Iranian Strategic Influence in the Hemisphere: Threats to the Homeland
(Joseph M. Humire, March 12, 2013)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Joseph M. Humire is the Executive Director of the Center for a Secure Free Society. As a global security expert specializing in asymmetric warfare, Mr. Humire has produced leading research and investigations on Islamic extremism and Iran’s influence in the Western Hemisphere, as well as other topics. His work is frequently sought after by various entities within the U.S. Department of Defense and intelligence community, as well as prominent think tanks and universities throughout the Americas. Moreover, Humire is an eight-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps having served combat tours in Iraq and Liberia, as well as taking part in the multinational training exercise in Latin America and the Caribbean: UNITAS 45-04.
Iran is the most ardent state sponsor of terror in the world. The Western Hemisphere has been victim of Iranian terror in the past, and these attacks paved the way for the growing presence of radical Islamists and Iranian revolutionary guards in Latin America. In the past five years, there have been at least two clear-cut cases in which the Islamic Republic has used Latin America to stage attempted terrorist attacks within the United States. Joseph Humire will look at the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah in Latin America, including not only military to military cooperation, but also their extensive information operations as well as criminal activities and how these might impact U.S. homeland security.
This is pretty much mostly an informational brief. I am not going to make a lot of positions on whether policy wise here. We had a great policy discussion this morning on Iraq and so my brain is fried as far as the how’s and the why’s and the for’s, but this is purely informational because I think the first step to understand the nature of a threat, which this could be identified very much as a threat, is to understand what is the context and what is the actual lay of the land.
You know, most people when they think about Iran and Latin America, most regional analysts will tend to look at the precedent being in Argentina. Argentina in 1992 had one of its first major Islamic terrorist attacks on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.
Two years later, there was another bombing. This is actually a very heated conversation right now in Argentina because they are kind of talking about doing another investigation on something that was investigated many times before, on the bombing of an Israeli cultural center, AMIA, which together killed about 114 people, injured hundreds more.
Argentina is in many ways Latin America’s 9/11 before we had our 9/11. It was the largest Islamic terrorist attack in the Western Hemisphere before 9/11, so when people point to that – these are some pictures of some of the carnage. These are the individuals. There was an investigation that occurred obviously after the attack, but [that] was kind of fumbled. There is really no conclusion after that. There was a lot of corruption. Nobody really understood what happened. Fingers pointed in a lot of directions.
In the mid-2000s, they initiated another investigation to look back and see and this was led by a gentleman named Alberto Nisman. And Alberto Nisman gathered a team and they looked and they kind of reinvestigated all the files and opened the files and all fingers and all roads led to Iran through the proxy of Hezbollah and so those eight individuals are eight Iranians who have been implicated in this attack and have indictments through the Argentinian government and have Red Notices through Interpol, so they are actually not allowed to be in Argentina or else they will be subject to arrest and questioning from the Argentinian government.
Some of these individuals you probably recognize. They are very high level. This is gentleman on the right is Ahmad Vahidi, the current Minister of Defense of Iran. At the time, he was actually Commander of the Quds Force at the time of the attack.
But one individual that I like to focus on, he is very key to the current play of Iran’s foray into Latin America, is this gentleman right here, Mohsen Rabbani. Those of you in the law enforcement world or in the intelligence world know this gentleman very well. He has been kind of one of Iran’s top spies, all around the world really, but in Latin America more than anything, and he was by the investigators in Argentina that did this investigation and concluded he was considered the mastermind of the attack, so he was not just another actor or a sort of a conduit or an interlude. He was the guy who kind of concealed how he could make this happen in establishing the plausible deniability, so that Iran can get away with this attack and have no fingerprints.
And so he came to Argentina in 1983 under the guise of a businessman and then later about I think it less than a year, I think it was a few months before the attack they gave him diplomatic status and he became a cultural attaché and then he left immediately after the attack and he is currently in Iran in Qom, teaching classes, so he would be a focal point of this presentation.
Okay, that is twenty years ago or more of the attack in Argentina, so there is some precedent there, but there is some more recent history, especially in the last few years about some of Iran’s activities in Latin America. One of the most recent is October 2011 when you probably read this on the headlines.
There was a plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir. That was reportedly through an Iranian American individual, this gentleman, Manssor Arbabsiar, and he was reportedly working with an alleged member of a Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas. The problem was the person he actually was working with was an informant for the DEA. He was not an actual Los Zetas member, and that individual then turned him in and then they interrogated him. They actually arrested him in JFK airport, and he gave up basically his Iranian handler. His Iranian handler is a gentleman who is still at large, Gholam Shakuri, who is alleged Quds Force.
