Exporting Terror in America's Backyard

Is the United States downplaying the threat from Iranian agents in Latin America?

As Iran has been gearing up for its June 14 presidential election, the activities of its powerful intelligence services have also been kicking into high gear across the globe. The U.S. State Department's annual terrorism report, released May 30, headlined the "marked resurgence" of Iran's terrorist activities -- and with good reason. "Iran and Hizballah's terrorist activity has reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s, with attacks plotted in Southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa," the report reads. And that's before we even get to Iran and Hezbollah's active support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown against his own people.

But that's not all. Closer to the United States, Iran not only continues to expand its presence and bilateral relationships with countries like Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, but it also maintains a network of intelligence agents specifically tasked with sponsoring and executing terrorist attacks in the Western Hemisphere.

The same day the State Department released its report, highly respected Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who served as special prosecutor for the investigation into the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, released a 500-page document laying out how the Iranian regime has, since the early 1980s, built and maintained "local clandestine intelligence stations designed to sponsor, foster and execute terrorist attacks" in the Western Hemisphere.

Nisman found evidence that Iran is building intelligence networks identical to the one responsible for the bombings in Argentina across the region -- from Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, and Colombia to Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname.

Nisman's 2006 report on the AMIA bombing already demonstrated how Iran established a robust intelligence network in South America in the early 1980s. One document, seized during a court-ordered raid of the residence of an Iranian diplomat north of Buenos Aires, included a map denoting areas populated by Muslim communities and suggested an Iranian strategy to export Islam into South America -- and from there to North America. Highlighting areas densely populated by Muslims, the document informed that these "will be used from Argentina as [the] center of penetration of Islam and its ideology towards the North American continent."

Nisman concluded that the driving force behind Iran's intelligence efforts in Argentina was Mohsen Rabbani, an Iranian who lived in Argentina for 11 years and played a key role in the Islamic Republic's intelligence operations in South America. Rabbani, the primary architect of the AMIA plot, reportedly had come from Iran for the express purpose of heading the state-owned al-Tawhid mosque in Buenos Aires, but he also served as a representative of the Iranian Ministry of Agriculture, which was tasked with ensuring the quality of Argentine meat exported to Iran. The Argentine prosecutor reported that Rabbani began laying the groundwork for his spy network after arriving in the country in 1983. Indeed, just prior to his departure for South America, Rabbani met Abolghasem Mesbahi, an Iranian intelligence official who would later defect, and explained to Mesbahi that he was being dispatched to Argentina "in order to create support groups for exporting the Islamic revolution," according to Nisman's 2006 report.

Rabbani advanced his vision of the "Islamic revolution" through a variety of means -- including the execution of two large-scale attacks in Argentina. In 1992, Iran and Hezbollah bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people. Two years later, they targeted the AMIA Jewish community center, killing 85 people. Based on Nisman's investigation, in 2007 Interpol issued six "red notices," which request international cooperation to arrest and extradite a suspect, for the key players behind the AMIA bombing. Two of those red notices were for Mohsen Rezaei and Ali Akbar Velayati, both of whom are running for president in Iran's upcoming election.

Rabbani's terrorist activities in South America, however, did not wane despite being indicted in Argentina. According to Nisman and U.S. District Court documents from the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, Rabbani helped four men who were plotting to bomb New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport in 2007 and who sought technical and financial assistance for the operation, codenamed "Chicken Farm." All four men were ultimately convicted in federal court.

The four men first sought out Yasin Abu Bakr, leader of the Trinidadian militant group Jamaat al-Muslimeen, and Adnan el-Shukrijumah, an al Qaeda operative who grew up in Brooklyn and South Florida and fled the United States for the Caribbean in the days before the 9/11 attacks. Unable to find Shukrijumah, the plotters "sent [co-conspirator] Abdul Kadir to meet with his contacts in the Iranian revolutionary leadership, including Mohsen Rabbani," according to a news release issued by the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York.

One co-conspirator was Kareem Ibrahim, an imam and leader of the Shiite Muslim community in Trinidad and Tobago. During cross-examination at trial, Ibrahim admitted that he advised the plotters to approach Iranian leaders with the plot and use operatives ready to engage in suicide attacks at the airport. In one of the recorded conversations entered into evidence, Ibrahim told Russell Defreitas -- a plotter who was a JFK baggage handler and a naturalized U.S. citizen -- that the attackers must be ready to "fight it out, kill who you could kill, and go back to Allah."

