Brazilian federal police have arrested two men with suspected links to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah who were reportedly plotting to launch terror attacks against the Jewish community in Brazil.
The arrests were made on Wednesday during what police called an operation to “interrupt preparations for acts of terrorism and obtain evidence about the possible recruitment of Brazilians to commit of extremist acts”.
Media reports said one man had been arrested at Brazil’s biggest international airport, in Guarulhos, São Paulo, after flying in from Lebanon. “The federal police believe he came with information to pass on to his partner about carrying out the attacks,” the television network CNN Brasil reported.
Rio’s O Globo newspaper said investigators believed “the group was planning to launch attacks on buildings belonging to Brazil’s Jewish community, including synagogues”, although specific targets were not cited.
The office of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, thanked Brazilian security services “for the arrest of a terrorist cell that was operated by Hezbollah in order to carry out an attack on Israeli and Jewish targets in Brazil”.
Netanyahu’s office indicated that Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, and other foreign security agencies had played a role in the operation, which it said had “foiled a terrorist attack in Brazil, planned by the Hezbollah terrorist organization, directed and financed by Iran … This was an extensive network that operated in additional countries.”
Brazil is home to Latin America’s second largest Jewish community as well as a 17th-century synagogue said to be the first built in the Americas.
Multiple reports said the arrested men had links to Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Islamist militia group.
Police said they had carried out search warrants in three regions: São Paulo, Minas Gerais and the federal district around Brazil’s capital, Brasília.
“The recruiters and those they recruit will face charges of creating or belonging to a terrorist organization and carrying out preparations for acts of terrorism, carrying a potential maximum sentence … of 15 and a half years in prison,” police said in a statement.
Founded by radical Shia clerics after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah is today both a powerful political movement and a militant group with a global footprint, including in South America. The US considers the group – which has been called “a pioneer of mass casualty suicide attacks” – a foreign terrorist organization while the UK considers it a proscribed international terrorist group.
“Past acts of”Past acts of
terror attributed to Hezbollah include suicide attacks on US and French troops and the US embassy in Lebanon in 1983 that killed more than 300 troops and civilians.
Hezbollah was also blamed for the March 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. That attack killed 29 people and was carried out by a suicide bomber called Muhammad Nur al-Din, a Lebanese citizen who had originally emigrated to Brazil. The bombing was reportedly planned in the triple border region between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
Two years later Argentina’s Jewish community suffered an even harsher blow when 86 people were killed during the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre. The New York Times called the attack “one of the deadliest antisemitic crimes since world war two”.
According to a report in the same newspaper last year, a subsequent investigation by Mossad concluded that the two strikes in Argentina were carried out by a secret Hezbollah unit in retaliation for Israeli operations against the group, including the 1992 assassination of its leader, Abbas Musawi. The explosives that were used for the Buenos Aires attacks were reportedly smuggled into the South American country on flights from Europe concealed in shampoo bottles and boxes of chocolate.
Latin America is home to several large Jewish communities, the biggest of which is in Argentina, home to an estimated 180,000 Jews. About 100,000 Jews live in Brazil, the majority in Rio and São Paulo, and 40,000 in Mexico.