What this actually did more than anything was kind of open a Pandora’s box. Many analysts, law enforcement, intel, as far as just think tank analysts started to just say, what is going on in Latin America? You know, a lot of guys that, you know, I consider myself to be something of a more regional Latin American analyst and I started opening the door to people that are looking at terrorism issues, looking at Iran, and to say what is going on over there that we have not heard about. So this kind of opened the doors of Latin America and Iran and kind of merged those two. What is the connection, why are they there, and what is actually going on?
Actually, before that, before October 2011 in May of 2011 there was actually another incident that I think was even more concerning, which was when they arrested a group from Trinidad in JFK airport, and the plot was actually to blow up JFK airport by planting bombs within the fuel lines underneath the airport. Now, they never even came close, and actually, from the junket they actually said that it was kind of one of those where they were setting them up to do it and looking to try to get some other [person], kind of baiting them to come in and just open their network up to dismantle the network.
One of the gentlemen in here – this is actually taken from the District Attorney’s file in New York. Abdul Kadir is a Guyanese MP or was at least a Guyanese MP, so he was a parliamentarian in the Guyanese government, and he is probably the primary individual that is implicated in this attack. The other two individuals are from Trinidad. Karim Ibrahim is known as an imam in one of their bigger mosques in Trinidad. He is one of the prominent figures in Islam in the Caribbean.
If you look at page three of the junket, it talks about Kadir’s relationship with Mohsen Rabbani, and in fact, when they arrested Kadir, he was on his way from Trinidad to Venezuela, supposedly to meet with Mohsen Rabbani and to talk about how they were going to carry out this attack, and that is where Mohsen Rabbani became much more plugged in. I mean everything up until that point was, okay, he was an actor twenty years ago, but this is May 2011. And reportedly he was supposed to meet him in Venezuela, which means that Mohsen Rabbani was going to find his way to Venezuela and have a sit down and chat.
So with that kind of background as an overview, [I want to say that] a lot of commentators on this issue have made a lot of statements and looked at it from a very superficial level in the sense that they look at all of the bilateral talks that Iran makes and all of the agreements that they sign with these Latin American countries and the truth of it is that most of it never happens. They sign energy deals, they sign mining agreements, they sign banking agreements, and half of it never comes to fruition.
And so I guess that conventional wisdom in that sense is, well, this must be political posturing. Iran needs to look like they are not isolated, they have allies (Leftists, Communists, populists) in Latin America so they can pump their chest and say we have friends, the U.S. cannot completely isolate us or Israel [cannot isolate us]. But I think that is the wrong calculus. The calculus should be if Iran is not doing what they say they are doing, that does not mean they are not doing anything.
To me, that shows they are probably doing something that is below the surface. That means all of these agreements (these are estimated numbers, but 500 or so agreements) and upwards of $40 billion, that is a cover for a more nefarious activity, what I will probably lump into asymmetric activities in Latin America.
A little bit on the interests: through the years Iran has kind of incrementally increased its exposure as well as its involvement in different Latin American countries on the formal level. This is part of those agreements. The other part of that is opening embassies and creating a formal presence in places that they did not have it before.
There are three points I want to make with this slide. The first is the most obvious, which is the flag that stands out. It is Venezuela all day, every day, Bolivia, Ecuador, and this is what is known as the Group of the Bolivarian Alliance, the Alba Group. It is essentially Hugo Chávez’s regional power bloc. Actually, I should say Hugo Chávez and Raul Castro’s regional power bloc to shift the balance of power in Latin America. [They have been] fairly successful, I might add. And essentially what they have is that is the gateway. They have kind of opened the door, they rolled out the welcome mat, and allowed Iran to come into the region.
But I want to make another point in the sense that the relationship does not start with Venezuela, and that is a lot of times lost on some of the analysts or some of my Latin American analyst colleagues, who tend to focus on Venezuela and see this relationship starts with Venezuela and, especially now in light of Hugo Chávez and his passing, that people will say, okay, Hugo Chávez is dead, that must mean that the Latin American-Iran connection will dissipate.
The relationship started with Castro way before Chávez came to power. I mean the first Iranian Embassy in Latin America was in Havana in 1984, that is when the relationship started to form. Castro traveled to Iran on several occasions to consult, and to advise, and to show solidarity. I mean there are purported reports of him actually being closely involved in the development of the Revolutionary Guards as kind of like an advisor, so Castro has been involved in this movement for a very long time, and you know even the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who we all remember because of the Iran-Contra [scandal], were involved with the Islamic Revolution before Chávez even got involved.
