By Houston Chronicle
Texas Rep. Ted Poe has long expressed concern that Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based militant group, is trying to use Latin America as a path to terrorist attacks in the United States.
Wednesday, he used his post as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade to shine a light on Hezbollah, which he views as a growing world terrorist organization.
The hearing highlighted the group’s connections with groups in Iran and Syria and its growing presence in Latin American countries like Venezuela.
Hezbollah has strong ties with Iran, including Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of Iran’s military. Will Fulton, an Iranian analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said the IRGC first reached out to Hezbollah in the 1980s and have maintained strong ties financially, and there are indications that the Iranian regime may have a strong arm in directing the organization’s efforts. This network of terrorist organizations has detonated anti-Western and Israeli attacks in countries throughout the globe, and though have not had any successful attempts within the United States, their persistence poses as a threat.
“By demonstrating a capability to strike U.S. and Israeli interests anywhere in the world, or creating a perception of this capability, Iran’s leaders hope to stave off a military strike, or at least make it extremely costly for their foes,” Fulton told Poe’s panel.
Though Hezbollah is currently designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the European Union, who has close ties with Lebanon, has remained hesitant to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Poe, a Republican from Humble, and other congressmen said they hoped the administration would soon add Hezbollah to the list.
But beyond Europe, Hezbollah and its partners have established a network in Latin America, said Ambassador Roger Noriega, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and former ambassador to the organization of American States. Over the past decade, Hezbollah and partnering groups have taken root in Venezuela, networking with narco-traffickers and guerrilla groups in smuggling and money laundering efforts.
Several speakers noted this week’s anniversary of Hezbollah’s attack on an Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which murdered 29 and injured several hundred, in 1992. Two years later, another attack occurred in Argentina’s capital city, where a Jewish Community Center was destroyed by a car bomb.
“Mr. Chairman, this is Hezbollah’s despicable legacy in the Americas,” Noriega said. “And that terrorist group — along with its sponsor, Iran — has returned to the scene of the crime.”
Poe told the Houston Chronicle after the hearing, that the United States hasn’t been doing enough to examine the terrorist organization’s influence in Latin American countries like Venezuela.
“We should be concerned about the Americas — North and South America. These are our closest neighbors. We should work with our neighbor regarding this terrorist organization. Hezbollah is not just an organization working over in the Middle East,” he said. “We should focus as much in our neighborhood as we do overseas.”
Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez held a good relationship with Iranian leaders before his death. Noriega said he fears Hezbollah might take advantage of the state of flux in Venezuela following Chavez’s death from cancer. He said it is in the United States’ best interest to turn its attention to countries in its own neighborhood in the Western hemisphere.
“I’m afraid that without a strong hand, that whatever regime or government, takes over for Chavez will not be able to manage this, what Hezbollah and Iran is up to in Latin America,” Noriega said.
Poe said he hopes U.S. officials will work with the next Venezuelan government to thwart Hezbollah’s influence.