Iran’s lucrative crime-terrorism nexus with Venezuela continues amid coronavirus
Tehran’s global network of militias is once again under scrutiny since the US in January killed the man responsible for leading Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani.
The oldest and arguably most important of the Iranian-backed non-state militia groups is Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Now is the time for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration to realize the goal of its over a decade-long initiative, Project Cassandra, which aims to weaken Hezbollah’s funding from its global crime and drug trafficking networks.
Hezbollah and its affiliates should be designated by the US government as an International Criminal Network, as they continue to weave their illicit web in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Hezbollah in Venezuela
Hezbollah serves as one of Iran’s most powerful surrogates and has mastered the art of using the global Lebanese diaspora for their own interests. The group has evolved from a Lebanese militia into a major player in the Lebanese government—despite being designated in 2018 as a “top transnational organized crime threat” by the US attorney general.
Hezbollah works directly with weak and autocratic governments like Venezuela, in criminal activities such as money laundering from the sales of drugs, weapons and illicit goods. These activities have become critical to Hezbollah and Iran in recent months as extensive US sanctions, the oil price war, and the shock from the coronavirus have weakened the Iranian economy and significantly reduced the amount of support groups like Hezbollah receive from their Iranian patrons.
Both Iran and Venezuela seem to be aligned in their urgent pursuit to ease US sanctions. However, despite having severe domestic challenges, COVID-19 has not stopped the regime in Tehran from providing support to destabilizing militias in Arab countries and beyond.
Although the United States has attempted to combat these activities, Hezbollah has extended its operational scope beyond the financing of terrorism and money laundering. As Iran’s international reach has become more sophisticated, Hezbollah has increasingly become self-sufficient, using both the international financial system and Lebanon's political and financial framework.
While US law enforcement efforts have often focused on the tri-border area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, in recent years Venezuela’s Margarita Island – an economic free-zone and a popular vacation destination, and host to one of the largest Lebanese communities in Venezuela – has started to make “the tri-border area look like a kindergarten,” according to Roger F. Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under the George W. Bush Administration.
Hezbollah’s approach to burrow into Venezuela comes with a quest for cover and operational support, such as the reported purchase of Venezuelan passports, visas and identity cards at the Venezuelan embassy in Iraq, paying up to $15,000 “under the complacent glance of the Venezuelan diplomatic authorities,” according to the PanAm Post.
Project Cassandra Versus the JCPOA
Project Cassandra, launched in 2008, has been the most comprehensive US government effort thus far to counter Hezbollah funding from illicit sources. The Drug Enforcement Administration has led the fight to combat Hezbollah’s developing profile as an international crime syndicate, with an estimated profit of $1 billion per year, according to some investigators.
During eight years of investigation, including wiretaps, undercover operations and informants, 30 US and foreign security agencies tracked Hezbollah’s network and activities, including particularly large cocaine shipments through Latin America to the United States, Europe, West Africa and the Middle East.
As Project Cassandra officials were preparing prosecutions, arrests, and sanctions, their efforts were delayed and opposed by others in the US. government. David Asher, a Pentagon illicit finance analyst who helped oversee the project, said “this was a policy decision, it was a systematic decision,” in an interview with American news outlet Politico.
Then-CIA Director John Brennan was primarily focused on combating only the most extreme elements within Hezbollah. Therefore, President Barack Obama’s administration declined to designate Hezbollah in general as a “significant transnational criminal organization,” although the group was already designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US Department of State and it and several individuals in the group were under multiple State and Treasury Department sanctions.
This cautious approach developed in the context of efforts to secure a nuclear deal with Iran. According to former Treasury official Katherine Bauer’s testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, “Under the Obama administration … these [Hezbollah-related] investigations were tamped down for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardizing the nuclear deal.”
Asher said, “The closer we got to the [Iran deal], the more these activities went away.”
Hezbollah’s Global Crime Network
Some Venezuelans of Arab descent have contributed to Iran’s international outreach and fundraising in the Western Hemisphere. The key figures in this network include Tareck Zaidan El Aissami, Ghazi Nasr Al Din, and Fawzi Kanan.
El Aissami, a Venezuelan of Syrian and Lebanese descent, and a former vice president of Venezuela, has been sanctioned by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and is now featured on the United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s most-wanted list as a specially designated narcotics trafficker pursuant to the Kingpin Act.
The Kingpin Act is used to block all property, interests in property, financial transactions, and dealings within the United States and its financial system, as well as with US persons. El Aissami is reported to have supervised several operations in which “... he oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions.”
El Aissami is also alleged to have provided Hezbollah affiliates with Venezuelan passports and IDs during his tenure at Venezuela’s Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace.
