Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Hezbollah’s Latin American influence worries Congress
Reporter: Tom Ramstack
Congress is reviewing its defense options amid growing evidence the radical Islamic group Hezbollah is expanding its presence in Latin America.
On Thursday, witnesses from public policy groups plan to testify on Hezbollah’s Latin American connections before the House Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence.
The State Department classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Witnesses for the hearing include Roger F. Noriega, a senior fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, and Douglas Farah, a senior fellow of the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Their testimony is expected to closely follow recent statements to a Senate committee from Air Force General Douglas Fraser, commanding officer of the U.S. Southern Command.
He said Iran and its close allies in Hezbollah are taking advantage of friendly relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a critic of U.S. foreign policy.
Iran is increasing the number of its Latin American embassies and teaching Islam to impoverished residents of the area, Fraser said.
“There are flights between Iran and Venezuela on a weekly basis and visas are not required for entrance into Venezuela or Bolivia or Nicaragua,” Fraser said. “So we don’t have a lot of visibility in who’s visiting and who isn’t, and that’s really where I see the concerns.”
Fraser, who heads U.S. military operations throughout Latin America, described Iran’s growing influence as a “potential risk” to the region.
“It is a concern, and it is an issue we will continue to monitor for any increasing activity,” he said.
Other concerns in Congress spring from Mexico’s war with its drug cartels.
Some lawmakers say the war is weakening the Mexican government and opening opportunities for Hezbollah to join with the cartels.
Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) wrote a letter to the Homeland Security Department last year suggesting closer cooperation with the Mexican police and military to halt Hezbollah’s support of the drug cartels.
Last year, Mexican police arrested Jameel Nasr, the reputed head of Hezbollah’s operations in Mexico. He was living in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, when he was arrested.
Evidence against him included frequent trips to Lebanon, allegedly to set up a network of Hezbollah operatives that would target Israel and Western nations. Nasr also made trips to Venezuela and other parts of Latin America, Mexican police reported.
Another part of the Islamic influence comes from Middle Eastern refugees.
About 25,000 Muslims whose families emigrated from Lebanon after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the 1985 Lebanese civil war live in Latin American countries.
They are believed to have helped Hezbollah with the bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1994. Eighty-five people died in the attack.
More recently, intelligence reports show Hezbollah has been financing training camps and propaganda operations in South America, according to U.S. officials.
Their biggest boost came from an agreement signed in 2007 between Venezuelan President Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The two leaders agreed to use part of a joint $2 billion investment fund to thwart what they referred to as U.S. domination in developing countries.
The fund originally was designed to fund oil production and to build infrastructure. They did not explain details of how the money might be used against U.S. influences.