Iranian Influence in South America

July 24, 2018
Felicia Woron  —  CEP Research Assistant

In October 2014, Lebanese citizen Muhammad Ghaleb Hamdar was arrested in Lima, Peru. He was charged with conspiracy to commit terror after authorities found explosive materials and photos of potential targets––including popular Peruvian tourist locations––in his apartment. While in custody, Hamdar confessed that he was a member of Hezbollah’s External Security Organization and that he was working in Peru on its behalf. Nonetheless, a Peruvian court absolved Hamdar of the terrorism conspiracy charge in April 2017.

This was not Hezbollah’s first attempt to carry out an attack in South America. Both the Iranian-backed Lebanese terror group and the Iranian regime itself were linked to two major attacks in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the 1990s: the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in the city that killed 29 people, and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center that killed 85. Investigations into those events quickly led back to several Hezbollah operatives residing in the Tri-Border Area—a region straddling the borders of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina that has served as a base of operations for the group. However, the attacks were also possible due to extensive Iranian infiltration of the South American continent that has come to light in recent years and continues today.

In 2013, Alberto Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor assigned to investigate the still-unresolved 1994 AMIA bombing case, released a 500-page report detailing the Iranian regime’s expanding influence throughout South America. According to the report, in 1982, the Iranian regime held a “Seminar on the Ideal Islamic Government” in which it decided that it would try to achieve then-Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini’s vision to attain a unified, global Islamic state governed by sharia law, and approved the use of violence for its expansionist objectives. After the regime identified South America as an initial target, it planted operatives in embassies and mosques in several South American and Caribbean countries. For example, Iranian cleric Mohsen Rabbani worked at the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires and also served as a leader at the At-Tauhid mosque in the city. Although some Iranian operatives were expelled or arrested from their respective countries, Rabbani successfully facilitated the two attacks in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, and in 1997, returned to Iran––where he remains today––without facing repercussions.

Mosques and so-called “cultural centers” throughout South America continue to serve as hubs for Iranian- and Hezbollah-linked operatives to associate, propagate their radical ideology, and generate support. According to Nisman, many of these mosques and cultural centers have received direct financial support from the Iranian regime. Some function under the direction of Iranian operatives, who operate freely in their respective countries. The Islamic Cultural Center of Brazil and Mezquita do Brás mosque in São Paulo are led by Taleb Hussein al-Khasraji, a former Iranian government employee who is now a naturalized Brazilian citizen. The Iranian cleric Seyed Javad Ebrahimi was reportedly appointed imam of the Imán Mahdi mosque in Santiago, Chile, by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself.

Other mosques and cultural centers, however, are led by South American converts to Shia Islam who have adopted pro-Iranian and pro-Hezbollah views themselves. Between 2007 and 2013, more than 1,000 Latin Americans reportedly traveled to Iran to study with Mohsen Rabbani himself. The At-Tauhid Mosque in Buenos Aires is one of several mosques in Argentina led and frequented by Argentine sheikhs who studied with Rabbani and who reportedly have links to Hezbollah. Major Islamic cultural centers in Colombia, Chile, and Peru have also reportedly been led by native citizens of those countries who studied with Rabbani in Iran. Edwar Quiroga Vargas, the leader of the Iranian-sponsored Inkarri-Islam cultural center in Peru, reportedly regularly hosts Hezbollah-linked individuals. In 2016, he established a political party called “Partido de Dios”––a direction translation to “Party of God” or “Hezbollah.”

Iran has strived to make its ideology accessible to Latin Americans through resources including translated literature offered by cultural centers and HispanTV, an Iranian-sponsored Spanish-language news station broadcasted across the American continent. Inkarri-Islam, which is located in Peru’s rural Apurímac region, reportedly ties Shia Islamic narratives to indigenous Incan narratives in an attempt to cultivate popular support––while also promoting a heavily anti-Semitic agenda that calls for the liberation of the Incas from “Zionist colonization.”

Unfortunately, governments are turning a blind eye as Iran and Hezbollah continue to make inroads across South America. Known Hezbollah operatives continue to reside freely in Brazil and Paraguay, and Peru failed to prosecute Hamdar for terrorism. Not only has Argentina failed to implicate anyone for the 1994 AMIA bombing, but Nisman accused its government of attempting to collude with the Iranian regime on the investigation in exchange for trade concessions. Nisman’s claims resulted in his death a day before he was due to present evidence in court.

Although Hezbollah and Iran have not carried out a terrorist attack in South America since 1994, the arrest of Hamdar suggests that they are still willing and ready to use violence in the region in pursuit of their radical objectives, making their continued and unhindered presence a serious cause for concern. 

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