TSG IntelBrief: Hizballah Walks a Fine Line in South America
April 12, 2012
Bottom Line Up Front:
• While much is known ― or believed to be known ― about Hizballah’s capabilities in Latin and South America, far less is understood about its intentions regarding the possibility of a retaliatory attack against the West should there be military conflict with Iran.
• For the first time, Hizballah has something tangible to lose ― political power in Lebanon ― if it were to stage strikes against the West. In addition, Hizballah is arguably hesitant to conduct attacks against the Westerns interests in South America not in spite of its support network in the region, but because of it.
As of mid-April 2012, there remains as much confusion as concern among policy makers over the actual threat to the United States from Hizballah operations in Latin or South America. The intensity of the interest in this issue has risen in step with increasing apprehensions about a possible Israeli military strike against Iran to thwart Tehran’s suspected plans to build a nuclear weapons capability. The chronic inability to gather timely and accurate information on the inner workings of Hizballah ― either classified or open-source ― creates the intractable challenge of correctly distinguishing between the group’s possible capabilities and its probable intentions.
Strategic thinking argues that just because a group might be able to do something, that doesn’t mean it will; caution, however, suggests that it also doesn’t mean they won’t. Policy makers and analysts alike can thus be forgiven for focusing primarily on capabilities for two obvious reasons:
First, prudence encourages a steady focus on possible options for mitigating any perceived threat. Second, it is far easier to gather information on capabilities (an evidence-based enterprise where technology and human sources can be effective) than on intentions (which often remain a cognitive exercise right up to the point of action, and this remains beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced satellites or drones to divine). The question now confronting policy makers on this issue is a timely one, given the widespread concern that any conflict with Iran in the Middle East could bring retaliatory attacks in the Western Hemisphere (as well as in Asia and Europe) carried out by Iran’s proxy force, Hizballah.
The Evolution of Hizballah
There is both historical and contemporary evidence that demonstrates both the capability and intention of Hizballah to strike outside of its Middle East base. In 1992, Hizballah directed a suicide car bomb attack against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people and destroyed the building. The stated motivation for the attack (for which Hizballah’s surrogate, Islamic Jihad, claimed responsibility) was revenge for the Israeli assassination in February 1992 of Abbas al-Musawi, Hizballah’s secretary general. In 1994, Hizbollah directed another suicide car bombing in Buenos Aires, this time against a Jewish cultural center that killed 94. In both cases, it was later determined that some of the perpetrators had entered Argentina via the Tri-border Area (TBA), the relatively unregulated zone where the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. This region has a large population of Shi`a Lebanese who settled in the area after fleeing decades of civil war in their home country. It is this area, the TBA, that gives U.S. officials the most concern today vis a vis Hizballah and its ability to strike in the Western Hemisphere.
Most recently, in what is thought to be retaliation by Iran over assassinations of its nuclear scientists (assumed to be directed by Israel and/or America), Iranian operatives attempted three attacks on Jewish targets in India, Thailand, and the republic of Georgia. The rather amateurish nature of the three attacks diminishes, but not dismisses, the ambition and scope of the multinational plot. Of note, it has not been confirmed if the operatives were Hizballah (although the attacks did take place on or near the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Imad Mugniyah, the group’s military leader). For its part Hizballah, has scoffed at the allegations of its involvement in the attempted assassinations, saying any revenge for the death of Mugniyah would be spectacular and leave no doubt about who was responsible. The tit-for-tat nature of the most recent attacks, if Iranian-directed and Hizballah-executed, would fit into the theory that an attack on Iran would trigger a series of counterattacks, with the TBA being an obvious entry/launch point for the group into the region.
In 2011, the U.S. filed a civil suit against the Lebanese Canadian Bank, claiming the bank knowingly laundered and funneled more than US$ 480 million dollars for Hizballah; the facts supporting the legal action clearly documented both the breadth of the group’s reach and the depth of its ties in Latin and South America. The suit also claimed that Hizballah raised substantial amounts of money from the narcotics trade, something forbidden and distasteful among its Shi’a adherents. Officials cited evidence that Hizballah had dealt with both the Columbian and Mexican narcotics trafficking cartels ― including routine interactions with the Mexican drug gang, Los Zetas. This revelation has been the source of particular concern in Washington’s national security circles. U.S. Officials have described Hizballah as being increasingly dependent on such financial schemes, especially since its largest sponsor, Iran, is under increasing economic pressure resulting from tightening international financial sanctions and is thus less capable of funding its proxy.
It is that last point that bears further attention in the discussion of intentions. If Hizballah were to strike out in the West ― where it apparently has developed a successful and much-needed source of funding ― it would run the risk that an attack here would disrupt, even destroy that very source. The Hizballah of 2012 is arguably not identical to the Hizballah of the 1980s and 1990s that conducted the Buenos Aires attacks (among many others). While certainly still capable of carrying out terrorist attacks, what remains unknown is if today’s Hizballah has the intention (or even the inclination) to do so.
The Challenge of Divining Intentions
There is evidence to suggest that the group is somewhat less inclined to engage in such acts, though, as noted above, intentions can often be the most difficult ― although often the most important ― element to assess. Hizballah is now an elected powerhouse in Lebanon. It’s public and political power is such that it helped overthrow the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in early 2011 for his support to the international investigation into the 2005 assassination of his father, Rafiq Hariri, an attack many attributed in part to Hizballah. Thus, unlike in the past, Hizballah now has something tangible to lose ― power ― an important consideration if the group’s behavior is to be predicted based on a rational actor analysis.
A geostrategic analysis must weigh the real possibility that the significant gains Hizballah has made in Lebanon would be at significant risk were it to strike out in defense of Iran against the emerging reality that Hizballah now relies less on Iran as a benefactor than ever before. Indeed, one can envision a scenario in which the Iranian regime (the struggling sponsor) is gravely weakened through either domestic dissent brought about by crushing economic sanctions or through foreign military action, while Hizballah (the erstwhile proxy) strengthens its power in Lebanon precisely by not reacting.
Hizballah clearly has substantial support and well-functioning operational lines in Latin and South America (at least in terms of money laundering, among other criminal endeavors) that it could tap to support actions against Western targets. These supporting channels, once only found in the TBA, now extend across the region and as far north as the U.S border, a situation that has captured the unwavering attention of U.S officials, to include the U.S military’s Southern Command. Nonetheless, for policy makers to truly understand the actual measure of the threat, it remains the intentions upon which they must focus ever greater attention.
• Hizballah might be inclined to avoid becoming involved in any Iranian conflict for fear of losing much for little gain. The opposite would likely hold true if the action against Iran caused a regional conflict where Hizballah could engage in a military conflict similar to 2006; even under this scenario, the response would almost certainly be limited in scope both geographically and operationally.
• Hizballah will seek to recover its financial footing ― undermined by both diminished Iranian support and the disruption caused by the 2011 suit against Lebanese Canadian Bank ― with an increased focus on raising funds in Latin and South America.
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