Additionally, Ghazi Nasr Al Din, a Venezuelan of Lebanese descent who served as a Venezuelan diplomat in Damascus and Beirut, and facilitated the granting of visas and passports, raised and laundered money for Hezbollah. Nasr Al Din has been sanctioned by the Office of Foreign Assets Control and added to the FBI’s Seeking Information – Terrorism list.
According to the US government, Nasr Al Din met with senior Hezbollah officials in Lebanon to discuss such activities. Kanan, another Venezuelan of Lebanese origin, has been similarly sanctioned for using Biblos Travel Agency in Venezuela for reportedly couriering funds to Lebanon in the aid of Hezbollah.
Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, repeatedly visited Venezuela to try to increase cooperation between the two countries, including the establishment of a Caracas-Tehran flight by the Venezuelan airline Conviasa with a layover at a Syrian military base. By March 2019, Iran’s Mahan Air had adopted this route as a nonstop flight.
In 2018, Mahan was sanctioned by the Office of Foreign Assets Control and banned by France and Germany for transporting military equipment, Iranian operatives, and personnel to Syria and providing various services to the IRGC. During a visit to Venezuela in February 2019, according to sources of Kuwait’s Al Seyassah, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah offered Maduro support from the group’s militants living in South America and the protection of security installations by battle-tested specialists.
Nasrallah added: “This is only a portion of what the party can offer to Venezuelan President Maduro and the memory of his predecessor, President Hugo Chavez, in return for the support from the two to Hezbollah and to Iran, especially in terms of providing the needed funds for the activity of the party.”
According to the Treasury Department, Hezbollah diverts profits from drug sales in Europe to exchange houses in Lebanon. Laundered money is returned to the United States to buy used cars that are then shipped to West Africa for resale with the profits ultimately transferred to Hezbollah.
On January 31, 2020, Iranian national Bahram Karimi was charged by the US Department of Justice for his connection in a scheme initiated by the governments of Iran and Venezuela to launder $115 million through the US financial system “for the benefit of various Iranian individuals and entities.”
The challenges facing Latin American efforts to counter these networks were illustrated by the fate of Alberto Nisman, an Argentinian prosecutor. Nisman spent a decade investigating Iran’s activities in the Western Hemisphere, including the 1994 Argentine Israelite Mutual Association bombing in Buenos Aires. Nisman was murdered four days after issuing a formal complaint in 2015, in addition to a 500-page report in 2013 (along with a US Congressional Research Service synopsis in 2016) that documented how Iran and Hezbollah had been working in Latin America for decades.
The report tracked the use of embassies, cultural organizations, and other institutions as fronts for intelligence operations—an approach that has also been used by Iran against Kuwait and Bahrain in recent years.
Iran’s State-Crime-Terrorism Nexus with Venezuela
According to senior DEA agent Jack Kelly, former Venezuelan intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal, who was arrested in Aruba on drug charges, was “the main man between Venezuela and Iran, the Quds Force, Hezbollah, and the cocaine trafficking.” Carvajal, who was due to be extradited to the United States from Spain, went missing in November 2019.
According to the Washington Post, the most recent former head of the Venezuelan intelligence General Manuel Figuera, who is now living in exile in the United States, affirmed in June 2019 that he was aware of “... intelligence that Hezbollah had operations in Caracas, Maracay, and Nueva Esparta, apparently geared toward illicit business activity to help fund operations in the Middle East.”
Although US sanctions on Venezuela may limit Hezbollah’s ability to use the country to launder money and fund its fighters, it will probably remain able to conduct drug trafficking operations in cooperation with the Venezuelan military, as the latter also thrives on the potential dividends.
Officials of Venezuela’s interim government led by Juan Guaidó insist that Hezbollah is highly invested in keeping Maduro in power, and the State Department has documented meetings between Hezbollah and Maduro officials as recent as November 2019. Iran’s state-crime-terrorism network presents a challenge to security and economic stability, especially when it converges with permissive operating conditions and corruption.
As the US steps up its campaign against drug trafficking, Hezbollah’s entrenchment within Venezuela’s establishment is a global problem. Iran’s own neighbors and especially the citizens of Iran, Venezuela, and Lebanon, are the ones to pay the heaviest price of such a destabilizing network during a global pandemic.
Project Cassandra’s unrealized goal to designate Hezbollah and its affiliates as an International Criminal Network under Office of Foreign Assets Control regulations would allow the United States to “deal with the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States constituted by the growing threat of significant transnational criminal organizations.”
As criminal gangs and terrorist organizations continue to exploit the COVID-19 crisis, collaborate, adapt, and form networks - and as these continue to target the GCC - international cooperation must be intensified to counter this threat.
Joze Pelayo is a research consultant, and was recently with the Arab Gulf States Institute (AGSIW) in Washington DC, a think tank dedicated to providing expert research and analysis of the social, economic, and political dimensions of the Gulf Arab states.