March 20, 2011

President Obama’s trip to South America has showcased promising partnerships in Brazil and elsewhere. His visit, however, should also focus attention in the region and within his administration on the fact that Iran and Venezuela are conspiring to sow Tehran’s brand of proxy terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.

On Aug. 22, 2010, at Iran’s suggestion, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hosted senior leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in a secret summit at military intelligence headquarters at the Fuerte Tiuna compound in southern Caracas. Among those present were Palestinian Islamic Jihad Secretary General Ramadan Abdullah Mohammad Shallah, who is on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists; Hamas’s “supreme leader,” Khaled Meshal; and Hezbollah’s “chief of operations,” whose identity is a closely guarded secret.

The idea for this summit sprang from a meeting between Iran’s ambassador to Syria, Ahmad Mousavi, and his Venezuelan counterpart, Imad Saab Saab, at the Venezuelan embassy in Damascus on May 10, 2010. According to the report received by Venezuela’s foreign minister, the two envoys were discussing a meeting between their presidents and Hezbollah’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, when the Iranian suggested that the three meet Chavez in Caracas. That these infamous criminals left their traditional havens demonstrates their confidence in Chavez and their determination to cultivate a terror network on America’s doorstep.

According to information from within the Venezuelan regime, arrangements for the August conclave were made by Chavez’s No. 2 diplomat in Syria, Ghazi Nassereddine Atef Salame. Nassereddine is a naturalized Venezuelan of Lebanese origin who runs Hezbollah’s growing network in South America — which includes terror operatives and drug traffickers. A document obtained recently from a senior Venezuelan diplomat indicates that Nassereddine does business with four companies operated by Walid Makled, a cocaine smuggler indicted in the United States and detained in Colombia.

Makled has admitted his ties to the drug trade in a series of media interviews from jail.  He claims to have documents and videotapes proving the complicity of Chavez’s military commander, Henry Rangel Silva, and other Chavista cronies in cocaine smuggling.  Colombian authorities say they must return Makled to his native Venezuela to face a murder charge, and U.S. diplomats have concluded it is pointless to continue pressing for his extradition to face drug charges in New York. Yet the revelation that Makled can cast light on Nassereddine’s Hezbollah network should spur U.S. diplomats to renew their push for Makled’s extradition to the United States.

The danger posed by a network of terrorists in the Americas is very real. Last May, Muhammad Saif-ur-Rehm Khan, a Pakistani applying for a U.S. visa at the American Embassy in Santiago, Chile, was detained after guards detected traces of bomb-making materials on his hands. U.S. officials discovered Khan’s link to the Islamist group Jamaat al-Tabligh. It is not clear how much they shared with Chilean investigators. Lacking evidence to prosecute Khan, Chilean authorities released him in January, and he left the country bound for Turkey. A high-ranking Chilean source informed me that, before his arrest, Khan lived and associated with persons of Egyptian, Saudi and Lebanese background — many of whom carried Venezuelan passports. One of the officials accused of issuing such Venezuelan identity documents to suspicious foreigners is Chavez confidante Tarek Zaidan El Aissami. Also Venezuela’s interior minister, El Aissami is of Syrian descent; his father is known for having publicly praised Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden; and his brother, Firaz, is an associate of the cocaine smuggler Makled.

The threat posed by globe-trotting terrorists is ever-present. A U.S. security official told me in mid-January that two known al-Qaeda operatives were in Caracas planning a “chemical” attack on the U.S. embassy; on Jan. 31, the embassy was closed, and reports at the time cited “credible threats.”

A Venezuelan government source has told me that two Iranian terrorist trainers are on Venezuela’s Margarita Island instructing operatives who have assembled from around the region. In addition, radical Muslims from Venezuela and Colombia are brought to a cultural center in Caracas named for the Ayatollah Khomeini and Simon Bolivar for spiritual training, and some are dispatched to Qom, Iran, for Islamic studies. Knowledgeable sources confirm that the most fervent recruits in Qom are given weapons and explosives training and are returned home as “sleeper” agents.

U.S. authorities could act today to degrade Chavez’s ability to support terrorism and Tehran. There are money-laundering, drug-trafficking or Iran-specific statutes they could invoke. The question is whether they will respond swiftly and effectively enough to prevent a deadly attack.

The writer was ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001 to 2003 and assistant secretary of state from 2003 to 2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients.