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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Hezbollah’s Terror Threat in Latin America

Hezbollah Flag. Image: Creative Commons.
Hezbollah Flag.

In the land of symmetrical war, the asymmetrical warrior is king. The U.S. and Israeli governments are rightly concerned that Hezbollah – Iran’s oldest and best-armed proxy – could open a second front in the Israel-Hamas conflict. But who says Hezbollah would limit itself to striking U.S. or Israeli targets in the Middle East? 

For decades, Hezbollah has patiently built a global web of networks, engaged in illicit financial activities, and supported terrorist plots. Hezbollah and Iran have repeatedly struck at Israeli, Jewish, and other Western targets overseas. Latin America is a region of particular concern in this respect, for several reasons. 

To begin, Hezbollah is not considered a terrorist organization in most countries south of the Rio Grande – in fact, only Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay consider Hezbollah a terror organization. Without this designation, local authorities’ ability to monitor or prosecute Hezbollah and its local operatives is limited. 

On the flip side, Hezbollah enjoys open support from local authoritarian regimes aligned with Tehran, such as that of Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela – which, for all intents and purposes, has become Iran’s forward operating base in Latin America. 

Hezbollah and Iranian fronts, always closely coordinating, commingle with pro-Palestinian radical activism, a popular cause with radical leftists in Latin America. This gives them access to political leaders and a cover for their activities. 

Finally, because of its decades-long involvement with organized crimea critical component of Hezbollah’s funding strategy – the group has extensive connections with local crime syndicates. These connections provide access to weapons, explosives, counterfeiting, and most critically, corrupt public officials in key positions at migrations, customs, and ports of entry. 

Hezbollah recently declared that it sees itself as part of the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict. It has threatened to intervene when Israel’s ground forces enter Gaza. Hezbollah could create a second front in northern Israel, and it could add pressure on Israel and the U.S. by launching terror attacks abroad. 

It has a track record of doing just that in Latin America. 

In 1992, for instance, the terror group bombed Israel’s embassy in Buenos Aires. Two years later, Hezbollah struck Buenos Aires again, blowing up a Jewish cultural center. That attack murdered 85 people and wounded more than 200, making it the deadliest terror attack in the Western Hemisphere before 9/11. The next day, evidence shows that a Hezbollah terrorist blew up a commercial airliner in Panama, killing everyone on board. Many among the 22 passengers and crew were members of the local Jewish community.

Hezbollah has also planned deadly attacks in Latin America more recently. In 2014, Peruvian authorities detained Mohammad Hamdar, a Hezbollah agent who had spent much of the year prior to his arrest scouting potential targets. In 2017, U.S. authorities arrested Samer el Debek, another Hezbollah agent, who, court documents reveal, had scouted potential targets that included the Israeli and U.S. embassies in Panama, as well as the Panama Canal. In 2021, Hezbollah operatives attempted to assassinate U.S. and Israeli nationals in Colombia.

While these plots were disrupted, Hezbollah’s infrastructure in Latin America was largely left intact. 

In Peru, authorities arrested Hamdar, but not his accomplices. Because Peru does not consider Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization, Hamdar was only prosecuted and convicted on immigration fraud. A proper counterterrorism investigation was never conducted, despite a U.S. Department of Treasury 2016 designation identifying Hamdar as a Hezbollah agent. 

U.S. authorities did a more thorough job with El Debek in 2017 – his case is still pending, likely a sign El Debek is cooperating. Nevertheless there is no indication so far that the local networks he surely relied on have been disrupted or dismantled. 

Likewise, Hezbollah’s network in Columbia remains alive and well. Only weeks before Hamas launched its Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Amer Akil Rada, a member of the Hezbollah cell that carried out the 1994 Buenos Aires bombing. Sanctions extended to Amer’s brother, Samer Akil Rada, and son, Mehdi Akil Helbawy. The Akils are all Colombian-Lebanese dual nationals, and Samer and Mehdi resided in Colombia until shortly before Treasury’s sanctions. They moved to Venezuela, according to local authorities, soon after media reports exposed their connections to Hezbollah, and well before U.S. sanctions were published. 

Elsewhere in Latin America, Hezbollah’s networks remain undisturbed. One key center is the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, where Hezbollah financiers and supporters have historically been involved in money laundering. The area, with its porous borders, is a perfect hiding place for criminals and terrorists, giving them access to resources, a sympathetic population from the 30,000-strong local Lebanese expatriate community, and access to three countries with U.S. and Israeli diplomatic presence and large Jewish communities (including Argentina and Brazil). In Brazil, the sympathetic government of Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva has allowed Hezbollah and Iranian fronts to quietly expand with little risk of scrutiny from authorities. In Chile, with a strong and radicalized Palestinian diaspora, Iranian agents and Hezbollah networks have infiltrated government, media, and academia, in addition to running illicit financial networks.

Finally, Iran and Hezbollah are poisoning the well through shrill propaganda and incitement. Iran has a Spanish-language satellite network, HispanTV, that broadcasts disinformation to Latin American audiences, while Hezbollah spreads its message through the Al Mayadeen Espanol platform. Iran’s agents of influence have paired up with pro-Palestinian organizations and leftist groups to agitate against Israel. And Iran’s cultural centers and academic presence through cooperation frameworks are actively recruiting acolytes on and off campuses to radicalize them and turn them into terror supporters. 

The explosive cocktail of illicit financial networks capable of mobilizing resources, and their intimate cooperation with crime syndicates, all point to a growing risk. There is radical mobilization in favor of the Palestinian cause across the region, much of which is fomented by Iran-backed disinformation. Hezbollah may or may not join the war against Israel. It has retained the option to strike at Israel and America through terrorism for decades. If there ever were a propitious moment to sow death and chaos in support of Iran’s ambitions, it is now.

Washington should heighten its security measures in Latin America. But beefing up security, a defensive posture, is not enough. The U.S. government needs to be proactive and take to the offensive against Iran and Hezbollah’s pervasive soft-power and hard-power operations in the region. It should do so asymmetrically. 

Washington should admonish its allies and friends in the Western Hemisphere, warning them about the imminent risks these networks pose. The Biden administration should encourage more governments to sanction Hezbollah as a terror group. Washington should lead law enforcement investigations to go after Hezbollah’s illicit finance networks. The U.S. government should disrupt Iran and Hezbollah’s disinformation campaigns. And Washington should sanction and punish Hezbollah’s local facilitators. 

For far too long, Hezbollah and Iran have been allowed to build their Latin American regional networks with impunity. It is time the Biden administration reversed this trend. 

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Written By

Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at FDD and an expert at FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) focused on Hezbollah’s Latin America illicit threat networks and Iran’s history of sanctions evasion. His research has examined Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including its links to the country’s energy sector and procurement networks. His areas of expertise also include the EU’s Middle East policymaking, transatlantic relations, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Israel’s domestic politics. Prior to joining FDD, Emanuele headed the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels and taught Israel Studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.