The US government easily bought allegations by right-wing media and think tanks that Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami is linked to terrorism and drug trafficking. But the accusations lack substance.

Aissami has been turned into the bogeyman of all the US thinks is wrong with Venezuela.
Aissami has been turned into the bogeyman of all the US thinks is wrong with Venezuela. (TRT World and Agencies)

In February this year, the US Treasury imposed financial sanctions on Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of abetting drug traffickers and placing his name on their public list of narcotics kingpins.

He is one of the highest ranking government officials in the world to appear on the list. The sanctions could lead to his arrest if he travels abroad.

Just days before the US Treasury announced its decision, CNN ran a two-part investigative documentary implying the Venezuelan government had issued illegal passports that were sold to people in countries such as Iraq and Syria.

Citing an intelligence report that formed the basis of sanctions against him, it said the passport fraud was linked to 42-year-old Aissami, who authorised the issuing of 173 passports, some of them to members of Hezbollah, the Shia political and militant organisation based in Lebanon.

The New York Times reported that the sanctions and the CNN documentary came in quick succession, complementing one another. It also noted that CNN based the film on an intelligence document, without saying where it originated from.

"One came after the other in a one-two punch that left Venezuela's government reeling," the news report observed.

On closer inspection, the presumed intelligence document, which was quoted in the documentary, has been used in the past by other experts too.

About three years ago, Joseph M Humire, a former Marine-turned-security-expert, first spoke of the alleged 173 travel documents, quoting unnamed sources.

Humire is the executive director of the Centre for a Secure Free Society (SFS) – a think tank which mainly denounces Iran and Hezbollah.

Aissami rose quickly in Hugo Chavez's socialist party.
Aissami rose quickly in Hugo Chavez's socialist party. (AP (Archive ))

In what appears to be a strange coincidence, most of the allegations against Aissami have emerged in a similar pattern: an allegation pops up in a blog which is then reproduced as news by mainstream media organisations.

Over the years, Aissami has been targeted in a sustained campaign by far-right analysts.

Born to Syrian-Lebanese parents in the Andean state of Merida, Aissami rose quickly through the ranks of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's socialist party.

The circumstances of his meteoric rise are debatable. He became close to the Chavez family when he studied at the University of Los Andes, where Chavez's brother, Adan, was a professor. Some say their friendship might have propelled the young politician's career.

Aissami also displayed traits of an agressive politician. As a student leader, Aissami is known to have used force to achieve his goals. Once during student elections, he showed up with armed men to bully the competition.

Later in life, as governor of Aragua state, he oversaw the construction of roads and other development projects.

But a shrewd young politician's rapid rise was expected in the Chavez era, when efforts were undertaken to replace the former political elite.

"[Aissami's] rise is no different than other politicians of his generation. They needed new leaders to replace those with deep links to previous political parties. Aissami was at the right place, at the right time," a Venezuelan journalist told TRT World.

Elected one of his country's youngest members of parliament in 2005, Aissami grew close to Chavez, who appointed him as justice and interior minister three years later.

That's when he seems to have caught the attention of many so-called security experts.

The evil twins

After a US-backed coup in April 2002 forced him out of the presidential office for 48 hours, Chavez reemerged as an even more fearsome challenger of Washington's dominance in Latin America.

Time and again he stood against US foreign policy and accused the US government of backing the coup plotters.

While moving away from the US, his administration strengthened ties with Cuba and used Venezuela's growing oil revenues to drum up support for South American leaders who didn't toe the US line.

Around the same time, Chavez strengthened relations with Washington's old enemy – Iran.

The closeness of Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a matter of particular concern for Washington. In Caracas, June 2012.
The closeness of Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a matter of particular concern for Washington. In Caracas, June 2012. (TRT World and Agencies)

Caracas and Tehran agreed to spend billions of dollars to jointly fund infrastructure projects and establish an air link with each other. They worked together to counter US foreign policy at the United Nations. For instance, Venezuela strongly opposed the US-backed sanctions against Iran.

Amidst the growing alignment of the socialist and Islamist regimes, Aissami's appointment as interior minister was viewed suspiciously by many right-wing analysts in the US. And they weren't subtle about their disdain.

Nicole M Ferrand, who is associated with the Islamophobic think tank Centre for Security Policy (CSP), was probably the first to level serious allegations against the Venezuelan leader.

CSP is known for carrying out a controversial survey in 2015 that said one in four Muslims supported violence against the US.

