December 2, 2021 | Real Clear Defense

Iran’s Quest for Soleimani’s Revenge Goes to Latin America

December 2, 2021 | Real Clear Defense

Iran’s Quest for Soleimani’s Revenge Goes to Latin America

Shortly after a U.S. strike killed Iran’s most senior general, Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad in January 2020, both Iran and its terror proxy Hezbollah swore revenge. Nearly two years later, Iran and Hezbollah have not meaningfully struck back at their enemies, particularly the United States and Israel — but not for want of trying. On November 28, Kenyan and Israeli media reported the arrest of an Iranian businessman by Kenyan, whom they suspect was plotting attacks against both local and Israeli targets. These revelations emerge only weeks after Colombia’s daily El Tiempo revealed another Iranian failed terror plot, highlighting how Latin America remains a playground for Iranian mischief.

According to El Tiempo, an Iranian national recruited two prison inmates while sharing a cell in Dubai sometime between 2017 and 2021, where the three were serving time for prior convictions. According to the Israeli daily Israel Hayom, the recruiter was apparently a member of Iran’s Quds Force, the overseas operations unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Once released in March 2021, the two criminals came to Colombia and began scouting two Israeli businessmen and their families, identifying their homes, workplace, and routine movements. They reportedly also established contact with local hitmen to carry out an assassination, but Colombian intelligence foiled their plots.

On November 14, during a visit to Israel by Colombia’s president, El Tiempo revealed further details of the assassination plot, which reportedly sought to target U.S. diplomats as well, noting that Colombian authorities had arrested and expelled two Hezbollah operatives — likely the same two guns-for-hire recruited in Dubai. Colombian authorities, according to El Tiempo, had already expelled the two, whose nationality remains publicly unknown.

The Colombian hit is part of a string of attacks that so far have failed to come to fruition. In January 2021, Iranian proxies in New Delhi remotely detonated an explosive device in front of Israel’s embassy but caused no injuries. And in October, media reports revealed the arrest of an Azerbaijani citizen traveling to Cyprus with a Russian passport. Israel said he was an Iranian proxy tasked with assassinating Israeli businessmen on the Mediterranean island.

Failure will not deter Iran and Hezbollah from trying again, and it might be easier to do so in Latin America than elsewhere. Colombia, for example, hosts a large Iranian propaganda operation; is home to a strong Lebanese Shiite community with a history of involvement in terror finance; and borders Venezuela, Iran’s closest ideological ally in Latin America. Colombia also enjoys close commercial, diplomatic, and security ties to both the United States and Israel, offering a target-rich environment.

Iran and Hezbollah’s terror plots in the Western Hemisphere worry Washington, and with good reason, given Iran’s infrastructure, support, and capabilities. In his March 2020 Posture Statement before Congress, Southern Command’s Admiral Craig Faller raised the alarm about possible retaliatory attacks: “Some Hezbollah supporters cache weapons and raise funds, often via charitable donations, remittances, and sometimes through illicit means, such as drug trafficking and money laundering. Having a footprint in the region also allows Iran to collect intelligence and conduct contingency planning for possible retaliatory attacks against the U.S. and/or Western interests.”

A year later, in his March 2021 Posture Statement, Admiral Faller declared, “Hizballah’s Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), its external operations arm, is responsible for at least three high-profile attacks in the region and three other planned operations that were disrupted.” Preparedness and the resolve to carry out attacks, when combined, mean that the risk remains high.

“The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force, Tehran’s primary external operations unit for exporting the Islamic Revolution, maintains operatives in foreign embassies, charities, and religious and cultural institutions to enhance ties globally,” Admiral Faller added. Both Iran and Hezbollah rely on these extensive networks for any potential contingency, including, when needed, to help terror cells plan their deadly plots.

The success of Iran and Hezbollah in developing such extensive infrastructure partly stems from the friendly ties that Tehran has developed with authoritarian, ideologically like-minded countries such as Venezuela, which has become Iran’s forward operating base in South America. Tehran’s agents benefit from access to genuine Venezuelan identity documents and passports, which enable them to travel freely in the entire region. Meanwhile, Iran has established cultural centers and mosques across Venezuela, recruiting and radicalizing locals.

But even without this type of ideological convergence, both Iran and Hezbollah have benefited from the benign neglect of regional governments, even those friendly to the United States and Israel. Iran’s influence ops through cultural centers thrive in virtually every Latin American country, from Mexico to Chile, regardless of the political leanings of local governments. And Shiite mosques, whether serving Lebanese and Iranian Shiite expatriates or Latin American converts to Shiite Islam, are overwhelmingly under the control of Iranian and Hezbollah-friendly clerics.

While the extensive Iranian infrastructure built over time makes it possible for Tehran to plan and carry out attacks, there is another reason why Latin America remains a preferred target for Iran’s revenge operations: Their agents incur minimal risk despite their activities.

In most cases, the local legal framework makes it virtually impossible to yield terrorist convictions, and corruption can buy a get-out-of-jail-free card. As a result, caught operatives get expelled and sent back to their country of origin — hardly a disincentive. As reported by El Tiempo, the recent case of two Iran-hired operatives in Colombia provides one of many examples of this phenomenon.

In another case, Colombian authorities also expelled — rather than prosecute — a Hezbollah agent, Abdallah Rada Ramel, in 2017, on account of his extensive illicit finance activities.

Similarly, Peru arrested a Hezbollah agent, Mohammed Ghaleb Hamdar, in 2014 and put him on trial after a foreign intelligence service — likely Israel’s Mossad — tipped off local authorities about his likely plans to carry out a mass casualty attack in Lima. Though Hamdar is a U.S.-sanctioned Hezbollah terrorist with proven ties to Hezbollah’s External Security Organization, he was still able to elude a terrorism conviction, ending up serving a shorter sentence for immigration fraud instead.

Given all the above, there is no reason to assume that recent failures, such as the Colombia murder plot, will deter Iran from trying again. And the Western Hemisphere will continue to be a target of choice. Iran has spent four decades patiently laying the groundwork to make the region a battlefield against its ideological adversaries. The Islamic Republic’s desire for revenge and the regime’s ability to deliver it, alas, make it likely that more plots will unfold in Latin America. 

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research institute based in Washington, DC. An earlier version of this article appeared in Akhbar Al Aan on November 19, 2021. Follow Emanuele on Twitter @eottolenghi.


Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran in Latin America Sanctions and Illicit Finance