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Charity and Terror: Hizballah, South American Tri-Border Area and Dearborn

The United States Government has been aggressive since 9/11 in pursuing and shutting down 'charities' in the United States that are fronts for terrorist groups and means for their financial support. In Dangerous Partners: Targeting the Iran-Hizballah Alliance, the Washington Institute's Matthew Levitt and Jake Lipton note recent developments in the legal pursuit of Hizballah 'charities' in particular. The proximity of Islamist terrorism and its support mechanisms should be alarming to US citizens.

Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department designated a parastatal Iranian organization as a key link between Tehran and Hizballah. The latest in a series of ongoing measures intended to prevent Hizballah from raising funds either abroad or in the United States, the designation targeted the Iran-based Martyrs Foundation (Bonyad-e shahid) for "provid[ing] financial support to the families of killed or imprisoned Hizballah and PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] members, including suicide bombers in the Palestinian territories," and for being "directly involved in Hizballah operations against Israel during the July-August 2006 conflict." Two individuals intimately involved in the foundation's operations -- Qasem Aliq and Ahmad al-Shami, who concurrently serves as director of the previously designated Hizballah construction arm Jihad al-Bina -- were also designated.

The United States is not the first nation to highlight the relationship between the Martyrs Foundation and Hizballah. In 2001, Paraguayan police searched the home of Hizballah operative Sobhi Mahmoud Fayad in Ciudad del Este, a town in the Tri-Border Area between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. There, they found Martyrs Foundation receipts for donations by Fayad totaling more than $3.5 million. Authorities believe he had sent more than $50 million to Hizballah since 1995. According to press reports, Iran has traditionally funded Palestinian dissident groups in the Lebanese refugee camps, including Munir al-Maqdah, through the foundation's Palestinian branch.

In the United States, a Martyrs Foundation satellite office in Dearborn, Michigan -- the Goodwill Charitable Organization (GCO) -- was also designated for instructing "Hizballah members in the United States to send their contributions to GCO and to contact the GCO for the purpose of contributing to the Martyrs Foundation." The same day GCO was designated and raided, federal agents raided the offices of another Hizballah-linked organization, the al-Mabarrat Charity Association. Although it was not designated, the charity has long been under a heavy cloud of suspicion.

In 2003, for example, then-Lebanese finance minister and current prime minister Fouad Siniora was barred from entering the United States because of a donation he made to al-Mabarrat in 2000. The charity, headed by former Hizballah spiritual leader Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, raised $954,027 in 2005. Just last week, Fadlallah -- who is on the Treasury Department's list of specially designated terrorists and maintains close ties with Hizballah -- asserted in a Washington Post online forum that "jihad is confronting violence by means of violence and force by force, which makes it of a defensive nature at times and a preventive one at others."

While Fadlallah has distanced himself from Hizballah in recent years, it is unclear from here what the hesitation is on designating al-Mabarrat. Perhaps it has something in small part to do with encouraging others to distance themselves from the radical core of terrorist organizations. Even still, it was Fadlallah who issued the fatwa legitimizing the Hizballah attacks on the US Embassy and Marine Barracks in Beirut in the early 1980's.

In Mind of Mugniyeh, Dan Darling noted last summer that Fadlallah's bodyguard in the early days of Hizballah was none other than Imad Fayez Mugniyeh.

Details of Mughniyeh’s origins are fragmentary. He is believed to have served as a member of Force 17, Yasser Arafat’s personal bodyguard unit, before joining Hizballah. There he acted first as a bodyguard for the group’s spiritual leader, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, and eventually rose to his current role as the group’s operations chief.

It should be noted regardless that the US Department of Treasury continues to do exemplary work in fighting terrorism's financial networks, both at home and abroad. And, as their work continues, it should also be noted that the threat of terrorism from organized groups such as Hizballah and al-Qaeda is far closer to home than Lebanon, Iraq or Pakistan. Beyond the known financial networks in Texas, Dearborn, Michigan and elsewhere, entrenched terror networks in South America's Tri-Border area and, as recently exposed, Guyana and Trinidad-Tobago should make that clear.