It came under scrutiny after US President Donald Trump quoted it in support of his anti-Muslim agenda during his election campaign.

Ferrand's October 2008 article titled "Venezuela's Tarek (sic) El Aissami" reads like a desperate attempt to incriminate him, drawing dubious links between Aissami and virtually every entity Washington considers a threat.

If Ferrand is to be believed, then Aissami has simultaneously helped Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and Palestine-based Hamas.

The allegation is far-fetched, since Al Qaeda and Hezbollah have serious ideological differences. And Hamas views itself as being engaged in an indigenous struggle for Palestine's liberation and has no global ambitions.

Ferrand also wrote derogatory articles about Aissami's family. Her accounts were subsequently rehashed into news by several publications.

One of the accusations was that Aissami's father, a small-time shoe and furniture trader, was a leader of Iraq's Ba'ath Party in Venezuela.

She also accused his father of calling himself part of the Taliban and praising Osama bin Laden at a press conference before the US-led invasion of Iraq.

It hasn't been explained how Aissami's father, a Syrian, allegedly got involved with Iraq's secular Ba'ath Party and why he would back an extremist such as Osama bin Laden. But Just like that, these claims became an important point of reference for many experts.

The allegations that Aissami was behind a passport scam first surfaced in 2008.
The allegations that Aissami was behind a passport scam first surfaced in 2008. (TRT World and Agencies)

Ferrand sourced information from Saudi Arabia's Al Arabiya news organisation and Jihad Watch, a known anti-Islam blog funded by the conservative David Horowitz Center. That didn't deter other like-minded analysts from using it.

Three years later, the same article was quoted by another right-wing think tank, the Gatestone Institute, that has long churned out anti-Muslim propaganda pieces with sensationalist titles such as "Are Jihadists Taking over Europe?"

These opinions often find their way into established news outlets such as The Hill.

But this pattern hasn't gone unnoticed.

Freelance journalist Ryan Mallett-Outtrem says far-right analysts have represented Aissami as "a mish-mash of Baathism, Sunni radicalism and Shia extremism; plus he smuggles coke."

Ryan writes for a left-leaning blog, Venezuela Analysis, that has largely defended the embattled government of President Nicolas Maduro and his second-in-command Aissami.

He says it is wrong to assume all Venezuelan leaders are clean.

"The idea that a Venezuelan politician is corrupt is not a crazy idea. I don't know if Aissami is guilty or innocent [of drug trafficking]. But I think he has been put in the spotlight lately because of his Arabic background," he told TRT World.

Almost all the stories on Aissami published in recent months have pointed to his Middle Eastern roots and that he is Druze, from a relatively small community spread across the Middle East with a syncretic belief system. Unwittingly or not, these arguments are framed to insinuate that Aissami is a radical Muslim backed by terror groups.

It's also not unusual for people from an Arab background to attain high government positions in ethnically diverse South America.

Brazil's President Michel Temer has Lebanese ancestry. Argentina's former president Carlos Menem was the son of Syrian immigrants. Many politicians in Colombia, El Salvador and Honduras are believed to have had Arab forefathers.

That's because in the early 20th century hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East migrated to South America in search of jobs. Over the years, they entrenched themselves in the merchant class and progressed rapidly.

Carlos Slim, a Mexican telecom tycoon and one of the richest men in the world, has Lebanese heritage.

Mexican telecom tycoon Carlos Slim (right) is one of the many businessmen of Middle Eastern ancestry who have prospered in South America. Here he is seen with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Mexican telecom tycoon Carlos Slim (right) is one of the many businessmen of Middle Eastern ancestry who have prospered in South America. Here he is seen with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. (TRT World and Agencies)

About Venezuela's economic ties with Iran, Caracas-based political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas says the proposed deals to jointly produce a car and the air link were short-lived.

"These deals were mainly based on anti-imperialist rhetoric and nothing else. Iran in the last few years does not have a significant role in Venezuela's international relations."

But none of this has deterred some US government officials from raising concerns about what they frame as an "Arab onslaught" in Washington's backyard.

When the establishment steps in

Even before many people outside of Merida had heard of Aissami, US politicians were debating threats posed by forged Venezuelan travel documents to US borders – something to which Aissami was eventually linked to.

On July 13, 2006, members of a subcommittee of the House of Representatives on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation reproached Venezuela for its close ties to Cuba and Iran.

