You Say FARQaeda, I Say El Qaeda

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) knows her terrorists. And as queen bee representative of the Miami anti-Castro movement for the last 22 years, she has had a lot of practice telling the American people whom they should be afraid of and whom should be backhanded by Uncle Sam, whether it be with crippling economic sanctions or a rain of fire on their cities.

That’s why it came as no surprise this month when Ros-Lehtinen and her fellow terror radar, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), cited "overwhelming evidence" that al-Qaeda is working closely with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), with Venezuela facilitating their drug deals as well as the activities of numerous international drug cartels and Middle Eastern terror groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

Some are already calling it FARQaeda, or better yet, El Qaeda.

"Groups like the FARC are finding new ways to sell drugs in Europe by means of al-Qaeda in Africa," Ros-Lehtinen charged in a statement to reporters earlier this month. "And al-Qaeda is more than willing to use the drug trade to help finance its extremist agenda."

As for Venezuela and its president, Hugo Chavez, who is the arch nemesis of Ros-Lehtinen and her fellow neoconservatives in Congress, she added, "It is no surprise that Hugo Chavez allows Venezuela to serve as a massive airport for the use of traffickers. In fact, the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] has said that all the planes captured in West Africa left for Venezuela."

Mack added that evidence exists that that FARC, Hezbollah, and Hamas "operate with few restrictions in Venezuela," and that agents from these organizations travel abroad with Venezuelan passports.

Put it all together, Mack continued, and "there is no doubt that the potential threat to [U.S.] security from Venezuela is extremely high." He and Ros-Lehtinen then asked President Obama – again, no surprise – to add Venezuela to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

This isn’t the first time they’ve tried to nail Chavez by advocating the inclusion of his socialist country on that list. There’s just no overwhelming support in Congress for it, probably because the "overwhelming evidence" they cite is as loose as a goose, a witch’s brew of fluctuating threat assessments, unnamed official sources, scattered arrests, the frozen assets of disparate individuals, suspects on the lam, a declared "Axis of Unity," and a lot of hype. And that also goes for the most recent charges – and one could say the most audacious yet – of an al-Qaeda-FARC-Venezuela narco nexus.

"Al-Qaeda? That’s even more ridiculous," charges a nonplused Marc Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and president of Just Foreign Policy in Washington, D.C. "But they’re always coming up with that kind of stuff. I usually ignore it. [Mack and Ros-Lehtinen] are pretty wild… obsessed with enemies south of the border."

"They’ve conflated a lot of stuff together to make it politically palatable" for a vulnerable audience, just after a Christmas Day bomb plot was foiled and the threat levels were raised once again, suggests Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Ros-Lehtinen and Mack apparently weren’t satisfied that their primary torment, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, was included on a list of 14 countries from which airline passengers will now be singled out for body searches at security checkpoints and remains on the list of states that sponsor terrorism. They are driven to see that Castro’s friend Hugo Chavez is a leader "of interest" in the wider Global War on Terror, too.

"I call it a stunt because it is all based on one article – one Reuters piece – based on one [DEA] agent," says Tree of the latest al-Qaeda accusations.

The Jan. 3 report in question said the U.S. can establish a link "suggesting al-Qaeda is funding itself in part by providing security for drug smugglers in West Africa." Specifically, the report asserted that FARC is expediting drugs through West Africa and paying al-Qaeda to get shipments to the European market.

As Foreign Policy blogger Joshua Keating pointed out, the charges are based on the December arrest of three alleged al-Qaeda members who were approached in Ghana by a DEA agent posing as a Lebanese radical and "fixer" for FARC. "U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara says the arrests ‘reflect the emergence of a worrisome alliance between al-Qaeda and transnational narcotics traffickers,’" wrote Keating, "but if these guys represent the vanguard of a new generation of narcoterror, we probably don’t have too much to worry about."

The "unholy alliance" of "Islamic extremists" and "Marxist rebels," as described by Reuters correspondent Hugh Bronstein, is therefore based on the cuffing of three al-Qaeda rubes in what appears to be the DEA’s easiest sting operation since agents dressed up like Deadheads to net hippies like fish in a barrel outside Grateful Dead concerts.

Still, it was all that the lobby of fear-mongers and GWOT-peddlers needed to advance the argument that al-Qaeda is insinuating itself in the Western Hemisphere via a noisome, anti-American, socialist bully. "Connie Mack and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are exploiting people’s fears about terrorism in the wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt, to pursue their own vendettas against the Venezuelan government," says anti-Drug War activist Sean Donahue.

"The idea that the Marxists of the FARC, the Shi’ites of Hezbollah and Hamas, the Sunnis of al-Qaeda, and the government of Venezuela all are conspiring together to create mayhem in the U.S. is laughable."

But for 10 years, the attempt to find and connect the dots has not been a laughing matter. The motivations vary – political, ideological, or pure institutional self-preservation – but the goal has been the same: to prove that the evildoers of the Middle East are being harbored by governments we do not like or cannot control here in our own neighborhood. But experts say the bread crumbs hardly measure up to anything worth eating, and so far all the hype has yet to catch fire.

For example, in 2002, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics and Law Enforcement Rand Beers (who today serves Obama’s Department of Homeland Security) was forced to rescind a statement he made during a federal court deposition. In his initial statement, made under oath in November 2001 (at the height of American fear and paranoia), Beers said FARC guerrillas had received training in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and any disruption in the U.S.-led drug eradication effort would "undermine national security."

