By Dr. Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
Many Muslim terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah, Hamas and Al-Qaeda, have a strong presence in South America. They are particularly active in the Tri-Border Area (TBA), the region where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet.
Often used for the smuggling of traditional goods, the TBA has expanded to support the international drug trade and global terrorism. Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah representatives met there in 2002 to plan attacks focused on targets in the United States and Israel. United States government officials estimate that the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este alone boasts 55 banks and that approximately half of Paraguay’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is laundered through that city.
Muslim Extremist Activity in the TBA
Muslim extremism in the TBA includes a number of groups, but the three primary ones are Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas. The most active group is Hezbollah, with its contacts and support from the Iranian regime. The support of the Iranian government and Hezbollah’s relationship to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the IRGC-Quds Force make Hezbollah an exceptionally powerful and dangerous adversary.
Hezbollah appeared in South America at the height of the Lebanese Civil War (1980s). Their first notable action was the March 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, resulting in 29 fatalities and over 200 injured. The group struck again in July 1994, bombing the Argentine-Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA).
Since 1994, Hezbollah has worked to further the three primary goals of the Iranian regime. These goals are to reduce the international political isolation of Iran (the recent American-Iranian nuclear “deal” has materially assisted in the achievement of this goal); to obtain access to technological advancements and resources; and to weaken U.S. influence in the Americas.
The Iranian regime and Hezbollah remain consistent in their efforts to achieve their goals. As with any organization, funding is paramount. How does Hezbollah fund its operations in the TBA and other parts of the Americas?
The TBA’s social anarchy, coupled with long-standing official corruption, is tailor-made to allow groups like Hezbollah to further their ambitions. Fundraising activities include weapons and drug sales, document and money laundering, and counterfeiting. More recently, the link between drug cartels and Iranian assets or sympathizers in Latin America have extended to Mexican drug cartels, indicating an expansion outside of the TBA.
The efforts of Hamas in South America are less focused on destabilizing American influence in the region and more oriented toward gaining the support of various governments for their cause against Israel. For example, Hamas had a warm relationship with former Venezuelan strong man President Hugo Chavez.
Hamas is an organization supported by Iran. The relationship is close enough between Hamas and Hezbollah that some analysts simply group the two loosely together despite their marked sectarian difference. Other analysts discuss Hezbollah activities at length and Hamas only peripherally.
The extent of Hamas activities and expansion into areas outside of the TBA suggest that infiltration of America’s southern border could be accomplished with relative ease via drug smuggling routes facilitated by Latin cartels. An example was the planned assassination of the Saudi Arabian Ambassador in America in 2011. This plot involved joint planning between the Iranian IRGC and the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas to be carried out at a restaurant in Washington, DC. Given the close relationship between Hezbollah and Hamas, Hamas is also a likely candidate to be involved in this type of clandestine activity.
Comparatively little has been published in recent years about Al-Qaeda in Latin America due to the rise of other Muslim groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). While Al-Qaeda is a Sunni group and Hezbollah is Shiite, the largest concentration of Shiite Muslims in South America reside in the cities of Foz do Idguaco, Brazil and Ciudad del Estes, Paraguay. The concentration of Shiite Muslims in this area tends to focus the attention of Hezbollah on this population as a prime source of strength and support in the region. However, most Muslims in the Americas are actually Sunni.
Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, along with Hamas, could temporarily unite for their mutual benefit and to form a common front in the Americas against the U.S., the common enemy. In a speech at the National Defense University, former Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) Commander General John F. Kelly noted that cocaine trafficked through Bolivia and Peru follows a West African route via the Maghreb. Cocaine transports ultimately terminate in Western Europe with Al-Qaeda facilitating the transports as a funding source.
General Kelly then referenced a report from a French organization that is the equivalent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). He was presumably alluding to the Office Central pour la Répression du Trafic Illicite des Stupéfiants (Central Office for the Suppression of Illicit Traffic in Narcotics, or OCRTIS), who corroborated his comments, suggesting that the illicit drug trade route through the Maghreb was clearly linked to a significant Al-Qaeda funding operation.
This link suggests that Muslim extremist terrorism is widespread across the Americas. It’s possible that these terrorist groups are, to varying degrees, taking advantage of the lack of government control in the TBA.
Impact of the U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal on Hezbollah in TBA
No one knows with certainty how the U.S.-Iranian nuclear agreement will affect Hezbollah’s operations in the TBA over the long term. At present, the Iranian regime provides Hezbollah with annual funding estimated at $100-200 million.
Wide-ranging relief from sanctions will provide the Iranian regime with additional funding and resources, some of which will fund Hezbollah-IRGC plans and initiatives. Some of the additional funding may be used to support Hezbollah operations in the TBA.
However, the potential windfall of the nuclear deal may be offset by recent sanctions imposed on the group and its classification as a terrorist organization by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and negative actions by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Further Disruption Expected in TBA, Other South American Regions
Iranian foreign policy strategy has remained remarkably consistent since the Revolution. Despite considerable congressional push-back, the Obama Administration removed sanctions that were the most effective tool available for restraining Iran.
Some of Iran’s new economic prosperity will fund the third leg of Iranian foreign policy, which is to destabilize U.S. influence in the Americas. The U.S. may see increased activity in the TBA and the expansion of action outside of that region, facilitated by Mexican drug cartels.
Iranian assistance to Hamas may also increase due to the new economic freedom of the Iranian regime. While Al-Qaeda is not necessarily aligned with Hezbollah and Hamas, a “marriage of convenience” in the TBA and other parts of the Americas is possible. That union would further the goal of destabilizing the traditional U.S. role in South and Central America.
About the Author
Dr. Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D. CPS, CAS, CHS-III, is a U.S. Army veteran, having served as both an enlisted man and as a military police commissioned officer, retiring in 1997. He is the Mentor: Security Management Degree Programs at APUS/AMU, where he has developed and teaches security and law enforcement courses including global terrorism, airport security design, and ethics. Jeffrey is the author of the book Axis Cavalry in WWII currently in print and a frequent presenter on homeland security at the national level, as well as the author of several peer-reviewed journal and popular press articles on a variety of topics. Jeffrey has also served as a subject matter expert for the History Channel™. He is a Certified Army Historian awarded by the U.S. Army Center for Military History (CMH) in addition to his expertise in security matters. He resides in Missouri with his wife of 31 years.