The other point I want to make is there is also non-ALBA countries. Notice I could not put all the flags on this slide, but there are also non-ALBA countries that are engaged with Iran, most notably I would say Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. For people who are not as familiar with Latin America, Brazil is probably the bigger country that you have heard of, one of them relative to Mexico, but it is a geopolitical player, right, the BRIC. It is a geopolitical player in the world. It is definitely one of the prominent players in Latin America, and Brazil in essence is in a way the geopolitical prize for Iran. If Iran was able to court Brazil into kind of moving in a direction that they would like, that would be significant inroads in their region.
There has been a kind of shift in Brazilian politics in their policy stance towards Iran. The Lula government was much more sympathetic, you know they had a much closer relationship. The Dilma Rousseff government has been much more distant. They have actually kept a bit of space between them and [the] Islamic Republic. But I should say in my few trips to Brazil in the last few years, talking to Brazilian officials that have worked on this issue or talking to the ABIN, their intelligence operatives – I will give you what they told me. The way they describe it, they say there is a change in the retail, but not the wholesale, so in essence what they are saying to me is there is a rhetorical shift in what Dilma says about Iran, but the activities that are going on, [the activities of] Iran and their proxies in Brazil, have not changed, and as a matter of fact [they are] probably [magnifying].
Argentina is a different case. Argentina has that history with AMIA. Argentina has a huge history with Iran, and in many ways, Iran is a very delicate topic over there, but recently they just ratified an agreement to create a truth commission in both countries that will be able to re-investigate the case on AMIA, but behind those truth agreements is a lot of trade. I mean before they even talked on the diplomatic level, they have been talking trade for quite a while. Argentina needs more and more investors, and they need people to come in and buy some of their agricultural products. With an economy that is going down the slumps, the more they get credible investors is going to be much more difficult, so they start to get other investors that are maybe not as credible.
But aside from the interest level, I want to focus a little bit on the ideological because the partnership or the alliance or the relationship is not just done on pragmatic, foreign policy grounds; we give this, you give that, or we establish relationships through formal investments. There is also an ideological component to this. This book – actually, I did not bring my copy. I have a copy of this book, and it is interesting because this book was written by a Spanish ideologue named Jorge Verstrynge, La guerra periférica y el islam revolucionario. Translated it is Peripheral Warfare in Revolutionary Islam, so this is an Islamic, revolutionary, asymmetric warfare book based on the Islamic jihad, written by a Spanish politician and ideologue who actually had a weird background.
I will not go too much into him though. He was invited to Venezuela in 2004. 2004 is kind of the time when Hugo Chávez had kind of a paradigm shift in his foreign policy. That is when he created ALBA. That is when he started moving and doing a regional approach and started to work with other governments in the region. And he also changed his military strategy. He had this conference called The First Military Forum on Asymmetric War, and he brought Jorge Verstrynge as his keynote speaker to talk to him. [He said] I love your book, you make a lot of sense, we want to learn how to apply this.
And they did apply it in a sense, and this is where I wish I brought it with me, but I have a copy. This is a book, full size like that book, and this is a pocket size edition that Hugo Chávez converted from military officers to carry in their uniforms as basically their military doctrine. It is not directly translated, there is some stuff that they added, but it essentially became military doctrine in Venezuela. They converted it, decorated it with the Coat of Arms and everything, and they have used that as kind of their doctrine to understand how to do insurgency and revolutionary tactics, and they initially passed out 300 copies to the field grade military officers in the Bolivarian Republic.
I was meeting with some folks in Colombia. I mentioned this topic, and this Colombian intel guy said we know, we have seen that book. I said where did you see it? He said we have seen it with the FARC, so it has actually been circulated a lot wider than Venezuela at this point.
Now, there are three areas. When I say beneath the surface on the asymmetric level, there are three areas that I want to cover. First is the money laundering because obviously with the sanctions, Iran has to find ways to get access to financial systems, and they also need places to actually finance their projects. The second will be terrorism. I think everybody in this room knows plenty about Iran’s work with supporting and propagating terrorist networks. And the last, which I will not get into too much for lack of time and other reasons, is their military footprint that they are trying to create. I would say military-industrial footprint that they are trying to create in the region, but let us start with money laundering.
Everyone knows Iran is heavily sanctioned. They have very limited partners and access to legitimate financial systems in the international systems, so they have to create schemes to find ways to get through. This is a very simple scheme. Many of you guys probably know more about money laundering than I do, but I guess someone told me it is called a nesting scheme since you nest your money in accounts abroad that have corresponding accounts with U.S. or other legitimate partners. It is a way that, say a U.S. bank, Wells Fargo, wants to do transactions with Venezuela. They would rely on a local bank, their corresponding account in that local bank, to do all the due diligence in order to be able to do initial wire transfers. That Venezuelan bank is then operating with Iran, and obviously that is a way to launder money.