Documents seized from Kadir's house in Guyana demonstrated that he was a Rabbani disciple who built a Guyanese intelligence base for Iran much like his mentor had built in Argentina. In a letter written to Rabbani in 2006, Kadir agreed to perform a "mission" for Rabbani to determine whether a group of individuals in Guyana and Trinidad were up to some unidentified task.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Rabbani also oversaw the education and indoctrination of Guyanese and other South American Muslim youth, including Kadir's children, in Iran. Kadir was ultimately arrested in Trinidad aboard a plane headed to Venezuela, en route to Iran. He was carrying a computer drive with photographs featuring himself and his children posing with guns, which prosecutors suggested were intended as proof for Iranian officials of his intent and capability to carry out an attack.

In 2011, not long before the last defendant in the JFK airport bomb plot was convicted, evidence emerged suggesting Rabbani was still doing intelligence work in South America. An April 2011 article in the Brazilian magazine Veja, citing documents from the FBI, CIA, and Interpol, reported that Rabbani "frequently slips in and out of Brazil on a false passport and has recruited at least 24 youngsters in three Brazilian states to attend 'religious formation' classes in Tehran," according to an article in the Telegraph.

In the word of one Brazilian official quoted by the magazine, "Without anybody noticing, a generation of Islamic extremists is appearing in Brazil."

The growth of this Iranian extremist network in South America has immediate repercussions for the security of the United States. The same day that Nisman and the State Department released their reports, an Iranian-American used-car salesman from Texas was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in an Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States at a popular Washington restaurant. In the assessment by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, this plot "shows that some Iranian officials -- probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime."

Strangely, one of the countries most vulnerable to this terrorist threat appears more interested in placating, rather than opposing, the country responsible. In February, Argentina approved a deal with Iran for a joint "truth commission" to investigate the 1994 AMIA bombing -- a step that insults the Argentine victims of the attack and makes a mockery of the rule of law. Of course, Nisman, Argentina's own special prosecutor, left no doubt in his 2006 report and his latest 500-page report about the truth of who was behind the bombing -- Iranian agents.

The State Department has it right: There has indeed been a "marked resurgence" of Iranian state sponsorship of terrorism over the past 18 months. But as the new Nisman report drives home, here's an even more disturbing fact -- Iran has run intelligence networks in the United States' backyard to "sponsor, foster and execute terrorist attacks" for decades.



The Washington Intervention War

With diplomatic options dead in the water, camps are forming in the administration about how to arm the Syrian rebels.

Immediately after Susan Rice was named U.S. national security advisor and Samantha Power was tapped as America's next ambassador to the United Nations, Washington had a simple question: Could the Obama administration's two newest liberal hawks mold U.S. foreign policy? And will the exit of current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, the architect of President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia," mean a pivot toward a more energetic intervention in Syria?

Right now, the answer to that last question is: Nobody knows. The White House kicked off this week with meetings to consider more-aggressive options in Syria, including potentially arming the rebels in either a modest or a larger way. But if the United States adopts a new Syria policy, State Department insiders agree that it won't be because of Power or Rice -- it will be the work of Obama himself.

"Ultimately it has always been the president's decision," said a State Department official, who also noted that Rice and Power would inevitably receive credit or blame for any policy evolution regardless of their impact. "If it changes, it is because he has changed his mind."

So far, Obama remains reluctant to get more involved in a conflict that is estimated to have killed more than 80,000 people and left more than 1 million displaced. Last fall, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then-CIA Director David Petraeus, and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had backed a plan to arm the rebels. The president said no, wary of leading the country into another intractable conflict after a decade of wars. His skepticism was shared by Donilon, along with Vice President Joe Biden. Rice, then ambassador to the United Nations, was also said to be skeptical.

The U.S. bureaucracy is currently divided over how to respond to the worsening crisis in Syria. On one side are those who see the fight as a quagmire from which the United States will not easily be freed. On the other are those who say that looking irrelevant in the Middle East will eventually come back to haunt Washington.

The State Department is out in front of the White House and is actively pushing for arming the rebels. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is far less forward-leaning, focused on the risks and potential pitfalls of lethal aid and potential military action. Indeed, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey has publicly called intervention in Syria "very difficult."

