A few days ago, when the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, denounced a plot orchestrated by elements of the Al Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of Iran which planned to hire Mexican hit-men to assassinate the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Washington, the news was received with a certain degree of skepticism inside and outside of the US. Despite the conclusive evidence of the Islamic Republic’s participation in the assassination attempt, a good number of academics and journalists put in doubt the credibility of the conspiracy on the grounds that there are no known antecedents of activities of Iranian intelligence, nor of its allies, the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, in Mexico. Nevertheless, the episode revealed by Holder is only the last in a series of incidents that have taken place throughout many years that have brought to light the efforts of Tehran to gain a presence in Mexican territory and the Caribbean with the aim of acquiring a strategic platform from which it can project power towards North America.
The increase in Iranian activities along the southern borders of the US has taken place in the context of a rise of Islamic Fundamentalism in the region. In the majority of Latin American countries close to the USA, Muslims represent an insignificant portion of the population. In fact, in Mexico there exist no more than 110,000, while inVenezuela there are scarcely 95,000 practicing Muslims. Even in countries where Muslims have a larger presence, Islamic communities remain to be clear minorities. For example, Surinam has 84,000 (15.9% of the population), while Trinidad and Tobago have 78,000 (5.8%). However, these religious groups have experienced a process of radicalization. In Guyana, for instance, there has been a significant increase in the use of the “hijab” to cover the women’s hair along with the Islamic practice of “temporary marriages” within Muslim communities. Meanwhile, Islamic proselytism and conversions to Islam have multiplied. Islamic missionaries in Mexico and Central America are conspicuous and have reaped considerable success. One case among several is the conversion of some 300 indigenous Tzotziles in Chiapas.
Across this human terrain, Tehran has intensified its diplomatic activities to build alliances with governments in the region. Along with its well-known alliance withVenezuela, Iranian diplomacy has sought to take advantage of other opportunities. In fact, relations between the Islamic Republic and Cuba have experienced a substantial strengthening over the last years which resulted in the recent signing of an agreement to provide the island with a 500 million Euro line of credit during the visit of the Iranian vice-president, Mohamed Reza Rahimi to Havana, last September. At the same time, Tehran’s diplomatic activities have extended to other islands in the Caribbean. This has been the case of the islands of St Vincent and Grenadines, whose reluctance to condemn the human rights violations of the Iranian regime during a voting session in the UN in 2009 was directly influenced by the promise of the Islamic Republic to finance a new airport in the archipelago. Likewise the Islamic Republic has continued with its efforts to extend its presence in Central America. With this in mind, Tehran tried to complement its ties with the government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua with the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Zelaya administration in Honduras. This project was abandoned when the Honduran President was overthrown in 2009.
The growth in Iranian diplomatic activity has been accompanied by an increase in the evidence of participation by functionaries of the Islamic Republic and members of Hezbollah in terrorist activities throughout the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico. Such was the case of the discovery of the conspiracy to blow-up fuel tanks at the John F. Kennedy airport in New York in 2007 which led to the arrest of an Imam from Trinidad and Tobago and another three individuals belonging to Guyana, all of whom were Shia Muslims. During the trial which took place in the USA, it became clear that the conspirators had kept in contact with Mohsen Rabbani in Iran, who was implicated in the attack against the Israeli-Argentinian Mutual Association Building (AMIA) in Buenos Aires in 1994.
Beyond this case, the instances in which agents close to Hezbollah have used Mexican or Central American territory as a base from which to conduct their operations in the US have not been scarce. In 2005, there was the case of Mahmoud Youssef Kourani. Coming from Mexico, he illegally entered the USA to locate himself amongst the Muslim community of Chicago, where he was arrested when collecting funds for Hezbollah. Perhaps it is of no coincidence that his brother occupied the position of Chief of Military Operations for southern Lebanon in this organization. More recently, in 2009, Jamal Youssef, an ex-officer of the Syrian Army with family ties to members of Hezbollah, was handed over to American justice after he had been captured trying to sell arms to undercover agents of the DEA posing as members of the Colombian guerrilla, FARC. Curiously enough, Youssef undertook the negotiations for the supposed arms sale in Honduras, and assured his contacts that the weapons, which amongst others included 17 ground-to-air missiles, would be ready for delivery in Mexico.
With a record like this, it becomes a lot more logical to think that the recently discovered assassination attempt of the Saudi diplomat by members of the Al Qods Force was not an isolated event, but rather a step further in a long term strategic effort to use Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean as a platform to operate in the US. Certainly, the low level of sophistication of the conspiracy marks the collaborators of Iranian intelligence in the hemisphere as still being relatively amateurish. At the same time, the very existence of the conspiracy reveals the clear intention of Tehran to build the clandestine infrastructure necessary to carry out terrorist attacks across the length and breadth of North American territory. Unless the US government and its Latin American allies disrupt this strategy, it will only be a matter of time before Tehran’s agents in the region learn to be more effective.
* Román D. Ortiz is the Director of Decisive Point, a consulting company specializing in security and defense. He also is a professor at the Department of Economics at Universidad de Los Andes,Bogota, where he focuses on the analysis of political violence and terrorism phenomena in Latin America.
Source: Realite EU