by Michael LaSusa
Most experts who study security issues in Latin America believe that crime—and in particular, organized crime—represents the greatest threat to national and citizen security in the region. And according to widely cited public opinion surveys, many Latin Americans agree.
But some in Washington, DC, far removed from the harsh realities of violent gangs uprooting entire neighborhoods and police death squads assassinating young men, are fond of stirring up fears of Islamist terrorist activities in Latin America with overblown claims about the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah.
Such was the case with a recent piece published by The Cipher Brief, a website that describes itself as “a security-based conversation platform that connects the private sector with the world’s leading security experts.”
The Cipher Brief post purported to be the result of an interview with Matt Levitt, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, though substantial portions of the text appear to have been lifted word-for-word from Levitt’s December 2015 publication titled, “Iranian and Hezbollah Operations in Latin America: Then and Now.”
In the interview with The Cipher Brief, Levitt repeated (verbatim) a claim made in his 2015 report: “Iran and Hezbollah remain hyperactive in Latin America—a fact that has the full attention of U.S. intelligence officials and their counterparts south of the border.”
This assertion is inaccurate. Iran and Hezbollah can by no stretch of the imagination be described as “hyperactive” in Latin America. In fact, it is hard to see the justification for describing Hezbollah as “hyperactive” anywhere in the world, much less in Latin America.
According to Stanford University’s Mapping Militant Organizations project, the group has not carried out a major attack outside the Middle East since July 2012, when Hezbollah operatives reportedly detonated a bomb on a bus in Bulgaria, killing five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver.
The most recent attack attributed to Hezbollah in Latin America — the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Argentina, which claimed 85 victims — occurred more than two decades ago.
Yet, despite Levitt’s implication that Hezbollah’s responsibility for the AMIA bombing is a matter of fact, the case actually rests largely on circumstantial evidence.
Top American officials, including the U.S. ambassador to Argentina at the time of the attack, have publicly expressed doubts about the notion that Iran and Hezbollah carried out that attack. U.S. intelligence officials even described various sources alleging Iranian and Hezbollah involvement as “lying about lots of stuff” and “full of shit.”
Levitt also asserts in the interview with The Cipher Brief that “Hezbollah’s expansion into the South American narcotics industry began in the early 1980s and grew significantly in the following decades.” But this claim also deserves closer scrutiny.
Evidence of Hezbollah’s involvement in Latin America’s drug trade comes largely from sting operations set up by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). As my colleague Mimi Yagoub at InSight Crime wrote earlier this year:
“These operations against narco-terrorism are arguably a convenient way for the DEA to tap into more government funding — a large amount of which has been redirected from drug enforcement to terrorism following the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
In many situations, undercover DEA agents set up scenarios that could arguably be considered entrapment in order to catch culprits red-handed. These set-ups often constitute the only tangible evidence of ‘narco-terrorism’ when it comes to prosecuting the case.”
Levitt’s comments to The Cipher Brief come as little surprise, as he has previously made weakly substantiated claims about the threat posed by Hezbollah in Latin America in service of a hawkish, anti-Iran political agenda.
In 2013, the State Department’s annual “Country Reports on Terrorism” declared that there were “no known operational cells of either al-Qa’ida or Hizballah in the hemisphere, although ideological sympathizers in South America and the Caribbean continued to provide financial and ideological support to those and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia.”
Within weeks after the report’s release, hawkish members of Congress who wanted to challenge that finding called a hearing entitled “Examining the State Department’s Report on Iranian Presence in the Western Hemisphere Nineteen Years After the AMIA Attack.”
Levitt testified at that hearing, telling members of Congress that Iran “maintains a network of intelligence agents [in Latin America] specifically tasked with sponsoring and executing terrorist attacks in the Western Hemisphere.”
Levitt appears to have been mistaken. In the three years since his testimony, Hezbollah has not carried out any major attacks in the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, his statements appear to stand at odds with the recent conclusions of both the State Department and the U.S. military.
The State Department’s latest version of “Country Reports on Terrorism” states that Hezbollah activities in Latin America are limited to “efforts to build Hizballah’s infrastructure in South America and fundraising, both through licit and illicit means.” And the top U.S. military officer in Latin America, commander of U.S. Southern Command, Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, told the Senate in March that Hezbollah activities in the region “have largely been involved in logistics support, providing funds back to Lebanon to Hezbollah itself.”
Many years of fear-mongering by Levitt and others about Hezbollah’s presence in Latin America has distracted from the real problems facing the region, like rampant elite corruption and a crisis of displacement fueled by violent criminal groups.
To be sure, Latin American authorities must remain vigilant about terrorist threats. But they also must keep those threats in perspective and allocate their limited resources accordingly. Overblown claims like Levitt’s encourage countries to engage in the kind of security theater that leaves fundamental problems unaddressed and ultimately puts citizens at greater risk.
Photo: Matthew Levitt appearing on CNN
Michael LaSusa is an independent journalist and researcher in Washington, D.C. He focuses on foreign policy, national security, and human rights issues in the Americas. Twitter: @mikelasusa.