However, shifting facts on the ground might empower those favoring more energetic intervention. While Secretary of State John Kerry had been pushing for peace talks between the regime and the opposition, those plans remain on hold as rebel losses mount. Discussions to be held in Geneva already have been postponed once, and no rain date looks imminent. Some have criticized Kerry for getting played diplomatically by the Russians, who continue to make arms shipments to the Syrian government, but others say that the United States must first be seen as exhausting all diplomatic options, even if they are lousy. The improbability of a negotiated solution, combined with military losses for the rebels, has spurred discussion in the White House about what comes next. Moreover, the intervention of Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters to buttress the Syrian government's forces has sparked fears in Washington that Tehran could actually emerge from the conflict in a stronger position in Syria.

"If anything gets us moving, it will be the Iran threat," said the State Department official. "Right now Iran is winning the strategic game in the region."

So far, however, the White House appears to be erring on the side of caution. A second State Department official said there was energy to do more -- but "what 'more' looks like is a completely different question." Despite the very real concern about rebel losses and Iranian intervention, this official said, "I just don't know when [U.S. policy] will change."

Both officials agree that Obama is not on the verge of authorizing a far-reaching and aggressive new Syria policy. Caution, rather than energetic intervention, is still the president's default position.

"I don't think they are mentally prepared to do anything significant," said the first official. "They might do some covert arming, but I think what is needed might actually have to be targeted strikes -- and I just highly doubt that they will do it."

Some diplomatic veterans are concerned that splitting the difference will not bolster U.S. influence.

"If the objective is to affect the balance of power, but to use minimal means, that doesn't make any sense," says former Ambassador Dennis Ross, who spent more than a decade helping to shape U.S. policy in the Middle East and served Secretary of State Clinton as a special advisor on Iran. Ross argues that the United States should "be prepared" to consider deploying Patriot missiles along the Turkey-Syria border as part of a "limited no-fly" zone and says the same thing may have to be considered for Jordan.

On the idea of arming the rebels, Ross notes "it is only likely to be effective if it is done in a very significant way," with training, funding, and equipment part of the package. "If you are going to go down this route, then you ought to go down this route in a really serious way. That means being prepared to shape the whole operation and with a very senior person, maybe a four-star [general] in charge of it."

Ross notes that lack of U.S. military action to date could mean that any greater intervention could speak even louder than it otherwise would. "The worst thing is to do something in a very limited way that engages you a bit more, but has a very limited effect," says Ross.

But even if the White House is not primed for a dramatic about-face on Syria, the opposition's advocates in Washington say that in the past few months they have seen the first signs of positive change from the Obama administration. Dan Layman, a spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, a U.S. advocacy group with extensive contacts to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), says his organization started noticing a shift in late February and March. "From that point, when we got the OK to go in with food and medicine, they already were talking about their interest in sending in harder stuff," he said.

State Department officials asked Layman and his colleagues this year to find out from Gen. Salim Idriss, who leads the opposition FSA, what he needed in terms of more potent nonlethal aid. The answer included communications gear, including radios and satellite uplinks, to coordinate battlefield movements.

"I would honestly suspect that we are going to see this before Aug. 1," Layman said, referring to increased nonlethal assistance. "I am not sure we are going to see arms this summer, but I am 100 percent confident that we are going to see more nonlethal stuff this summer."

Layman noted that his team just last week finished coordinating the delivery of a U.S.-funded $8 million shipment of nonlethal supplies to Idriss's forces. This shipment included more than 200,000 halal meals, several hundred personal medical kits, and field hospital supplies.

In Layman's view, such shipments simply mark the beginning of Washington's relationship with the Syrian rebels. He views the food and medical supplies as a "pilot" that will prove that Idriss and the FSA can be trusted to distribute supplies to moderates without bolstering extremists.

"If that is done successfully we can amp it up to the nonlethal aid that is communications equipment or night vision goggles or radios that they have originally mentioned," Layman said.

And then, perhaps, weapons?

"We are hopeful with the Rice and Power shift that the White House is going to be leaning forward on Syria even more than they have been," Layman said.

Coming days will tell. In the meantime the fighting continues.

"We are dying; we are suffering," said Idriss. "The situation is very dangerous now; we need someone who can help us." That was two weeks ago.