US authorities have indicted a former Venezuelan congressman for serving as a go-between for Nicolás Maduro's government, Hezbollah and Hamas, drastically upping the ante on recurrent, albeit thinly supported allegations of dealings between Venezuela and militants in the Middle East.
The US Justice Department announced the charges on May 27, alleging that Adel El Zabayar “participated in weapons-for-cocaine negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), obtained anti-tank rocket launchers from the Middle East for the FARC as partial payment for cocaine, and recruited terrorists from Hezbollah and Hamas for the purpose of helping to plan and organize attacks against United States interests.”
A supporting criminal complaint details how El Zabayar accompanied former president Hugo Chávez on a trip to the Middle East in 2009, meeting with Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad. In 2013, El Zabayar traveled to Syria, declaring his intention to fight alongside Assad’s forces, according to CNN, although it is unknown if he actually took part in combat. Subsequently, he gave interviews to Hezbollah-affiliated television station Al Manar, denouncing US “imperialism.”
The complaint goes on to claim that El Zabayar was later sent back to the Middle East to obtain weapons of war and to recruit Hamas and Hezbollah militants to train in Venezuela. The weapons were allegedly delivered to the FARC by El Zabayar on the orders of regime strongman Diosdado Cabello in payment for cocaine provided to the state-embedded drug trafficking organization known as the Cartel of the Suns.
El Zabayar, who is currently president of the Venezuelan Arab Federation, dismissed the accusations as “infamies" on Twitter.
Hezbollah, Hamas and the FARC are all listed as “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” by the US Bureau of Counterterrorism.
InSight Crime Analysis
Although the El Zabayar indictment is more detailed than previous allegations, it appears to lack conclusive evidence showing links between Venezuelan officials and organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
Its central claims hinge on the testimony of anonymous sources and thus cannot be verified. Besides the "weapons-for-cocaine negotiations," the most striking part of the indictment is that El Zabayar sought to "recruit terrorists...to plan and organize attacks on US interests." Yet no details are provided about how El Zabayar’s alleged recruitment ring worked and whether any militants actually trained in Venezuela or to what specific purpose.
To be sure, coming on the back of multiple US drug trafficking charges against Maduro’s inner circle, the El Zabayar indictment seems to be more of a calculated attempt to turn up the heat on the Venezuelan government.
These are not the first allegations regarding Venezuelan collaboration with militants in the Middle East, especially Hezbollah. In February 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that Hezbollah had active cells inside Venezuela in an interview with Fox Business but again provided no specifics.
In April 2018, a report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a right-wing think tank, spoke of Hezbollah "operatives dispatched to Latin America to run drug smuggling, gun running and money laundering."
In February 2017, a letter signed by 34 US legislators stated that then-Vice President Tareck El Aissami had been involved in providing passports to 173 individuals from the Middle East, including suspected members of Hezbollah and Hamas.
The passport fraud allegations were plausible, given a long history of such schemes in Latin America but these are absolutely not limited to Venezuela alone. There have been past reports of Hezbollah members getting fake documents through Belize, for example. But such passports would not necessarily help anyone enter the United States since they would need a valid visa as well. Since October 2017, Venezuelans have largely been prohibited from entering the United States.
Allegations of El Aissami’s support for Hezbollah were later repeated by defected Venezuelan security chief, Hugo Carvajal, after he fled from Venezuela in early 2019. Carvajal stated that El Aissami had also accompanied Chávez on his 2009 trip to the Middle East, with the goal of recruiting Hezbollah militants.
Charges of drug trafficking and money laundering connections are credible given the well-established business links, both licit and illicit, between Venezuela and Iran. And two suspected money launderers operating in the Tri-Border Area of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil were recently indicted, arrested and extradited to face trial in the US, in part due to their alleged work laundering money for Hezbollah.
But the allegations of "narco-terrorism" as stated by this latest indictment lack any public-facing evidence.