmart, not merely outgun Iran, before its influence becomes so persistent internationally, that we end up playing catch up all the way to the grave of the Western freedom.

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Acerca de Irina Tsukerman

Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.

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