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Palestinian jihadists building safe haven in Venezuela

TDP, Venezuela, Hezbollah, Palestinian, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Palestinian terrorist groups, Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence

Counterterrorism

Palestinian jihadists building safe haven in Venezuela

Recently media report said that a hacker group named Team TDP in Venezuela broke into the country’s Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence, gaining access to information on purported Hezbollah operatives living freely in the country under the protection of President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government. According to the information stolen by Team HDP, Venezuela also hosts Palestinian terrorist cells involved in money laundering, drug dealing, and terrorist activity, among other crimes. It was also revealed that Cuba’s foreign intelligence agency plays a central role in the matter.

One of the Palestinian cells, according to the information from Venezuela’s Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence, allegedly belongs to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of the Fatah faction. The cell reportedly consists of at least four men under the disguise of doctors, whose cover includes working for Venezuela’s national social security agency in Merida state in the country’s northwest. “Fawaz Snofar”, “Mahmoud Khalaf”, and “Muhammad Abu-Rah” are some of the names that appear on the list.

The report alleges that the Palestinian “doctor” cell is responsible for the deaths of several patients due to medical malpractice, possibly the result of their questionable medical bona fides. One of the names mentioned on the list, “Khaled Badawi”, is said to be of Pakistani origin and allegedly belongs to several Palestinian terrorist groups. Under the guise of being a doctor, his name was connected to activity in Merida, “a region in which uranium, thorium and coltan mines currently operate”.

Last year the Atlantic Council in a report describing how Iran-backed Hezbollah and other terrorist networks prop up the Venezuelan regime said, too often, Hezbollah in Venezuela is characterized as only a potential terrorist threat. In reality, the Lebanese terrorist group has helped to turn Venezuela into a hub for the convergence of transnational organized crime and international terrorism.

It said, Hezbollah’s crime-terror network in Venezuela has facilitated Iran’s cooperation with the Maduro regime.

Joseph M. Humire in the report further said:

In the face of another fated sham election in Venezuela, countries throughout the Americas and Europe are focusing on the many illicit tactics Nicolás Maduro uses to hold on to power. Top among them: the far-reaching illicit networks that prop up the Maduro regime. This includes armed groups that control vast swaths of territory, establishing a parallel state structure that conjoins the Maduro regime to international terrorism and transnational organized crime. In this environment, US policy shifted from “incrementalism” to “maximum pressure” in 2019, in an effort to constrain Nicolás Maduro’s grip on power in Venezuela.

This approach led to a March 2020 US Department of Justice (DOJ) announcement of multiple narcoterrorism indictments against the Maduro regime, including charges against Nicolás Maduro himself. Two months later, the DOJ indicted a former member of Venezuela’s National Assembly, the Syrian-Venezuelan dual national Adel El Zebayar, for allegedly working with Maduro and several top regime leaders in Venezuela on a narcoterrorism conspiracy that involved dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), drug cartels in Mexico, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria, and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

These actions by the DOJ highlight a debate in the United States and Europe about the presence and role of Hezbollah in Venezuela and Latin America overall. Too often this debate is characterized by simplistic views that see Hezbollah in Venezuela as only a potential terrorist threat. Equally, other views diminish the role and relationship between Hezbollah and the Maduro regime altogether. Neither position captures the nuance of how Hezbollah operates in Venezuela and neighboring countries, nor does it establish a baseline for understanding how Hezbollah fits into the larger strategic picture of the illicit networks propping up the Maduro regime, and its relationship with Iran.

Adding to this deficit of knowledge is that, for many Latin American policymakers, Hezbollah is viewed as a distant problem far from local concerns. Likewise, for US and European policymakers, Latin America is not a top priority for counterterrorism efforts focused mostly on the Middle East and North Africa. This state of affairs has allowed legal and policy vacuums to arise regionwide, which the Maduro regime and Hezbollah have exploited to turn Venezuela into a central hub for the convergence of transnational organized crime and international terrorism.

Hezbollah is responsible for carrying out terrorist attacks in Israel, Lebanon, Kuwait, Argentina, Panama, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Bulgaria. In Latin America, it is infamously known for the bombings of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish community center in 1994, both in Buenos Aires, collectively killing one hundred and fourteen people and injuring hundreds more. The AMIA attack shocked many counterterrorism analysts at the time because it was the first terrorist attack by Hezbollah outside of Lebanon or the Middle East. The long arm of Iran and Hezbollah’s terror networks is also suspected of downing the Alas Chiricanas Flight 00901 in Panama the day after the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires, killing all twenty-one passengers aboard.

