Veiled Threats in the Americas
3 July 2013
The Lebanese flag is painted on the corrugated shutters of a shop in Maicao, Colombia, where Middle Eastern images and sounds are common in the streets of the busy free-trade zone. Home to Colombia’s largest Muslim population, Maicao is a cacophony of buzzing motorcycles, congested streets and blaring generators on the desert border with Venezuela. However, beneath this bustle of trade and legitimate business, authorities say some shopkeepers are illicitly funneling money to terrorist organizations.
Colombian investigations, coupled with accusations by the U.S. Treasury Department have led some suspects to abandon their shops and flee the country. Those who remain are shocked that friends and neighbors could be financing terrorism in the shadow of the third largest mosque in the Americas.
At the turn of the 20th century, Maicao was a destination of choice for Lebanese migrants who set up businesses at this and other free-trade zones, such as Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil; and Iquique, Chile. By 1997, the Muslim population in Maicao, known as “turcos” locally because the first immigrants arrived during Turkey’s Ottoman Empire, helped erect the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque designed by Iranian architect Ali Namazi.
The mosque, surrounded by tall iron gates, palm trees and lush vegetation has become an oasis in the city. Accentuated by glow from its stained glass windows, the mosque’s interior is a peaceful sanctuary for the city’s Sunnis to worship in. Likewise, the Shiite community, a minority of the estimated 3,000 Muslims in Maicao, celebrates religious festivals at the Husainiyya, a rectangular structure surrounded by palm trees.
Colombian investigators say terrorism financiers are active in Maicao, where sympathizers for the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah are open to its main benefactor, Iran. This complex connection has several factors at play. The Middle Eastern population allows for Islamic terrorist groups to blend in and appeal to the cultural ties and political sympathies of local people. Active free-trade zones with porous borders are havens for the sale of pirated goods and laundering of drug money, funding sources that attract terrorist groups and their sympathizers. Finally, Iran has lavished the region with big investments and promises, conducting community outreach and opening or expanding 11 diplomatic posts in recent years, actions that some believe hide its true intentions.
Targeting Terrorism Financiers
Most business in Maicao is conducted in Spanish, even between Lebanese-born merchants. However, Colombian investigators armed with court orders to listen in on cell phone conversations of suspected money launderers have noticed one commonality: The conversation switches to Arabic when it involves transferring drug money to terrorist groups abroad. Colombian investigators are finding evidence that terrorism financing cells in Maicao are still active, fueling drug violence and terrorist networks that could grow if not stemmed by strong legislation and active detection.
Colombian investigator Raul Salazar works on crimes involving drug trafficking and terrorism financing in the Colombian Public Prosecutor’s Office in Bogotá. In 2008, he helped close Operation Titan, a three-year international investigation that brought down 111 people in a drug-trafficking ring that stretched from Colombia to the U.S., Canada, Europe and the Middle East, including three Hezbollah financiers. He said that Lebanese citizens in Maicao and terrorism cells across Latin America are using their close cultural ties and sympathies to fund the armed wing of Hezbollah in Lebanon with part of the profits they reap from narcotrafficking and money laundering in Colombia.
“Even though they speak in coded language, we can use [phone tapping] to discern what they’re saying. But, the Lebanese speak in their own language about the most delicate or sensitive aspects of the crimes they are trying to coordinate,” said Salazar.
Mauricio Nieto, director of the investigation unit charged with narcotrafficking and money laundering at the Public Prosecutor’s Office, believes a dangerous formula is in place for Lebanese terrorist financing cells to develop a quid pro quo with the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). “Part of the drug trade is managed by the FARC. The FARC need connections with extreme leftists, of which we know some Lebanese are, to get practice and training in explosives,” he said. In this scenario, the FARC could benefit from explosives training by Hezbollah operatives and a vehicle for laundering drug money, while the terrorist cells could use profits from drug sales to fund Hezbollah. In addition, financing Hezbollah with drug money supports dangerous drug cartels in Colombia that proliferate violence against Colombian nationals.
“Colombia has a wide range of legal, criminal and administrative and financial instruments to prevent, control, detect, investigate and prosecute acts of terrorism and related activities,” said Luis Edmundo Suárez, director of the Financial Information and Analysis Unit of the Colombian Ministry of Finance and Public Credit. These include five national laws passed since 2000 that ratified decrees by the United Nations and the Organization of American States against terrorism and strengthened tools for police and investigators. Suárez also said that Colombia cooperates in a variety of ways with the U.S. to investigate terrorism financing, including exchanging financial intelligence and reciprocal legal assistance between the Public Prosecutor´s Office and the U.S. Office of the Attorney General.
Salazar said terrorism financing investigations often involve collaboration with other nations beyond the U.S., including England, Canada and neighboring countries in South America. Such investigations are active right now in Maicao, Salazar said, in an effort by the state to stop drug violence and stem the activity of terrorist cells to keep Colombian citizens safe. “It is growing even though [investigators] are trying to beat it; they have many alliances, and they work together quite a bit,” he said. “They can be like an epidemic, like a growing virus.”
The Iran Connection
Román Ortiz, an academic and director of the national security and defense consultancy DecisivePoint in Bogotá, warns that the promises and investments of Iran do not represent the economic opportunities many Latin Americans are led to believe. Rather, they serve an altogether insidious purpose: to circumvent international sanctions and build a terrorist support network.
“You can’t simply say that Iranian funds are neutral, because Iran is a country that has consistently violated international law,” said Ortiz. “This Iranian assistance is just a front. What the Iranians are looking for basically is political and strategic influence.”
Ortiz explained that Iran is interested in using trade to garner relationships with countries in the region for two principal purposes. The first is to break the regiment of sanctions established by United Nations so as to continue its ballistic missile program. For that to happen, Iran needs free movement of funds, procurement of uranium and nuclear technologies. The second motive, he explained, is to set up a terrorist network of like-minded groups in the region who could attack U.S. and Israeli interests if Iran’s nuclear facilities are targeted.
“Those are certainly things that would benefit Iran and be a detriment to world security,” said Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and author of the report, “Iran’s Influence in the Americas.” Ilan Berman, an expert who spoke in October 2012 on a panel about Iran’s influence in Latin America, said, “What Iran is doing in the region can be classified as support activities, activities that support Hezbollah or other Iranian proxies through financial transfers.”