That sounds very simple, but they have to cover their tracks, so what you have here is you have the Iranian government. They set up front companies, banks or whatnot, they set up subsidiaries in Latin America that do business with Latin American governments and corporations that can inject the money into the system.
The best example of this is the Banco Internacional de Desarrollo in Venezuela. This is a bank that if you go to Venezuela, Caracas, it looks like a regular commercial bank. They have check cashing services, credit facilities, and [all that], but if you go to statutory documents, the founding documents, you find that it is wholly owned by Bank Sadârat in Iran (Export Development Bank of Iran), so it is actually an Iranian bank in Venezuela, operating as a Venezuelan bank.
Now, that in itself is very detectable so you are saying why would they do that? How are they going to move around? Well, they have used that Banco Internacional, that is that nesting egg. That is the egg that allowed to establish relationships with other Venezuelan banks such as Banco Venezco and all other commercial entities in Venezuela that have corresponding accounts with U.S. banks. And that is how they did it, and it worked for a little while.
At least here is an example of a wire transfer that went through Bank Sadârat to Banco Venezco in Venezuela. It is the same individual. The same individual who made the deposit made the withdrawal. He just had a Venezuelan visa.
But in essence what you see here is this was a nesting scheme that they tried to establish. And the idea was actually to export this system throughout Latin America. Thanks to the Department of Treasury and other efforts of law enforcement they were able to disrupt this and they actually put this Banco Internacional de Desarrollo on a sanctions list, so that [sent them] back to the drawing board. It was disrupting that network.
Since Venezuela has come under fire and they have become kind of hot in terms of [being] under the scope of law enforcement and other international regulatory bodies, they have kind of shifted to Ecuador. Ecuador is kind of, according to a DEA official, the “United Nations of organized crime.” Since Rafael Correa took the lead of it, it has kind of opened a box.
And one of the reasons is because – and this is what Alex was talking about where things that make sense in a free society and they make sense on economic grounds tend to be complicated on security because Ecuador dollarized in about 2001, I believe. And that is a great thing when you are talking about finding a way to have a more stable currency, having a way to access financial markets. A dollarization process is a good process run by great economists that actually help to implement it.
Well, the dollarization also attracted [criminals]. If the wrong man is in charge, it also attracts another network, a more illicit network, and that is why you are seeing a lot of this presence of organized crime in Ecuador. This is a memorandum of understanding that was signed between Ecuador and Iran in 2008 to establish a credit line of $40 million dollars.
And what you see in that document is the Export Development Bank of Iran, which is the arm that actually does a lot of this international work, is a subsidiary of the Iranian Central Bank. That same Banco Internacional de Desarrollo that we talked about in Venezuela, it is the same idea except they want to basically set it up in Ecuador. That was the plan, but I think since the Venezuelan chapter got sanctioned, they said it probably does not work too well.
This individual is the initial guy that inked this agreement, Carlos Vallejo López. He was the former central bank president of Ecuador. He moved on. He signed that agreement, he went on, he actually became the Ambassador to Italy. But that is relevant, too, because there has been a drug pipeline established between Ecuador and Italy. So he is kind of in that world.
And then the guy who took over from Carlos Vallejo López is a gentleman named Diego Borja. And he is a key actor in this process because what Diego Borja did is he took this initial agreement that they had with Iran, that talked about credit facilities and establishing subsidiary banks – but none of that really happened, there is no Banco Internacional de Desarrollo in Ecuador like there was in Venezuela, but what he did is he said we have a different system.
The Alba is actually, the Bolivarian bloc, has a virtual currency that they want to turn into a hard currency that will compete with the U.S. dollar in Latin America. It is called the sucre. Essentially, it is a monetary system that will be able to be an alternative to the U.S. dollar in Latin America. Right now, there is no sucre paper. It is a virtual account used to transfer ledgers and accounting units, so if Venezuela trades with Bolivia, both members of the Alba alliance, they can denominate that in sucres. Well, as long as it is a virtual currency, that gives it the perfect cover to almost launder money for other actors that cannot get access to that.
This kind of a conceptual framework. I am not saying this is exactly how it works, but what you have here is kind of how the flow would work as far as Iran. You have the Export Development Bank of Iran. Okay, we know that they are doing work in Latin America. You have their subsidiary. He is the current central bank president. Bank Pasargad, which is a very big commercial bank in Iran, is closely tied to the central bank in Iran.
