[Gambill] We've been following developments in Argentina, which just distinguished itself by designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization for the first time. But ... the president just lost Argentina's equivalent of a presidential primary a couple weeks ago, and there are some question marks as to whether or not he'll be reelected later this year. How much is Argentina's counter-terrorism policy ... the impact of just this one man, and how much is the impact of what we've seen over the past ten years. Is this going to last, or is it politics?
That's a really good question, to start, because it's both the reason ... why it was so urgent to get this approved and passed and signed, prior to the [October 20] election, but it's also the challenge. Which is that if President [Mauricio] Macri loses the election, this is just an executive decree, which much like other executive decrees can be removed by the executive, meaning if Macri's not the president, and a new president comes in who doesn't ... [like] this measure, they can remove it.
So, let me start by saying that, to get to this point was essential – before the election – given the political winds and the way things can shift in Argentina. If we had not gotten this executive decree signed prior to the election, there was a very small chance it would be signed after, even if Macri was reelected because his priorities would have shifted back to the economy. ... So, yes, it's an executive decree, so if candidate [Alberto] Fernandez wins the election and becomes president of Argentina, he can remove it.
But the momentum [in Latin America] has already taken off. Paraguay, for instance, just recently designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization as well in August, Brazil is considering, Columbia's considering, a handful of other countries in Latin America are considering making this designation. So, if you want to put it proverbially, the train has already left the station. So, in that sense, even if Argentina reneged – if the new government rescinds this executive decree, other countries in Latin America are already [following] suit.
[Gambill] Is that the position of the opposition – 'we want to get rid of this'?
They haven't stated anything publicly about the decree – they've been very quiet about the whole thing, and I think one of the reasons they've been very quiet is because ... [candidate] Alberto Fernandez was the chief of staff of the former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, [who is now] the vice-presidential candidate. So she's the number two on the ticket for the Argentine elections.
So these are the same people that signed the MOU with Iran to cover up its involvement in the AMIA attack in the 90s, the same people who were wheeling and dealing with the Chavez government in Venezuela. So it's very, very likely that they are going to do whatever they can to cover up Iran and Hezbollah's actions in Argentina. Even if they don't remove the decree per se, they definitely won't enforce it. I think that's pretty clear from their past.
[Gambill] Certainly they'll be more susceptible to Iranian pressure.
Absolutely, I don't even call it pressure, because Iran has a foothold within these individuals. So, Iran doesn't really have to pressure much. Once they come back into the government in Argentina, Iran has a seat at the table just like it had under the previous government of Cristina de Kirchner.
[Gambill] On a related note, ...earlier this year Panamanian President Juan Varela caused a stir by publicly promising to open a full investigation into the 1994 mid-air bombing of Alas Chiricanas Flight 901, which killed 22 Panamanians – including 12 of the country's leading Jewish businessmen – and this happened on the day after the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aries, which Iran was clearly responsible for. As I understand it, there had been nothing done in Panama until this announcement. And it now looks like he's walking it back. What's the situation there? I've heard some complaints that he's not acting on his promise.
This is something that's often overlooked in Latin America. In the 90s there were actually three attacks suspected to be by Iran and Hezbollah: the first in 1992 against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aries, the second in 1994 against the AMIA Jewish community center also in Buenos Aries, and the third, which is hardly ever referenced when you talk about these [two] attacks, is the day after, as you mentioned, the AMIA attack, on July 19 in 1994, when they took down an aircraft that was flying from Panama. They had a bunch of passengers that were from Israel and from the Jewish community in Panama.
... That attack ... has led to very much a dead end. Initial investigations didn't provide any kind of judicial action. But there has been momentum because of all this work that's been going on in Latin America related to Hezbollah. And there have been leads that have been projected to look at that specific attack and the individuals involved in that attack, and their whereabouts in the world.
Now, the Panamanian government is very sensitive to this. I'm not even sure it gets to the level of the president and the executive side of this. This would be handled more by the judicial side and perhaps some law enforcement officers who can investigate a case that's ongoing. So, one, I wouldn't be surprised if the president doesn't know much about it. Two, even if he did know about it, he has to be very sensitive – for the same reason the Paraguayans are sensitive, the Brazilians are sensitive – because there are large Lebanese communities in these specific countries that have a lot of ties to commerce and import/export businesses. So, I'm pretty sure the Panamanian president is trying to walk on eggshells. But my understanding is that there is ... some action being taken very quietly.
[Gambill] Didn't Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu give the president some intelligence information about this?
Yeah. He did, and I believe the United States also helped on some level to provide some intelligence on this. It's believed even that the individual involved in that attack may have surfaced at some point in Venezuela. So there were leads that were being moved upon.
So I believe there were some actions that were taken both by Israel and the United States and [by] Panama. However, this hasn't led to anything yet and it obviously, perhaps, needs to be strengthened and coordinated a bit better.
[Roman] So, Joseph, I want to pivot for a second to Washington. What is the U.S. doing ... to create more cleavages between Middle Eastern despots and South American governments?
