(CNSNews.com) - The State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator told members of a Senate panel on Tuesday that there is “no credible information” to indicate that the international terrorist organization Hezbollah has an “operational presence in Latin America.”
However, as CNSNews.com has reported, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) says the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hezbollah is linked to drug traffickers in South America’s tri-border region, which includes Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, and is using the proceeds from trafficking cocaine into Europe and the Middle East to finance its operations.
“In the Western hemisphere, Hezbollah has tapped into Muslim communities to raise funds … we do note, however, that we have no credible information to indicate that Hezbollah has an operational presence in Latin America,” testified Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism.
Benjamin testified on June 8 before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs to assess Hezbollah.
In his prepared testimony, Benjamin said, “Hezbollah’s network of financial support knows no borders, with active operations in many places around the globe, including Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America.”
According to an April 30 report by the Congressional Research Service, “International terrorist groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah, have also reportedly raised funding for their terrorist activities through linkages formed with [drug trafficking organizations] in South America, particularly those operating in the tri-border area (TBA) of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.”
Rhonda Shore, a spokesperson for the State Department, told CNSNews.com in an e-mail that Benjamin used the word “operational” in reference to “planning terrorist incidents.”
She added that the State Department is aware of “the fundraising aspect” stemming from the relationship between Hezbollah and South American drug traffickers. She also said the State Department would get back to CNSNews.com and comment on the issue of Hezbollah generating funds through the illicit drug trade in South America.
Ryan C. Crocker, who retired from the U.S. Foreign Service and is a Middle East expert, also testified on Tuesday. In addition, he questioned Benjamin’s assessment of Hezbollah’s “operational presence” in Latin America.
“Whether we call it operational or not, Hezbollah is deeply rooted in the tri-border region, they are implicated in the drug business, they are presumably generating substantial revenues for the parent organization that goes into weapon supply and absolutely lethal operations,” Crocker told CNSNews.com.
He continued, “So I would call that operational, and I think it deserves perhaps more of a focus than it’s gotten.”
When asked if the connection between Hezbollah and South American drug traffickers raises the threat that Hezbollah poses for the United States, Crocker said that the issue “deserves more scrutiny from the United States.”
“We know they’re there, we believe they’re linked to the drug trade, we don’t know what else they’re doing or who else they’re linked to,” he explained.
“As I said in my testimony, Hezbollah is a global network and this is its closest penetration to our own borders,” he said. “I can’t say exactly what they’re doing, but I don’t think the U.S. government can’t say either -- and that is something they need to get on immediately.”
During the hearing, the State Department’s Benjamin highlighted the threat that Hezbollah poses for the United States and its allies.
“Hezbollah remains the most technically capable terrorist group in the world and it is responsible for some of the most deadly terrorist attacks against Americans in history,” testified Benjamin.
“While we recognize that Hezbollah is not directly targeting the United States today, we are aware that that can change, especially if tensions increase with Iran over that country’s nuclear program,” he said.
According to Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), who also testified, Hezbollah has 40,000 missiles and rockets and is capable of waging a war on its own.
Hezbollah is “the most potent terrorist organization next to Al Qaeda – and perhaps better organized and better armed than Al Qaeda,” Pletka told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee.
CNSNews.com asked Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), the chairman of the committee holding the hearing, about the implications that could stem from the relationship between Hezbollah and drug traffickers in South America, as described in the CRS report.
Although the senator clarified that he was not familiar with the report’s content, he said, “If there is a relationship between a terrorist organization and any kind of a drug trafficking organization that’s a real threat not only in that particular region, but it obviously poses a threat to the American people.”
“The main concern we have now growing out of the hearing is the build-up in arms and weapons in Hezbollah as it threatens Israel directly,” he said, “because they’ve taken action against Israel in the past, the recent past, and how that destabilizes the region. That’s, I think, the most central, the most central concern right now.”
In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2008 released in April 2009, the State Department said:
“The United States remained concerned that Hizballah and HAMAS sympathizers were raising funds in the Tri-Border Area by participating in illicit activities and soliciting donations from sympathizers in the sizable Middle Eastern communities in the region. There was no corroborated information, however, that these or other Islamic extremist groups had an operational presence in the region.”
Hezbollah, Hamas Raise Money for ‘Terrorist Activities’ From Drug Trade in South America, Congressional Research Service Says (June 9, 2010)