Western anti-terrorism officials are increasingly concerned that Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim militia that Washington has labeled a terrorist group, is using Venezuela as a base for operations.
Linked to deadly attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina in the early 1990s, Hezbollah may be taking advantage of Venezuela's ties with Iran, the militia's longtime sponsor, to move "people and things" into the Americas, as one Western government terrorism expert put it.
As part of his anti-American foreign policy, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has established warm diplomatic relations with Iran and has traveled there several times. The Bush administration, Israel and other governments worry that Venezuela is emerging as a base for anti-U.S. militant groups and spy services, including Hezbollah and its Iranian allies.
"It's becoming a strategic partnership between Iran and Venezuela," said a Western anti-terrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the issue's sensitivity.
Several joint Venezuelan-Iranian business operations have been set up in Venezuela, including tractor, cement and auto factories. In addition, the two countries have formed a $2-billion program to fund social projects in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America.
Those deepening ties worry U.S. officials because Iranian spies around the world have been known to work with Hezbollah operatives, sometimes using Iranian embassies as cover, Western intelligence experts say.
In June, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon said Iran "has a history of terror in this hemisphere, and its linkages to the bombings in Buenos Aires are pretty well established."
"One of our broader concerns is what Iran is doing elsewhere in this hemisphere and what it could do if we were to find ourselves in some kind of confrontation with Iran," Shannon said.
Fears about the threat from Hezbollah's global networks intensified after the slaying in February of Imad Mughniyah, a notorious leader of the militia, in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Hezbollah and Iran accused Israel and promised revenge, putting Western authorities on guard against attacks on Israeli or Jewish targets around the world.
Although the Bush administration is embroiled in political conflict with the Chavez government, allegations that Hezbollah and Iranian spies operate in Venezuela date to the 1990s, before Chavez took office.
The most concrete allegations of a Hezbollah presence in Venezuela involve money-raising. In June, the U.S. Treasury Department designated two Venezuelan citizens as Hezbollah supporters and froze their U.S. assets.
Treasury officials formally accused Ghazi Nasr al Din, a Venezuelan diplomat of Lebanese descent, of using posts at embassies in the Middle East to support financing for Hezbollah and "discuss operational issues with senior officials" of the militia.
Nasr al Din "facilitated the travel" of Hezbollah members to and from Venezuela and to a "training course in Iran," according to Treasury officials. The president of a Shiite Muslim center in Caracas, he served as a diplomat in Damascus and later in Beirut, authorities say.
The second Venezuelan targeted by Treasury is Fawzi Kanan, a Caracas-based travel agent. He is also alleged to have facilitated travel for Hezbollah members and to have discussed "possible kidnappings and terrorist attacks" with senior Hezbollah officials in Lebanon. The Treasury allegations did not specify whether the alleged discussion involved plots for kidnappings in Venezuela or elsewhere.
In comments to a Venezuelan reporter, Kanan dismissed the charges as lies. The Venezuelan government has strenuously denied that it is harboring militants.
In March 2007, the intensified ties between Venezuela and Iran led to the start of weekly IranAir flights from Tehran to Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, that stop in Damascus.
The flights were highlighted in the State Department's annual assessment of global terrorism, which noted in April of this year that Venezuelan border officials at the Caracas airport often neglected to enter the arriving passengers into their immigration database and did not stamp passports. The Venezuelans have since tightened up on their procedures, informed sources say.
Despite those improvements, the IranAir flights also feature in recent intelligence gathered by Western anti-terrorism officials. Agents of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah have allegedly set up a special force to attempt to kidnap Jewish businesspeople in Latin America and spirit them away to Lebanon, according to the Western anti-terrorism official. Iranian and Hezbollah operatives traveling in and out of Venezuela have recruited Venezuelan informants working at the Caracas airport to gather intelligence on Jewish travelers as potential targets for abduction, the Western anti-terrorism official said.
The allegations were reinforced by a statement last week by the Israeli government, issuing an alert to citizens warning that Hezbollah plans to kidnap Israelis around the world to retaliate for the Mughniyah assassination.
Hezbollah has long operated in the Lebanese communities of Latin America. In addition to receiving a multimillion-dollar infusion from Iran, the militia finances itself by soliciting or extorting money from the Lebanese diaspora and through rackets such as smuggling, fraud and the drug and diamond trade in South America and elsewhere, Matthew Levitt, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Congress in 2005.
Three years ago, police in Colombia and Ecuador broke up an international cocaine-smuggling ring that functioned in Latin American countries, including Venezuela, and allegedly sent profits to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The lawless "tri-border" region connecting Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina has been a center of organized crime activities and finance linked to Hezbollah, Western anti-terrorism officials say.
Hezbollah operatives based there participated, along with Iranian spies, in the car bombings in Buenos Aires of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and a Jewish community center two years later that killed a total of 114 people, an Argentine indictment charges.
In the aftermath of that indictment, filed in 2006, Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors, chiefly the Revolutionary Guard, decided to shift from the increasingly scrutinized tri-border area to other countries, including Venezuela, Western anti-terrorism officials say.
"It preserves the capability of Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard to mount attacks inside Latin America. . . . It is very, very important to Iran and Hezbollah right now."
Kraul reported from Bogota and Rotella from Madrid.