The Looming Islamist Threat… in Latin America

Iran’s Velayat 94 military exercise, January 2016. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Erfan Kouchari

And money freed up by the Iran deal will only make things worse.

In recent weeks, a variety of foreign-policy issues have been raised regarding President Donald Trump’s nominees for key national-security posts. The issues that have been mentioned include confronting Russian expansionist desires, contending with Chinese provocation in the South China Sea, ensuring that Iran does not violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and formulating a plan to defeat ISIS.

While the aforementioned issues are of great importance to U.S. security, and will undoubtedly have to be top priorities for—if all are confirmed—Rex Tillerson at the Department of State, retired Marine general James Mattis at the Department of Defense and Rep. Mike Pompeo at the Central Intelligence Agency, no time was given to outlining the challenge posed to the United States by Islamic extremism in Latin America.

For decades, the Islamic extremist terrorist group Hezbollah has been able to find refuge and various financing sources in the notoriously crime-infested Tri-Border Area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. However, as has typically been the case in the post–Cold War era, out of fear of being accused of meddling in internal matters, this Western Hemisphere security challenge has long been neglected.

Precisely because of a lack of American leadership in taking on Hezbollah in Latin America, the United States’ closest ally in the War on Terror, Israel, has recently had to take initiative and attempt to resolve the matter because of its own security concerns. Back in September, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs admitted to the Jerusalem Post that “Israel cooperates with Paraguay in the battle against terrorism and maintains a supportive role in actions against Hezbollah at the tri-border region.”

In part as a result of the close relationship built upon years of Israeli intelligence support in Paraguay, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the opening of an Israeli embassy in the landlocked South American country. The Tri-Border Area is infamous for the illicit sale of tobacco as well as various electronic products, and Hezbollah associates are known to be highly active in the local business community.

Israeli action in Paraguay is all the more urgent given the Lebanese Parliament’s recent election of President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian former general who openly enjoys Hezbollah’s political support. Aoun said during a trip to Saudi Arabia earlier this month that Lebanon has “normal relations with Iran.” More troublingly than simply embracing Iran, the Lebanese leader went on to state that Iranian support for Hezbollah “could continue indefinitely.”

Enduring Iranian support for Hezbollah is dependent on a steady stream of income, which is now guaranteed for the foreseeable future thanks to the windfall of millions of dollars Iran received in the wake of the JCPOA and its subsequent legitimization in the eyes of international markets and investors. Aside from the money needed to fund elaborate terrorist plots across the world, Hezbollah enjoys the fervent support of a great many Shia Muslims of Lebanese descent who call several countries in Latin America their home.

The security dilemma that Hezbollah’s Latin American presence poses to the United States is compounded by the close ties between Iran and its fellow OPEC member state, Venezuela. The oil-rich Andean country’s new vice president, Tareck El Aissami, is reportedly under investigation by the U.S. government for drug trafficking, and is also suspected by experts on radical Islamic terrorism in Latin America of having close ties to Hezbollah in the region. While El Aissami’s alleged terrorist connections are troubling, they are not all that surprising, given that Iran has sold Mohajer drones to Venezuela in the past.