President Obama's visit to South America could help focus attention on Iranian-Venezuelan terror collaboration, according to Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush.
Noriega (who also served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States) writes in the Washington Post that both regimes "are conspiring to sow Tehran's brand of proxy terrorism in the Western Hemisphere."
Last August, Noriega writes, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hosted senior leaders of Hizballah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) at a secret summit in Caracas. Those present included Hamas Supreme Leader Khaled Meshaal; PIJ Secretary-General Ramadan Abdullah Shallah; and Hizballah's chief of operations, whose name is kept secret.
The idea for the summit came from a meeting last May in Damascus between the Iranian and Venezuelan ambassadors to Syria. The number two Venezuelan diplomat in Syria, Ghazi Nassereddine Atef Salame, "is a naturalized Venezuelan of Lebanese origin who runs Hizballah's growing network in South America - which includes terrorist operatives and drug traffickers," Noriega writes.
Nassereddine allegedly does business with four companies run by Walid Makled, an accused cocaine smuggler indicted in the United States who is currently in jail in Colombia. Makled reportedly claims to have evidence showing the complicity of top Chavez cronies including his military commander in cocaine smuggling.
But the Colombian government wants to extradite Makled to Venezuela rather than sending him to New York to face drug charges, and Washington seems prepared to acquiesce. The fact that Makled has evidence that could shed light on Nassereddine's Hizballah network "should spur U.S. diplomats to renew their push for Makled's extradition to the United States," according to Noriega.
The former U.S. diplomat says that two Iranian terrorist trainers are on Margarita Island in Venezuela instructing operatives from around the region. Radical Muslims from Colombia and Venezuela receive spiritual training at a cultural center in Caracas named after the Ayatollah Khomeini and 19th-century South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar. Some "are dispatched to Qom, Iran, for Islamic studies," Noriega writes. The most fervent recruits in Qom "are given weapons and explosives training and are returned home as 'sleeper' agents."