WASHINGTON, D.C. —The U.S. Department of State (DOS) has determined that Venezuela, which has refused to cooperate with the United States’ antiterrorism efforts in Latin America for nearly a decade, remains a “permissive environment” that promotes ideological and financial support for terrorist organizations, namely Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.
Although the “primary threats” to the Western Hemisphere stem from left-wing guerrillas known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Islamic extremist groups Shiite Hezbollah, also spelled Hizballah, and Sunni Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) also maintain a presence across the region, according to DOS’ Country Reports on Terrorism 2015, a congressionally mandated assessment of terrorism activities across the world authored by DOS.
The assessment declares:
South America and the Caribbean also served as areas of financial and ideological support for ISIL and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia. In addition, Hizballah continued to maintain a presence in the region, with members, facilitators, and supporters engaging in activity in support of the organization. This included efforts to build Hizballah’s infrastructure in South America and fundraising, both through licit and illicit means.
There were credible reports that Venezuela maintained a permissive environment that allowed for support of activities that benefited known terrorist groups… [including] Hizballah supporters and sympathizers.
Moreover, the DOS evaluation highlights the Tri-Border Area (TBA) between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, in addition to Peru, as regions where Hezbollah was operating last year.
“Illicit activities within the TBA remained potential funding sources for terrorist organizations, most notably Hizballah,” it says, adding, “The Tri-Border Areas of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay remained an important regional nexus of arms, narcotics, pirated goods, human smuggling, counterfeiting, and money laundering — all potential funding sources for terrorist organizations.”
The TBA border region has long been a hotbed for Hezbollah members.
In its terrorism reports, the DOS also points out that Peruvian authorities in 2014 arrested a Lebanese national and his wife, a U.S-Peruvian citizen, for suspected links to Hezbollah, adding that “there were residue and traces of explosives” in their apartment.
Hezbollah, along with other terrorists and criminals in Latin America, are known to use networks that support illicit activities, such as trafficking drugs, wildlife, bulk cash, weapons, humans, in addition to illegal logging and mining.
Gen. John Kelly – former commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which oversees military activities in Latin America and the Caribbean – warned last year that jihadist groups like ISIS could exploit the illicit networks in the region to infiltrate the United States, adding that Hezbollah is already using known routes to traffic drugs and other contraband.
Although Hezbollah is believed to be the most prominent jihadist group in Latin America and the Caribbean due to Iran’s enduring presence in the region, Gen. Kelly warned in March 2015 that a small number of Sunni extremists are actively “radicalizing converts and other Muslims in the region and also provide financial and logistical support to designated terrorist organizations within and outside Latin America.”
Pentagon and DOS have recently revealed that between 100 and 150 people from Latin America and the Caribbean have traveled to the Middle East to engage in jihad on behalf of ISIS, without specifying the names of any of the countries in the region.
According to the Department of State, some people from Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Argentina, are believed to have joined ISIS in the Middle East.
“More than 70 nationals of Trinidad and Tobago are believed be fighting with ISIL in Syria,” reports DOS, adding, “It is possible small numbers of Argentine citizens may have sought to travel to Syria and Iraq to join ISIL,” without providing any specific figures.
DOS also mentioned an ISIS-related arrest in Brazil involving a money laundering group accused of moving $10 million-plus and having social media ties to the jihadist group.
Iran’s growing presence in Latin America is believed to be facilitated by Venezuela.
“The International Development Bank, a subsidiary of the Development and Export Bank of Iran, continued to operate in Venezuela [in 2015] despite its designation in 2008 by the U.S. Treasury Department under E.O. [Executive Order] 13382 (‘Blocking Property of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators and their Supporters’),” mentions the DOS assessment.
Justin Siberell, acting coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, briefed reporters Thursday about the 2015 Country Reports on Terrorism, stressing that the enduring presence in the region of leading state sponsor of terror Iran continues to trouble the United States.
“I think Iran’s presence in the Western Hemisphere and its support for groups that might be engaged in facilitation or operational planning is a continued concern,” Siberell told reporters.
Nevertheless, he added, “I don’t think we’ve seen an increase in 2015 in Iran’s activity in the Western Hemisphere, but it remains a high priority for us.”