In September 2002, Beers entered in a "supplemental," retracting several assertions made during the initial deposition, including that "it is believed that FARC terrorists have received training in al-Qaeda terrorist camps."

As stated in the supplemental, "based upon information made available to me subsequent to the filing of the declaration, I no longer believe this statement to be true and correct."

There have been a number of attempts to situate al-Qaeda and the diaspora of Middle East terror elements in South America, beginning shortly after 9/11. About the time of Beers’ original deposition, CNN produced a report about a seeming terrorist infestation in the "tri-border region," the porous area where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. Zeroing in on Ciudad del Este, which is described in this and other excited accounts at the time as a sort of cross between a medieval bazaar and the pirate city of Mos Eisley from Star Wars, CNN cited "official sources" and a lot of conjecture.

"Sources told CNN they believe the tri-border area is being used as a haven and source of funding for terrorists linked to Iran’s Party of God and to organizations that work closely with Osama bin Laden.

"In Ciudad del Este, on the Paraguayan side of the Parana River, the commercial district is a mosaic of businesses owned mostly by Arab merchants. International and regional intelligence sources said those businesses and a mosque in the city serve as a revolving door for Islamic extremists."

Five years later, Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar pointed out that the U.S. military still hadn’t confirmed the existence of terrorist cells at the tri-border, "nor anywhere else in South American for that matter." He said that between 2001 and 2002 "the whole thing had been fine combed by U.S. and Brazilian investigators," but they failed to find anything to match the hype. As for the alleged $20 million a year being sent from the region to finance Hezbollah, Escobar wrote, "there’s no independent confirmation."

"But the pressure is nonstop" to find it, he added.

In many ways, people like Ros-Lehtinen and Mack have all the evidence they need. In 2007, Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis, then-head of U.S. Southern Command, gave his annual "posture statement" [.pdf] to Congress in which he argued that "Hezbollah appears to be the most prominent group active in the region, and while much of their activity is currently linked to revenue generation, there are indications of an operational presence and potential for attacks."

He added that the Colombian government had broken up a forgery ring with alleged ties to Islamic extremists, and that Brazilian authorities had arrested a suspect linked to the assassination of Lebanese Foreign Minister Rafik Hariri. The suspect, Rana Qoleilat, who was also accused of a massive bank swindle in Beirut, was reportedly cleared of all charges less than a year later.

In 2007, several individuals’ assets were frozen by the U.S. Treasury, which charged the men with raising money for Hezbollah and trafficking in fake passports and drugs. Then in 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department fingered Venezuelan diplomat Ghazi Nasr al Din and Venezuelan-Arab businessman Fawzi Kanan as key links to Hezbollah and subsequently froze their assets. As a result, the Bush administration accused the Chavez government of providing "safe harbor" to Hezbollah "facilitators and fundraisers."

Still, no al-Qaeda.

Keep in mind, according to the Treasury’s own data, the total amount of assets from foreign terrorist groups, individuals, and charities frozen by the Treasury Department in 2008 was less than $25 million, only 5 percent of total terrorism-related funding targeted that year. About 95 percent came from states that sponsored terrorism directly, calling into question how big a role these supposed financiers play in the first place.

Meanwhile, the stagy "Axis of Unity" between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Chavez has been proof enough for the terror-chasers that Iran is plotting to strike at the U.S. from its own backyard.

"Since 2000, Chavez has been to Tehran seven times for extensive deal-making that has produced $20 billion of arrangements more opaque than the funds of Bernie Madoff," wrote Douglas Schoen and Michael Rowan, authors of The Threat Closer to Home: Hugo Chavez and the War against America, in a January 2009 Forbes commentary. But the "deal-making" has hardly been a secret. As of March 2008, the two countries had generated nearly 200 bilateral agreements involving oil, gas, and the financial and metals industries – with Iran doing most of the investing – though it is not clear how much of that has yet reached fruition.

For his part, Chavez has sided with Ahmadinejad over the recent anti-regime protests in Iran and has accused the Israelis of "genocide" in Gaza. Venezuela joined Cuba and Malaysia in voting against an IAEA censure of Iran over its nuclear facility at Qom in November.

Schoen and Rowan suggest all of this may be a prelude to an anti-American attack and point to numerous "investigations" into supposed Hezbollah-Caracas connections. Chavez "has all the weapons needed to terrorize the U.S., including the capacity to build a dirty bomb – or another biological weapon – and the ability to move money or materials across American borders at will through the 14,000 American gas stations he owns," they wrote. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau pumped these theories up with steroids late last year, suggesting in a Brookings Institution speech that Venezuela might be mining uranium for Iran.

But what does all of this amount to? A thicket of investigations, arrests, and theories, but so far, no smoking gun. Ros-Lehtinen and Mack are nonetheless convinced that Chavez is not only facilitating FARC rebels, but also providing a safe haven for Hezbollah and a now a revenue stream for al-Qaeda, too. It’s as easy as connecting the dots.

Funny, there wasn’t a lot of dot-connecting when Ros-Lehtinen lobbied to get terrorist Orlando Bosch out of the slammer (he’s beloved by the anti-Castro community, even though he’s accused of destroying an airliner with 73 people inside), or when she weighed all the mitigating factors and lobbied to get the Iranian Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) off the U.S. list of terrorist groups (they’re beloved by the neoconservatives, even though they were responsible for blowing up embassies and assassinating Americans in 1970s Tehran).

Never you mind, Ros-Lehtinen knows her terrorists. And if she can find a way to get al-Qaeda – or El Qaeda – into the Americas, or better yet, the Americas into the Global War on Terror, she will.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.