An assertion that kept resurfacing was how Venezuelan travel documents had been issued to "foreigners from Middle Eastern nations Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and Lebanon."

Pakistan is in South Asia, yet more than once the congressmen mentioned it as a Middle Eastern country. This mistake was reproduced verbatim in articles and a book.

Frank C Urbancic, one of the US State Department's counterterrorism officials, told the committee in his written testimony that those attempting to get into the US on forged Venezuelan documents were mostly "Cubans and some Chinese."

Yet details like these have been conveniently ignored by the experts who have tried to build a case against Aissami.

Venezuelan drug lord Walid Makled was captured in Colombia and is now in jail in Caracas. His testimony has been used against Aissami.
Venezuelan drug lord Walid Makled was captured in Colombia and is now in jail in Caracas. His testimony has been used against Aissami. (TRT World and Agencies)

Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which is closely linked with the pro-Israel lobby in the US, has made a career out of stoking fears of a "jihadist" takeover of South America.

In his 2013 book, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God, Aissami is mentioned once.

"In early 2011, Tarek el Aissami, the Venezuelan minister of interior and justice and a prominent figure in Hugo Chavez's government, was accused by the media of abusing his position by issuing passports to members of Hamas and Hezbollah," he writes.

And what's the source of this information? The same Gatestone Institute report that has surfaced alongside Aissami's name many times.

Levitt also refers to Urbancic's testimony in the same paragraph without bothering to say it was mostly Cubans who rely on fake Venezuelan identities to get into the US.

Since Aissami has become a subject of news in the Western press, one expert quoted multiple times is Roger Noriega, the former US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Noriega has been a prominent influence over US policy in Latin America. Known for his far-right views, he now collaborates closely with Venezuelan dissidents.

More than once, he has appeared before US congressional hearings to testify about Hezbollah's influence in Venezuela and its neighbouring countries.

"People like Noriega, few senators and an array of right-wing NGOs in Washington are mortal enemies of Venezuela," said Larry Birns, the executive director of the liberal think tank Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Much of the firepower against Caracas comes from Venezuelan opposition exiles, he said.

The human rights record of other countries in the region, such as Honduras, is much worse than Venezuela, he added.

"It's a case of selective indignation."

Washington's labelling of Venezuelan leaders as "terrorist sympathisers" and "drug traffickers" doesn't surprise Birns.

The US deliberately tries to undermine Venezuela's economy, he says. "There is an economic sabotage which is meant to impair government's ability to fight the opposition blow-for-blow."

While officials in Washington don't get tired of highlighting the "horrible conditions in Venezuela, they don't mention their role in using diplomacy and the CIA to weaken the ability of the Venezuelan government to cope with its economic problems," says Birns.

An example of the pressure directed against the Venezuelan government was when US investment bank Goldman Sachs faced criticism from Venezuelan opposition and dissidents living in the US for buying Venezuelan government's bonds.

Venezuela has seen many confrontations in recent years between opposition supporters and security forces.
Venezuela has seen many confrontations in recent years between opposition supporters and security forces. (AP (Archive ))

The other side

The Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro also shares blame for the criticism it faces.

Unable to counter rapid inflation and shortages of food and medicines, the government has instead tried to silence the opposition by using brute force.

Corruption is rampant. It not only hurts the economy, it also causes human rights abuse, according to Transparency International.

Yet the US Treasury didn't say exactly how Aissami was linked to the drug trade. The information made public only claims to loosely connect him with a shady businessman, Samark Jose Lopez Bello, who owns companies registered in the US.

Reportedly, much of the incriminating evidence comes from the testimony of the jailed Venezuelan drug lord, Walid Makled.

Makled's drug empire came under investigation during Aissami's tenure as interior minister.

While the experts TRT World spoke with weren't sure whether Aissami was involved with drug cartels, some say he may have engaged in foul play.

Dr Inaki Sagarzazu, an assistant professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University said Venezuela is a natural transit conduit for Colombian drug traffickers.

"I don't have specific information about Aissami but when relatives of senior leaders have been found to be involved then I guess anything can happen."

He was referring to the famous case of Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, the nephews of Maduro's wife, arrested by the US on charges of drug trafficking.

But the manner in which Aissami has been targeted has highlighted the way Washington's foreign policy interacts with far-right think tanks.

And as Larry Birns puts it: "The Venezuelan regime can do nothing but commit suicide to please this fraction of the US sentiment."

Source: TRT World