Iran is recruiting an "invisible army" of revolutionary sympathizers in Latin America to infiltrate the U.S. through the "soft belly" of the southern border, U.S. officials and national security experts told TheBlaze. And they're using one website in particular to do it.
Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, middle, attends a session of the Assembly of Experts in Tehran on Sept. 3, 2013. Iran's Assembly of Experts is a body that selects the supreme leader and supervises his activities. (Getty Images)
The Iranian regime's conversion efforts are becoming increasingly aggressive, especially over the Internet, with the goal of conducting operations against United States interests in the Western Hemisphere, according to U.S. government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the nature of their work in the region.
Islamoriente.com, which focuses on religion and politics, is one of Iran's main recruitment and conversion websites for Latin America on the Internet, TheBlaze has learned. The site, which launched in 2008, includes links to Iranian television for Spanish speakers, anti-American news stories, essays on reasons to convert to Islam, chat rooms and a personal message from the Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran.
Even as President Barack Obama waits for Congress to make a decision on Syria, the Iranian website wastes no time and has no shortage of stories ridiculing the U.S. administration for threatening to strike President Bashar Assad's regime, a staunch ally of Iran.
Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and expert in Iranian affairs, said Iran's focus on Hispanic converts is a new evolution in Iranian operations in Latin America. Phillips said Khamanei's message titled "The Importance of Work and the Nobility of the Worker" in Islam, is significant because the Ayatollah is "normally a background player in these sorts of efforts and doesn't usually play such a public role."
"Historically, Iran has tried to recruit agents from the Lebanese Shi'ite diaspora in South America and West Africa," Phillips said. "This emphasis on Hispanic converts is something new."
In the past, "U.S. intelligence focused on Iran's relationship with Hezbollah but now with the people they are recruiting it could be much more difficult to gauge who is infiltrating the U.S.," Phillips added.
In August, the U.S. State Department decided to order a new review of Iranian terror activity in Latin America, based on a 500-page report issued by Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman on Iran's terrorist strategy in the region. Nisman was the original prosecutor in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association that killed 85 people and wounded hundreds more. Nisman believes Hezbollah, on orders from Iran, was responsible for the bombing.
The report states that Iran has attempted to infiltrate "for decades, large regions of Latin America, through the establishment of clandestine intelligence stations and operative agents which are used to execute terrorist attacks when the Iranian regime decides so, both directly or through its proxy, the terrorist organization Hezbollah. These actions have been taking place within the so-called 'export of the revolution,' which was never masked by Tehran and is, in fact, written in their own constitution."
Nisman's report supports the evidence U.S. officials say they've found in the region. Iran's revolutionary guard is focused on Latin America and has ramped up its efforts over the past decade, utilizing the same Internet tools they censor and ban from their own citizens. It is "part of their effort to build an invisible army to penetrate the U.S. and our interests without suspicion, and it's something we should be extremely mindful of," said a U.S. official familiar with Iranian operations in Latin America.
The official said recent Iranian activity in Latin America shows the importance of the region in Iran's political and ideological goals. Those goals are not only to cultivate anti-American sentiment in the region but also to build a network of support among Latin American converts in positions of power, the official said.
TheBlaze attempted to trace the domain and creators of the server hosting IslamOriente.com but the site is protected by a privacy company based out of the U.S. Attempts to call the number on the website led to a voice recording from a telephone number out of Queensland, Australia, which said that the website is protected by privacyprotect.org.
According to a 2012 report from the Middle East Media Research Project (MEMRI), a think tank providing translation on video and Internet websites from the Middle East, privacyprotect.org is one among many U.S. companies that are used by Al Qaeda and other nefarious groups use to hide their information. MEMRI also attempted to trace the Iranian website to no avail.
Ayelet Savyon, the director of the Iran desk for MEMRI, told TheBlaze that Iranian activities seem to be focused more on recruiting from the local populations with more sophisticated approaches.
"(Iran) is doing so in all parts of the world with the aim at targeting the U.S. soft belly," said Savyon, who is based in Israel. "Latin America is a long-term goal for them with direct national security implications for the U.S., and I do think it's of special interest to the U.S."
She referred to The Washington Post's recent report revealing how Iranian embassies in Latin America use cultural attaches to recruit young impressionable students to special conversion programs in Iran.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in June to replace the openly anti-American Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said in a recent public address that his support for Latin America is strong. Rouhani told Vasquez Bucaro, the president of the Central American Parliament and the head of Euro-Latin American Parliamentary Assembly, that he welcomes increased interaction between the two groups and Iran's legislature to strengthen their relations.
"Just because Iran has a new president, that hasn't changed their goals," Savyon said. "They are looking to recruit people who can support Iran's revolutionary values. Their agenda hasn't changed, only thing that has changed is the image they are trying to present to the world."
A U.S. counterterrorism official said Iran's activities are being closely monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies and "there’s no question that Iran has tried to cultivate ties with some of Latin America’s left-leaning governments."
"As an element of this strategy, Tehran has mounted a charm offensive that includes using Internet propaganda to influence public opinion in these countries,” he added.
Another U.S. official, who has worked in Latin America for more than a decade, said Iran has dedicated a large number of resources to recruiting and converting people in Mexico, who have easier access to the U.S. border and can easily blend in with other migrants crossing the border.
In 2009, six U.S. officials confirmed in an earlier investigation conducted by this reporter that the designated terrorist group Hezbollah, which is supported by the Iranian government, had been using the same narcotics routes used by drug cartels into the U.S.
That has not changed but now "Iran's goal is to recruit people that can be utilized against U.S. interests" and blend in without raising suspicion, the U.S. official said.
Hezbollah is based in Lebanon and was founded after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It has grown into a major political, military and social welfare organization, which is controlled and financed by Iran and in 2006, it fought a 34-day war against Israel.
Hezbollah members and supporters have entered the U.S. through the southern border as early as 2002, with the case of Salim Boughader Mucharrafille, a Mexican of Lebanese descent. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison by Mexican authorities on charges of organized crime and immigrant smuggling. Mucharrafille had owned a cafe in the border city of Tijuana, near San Diego. In 2002, he was arrested for smuggling 200 people into the the U.S., including Hezbollah supporters, according to a 2009 Congressional report.
In 2005, Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, the brother of a Hezbollah chief, pleaded guilty to providing material support to Hezbollah after being smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border and settling in Dearborn, Mich.
"Now what they desire is a proxy terrorist group that can easily slip past U.S. border security," the U.S. official added. "Who's going to suspect an illegal immigrant from Venezuela, Mexico, or anywhere else for that matter, of being a jihadist?"