War on Terror, Iran Paranoia Expands to Latin America?

In a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorim and Intelligence yesterday, Robert F. Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and now current Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, testified stern warnings about an operational presence of Islamic terrorist groups, particularly Hezbollah, in Latin America. Noriega claimed that Hezbollah, which “acts as a proxy for Iran” as well as “the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.” are “determined and deadly enemies of the United States” and “their expanding activities [in Latin America] are the result of a conscious, offensive strategy to carry their fight to our doorstep.”

Hezbollah operatives have provided weapons and explosives training to drug trafficking organizations that operate along the U.S.border with Mexico and have sought to radicalize Muslim populations in several Mexican cities.

[…] Hezbollah has a very clear modus operandi that it is applying in the Americas. By infiltrating or establishing mosques or “Islamic centers” throughout the region, Hezbollah is spreading its influence, legitimizing its cause, and advancing its violent jihad on our doorstep.

[…] As it stands today, I believe the Hezbollah/Iranian presence in Latin America constitutes a clear threat to the security of the U.S. homeland. They have the motivation, and they have been steadily increasing their capacity to act. In addition to operational terrorist activity, Hezbollah also is immersed in criminal activity throughout the region – from trafficking in weapons, drugs, and persons — all of which threaten our security…If our government and responsible partners in Latin America fail to act, I believe there will be an attack on U.S. personnel, installations or interests in the Americas as soon as Hezbollah operatives believe that they are capable of such an operation without implicating their Iranian sponsors in the crime.

The testimony also emphasized state sponsorship for these terrorist networks from “Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and others.” How robust is this terrorist network in Latin America? Noriega testified that they can identify “80 operatives in at least 12 countries throughout the region.” No mention is given of how much money they’ve allegedly raised, no evidence is given as to how connected and coherent are these disparate groups and individuals, and no level-headed, evidence-based assessment is given of what kind of plans they have against the United States.

The paranoid nature of these estimations, and the scant evidence presented for them, are eerily reminiscent of the kind of broad-strokes, hawkish fear-mongering on display in the lead up to the war in Iraq. The testimony comes from a group bent on hyping security threats and, as Noriega admitted in the testimony, is not even in agreement with the State Department or intelligence agencies. The State Department concluded in their Country Reports on Terrorism (issued August 2010) that “the threat of a transnational terrorist attack remained low for most countries in the Western Hemisphere” and that “there were no known operational cells of either al-Qa’ida- or Hizbollah-related groups in the hemisphere” aside from “ideological sympathizers.”

Ideological sympathizers in South America and the Caribbean, however, continued to provide financial and moral support to these and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia.

The United States remained concerned that Hizballah and HAMAS sympathizers were raising funds in the Tri-Border Area by participating in illicit activities and soliciting donations from sympathizers in the sizable Middle Eastern communities in the region. There was no corroborated information, however, that these or other Islamic extremist groups had an operational presence in the region.

We know that the State Department and criminal investigators in the U.S. consider peaceful anarchists and antiwar activists criminal enemies of the state (despite being unable to charge them with anything), so we should at the least be extremely skeptical about government terminology regarding minority Muslim immigrant groups in Latin America “participating in illicit activities and soliciting donations from [“terrorist”] sympathizers.” While the U.S. government gives billions for state violence perpetrated by Columbia, Israel, Yemen, Bahrain and many many others, as well as non-state groups with apparent ties to international terrorist groups like the rebels in Libya, somehow it is legitimate to war-monger Congress and the American people about a potential 80 operatives (undoubtedly a high estimate) raising pocket change and going to church in a region with over 550 million people.

The State Department report as well as the Noriega testimony also mention the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, both allegedly committed by Iranians as well as “one member of Hezbollah.” The report says that arrest warrants were issued for these people but they have yet to be tried for anything and claims of their involvement remain alleged. Bringing up these events which are over two decades old is a common tactic in drumming up fear and support for war. We saw this recently with Libya, where war-hawks spout off the list of comparatively minor terrorist attacks relative to the U.S. record that Gaddafi was involved in.

This testimony by Noriega is a perfect example of how paranoia mixed with an eagerness to ramp up violent militarism can lend credibility to fictional threats. Members of Congress can and will now use this testimony which is on the record as data in case of any event which may prompt some winded demagoguery on the terrorist threat to our south. Additionally, Iranian influence in Latin America is almost sure to be non-existent, as a robust infiltration of our dominated hemisphere would require much more than the Iranian state is currently capable of, especially under the crippling U.S. sanctions regime. And again, the State Department itself (not an organization known for its prudent cool-headedness) concluded that “there were no known operational cells of either al-Qa’ida- or Hizbollah-related groups in the hemisphere.”

Let us hope it gains no traction.