Well, I think there are two things that are being done, very pointedly. One, the Department of Justice created a new Hezbollah financing and narco-terrorism team under the leadership of John Cronan, who's the principal deputy assistant attorney general. They've been really engaged with half a dozen Latin American countries or more, at seeking prosecutions, getting convictions, getting arrests, getting legal action taken against what they call "Hezbollah facilitators" ... people [for whom] it's hard to say that they're a Hezbollah member, because they were probably born in Latin America and have full citizenship, but they're clearly laundering money, trafficking drugs, or doing some [other] illicit activity that benefits Hezbollah in the long run.
While Latin America is new to international terrorism, it is not new to organized crime.
So they've been clamping down on that. The designation the Department of Justice did last year, in October 2018, ...[of] Hezbollah ... as a transnational criminal organization did a lot. Because while Latin America is still very new to international terrorism, or at least doesn't have that broad perspective on international terrorism, they're not new to transnational organized crime. So when you push that buzzword in Latin America, it kind of opened up their eyes to a whole new angle on what Hezbollah is, which led to some of these actions that we've seen.
The second is the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury. There's a major effort done at the highest levels to hold counter-terrorism summits in Latin America, to get these countries together to sign resolutions and make declarations on their fight against terrorism, their fight against organized crime, and what the Department of Defense calls the "convergence" of the two – when these two worlds, crime and terror, come together.
The Trump administration has "done a lot ... to provide more support to Latin American governments."
There have been two major summits – the first was in Washington last year in December, the second was in Buenos Aries, coinciding with the anniversary of the AMIA attack in July of this year. And the third is going to be in Bogota next year in January. And that third one's very important because here we have 18 governments in Latin America that already signed a communiqué, a resolution, this past July that said that they recognize that Hezbollah has a presence and activity as a terrorist organization in Latin America. So they've already recognized it and taken steps to get them on board and start to do something about it.
So those three agencies – Treasury, State, and Justice – have done a lot under the leadership of the Trump administration to push this narrative, to explain it, and to provide more support to Latin American governments so that they can do more about it.
[Roman] Can you walk us through Operation Cassandra?
... Project Cassandra was a project within the DEA's Special Operations Division. Ayman Joumaa, who was a Columbian-Lebanese criminal who basically was doing a multi-million dollar money-laundering scheme to benefit drug cartels in Mexico and Columbia, and also to benefit Hezbollah in Lebanon. The proceeds of this illicit activity were going straight towards Hezbollah activity in Syria and presumably, maybe, Hezbollah's activity in Iraq. And it was all done through a used car scheme – basically they would buy cars in Africa and sell them in the United States at over-charged prices, and then launder the illicit profits to cover the drug trafficking.
This all got clamped down in 2013-14 for myriad reasons – funding, budget,... but according to the Politico report largely also because of the pollical priorities of President Obama. Once you started to unravel this onion of Hezbollah's illicit activity in Latin America, you start realizing it's not just money laundering and drug trafficking, it's also involving terror operations, it's also involving intelligence operations in conjunction with the Iranian embassy in Latin America.
... Latin America is a very important region for Hezbollah, for many reasons, not just for the financial reasons. But also because it provides them with a safe zone for all their activity they're trying to do against Israel and the United States. And that looked like if you get further along in that path, you may start to touch Iran. And obviously at the time they were negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. That was a non-starter for the Obama administration so they clamped down on this.
As you mentioned, the Trump administration pretty much removed that barrier and said now we're going to take this seriously, and you can see the results.
[Roman] ... What exactly is the Iranian regime doing to fight back against this? ... Are the Iranians acting out in South America like they've been acting out in the Gulf?
Not directly like they do in the Middle East and the Gulf, because obviously that's their neighborhood and they have much more control and ability to manipulate circumstances. But it's not completely different than what they do in the Middle East in the sense of working with proxies.
If we look at what they call the "land bridge" from Tehran to Lebanon, passing through Iraq and Syria, there are all these affiliate groups that are tied to Hezbollah, the Qods Force of the IRGC, and that in some way or form are doing their bidding, creating little proxy battles and skirmishes ... [and] providing a secure corridor so they can move weapons, arms, recent technology, procurement of all kinds of things through the Middle East.
"Instead of developing a land bridge, they've developed an air bridge."
... In Latin America it's very similar, except that instead of developing a land bridge, they've developed an air bridge mostly through Venezuela and the Tri-border area to be able to do the same kind of activity ... But the big difference is they don't do it through Islamic outfits. In Latin American, increasingly it's becoming known, Hezbollah and Iran are working with non-Islamic elements that are pretty much just agitation and propaganda organizations that are against the United States.
I'll give you an example. In Argentina, when the late prosecutor Alberto Nisan passed away, the wiretaps he presented before the justice system in Argentina revealed [Iran and Hezbollah's] close cooperation [with] a group called the Quebracho in Argentina, which has nothing to do with the Iranian revolution, nothing to do with Islamism, but everything to do with anti-capitalism and anti-West sentiments in Argentina. In Peru, the Etnocaceristas, which are a separatist movement in the southern part of Peru, the Cocaleros, which is a drug trafficking unit in Bolivia, the colectivos, which is in the news about the civilian militias in Venezuela – all these organizations had nothing to do with the Iranian Revolution on the face of it, but have direct ties to Tehran.
What we're thinking is that Iran is building proxy conflict in Latin America, much the same as it is doing in the Middle East. But this one is much more difficult to prove.