When I saw the following CNN headline, “Iran, Hezbollah mine Latin America for revenue, recruits, analysts say” my first thought was: will this be the same old recycled story about an alleged growing threat of Islamic extremists terror networks in Latin America? Here’s the basic check-list for any such story: 1. Mention the 1994 bombings of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, 2) Mention the “Tri-Border Area” (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay), 3) Note the Muslim populations in Latin American countries, especially Brazil, and 4) have some vague statements from experts about possible threats.
Every article I have read about possible growing Islamic extremist threats in Latin America (and I have read a LOT of them) tend to have all the above elements and, indeed, they all tend to read like the same story rewritten over and over and over again.
Let’s see how these article does,
1. Mention 1994.
This is noted in the second paragraph as well as later in the piece. Now, this always makes for an interesting bit of history and certainly helps fill column inches. However, looking at the calendar I would note that 1994 is almost two decades ago. If the best one can do as an illustration of the potential threat, then perhaps the threat is not all that, well, threatening.
For those unfamiliar, here are the details:
Iran has denied any connection to the July 18, 1994, bombing at the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (known as AMIA after its Spanish acronym), which also injured more than 100 people. Likewise, Iran denies any involvement in a bomb blast at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires on March 17, 1992, that killed 29 people and wounded at least 250 more.
In 1994 I was recently married, childless, and in the middle of graduate school. I am now a Full Professor and Department Chair and have three children, one of whom can drive. 1994 was a long time ago.
2. Tri-Border Area
Here we go:
Analysts agree that Hezbollah started its infiltration of Latin America in the mid-1980s, establishing its first major stronghold in the Tri-Border Area, a relatively lawless region along the frontiers of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. From this base deep in the heart of South America, Hezbollah set up illicit enterprises to fund its operations in the Middle East and elsewhere, analysts say. Among the organization’s reported major undertakings are money-laundering, counterfeiting, piracy and drug trafficking.
By all accounts, those illegal activities are quite lucrative. A 2023 study for the Naval War College determined that Hezbollah’s operations in the Tri-Border Area generated about $10 million annually. A 2023 Rand Corporation report said Hezbollah netted around $20 million a year in the area. As a result, says Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of the book “Funding Evil,” the Tri-Border Area constitutes Hezbollah’s most significant source of independent funding.
First, if 1994 was a long time ago, the 1980s are ancient history.
Second, this all sounds ominous. It has a cool name that can be turned into an acronym (TBA!), and whenever you can call an area “lawless” it just seems all the more threatening. Border areas also are notorious in literature, song, and real life.
I have no doubt about the funding issue—more on that below.
In regards to 1994 and the Tri-Border Area:
It wasn’t long after Hezbollah established its firm foothold in the Tri-Border Area that it became linked to the two terrorist attacks in Argentina, which has the largest Jewish community in South America and one of the biggest outside of Israel.
By September 1995, Philip Wilcox Jr., the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, was testifying to a U.S. House committee that Hezbollah had become “the major international terrorist threat” in the region.
I would note that rather than 1992 and 1994 being the portend of things to come, they were the zenith of radical Islamic terrorism in the Americas until 9/11 (which had nothing to do with Iran, Hezbollah, nor the TBA).
3. Muslim populations
Although exact figures are difficult to come by, estimates by the Pew Research Center and the Islamic Population websites say Brazil and Argentina have the largest Muslim populations in South America, with more than 1 million members each. Those populations include converts to Islam, Arab immigrants and their descendants. Venezuela has more than 100,000 Muslims concentrated among persons of Lebanese and Syrian descent, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2023 International Religious Freedom Report.
Lot of scary Muslims, dontcha know. This just feeds the Islamophobic who see any increase in Muslim population as a threat.
4. Vague Threats and Fears
Well, just the notion of Iranian or Hezbollah-linked “networks” is enough to excite great concern in some. Further, we have a reference to two terrorist attacks and lawlessness in the TBA, so we are already well on our way to grave concern, if not freak-outs.
But, there is also:
Nisman’s report said Iran’s intelligence activities in Latin America are being conducted directly by Iranian officials or through a key surrogate, the Hezbollah Islamic militant group. “Criminal plans” by Iran could be under way in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, the report said.
Please note: criminal plans could be under way. Also:
“They are more involved in the cocaine trade than ever before, and have greater access in the region due their allies in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and elsewhere,” Farah said. “So they have more freedom of movement and fewer restrictions. This has greatly increased their capacity to carry out intelligence operations, train and position operatives and prepare attacks, particularly if Israel or the U.S. strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities.”
In regards to the aforementioned hordes of Muslims:
Hezbollah also uses its new stronghold as a base for recruiting among Latin America’s diaspora of Lebanese expatriates, known throughout the region as ‘turcos,” and other Muslim populations.
Much of that recruitment takes place in mosques or “Islamic centers” that Hezbollah operatives infiltrate or establish to serve the region’s burgeoning Muslim communities.
Note the vagueness of that claim. One expects that Hezbollah attempts to recruits where ever it can, but the questions becomes more what the success rate is and to what end, rather than whether they try and recruit. Also, Hezbollah also seeks donations from ex-patriots for its more legitimate arms, so the act of Hezbollah recruitment and fundraising is not always as objectively problematic as some make it out to be. Hezbollah is not just a militant organization, but also a political party and a social organization.
That’s not to say, though, that Hezbollah does not have the capacity to turn violent, particularly at the behest of Iran.
Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said Hezbollah “represents a significant potential threat to the United States.”
“Over the past decade, Hezbollah’s regional activities have shown a clear pattern of targeting U.S. interests and assets throughout Latin America. Among other indicators, Hezbollah operatives are known to have cased the U.S. embassy in Paraguay’s capital of Ascunción, and local organizational cells have colluded with al Qaeda to plot attacks on U.S. and Jewish targets in the region,” he said.
“Hezbollah also has the ability to strike at the U.S. homeland itself,” Berman said. “Given the lucrative nature of the organization’s illicit activities throughout the hemisphere, the likelihood of such a development remains low. Still, Hezbollah’s strategic calculus could conceivably change if it or its chief sponsor, Iran, were imperiled in a substantial way (for example, through military action that targets Iran’s nuclear facilities). In this sense, Hezbollah can be described as a potential insurance policy of sorts for the Iranian regime.”
And Hezbollah only stands to become more dangerous, analysts say.
Note the lack of much in the way of details (and the notion that Iran could, at a moment’s notice, weaponize Hezbollah, or something). And there is a lot of plotting (and casing!) going on. How we know this exactly it unclear.
5. The Real Issue: Funding
If there is a real issue, it is not so much Iranian influence in Latin America as it is using the illicit drug trade for funding.
analysts and observers disagree over Iran and Hezbollah’s ambitions. Hezbollah’s actions are mainly seen as financial, as evidenced by greater ties to Latin American drug cartels in recent years. At the same time, Iran may be returning to more violent acts, such as a reported attempt to recruit someone to assassinate a diplomat.
There is a lot of money to be made in the drug trade, in case anyone has noticed. As such, it is not surprising that various groups would tap into the resources in question. The opium trade helps
6. Parting Thoughts
Yes, I am being more than a bit flippant here in tone (although the basic points are serious). It is not because I do not see the significance of various criminal enterprises in Latin America nor that I do not understand the significance of fundraising by groups that may engage in political violence. My flippancy is based in a few things. First, the discussion of this exact topic has been redundant and poorly analyzed for years (again: the degree to which these stories are near-identical year after year is truly amazing). Second, the discussion of this topic typically had a veneer, if not a thick coat, of terrorism fear mongering about it.
Note: Also published at OTB.