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​photo byyeowatzup from flickr

Examining Hezbollah’s Activities in the Americas

It’s known that Hezbollah has established itself in the tri-border area (TBA) of South America where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. It uses the area to conduct fundraising activities to funnel money back to the Middle East. But over the last six years, experts say, Hezbollah has made substantial progress in widening its operations throughout Latin America. Experts agree that Hezbollah is digging-in in the Americas, but what they don’t agree on is whether the organization still poses as much of a threat to the United States as it did in the 1980s.

Support from South American countries like Bolivia and Venezuela has allowed Hezbollah to operate freely in South America. The group’s ties to the Iranian government, paired with Iran’s interest in relationships with South American countries, could be a recipe for disaster, some experts say.

Thursday at a House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence hearing, experts discussed thescope of Hezbollah’s operations in Latin Americaand concerns that the group is positioning itself strategically in and around the United States with the help of Iran.

Iran’s pursuit of diplomacy in South America stems from its desire to put an end to its former international isolation for the sake of furthering its nuclear program and getting access to raw uranium in Venezuela, Ilan Berman, and vice president of the American Foreign Policy said. Furthermore, Iran hopes to build a coalition in the Americas to lessen the United Sates’ power, he said. And what better way to loosen a tight grip than to throw in some gremlins.

More than 80 Hezbollah operatives actively operate in 12 countries in the region, Ambassador Roger F. Noriega testified. Noriega said past intelligence suggests that Hezbollah uses Latin America to both recruit and train operatives. In the United States, Hezbollah has active cells in 15 cities from Los Angeles to New York and “has operational capability to strike a target if it chooses to do so,”Berman testified. Berman said law enforcement is making the mistake of addressing Hezbollah as part of the war on drugs rather than acknowledging that the materials and money gained in Latin America fund a State Department-designated group of terrorists. Hezbollah is also active in at least four major cities in Canada, he said.

And although Hezbollah is strapped for cash, Douglas Farah, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center said “they seem to be spending a lot of resources to stay and operate in this area.”

There is little to indicate the group has plans to attack the United States, Melani Cammett of Brown University testified. Cammett, the only witness to have ever directly spoken with members of Hezbollah, said that, based on her interviews with Hezbollah officials for a book she’s writing on its social programs, she doesn’t believe Hezbollah is interested in targeting the United States militarily. Cammet noted that Hezbollah’s acts of violence are almost exclusively toward Israel, and it hasn’t called for, or planned, any attacks in the United States since the 1980s.

But if Hezbollah isn't targeting the Unites States, then what are they doing here, Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY) wanted to know. “To suggest that Hezbollah does not pose a direct threat to the Unites States is inconsistent in a very compelling way with the facts that are presented here. You don’t infiltrate an area if you don’t have an intent, and the intent is not benevolent…. It’s pretty clear to me what their intent is whether it’s immediate or long term,” he said.

Cammett says the group’s focus in the Americas is on fundraising and sending money back to strengthen their power in the Middle East – Lebanon in particular. Many South American supporters of Hezbollah aren’t any more active than providing occasional donations. Other experts on the panel agreed that at the moment Hezbollah didn’t present an immediate threat, but they said that it could in the future.

Witnesses suggested Hezbollah was positioning in the Americas as a defense in case United States attacked Iran. But when asked by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) how many terrorists have been apprehended that had come through the U.S. States/Mexico border, the panel had no answers. Farah said close diplomatic ties with South American countries would allow greater freedom for Hezbollah members to travel using diplomatic passports so they wouldn’t need to sneak across the border. Ceullar also noted that the Department of Homeland Security has no evidence of the existence of Hezbollah training camps south of the border.

The subcommittee concluded by calling for increased action to prevent Latin American from becoming a safe haven for Hezbollah and other terrorists. “Today’s hearing was a significant step toward enhancing awareness about Hezbollah’s activities in Latin America and understanding this very important threat to America here at home,” chairman Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) said.