The Hezbollah terror network that moved from Lebanon to Colombia to the Tri-Border Area, between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina—to carry out the 1994 AMIA attack—is still active today. The work of the late Argentine special prosecutor Alberto Nisman ensured that Latin America remembers this fact.5 Since the AMIA attack, Hezbollah’s External Security Organization (ESO) or “Unit 910,” responsible for its extraterritorial operations, has successfully co-opted many Lebanese families throughout Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.

Throughout the years, Hezbollah’s ESO has morphed from merely a terrorist network in Latin America to engage in the region’s most lucrative illicit enterprise: narcotics. Of the more than two thousand individuals and entities around the world designated by the US government as foreign narcotics kingpins, almost two hundred are affiliated with or connected to Hezbollah.6 Its growing involvement in massive money-laundering schemes and multi-ton shipments of cocaine led the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to name a subunit of Hezbollah’s ESO that is sometimes referred to as the “Business Affairs Component”, or BAC.

Hezbollah’s involvement in drug trafficking is not new. Its criminal activities were established by the same founder as the ESO, Imad Mugniyeh, the deceased Hezbollah leader who is also implicated in the AMIA terrorist attack in Argentina. Hezbollah’s transnational crime portfolio is currently led by the secretary general’s cousin and Hezbollah’s envoy to Iran, Abdallah Safieddine, who shares this portfolio with Adham Hussein Tabaja.8 A prominent Hezbollah member who owns its media propaganda arm, Tabaja has set up many investment mechanisms and cash- and credit-intensive businesses to launder Hezbollah’s illicit proceeds. The most notable is Al-Inmaa Engineering and Contracting, based in Lebanon and Iraq, whose financial manager, Jihad Muhammad Qansu, has a Venezuelan passport. Together, Tabaja and Safieddine are tied to a vast transnational criminal network that includes an array of businesses in Latin America—namely in textiles, beef, charcoal, electronics, tourism, real estate, and construction—used to launder Hezbollah’s illicit funds. In October 2018, the Justice Department elevated Hezbollah’s status in the United States by listing it as one of the top five transnational criminal organizations (TCO). Naming Hezbollah alongside three major Mexican cartels and the Central American gang MS-13 was a wake-up call for Latin America to realize that, in today’s age, Hezbollah is equal to the cartels in organized crime and terror.

The National Defense University (NDU) has been ahead of the curve in assessing the convergence of organized crime and terrorism. In the foreword to NDU’s seminal 2013 publication on the topic, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and Atlantic Council board member Admiral James Staviridis described the convergence.

In the conclusion of the article, Joseph M. Humire said: Hezbollah’s involvement in drug trafficking is not new. Its criminal activities were established by the same founder as the ESO, Imad Mugniyeh, the deceased Hezbollah leader who is also implicated in the AMIA terrorist attack in Argentina. Hezbollah’s transnational crime portfolio is currently led by the secretary general’s cousin and Hezbollah’s envoy to Iran, Abdallah Safieddine, who shares this portfolio with Adham Hussein Tabaja. A prominent Hezbollah member who owns its media propaganda arm, Tabaja has set up many investment mechanisms and cash- and credit-intensive businesses to launder Hezbollah’s illicit proceeds. The most notable is Al-Inmaa Engineering and Contracting, based in Lebanon and Iraq, whose financial manager, Jihad Muhammad Qansu, has a Venezuelan passport. Together, Tabaja and Safieddine are tied to a vast transnational criminal network that includes an array of businesses in Latin America—namely in textiles, beef, charcoal, electronics, tourism, real estate, and construction—used to launder Hezbollah’s illicit funds. In October 2018, the Justice Department elevated Hezbollah’s status in the United States by listing it as one of the top five transnational criminal organizations (TCO). Naming Hezbollah alongside three major Mexican cartels and the Central American gang MS-13 was a wake-up call for Latin America to realize that, in today’s age, Hezbollah is equal to the cartels in organized crime and terror.

The National Defense University (NDU) has been ahead of the curve in assessing the convergence of organized crime and terrorism. In the foreword to NDU’s seminal 2013 publication on the topic, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and Atlantic Council board member Admiral James Staviridis described the convergence.

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An internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, research-scholar, counter-terrorism specialist, and editor of Blitz. Follow his on Twitter Salah_Shoaib

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