At Large

Hezbollah in Latin America

That may be even too much for Hugo Chavez.

By 11.29.06

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It's pretty rare that I have an occasion to congratulate Hugo Chavez's government on anything, especially anything related to the War on Terror. But two cheers are in order for Venezuela's capture of the leader of an international terror organization which looks to be responsible for an attack on a U.S. embassy last month.

Teodoro Darnott, aka "Sheidy Daniel," thought he was immune from Hugo's attentions. Darnott, in the remote Zulia section of Venezuela, near the Colombian border, had begun preaching a weird fusion of militant Islam, Marxist theory, and even a sprinkling of Catholic "Liberation Theology" to a group of disaffected Indians. He detested the United States and Israel and called for jihad -- or in Spanish, "yihad," against their interests in Latin America.

Sheidy Daniel called his group "Hezbollah Latin America" -- a dangerous choice given that the "real" Hezbollah operates quietly in Venezuela, though primarily in ventures designed to raise cash for its Middle Eastern operations. Claiming an association with Hezbollah is like claiming membership with a New York crime family in order to get better service in a restaurant: if you do so, the claim ought to be true, or you must really be looking for trouble. Darnott denied receiving funding from Hezbollah's Lebanon HQ, but he was allowed to go about unmolested while using Hezbollah's name in his very successful organizing and bomb-making -- and his less successful bomb-planting.

Not content to rally his tiny section of followers to jihadi mayhem in Venezuela, Darnott took Hezbollah in Latin America to the Internet. Using free web services like Blogspot and MSN Groups, he set up multiple mirrored websites which guaranteed that even if a few of his sites were taken down he would still have a web presence. And he began advertising: he sent an invitation to join his MSN group to people across the globe, including, for some reason, to me.

Darnott's jihadi message attracted followers in several Latin American countries, including (according to his website) Mexico, and his rhetoric became more violent as well. On August 18th he announced his intention to use explosives against American interests in Venezuela. I called the FBI the next day, but heard nothing new about his bomb plans until October 3. (In the meantime I put together a detailed two-part report about the group for HotAir.com, both parts of which you can see here.)

October 3 was the anniversary of the Hezbollah bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, and a student named Jose Miguel Reyes Espinosa allegedly decided to commemorate the event by setting off two pipe bombs in front of the U.S. Embassy. The nervous Reyes sent his taxi driver into a panic, however, and he was arrested. The recovered pipe bombs (or niples in local parlance) were found to include leaflets referring to Hezbollah -- exactly as Hezbollah Latin America's sites had warned. Subsequent postings on the sites removed any doubt in my mind that Darnott was the mastermind behind these attacks.

Then things took a turn for the strange. On November 13th, Darnott posted a short screed claiming that Reyes had been assassinated by the CIA and the Mossad while in DISIP custody. He called for a much more serious and damaging attack in retaliation, and the site now included a picture of a propane-cylinder device that would probably be much more lethal than the pipe bombs used in the failed October 3rd attack. He also posted a picture of U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield with an annotation that he was "worthy of death." Since the failed attempt in October corresponded precisely to prior warnings on the websites, this new threat was worth taking very seriously.

That was the last posting he would make for a while. Now we know why: On November 18th, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reported that the DISIP -- Venezuela's FBI -- had detained a Teodoro Rafael "Nardot" (sic) in a suburb of Maracaibo. He was charged in connection with the October 3rd bombing and with violations of Venezuela's "delinquent organizations" law, and remains in DISIP custody -- along with Jose Miguel Reyes Espinosa, the tales of whose martyrdom by the CIA and Mossad were, apparently, greatly exaggerated.

Darnott will have some time to contemplate where he went wrong. It wasn't the terrorist recruiting, per se, that led to his arrest. Chavez is reported to look the other way for another terrorist group, Colombia's FARC, who occasionally find refuge from Colombian troops by lying low in Venezuela. Projecting power throughout Latin America through a proxy terror group might actually appeal to Chavez's ambition.

But terrorists within Venezuela need to keep a low profile. No one wanted a buffoon like Darnott drawing attention to Hezbollah's presence. Chavez is drawing ever closer to Iran, Hezbollah's chief sponsor, and before this story broke reporters had already begun to question the relationship between the Iranian embassy in Venezuela and Hezbollah's activities there. Given a likely Iranian-embassy connection to Hezbollah's 1994 bombing of a Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, such scrutiny is quite justified. Darnott's anti-Israel and anti-American activities stirred up resistance among the local synagogues, and attracted attention in the blogosphere and on Fox News.

Also, while Chavez frequently relies on a mythical impending U.S. invasion as an excuse for further tightening his control over his country, the last thing he wants is an actual U.S. invasion. A major strike against an American embassy or ambassador would have invited retaliation from the United States, especially since Darnott was able to recruit terrorists publicly and with impunity all summer long and Chavez had done nothing about him.

El Universal's writeup includes an admission by a DISIP officer that Darnott had been under investigation for three months -- and interestingly, his arrest was almost three months to the day from when I reported the bomb threat to the FBI. I've no way of knowing this, but I like to think that the FBI let the DISIP know they were interested in Darnott -- and thereby made him that much harder for Chavez to ignore.

However this arrest came about, the story is not over, since there still several other Hezbollah in Latin America cells that Darnott set up in different countries that bear watching. And his relationship to the Hezbollah Home Office needs to be clarified. But for now I'm quite pleased that this callow bozo is safely in the calabozo.

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