The way the sucre system works is they have to use authorized operative banks in the host countries, so if Banco Cofiec, this bank right here (kind of a small bank in Ecuador, which has a lot of bigger banking operations) has an agreement with the central bank of Ecuador, they can then transfer moneys in sucres all they want. So this could come in reals or whatever. They could go into Ecuador, and they could transfer that into sucres. Between the Central Bank of Ecuador and the Central Bank of Venezuela they can account all of that in sucres, and eventually they can pump that out and use dollars. And then that money can then get exported back to Iran.
So it is a way to kind of go around the system. It is a little convoluted, but in essence it is what they have been working with in the last few years. A lot of times the question then becomes, [okay, so] it is a sophisticated little money laundering scheme that they are trying to do, [but] what is it for, like what do they actually want to fund? And so part of it is to look at some of these other more asymmetric activities.
Propagating terrorist networks: that is something that when I talk to my Iranian expert colleagues, they talk about how Iran has this global network of terrorists that pretty much work all the [time]. I mean there was an attack I think in Bulgaria not too long ago that had an Iranian footprint, and there are all these other things, so as of yet there has not been an attack other than some of the plots that I have [mentioned], but there has not been actually a real attack in Latin America, but definitely the same kind of actors have been involved and they have been moving into Latin American networks.
This is an article that came out in Veja magazine in Brazil. Veja is a very prominent [magazine. It is] like the TIME magazine of Brazil. It is a very prominent magazine. And they exposed Mohsen Rabbani and his network in Brazil. They came out with a featured piece that talked about how Rabbani [went] to Brazil as far back as 2008, and many believe he has been there since then.
His brother, Mohammed Bakr, lives in Curitiba. At least he used to live in Curitiba. They cannot find him now, but he was in Curitiba, which is right here in the southern part of Brazil right next to or near that tribal area that is infamous for having an Islamic radical presence in the region, and more so than Rabbani’s presence and his brother, it really exposed this network that he has been building over the span of close to half a decade but really about 30 years. He has been creating a network of disciples, and followers, and people that are doing his soft power kind of information operations work in the region.[These are] two individuals that I want to focus on that are very active. The individual on the left is Suhail Assad. The individual on the right is Abdul Kareem Hoss, who knew him back in Argentina. They are Argentinians themselves, but they have been working all throughout the region. This is these two individuals right now. The guy on the right is Suhail Assad, Argentinian born of Lebanese parents. He grew up pretty much in the Middle East for the most part. He went there in his early 20s right after high school. Of course, he was educated in Lebanon, got some other degrees, [and] lived in Iran extensively. He actually lives in Qom, Iran. He lived with Mohsen Rabbani. I mean he denies that, but he lives very near [to Rabbani], and he is all over Latin America.
You will see him on the conference circuit. He is not subversive. He is essentially open. He is doing dialogues. He is engaging Islamic communities. He will downplay his connections to Rabbani. He will say generally the Iranian line. He will say Rabbani is innocent until proven guilty, and so he will just sidestep it that way. But in a sense, he is a key figure doing the recruitment, proselytization, and kind of indoctrination of Latin Americans, particularly the youth into the Islamic revolution, into the ways of radical Islam.
The gentleman to his left, Abdul Karim Paz, is also an Argentinian, and they are both married. They have a connection because they are both married to Chileans. They are married to Chileans, so they are brothers-in-law. And he has a bigger presence not so much in Latin America. He is in Bolivia quite a bit, and he is also in Paraguay and Uruguay a little bit, but he has a bigger presence in Iran.
There was a documentary that came out in December 2011. It was by Univision, a prominent, Spanish speaking network here in the U.S., and it was called The Iranian Threat, La Amenaza Iraní. And what they focused on was these Mexican students that got full, all-expense paid trips to go from Mexico to Qom to learn about Islam. And one of the students there was spying. He took a camera and he filmed it. He was recording. They actually caught him, and he had to escape through like the Mexican Embassy to London.
But anyways, the documentary focuses on this student and some of the other stuff that they were doing. But what I found interesting is I read the transcript of his interview. Because they gave bits and pieces in the documentary, but if you read the full transcript of his interview, he talks about like the courses in Iran. What were you taking? Who were your instructors?
He said, you know, it is interesting. My main instructors were not actually Iranian. He said, well, who were they? He said they were Argentinian. He said who were they? He said, well, there was a guy named Abdul Paz and Suhail Assad. They were the main guys that were teaching Islam in Iran. They were the main instructors. One guy said, well, we saw Rabbani every now and then. He came in and gave a little good feel talk or he would lead a prayer or something, but he was not the main instructor, so that is essentially his presence. So he works, I think, generally out of Iran. He works generally out of Latin America, but they obviously alternate and cooperate. This is just to give you a glimpse of where I have seen him all throughout the region.
