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The 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires was carried out by Hizballah.
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Hizballah has established networks of drugs and arms smuggling in South America in order to fund its terrorist activities.

The Expanding Network of Hizballah in
Latin America: A Threat to U.S. and Israeli National Security

Since its formation in the early 1980s as a Shiite terrorist group in Lebanon, Hizballah has posed a threat to international security. The group originally founded by Iran has grown over the years into a powerful global network, supported by a web of charitable organizations and criminal activities. Before the attacks of Sept. 11, Hizballah had killed more Americans than any other terrorist organization in the world. One branch of Hizballah’s international network that is often overlooked is its strong base in Latin America. Given its notorious past and recent expansion, this branch warrants particular scrutiny.

Hizballah’s Deadly Past in South America

Hizballah’s base in Latin America first emerged as a pressing concern in the early 1990s. The two deadliest terrorist attacks to occur in Argentina—the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people and injured another 242, and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in the same city, in which 85 people were killed and hundreds more injured—have been attributed to Hizballah and its key sponsor, Iran.

In an effort to clear its name and renew economic ties, Iran announced earlier this month that it will cooperate with Argentina’s investigation into the 1994 bombing. Alberto Nisman, the Argentinian prosecutor in charge of the investigation, said in response that “if Iran really wants to collaborate, it must bring to justice all the suspected Iranians instead of releasing declarations empty of real content.” Julio Schlosser, secretary-general of the AMIA Jewish umbrella organization in Argentina, also rejected the Iranian proposal, stating that “talking does not equal progress if it doesn’t lead to a trial.”

Contemporary Threats

In recent years, Hizballah’s presence in Latin America has reportedly grown in scope and sophistication, and is focused on, but not limited to, fundraising. U.S. officials believe that Hizballah is a primary beneficiary of money raised both through legitimate means and through smuggling and drug trafficking in the Tri-Border region, where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet. Between $2 and $3 billion is funneled each year through this area, which has become a hotbed for organized crime and associated illicit activities.

Over time, Hizballah operatives have become integrated in criminal networks that engage in drug trafficking throughout the region, with the Tri-Border region serving as the center of this activity. Charles Allen, former undersecretary of intelligence and analysis in the Department of Homeland Security, reported in September 2008 that “there are concentrations of Islamic extremists in several areas [in Latin America] but perhaps in no greater concentration than in the Tri-Border Region... The concentrated population and relative open border have enticed terrorists to this area since the 1980s.”

Hizballah has successfully established lucrative alliances in Latin America intended to facilitate its terrorist activities. The group has tapped into the anti-U.S. sentiments of many South American governments, first and foremost Hugo Chavez’s regime in Venezuela. Chavez is believed to have allowed the country to become a center for Hizballah money laundering and other illicit activities, and is thought to have aided Hizballah and other terrorist groups in the acquisition of illegal documents. There are also reports that Hizballah has set up a camp in Venezuela and used the country as a base for collecting intelligence.

Hizballah’s cooperation with the Colombian insurgent group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) also raises significant concerns for the U.S. and Israel. In October 2008, U.S. and Colombian investigators dismantled a cocaine smuggling and money laundering ring that used its proceeds to finance the activities of the FARC and Hizballah.

The expansion of Hizballah’s operations throughout the globe has been aided by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—an elite branch of Iran’s military—through its Quds Force, which is tasked with exporting the Iranian revolution. The IRGC, founded after the 1979 revolution to prevent internal dissent, has since developed into a major military force and business empire. Its Quds Force has been linked to weapons trafficking and the funding and training of terrorist groups around the world, including Hizballah and Hamas. In Jan. 2009, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates denounced Iran for engaging in “subversive activities” in Latin America.

Congress Addresses the Threats

Congress in recent years has reviewed the foreign policy implications and threat to U.S. interests posed by Hizballah’s presence in Latin America. In 2006, the House passed H. Con. Res. 338, which urges the creation of a special task force to assist with the investigation of terrorist activity in the Tri-Border area and calls on the countries of the region to designate Hizballah as a terrorist organization.

In the past month, the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence and the Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations have held hearings to review the threats posed by Hizballah’s activity in Latin America.

At a hearing in early July, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA), chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, pointed out that Hizballah has gained a foothold in many countries by establishing networks of drugs, arms and diamond smuggling that are used to increase funding. Meehan also stressed that the spreading of anti-U.S. and anti-Israel sentiment by Hizballah is worrisome.

“You don’t infiltrate an area without intent. And that intent clearly is … not benevolent, we know that,” said Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY), a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Discussions between committee members have examined possible U.S. actions. In accordance with the Arms Export Control Act, the State Department in May 2006 prohibited the sale of defense articles and services to Venezuela because of non-compliance with anti-terrorism efforts. Although Congress is seeking to increase the effectiveness of sanctions, and there have been suggestions to add Venezuela to the list of state-sponsors of terrorism, further action against Venezuela raises serious concerns due to U.S. energy dependence. Venezuela provides roughly 10 percent of U.S. oil imports, totaling $117 million daily.

It is unclear if the current situation will lead to changes in U.S. policy. Nonetheless, after the recent hearing, Rep. Meehan concluded that the discussions have been a “significant step toward enhancing awareness about Hizballah’s activities in Latin America and understanding this very important threat to America here at home.”

AIPAC Diamond Summer Intern Ariella Axler contributed to this report.