Latin America’s Hezbollah Problem

December 2, 2023 Topic: Hezbollah Region: Latin America Tags: IranArgentinaBrazilHezbollahTerrorismCartels

Latin America’s Hezbollah Problem

Hezbollah's presence in the region merits swift recognition and action. 


On November 8, Brazilian authorities detained two suspected Hezbollah agents in Sao Paulo on the suspicion they sought to attack Jewish targets in Brazil. The plot embarrasses Brazil, which for years ignored Hezbollah’s presence. With Mohamed Abdulmajid, the alleged Syrian-Brazilian recruiter, on the run and more arrests likely, it is time for Brazil to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

Alas, Brazil remains in denial. Justice Minister Flavio Dino dismissed any connection to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and denied cooperating with the Mossad. With moral inversion, President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva prefers to accuse Israel of terrorism rather than address Hezbollah’s local activity.


Such denial has cost. Argentina ignored its growing Hezbollah problem even after the group’s 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. Two years later, Hezbollah struck again, blowing up the AMIA Jewish community center, killing eighty-five and injuring more than 300. Even then, it took another twenty-five years for Argentina, joined soon after by Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay, to designate the group.

In fact, part of the reason Hezbollah has repeatedly carried out terror attacks in the region is due to its well-documented presence in Latin America. Its networks are extensive and, for the most part, intended for economic and political purposes. However, when necessary, as both the Argentinian precedents and the current Brazilian case prove, Hezbollah uses the same local elements for terrorist acts, precisely as it happened in many past instances. That’s why Brazilian authorities need to tackle not only the plot and its plotters but also the broader environment that facilitated them.

Designation is necessary, given the depth and breadth of networks. Hezbollah maintains a Foreign Relations Department to cultivate ties with Lebanese Shia diaspora communities worldwide. Hezbollah has significant control over Shia communal institutions in the diaspora. Hezbollah-affiliated clerics lead mosques, and the group’s teachers run educational institutions. Hezbollah maintains local chapters for its youth-recruiting Mahdi scouts’ program. The pattern continues with charitable associations. Many Lebanese Shia businessmen also have family ties with Hezbollah. These cement both bounds of loyalty and facilitate transfers of money. When all else fails, Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Force embed operatives in communities to enforce loyalty and liaise with headquarters.

Years of denial have made Brazil fertile ground for the group. Abdulmajid felt comfortable enough in Brazil to operate openly. His social media shows enthusiastic Hezbollah support. At the height of the Syrian civil war, he attended a pro-Bashar al-Assad demonstration in front of the U.S. embassy in Brasilia. In 2018, he accompanied Moaddel Ebrahimi, a Lebanese cleric who works at Sao Paulo’s main Shia mosque, on an official visit to the Syrian embassy. More recently, his social media glorified Hamas’ October 7 massacre. He reportedly played an active role in moving money to Hezbollah through two tobacco stores in Belo Horizonte.

In short, Abdulmajid is a perfect example of Hezbollah’s operations in the diaspora: despite growing up in relative affluence in a Western democracy, this young man is wedded to a violent revolutionary cause and weaponized his radical ideas through illicit business activities, family networks, and clerical support from the religious infrastructure Hezbollah and Iran created in the diaspora, eventually becoming a recruiter, probably thanks to a mixture of his devotion to the cause, his proven talents, and his local connections.

His recruitment of Brazilian nationals also fits a broader pattern. Hezbollah and Iran have long relied on locals to augment terror plots. Iran contracted Mexican cartel henchmen in the 2010 plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC, and Iran hired three Azerbaijani nationals to assassinate Iranian dissident Masih Alinejad in New York in 2021. In 2021, an Iranian Quds Force operative recruited two Colombian criminals in a plot to target Israeli and American businessmen and diplomats.

Perhaps Lula hopes his anti-Israel stance since October 7 might prevent sectarian violence at home, but he is wrong. Iran and Hezbollah have brought the conflict into the heart of Brazil with their efforts to activate networks they cultivated to kill innocent Brazilians. Continued neglect will bring neither peace nor security.

Brazil’s response should be not only to investigate the plot and arrest its conspirators but also to work actively against Hezbollah’s and Iran’s networks, including especially the communal institutionseducational, religious, cultural, and media-orientedthat give them complete control over the local Shia diaspora and that they use to radicalize and indoctrinate recruits to their cause. These systems are critical components of the recruiting efforts to launch terror activities. If left free to operate, they will try again.

Designation of Hezbollah is the first legal step Brazil must take to surveil and then roll up Hezbollah’s networks, unwind their grip on communal institutions, and stop further radicalization and cooption of local Shia diaspora. Terrorist designations also allow financial sanctions, asset freezes, and travel bans—powerful weapons the Brazilian state can deploy to protect its national security and financial integrity. By acting proactively on Israel’s tip, Brazil prevented attacks on the scale suffered by Argentina in 1992 and 1994. It should not wait for Hezbollah to try again before taking preventative measures.

This will not be easy, given Latin America’s trend toward closer relations with Tehran, alongside the weakening of those countries’ relations with Israel. In fact, acting against Hezbollah is in their national interest, especially in light of Hezbollah’s role as a facilitator for regional crime syndicates. Countries like Brazil that ignore Hezbollah’s threat will only allow its influence to spread and may ultimately suffer the consequences of such negligence. Giving Iran and Hezbollah free rein to expand their activities will only increase Hezbollah’s and Iran’s appetite for mayhem.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Danny (Dennis) Citrinowicz is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and a fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).