With the elimination on Jan. 3 of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general who oversaw the Islamic Republic’s web of regional proxy armies, attention is bound to turn sooner or later to Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed group whose cloak-and-dagger operations have been detected in places as far apart as South America and Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Entrenched deeply over the years in South America, Hezbollah is arguably the only Shiite militia belonging to the Soleimani network that has the twin advantages of ability and proximity to consider retaliating against the Trump administration for the targeted killing of the Quds Force commander with a direct attack on the US.
As recently as September, authorities in New York apprehended Alexei Saab, aka Ali Hassan Saab, an alleged Hezbollah operative who “conducted surveillance of possible target locations in order to help the foreign terrorist organization prepare for potential future attacks against the United States.”
Unlike China and Russia, the US is an avowed enemy of Hezbollah, having long designated the entire group, including its political wing, as a foreign terrorist organization.
In recent months, the State Department and Washington’s intelligence community have concluded that there is enough evidence to support claims linking Hezbollah to criminal activities, including drug trafficking, in South America and Europe.
Much has been written about Hezbollah’s presence in the “tri-border area” (TBA) along the Paraguay-Argentina-Brazil border in South America. Since the Al-Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have warned of potential terrorist cells forming in this under-policed corner of the continent.
Hezbollah has been able to find a footing in the TBA by piggybacking on the Lebanese diaspora presence. The ancestors of South Americans of Lebanese descent began arriving in the area before 1930 and were mostly Christian.
The fact that today, more than 5 million Lebanese migrants and their descendants live in just two countries (Brazil and Argentina) has proved a distinct advantage for Hezbollah, which tries to cultivate intelligence assets from across the religious spectrum.
Hezbollah has developed local contacts to facilitate as well as conceal its drug-trafficking, money-laundering and terrorist-financing operations. Since 2009, a number of Lebanese nationals have been sanctioned by the US Treasury for their connection to organized crime, involving drug trafficking and money laundering in particular.
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