Emanuele Ottolenghi: To fight Hezbollah, Latin American countries first need to acknowledge it exists

As Argentina prepares to commemorate Hezbollah’s terror attack in July 1994 in Buenos Aires, the time has come to call a spade a spade. Brazil and Paraguay need to join their neighbor in naming Hezbollah a terror organization and passing measures to combat it illicit finance networks within their territories.

Later this week U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Buenos Aires to attend a Western Hemisphere ministerial conference dedicated to the fight against terrorism, Hezbollah and its nefarious presence in the region will take center stage.

Argentina, the host nation, is creating a public registry that will enable its government to blacklist terrorist and terror financing entities. Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, will reportedly blacklist Hezbollah in time for the summit. Argentina will be the first Latin American country to do so. Others should follow its example, and the summit will be a test for all other countries in attendance, to match words with action.

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Argentina has good reasons to designate Hezbollah. Twice, in 1992 and 1994, Hezbollah agents struck civilian targets in Buenos Aires. In February 1992, they blew up the Israeli embassy, killing 29. Then, instructed by Iran and aided by local Hezbollah cells, on July 18, 1994, a Hezbollah suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden truck in front of the AMIA building, the local Jewish cultural center, in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and wounding more than 200. The ministerial summit coincides with the 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombing and it is a perfect opportunity for Argentina to lead Latin America in the fight against terrorism. The big question is whether others will follow suit.

Argentina’s neighbors, Paraguay and Brazil, never suffered from Hezbollah terrorism as Argentina did. But the two countries host, perhaps even more than Venezuela, Hezbollah’s most important terror finance operations in the region. The Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, or TBA, is home to a strong Lebanese Shi’a community, whose institutions – mosques, schools, scouts’ movements and social welfare – are closely aligned with Hezbollah. As the U.S. government has publicly stated, Hezbollah is a key player in the TBA illicit economy, which local authorities recently estimated to be worth $18 billion a year.

The TBA is not the only flashpoint of concern. Hezbollah’s representative to Latin America, Sheikh Bilal Mohsen Wehbe, whom the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned in 2010, until recently resided in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he operated freely from Brazil’s largest Shi’a Mosque. Hezbollah’s publication, Al-Akhbar has a dedicated journalist in Brazil who also works as a Russia Today Spanish correspondent. Hezbollah supporters are radicalized – and their activities, designed to proselytize and expand the terror group’s narrative, seek in turn to radicalize people outside the closely-knit circles of the immigrant communities Hezbollah usually relies on.

It is high time that local governments act. Yet to confront a problem governments must first recognize it. Neither Brazil nor Paraguay have done so until now. Since taking office last January, Brazil president, Jair Bolsonaro has not aligned his country’s policy to his tough rhetoric. He has accused Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s dictator, to enjoy the support of Hezbollah. Brazil cooperated with Paraguay when, in September 2018, it arrested Assad Ahmad Barakat, a U.S. sanctioned Hezbollah financier, whom Paraguay wants to prosecute for document fraud. Yet his minister of security, General Augusto Heleno, has downplayed Hezbollah’s presence along Brazil’s border areas and Hezbollah remains legal in Brazil.

Paraguay’s reluctance to recognize the problem is even more painfully obvious. Since President Mario Abdo Benitez took office, he has had many opportunities to address the presence of Hezbollah on his borders. Abdo has named transnational organized crime a threat to Paraguay and has reinvigorated his country’s fight against narcotrafficking. Paraguay’s seizures of cocaine have dramatically increased. Yet, the president has not uttered the word “Hezbollah” once.

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After the initial legal action taken against Barakat, the trend has been to look elsewhere. Abdo’s ministers have downplayed Hezbollah’s presence in their borders. There have been no high profile arrests of suspected Hezbollah financiers since Paraguay issued Barakat’s arrest warrant last year. High profile money laundering cases looking into members of the Lebanese merchant community suspected to have ties to Hezbollah have been stymied. And although Paraguay recently extradited Nader Mohamad Farhat, whom a U.S. official publicly called “a Hezbollah supporter,” to face drug trafficking and money laundering charges, his investigation and arrest happened before Abdo came to power. Abdo’s presidency has done next to nothing to recognize, let alone combat the problem.

Hezbollah’s terror finance operations in Latin America will not come to an end as a result of a ministerial summit. The summit, rather, seeks a belated recognition of the problem and a readiness to adopt legal tools to confront it by regional governments – both indispensable preconditions for a real fight against terrorism to begin. America’s allies must rise to the occasion and finally be ready to combat Hezbollah’s terrorist threat on their own turfs.