And one of the points here that is really interesting is for those who know quite a bit about the centralized powers in Latin America, particularly the Andean region where this is a little bit prominent, is the indigenous movements. Evo Morales came to power through indigenous movements. Rafael Correa came to power through indigenous movements. Ollanta Humala from Peru did come to power eventually, but he almost came to power originally through indigenous movements. Then he changed his tactics after some Brazilian consultation, and he gave it a more moderate approach.
Here you see him, Suhail Assad, with members of the CONAIE in Ecuador, which is the indigenous political stronghold. Here you see him in Peru with members of the Etnocaceristas, which is a nationalist, indigenous militant kind of movement in Peru. Here you see him with members of the Cocalero Federation in Bolivia, which is, again, an indigenous movement, so the Iranians have – I guess they are not even Iranian, they are Latin Americans that are working on behalf of Iran. They have essentially understood the Latin American geographic and demographic politics to the point that they figured if they could diffuse into the central base of power some of these revolutionary and populist leaders, it leverages their ability to penetrate on a cultural level the rest of the region.
Anyway, so this is just a small example, anecdotal really. It came from a colleague you probably know, Roger Noriega. He gave this example of a student who got recruited. She is a Venezuelan student that filled out an application to go to Qom. [She] went there, came back, and the interesting thing is if you look at her application, you probably cannot see that, but what that says is DISIP22@hotmail.com. DISIP is the former name of the Venezuelan intelligence [agency]. It is called SEBIN now, but it used to be called DISIP. So she was recruited out of Venezuelan intelligence, which then found her a way to get her the trip to Iran and back.[I have] a quick point here. Overall, this is another area where security and economics connect, free trade areas. Free trade areas are good, low tariffs or no tariffs in low regulatory [regimes], so businesses can operate in a much more business-friendly environment. They are also used by criminal networks. Just like an entrepreneur, the criminal world has their own entrepreneurs, and they use it in kind of a different way.
Everyone probably knows the historic tri-border area in South America, the nexus between Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. Well, that is also a free trade area. That is also an area that has these lax regulations. And that is where you see the presence of a lot of these terrorist networks and other criminal groups and whatnot.
This has been eclipsed. When we are talking about Hezbollah, and we are talking about Latin America, Islamic terrorist networks in Latin America, they are still present here, and I should say they are significantly still present here, but more on a money laundering front and maybe some drug trafficking, as well, particularly in Paraguay.
But I would say they have been eclipsed by Margarita Island in Venezuela. Aside from the amiable working environment that they could get in the tribal border area because it is a free trade area, Margarita Island is also a free trade area, but then you get the cover of Venezuelan state support. I mean, then it is a safe haven. You are completely shielded from anybody getting into your activities, so that has become a hotbed for Hezbollah and other [groups], and I can get into some of the actors that are in there that are doing some [illegal activities].
Sean Penn? Sean Penn went there and said he was going to build a resort to interdict drug traffickers.
Yeah, Sean Penn says a lot of things.
Sean Penn did not realize [Hugo] Chávez was the drug trafficker.
But there are other networks that work out of there that do laundering and smuggling operations. And then I want to point your attention to another tri-border area. I mentioned that network between Suhail Assad and Rabbani’s disciples, and this is the tri-border area between southern Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile, which is also a free trade area. You have Iquique and Arica in Chile in the northern part right about here, and then you have Tacna in the southern part of Peru. If you want to call Venezuela or Margarita Island the gateway for Iranian Islamic terrorist networks in Latin America, this is the backdoor. They could come in here, but a lot of them will settle here, and a lot of them will move in and out through there.
Here is an example. This is Bab al-Islam Mosque in Tacna, Peru. If you guys go to Peru, you will see it. It is very prominent. There is probably relative to the rest of Peru an Islamic constituency, a community. There is an Islamic community there, but it is not as big as any other part of Latin America. It definitely is not as big as other parts of Argentina or Chile. I saw when I was on a military deployment back in 2004, and it was a very small mosque. And in 2007, they reconstructed it. It was run by Pakistanis, so it was a Sunni mosque, and they reconstructed it. And it is as big as any Saudi embassy. It is a big [mosque] now, and this is what hosted Suhail Assad when he came into Latin America and his last few trips in 2012.
So this is a Sunni mosque, run by Pakistanis, hosting a Shia Islamic [figure], and this is one of the things that for some people who study radical Islam, or Islam in general, they say, well, this does not mesh too well. There are plenty of examples in Brazil and other [places] where the Sunni-Shia divisions are not as prominent in Latin America. And I just attribute it to one of those things that the Islamic networks are not as far along. I mean, they are so few and far between that I do not think they try to make divisions amongst Sunni and Shia, and this is really relevant in Brazil. I am talking about the formal Islamic networks, maybe even the legitimate Islamic networks, much less the informal or the illicit Islamic networks that are doing shady business. They do not care about the Sunni-Shiite division. They just want to see what will actually get them to where they want to go.
