A New Kind of Warfare
On Jan. 16, Gelareh Bagherzadeh, a 30-year-old Iranian medical student, was shot and killed while sitting in her car outside her parents’ home in Houston. Neighbors heard three quick shots in the night. Her purse and cellphone were found in the car, the engine still running.
No suspects have been apprehended and no motive for the murder has been established at this writing. But Bagherzadeh was politically active in the Iranian green movement and women’s causes, and the execution-style killing of a young Iranian dissident in the U.S. should ring some alarm bells.
Covert assassinations of politically awkward expatriates, if that is what this was, are not unknown in world politics. But what makes this killing significant is the strategic context: At the same time as the Bagherzadeh murder, a campaign of assassination has been underway in Iran, where nuclear scientists are being killed as tensions between Iran and the West reach an all-time high.
Perhaps the killing was a tit-for-tat operation. There are increasing indications, though, that foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) sponsored by Iran and its ally Venezuela, aided by transnational organized crime groups (TOCs), not only have the capability to open a state-sponsored campaign of terror attacks inside the U.S., but are planning to do so. Evidence is accumulating that Iranian agents of the Quds Force, a covert arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), are making common cause with Mexican drug cartels to attack targets here.
This indicates that the long-predicted merger of crime and terrorism has moved to a new phase. In strategic terms, it offers Iran the capability for an asymmetric response to Western actions against Iran’s nuclear program. It also presages the explicit use of global terrorism as a military strategy of “criminal states,” such as Iran and Venezuela, which operate outside the norms of international law. Bagherzadeh may have been an early casualty of the campaign, and her death a warning.
The idea that crime and terrorism would blend into a new form of warfare is not new. In his 1991 book, “The Transformation of War,” Martin Van Creveld predicted that “low intensity” wars would be more commonplace as states lose their monopoly on armed violence. Moisés Naím’s pathbreaking 2005 book, “Illicit,” predicted that the stunning amounts of money in the “black” economy, estimated by some authorities to be nearly one-fifth of the world’s gross domestic product, would help fulfill Van Creveld’s prediction that empower transnational criminal organizations would eventually challenge state governments. This is now happening; the Mexican drug cartels are one example, the Taliban in Afghanistan another.
Moreover, the political power of such groups has grown along with their wealth and armed might. This allows them to sideline or neuter weak state governments or, as in the case of Iran, Venezuela, Ecuador and other countries, to facilitate the rise of “criminal states” that have the trappings and privileges of legitimacy but which pursue merged criminal and political goals through terrorism, insurgency and other means.
In a forthcoming paper, Doug Farah, a leading authority on the rise of the TOCs, writes: “This emerging combination of threats comprises a hybrid of criminal-terrorist, and state- and non-state franchises, combining multiple nations acting in concert, and traditional TOCs and terrorist groups acting as proxies for the nation-states that sponsor them. … No longer is the state/non-state dichotomy viable in tackling these problems, just as the TOC/terrorism divide is increasingly disappearing.”
In this hemisphere, the collusion of Iran and Venezuela has led to a “thickening” of relationships between Iranian organizations such as the IRGC and the Quds Force; Hezbollah, which has long conducted terrorist and fundraising activities in South America (and which is said to maintain training camps in Venezuela); and transnational criminal networks like the cocaine-producing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Mexican cartels. Until recently, Iran and Venezuela maintained direct flights between the two nations; these are reported to have been a conduit for Iranians who, upon arriving, were issued Venezuelan passports and disappeared into Latin America.
All these organizations and individuals — Venezuelans, members of the IRGC, Hezbollah, drug producers and Mexican cartel members — operate within overlapping transnational illicit drug networks in South, Central and North America, in addition to overseas networks and groups. Operations are intertwined; Quds is said to assert increasing leadership over Hezbollah, which works closely with the FARC and Mexican TOCs. Senior members of the Venezuelan government are deeply involved in the drug trade in addition to sponsoring political upheaval in Latin America. The Mexican cartels and their allies operate networks for the distribution of illegal drugs through Latino and home-grown American gangs that act as retail distributors in more than 200 American cities, providing networks, “safe houses” and contacts that can be used for other purposes.
CROSSING A LINE