When Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in Syria on Saturday, he will no doubt raise the issue of Hezbollah with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The Syrians claim that they have no control over Hezbollah. Besides, Damascus will argue, Hezbollah’s terrorist activities are aimed only against Israel, and therefore are justifiable. But Secretary Powell should recall the recent statement of Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, made in the run-up to the U.S.-led war in Iraq: “In the past, when the Marines were in Beirut, we screamed ‘Death to America!’ Today, when the region is being filled with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, ‘Death to America!’ was, is, and will stay our slogan.”
Syria’s support for the Lebanon-based Hezbollah has made it a virtual terrorist powerhouse. Syria not only shelters Hezbollah and transfers Iranian weapons, including thousands of short-range artillery rockets and ballistic missiles, to the group. It also provides them with arms from its own stockpiles and millions of dollars worth of assistance in the form of training facilities and logistical and technological support. This help has, to a large degree, made the Shiite militia’s war on Israel possible. In return, Hezbollah officials understandably lavish Damascus with praise. In an interview on Syrian TV in June 2002, Hassan Nasrallah praised Syria for remaining a “safe haven for jihad . . . the geographical and political refuge adopting the resistance movements in the region.”
And Syria’s support is just the tip of the iceberg. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was right to label Hezbollah as the “A-team” of today’s terrorists. By conservative estimates, Hezbollah’s international network includes at least 15,000 operatives in cells in the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Indonesia, Malaysia, and throughout Africa.
Hezbollah’s presence in the lawless tri-border region of South America, where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay intersect, is of particular concern. In the mid-1980s, Hezbollah clerics and members of other Islamist organizations began proselytizing, planting operatives from the Middle East, and recruiting new members from among the tri-border region’s residents. The jungles in the region were soon filled with terrorist training camps, which continue to turn out well-trained operatives to this day. In addition, Brazilian, Colombian, and Argentinean intelligence sources report that special weekend camps, run by Hezbollah, train children and teenagers in the use of weapons and combat techniques, as well as indoctrinate them with Ayatollah Khomeini’s anti-American and anti-Jewish ideologies.
Hezbollah is heavily involved in the illegal drug trade in the tri-border region, as well as in money laundering, drugs-for-arms deals, and straightforward drug trafficking. Hezbollah operatives have developed strong relationships with major narco-terrorist and drug-trafficking organizations from Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia, and the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru.
Brazilian authorities have estimated in recent years that criminals in the tri-border region have been laundering approximately $6 billion annually. According to Paraguayan interior minister Julio César Fanego, from 1999 to 2001 Hezbollah received anywhere from $50 to $500 million from this region alone. And Brazilian security agencies estimate that at least $261 million was sent from Islamist organizations operating in the tri-border region to the Middle East. Most of it went to Hezbollah just in the year 2000.
Secretary Powell’s visit to Damascus provides the White House with the unique opportunity to press Syria to stop its involvement with and sponsorship of all terror organizations, particularly Hezbollah — possibly the single-largest threat to the U.S. after al Qaeda. If Powell is successful, we will be one step closer to victory in the war on terrorism.
— Rachel Ehrenfeld is director of the Manhattan-based American Center for Democracy. Her new book Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It, is due out this summer.