For some of you that work in law enforcement, this is probably the more relevant issue. How are they using these networks that are established to fuse drug smuggling, which is a bigger problem in Latin America, human smuggling, and all of those [illicit activities]. [I will give] just a little background for those who are not as familiar with the region. Everyone knows that Colombia was a major cocaine exporter for most of the ’80s [and] part of the ’90s. That shifted over the course of the turn of the century.
And what is called the balloon effect is essentially took effect, which is where efforts in Colombia and other interdiction efforts through the Caribbean kind of squeezed down and closed that clamp in the Caribbean. It raised it, it popped up in land-based smuggling through Mexico and Central America. Now as far as tactically, that made a big difference because here you did maritime operations, much longer flights.
Here, everything is small boats, submersible vehicles, and it became a much more sophisticated smuggling operation here. It is harder to detect, it is probably more expensive, and in some ways, it is probably a bit more logistically difficult. But that is actually what is going on. And this is just a recent map from last year from the group that works with the DEA. And the 72 percent is generally coming through the land. There is still some going through the Caribbean.
And this is a map of all of the different cartels and cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, and all of those different networks that are moving in through Mexico because that is the way they get to the consumer area, which is generally the United States.
Venezuela, for those that follow Venezuela, has become kind of a narco-[state]. A colleague of mine, Douglas Farah, calls it a criminalized state, because essentially what the government is what Nick was saying, the government is the drug dealer. The government [employees] are the ones putting the apparatus together to be able to move drugs and other means from different parts of the transcontinental [drug trade]. In this case, a lot of the drugs going into Europe [are shipped by the Venezuelan government].
This is relevant for who? This is relevant mainly for Hezbollah. And this is kind of some of the calculus that I have heard from the Iranian experts. [They] tell me that Iran is less involved in financing some of Hezbollah’s activities. Well, that kind of makes sense in the sense that you have seen them looking for revenues elsewhere, and if they are getting less from the mothership, then they are looking in other places like drugs and other operations to be able to finance their operations, so Venezuela is very much involved in the drug network. They are very much involved. They have had nine of their officials on the kingpin list for the OFAC list, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, and they have several other individuals that are identified by INTERPOL.
This established link between Hezbollah, primarily, which is a proxy of Iran, (and I use the Zetas as an example, but really Mexican drug cartels or drug networks in the region) is an evolving relationship, and there is some anecdotal evidence or circumstantial evidence to say that the relationship exists, but there has not been that smoking gun to look and say that this is a relationship that is longstanding.
There is a case of a guy named Ayman Joumaa that came out in The New York Times about a gentleman who was moving five kilograms of cocaine through Mexico. He is a Lebanese individual. He was moving it from Mexico to Colombia into Europe. And he got arrested not too long ago.
So [in] Mexico there is one network that I want to point out because it has been the focus of some of my research recently, and that is in Belize. There was a case in August of last year where a gentleman got arrested in Merida, Mexico, and he was a U.S. resident. He was in the Bay Area. They arrested him in Merida. That is him. That is not his real name, Wilhelm Dyck, but that is him. I will show you in a second.
But essentially, [they were] establishing Venezuela as this kind of haven for crime and drugs and other [bad behavior]. Belize is kind of a transit point, moving up this land-based network of cartels and smuggling networks that go all through Mexico. He is even a lecturer at Berkeley. He was prominent in the Islamic networks in San Francisco, but he was arrested in Mexico under a fake Belize passport, along with two other individuals who had fake police identities. His real name is Rafic Mohammad Labboun Allaboun. You can look him up. He was arrested not too long ago. He is in U.S. custody now, I believe. He is in Texas, and they are questioning him as to his other involvement in Latin America.
But really that just kind of opens an area where you see this throughout the last ten years there have been cases of individuals in Mexico who have been arrested and who have ties to Hezbollah and other Islamic terrorist networks. Jameel Nasr reportedly set up a Hezbollah office in Tijuana. When they got into his files and then through the course of interrogation, he admitted to saying I went to Venezuela, I got trained in Margarita Island, I met Mohsen Rabbani. He admitted to all of this and a money laundering network and even human smuggling.
So there is definitely a presence there, but I think there is a lot that is unknown as to what is actually going on with this network and kind of their smuggling routes, which is a transition into Venezuela, and I am kind of getting towards the end here. Venezuela, we talked about being kind of like a haven for crime and criminal networks in the region.
Well, this is seven individuals [who] except for one are all members of the Venezuelan government from the local level to the national level. You have an individual here like Tareck El Aissami, who used to be the Minister of Interior, so he was running all of the big law enforcement networks, the databases. He is Syrian, and I termed it the Middle Eastern mafia in Venezuela.
But these are all individuals who are working in the Venezuelan government who have Middle Eastern origin. And it is not just that they were born or have relatives in the Middle East, they lived in the Middle East for most of their adult lives, and then they came to Venezuela. And then quicker than you can get U.S. citizenship, they became officials, government officials. Ghazi Nasr Al-Din became a citizen and a diplomat within five years. It was very expedited.
One of these individuals is not a government [official. He] does not belong here. One of these individuals is not a government official. That is Walid Makled. You probably heard of him. He was arrested in 2010. He was arrested in Colombia. There was a whole tit-for-tat with the U.S. about extradition, so he did not get extradited. He went to Venezuela. The reason I put him on here is because he financed a lot of this. He is Syrian and he financed a lot of this activity that came to penetrate the Venezuelan government.
The other individual that I want to point out is General Aref Richany Jiménez, who is Lebanese. This is a different brief, but he had a very interesting position because CAVIM, which I will show you in the next slide, was the Venezuelan military industry, recently sanctioned and re-sanctioned last month by the U.S. Treasury because of its dealings with Iran. But this is a military industrial network. This is like the Defense Logistics Agency of Venezuela.
At the same time that he was running CAVIM, he was [also in a lead role at] PDVSA, which is the Venezuelan oil exporter, the state nationalized Venezuelan oil exporter petroleum company, so he had two [positions]. He was not running PDVSA. He was actually the Director of External Relations. So he had a hat in the petroleum industry, the oil and gas industry, and he had a hat in the military industry.
I will not go into this too much. Maybe we can get into this in the discussion. That opened up a conception we are seeing more in Latin America, where there is the petrol industry, which is pretty relevant in Ecuador, pretty relevant even in Bolivia, also where Iran has close relationships, which has along with the transportation and shipping industry has been shielding military transfers for the course of the last five or six years.
Now, this is, I think, one of my last slides. So, Bolivia and Venezuela, right? Alright, this is the Quds Aviation. This is the Iranian defense industry, the defense industry’s organization, the DIO of Iran, has different arms. One is the Aerospace Industries Organization. That is the hub of their nuclear program, that is the engineers who are doing their nuclear program.
But their sister organization is the Aviation Industries Organization, and they do more of the work on the ballistic missile program. And I think this is like a lot of things where I get in discussions with some of my Iranian expert friends. And they say, you know, all of the discussion in Washington is about the nuclear program, Iran’s nuclear aspirations, and it tends to look a little bit like looking at what Iran could be distracts from what Iran is.
And what Iran could be is a [country with a] nuclear program, what Iran is [today] is a [country with a] missile program in the Middle East, and they produce a different range of ballistic missiles, probably most prominently medium-range ballistic missiles, and scuds, and others, and lower level [missiles] pretty well. They have gotten that technology over the course of years.
General Mustafa Najjar, who was running the defense industry, he was running the military industry in Iran. He was a former minister of defense of Iran. He was involved in Venezuela, signing some of these initial agreements back in 2008. You will see him here. This is, you know, obviously, Hugo Chavez, and then the former vice president of Venezuela, also. He wore the Venezuelan hat and the Ministry of Defense hat at the same time.
Another individual from Iran. I forgot the name of him – and probably one of you guys would know, but he is the commander of Basij, the militia. They are kind of like the insurgency force in Iran. [This is him] in a meeting, signing some of these initial agreements. Most of the projects are located in two cities in Venezuela, Maracay and Morón. Maracay is a military industrial city. It is where CAVIM is headquartered. They produce a lot of munitions. They produce armaments and everything else that is related to the military industry of Venezuela.
Morón, which is the northern one, the northern circle, is a petrochemical town. It is a town that does all the production of propellants, for anything really, any motors or whatever. Iran has been involved in creating a ball powder plant in Morón. They have an agreement. There is actually an Iranian company that has been subcontracted to do it. It is a very nefarious Iranian company called Parchin Chemical Industries, which if you look it up, it is the same people who do propellants for the ballistic missile program. And then in Maracay, there are the infamous UAVs. Venezuela is now in the UAV market, and they have gotten that technology from Iran. It is the Iran Fajr-3.
In Bolivia, you see similar activity. This is a picture taken of Vahidi. He got in a lot of trouble for this. He went down to Bolivia to inaugurate the opening of this school. This is a military school in Warnes, Bolivia, which is a few kilometers outside of Santa Cruz, the industrial capital.