Last April, a man called Tareck El Aissami was appointed Minister of Oil in Venezuela by the Maduro regime. It came barely a month after this senior official, who has extensive ties to Hezbollah, was indicted in the US on narco-terrorism charges, with the Trump administration offering $10 million for information leading to his arrest. How did this happen – and what’s at stake for Venezuela?
The Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela has a long-standing and well-documented relationship with both Hezbollah and its sponsor, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The strategic partnership between the Maduro regime and the Ayatollahs has led, time and again, to members of this designated terror group, and its supporters and financiers, being provided with all manner of covert assistance in its underground transportation of people, money, illicit goods – and ideals.
This brazen association would never have been possible without the help of its lead strategist and facilitator down the years: Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s current Minister of Petroleum and the man with the most substantial power in the government of Nicolás Maduro.
In recent years, Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah has been a key target in the crosshairs of the United States. In 2014 Robert Morgenthau, the district attorney for New York, claimed that El Aissami had provided Venezuelan passports to terror organizations including Hamas and Hezbollah. Then in 2015, the former governor of the Venezuelan state of Aragua, Rafael Isea, declared that El Aissami had been receiving bribes from drug traffickers to facilitate the shipment of narcotics from the Caribbean country to the rest of the world.
"He is a man whose objective is power," says a source close to Tareck in an article for Argentinian outlet Infobae. "It is not by chance that he has communication with leaders of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and Iraq, and is a referee for Arabs in Latin America. That includes for Hamas and Hezbollah.”
El Aissami, arguably one of the most powerful men in Venezuela, is the son of Druze Muslims and came to Venezuela from Lebanon at a young age. He studied at armed forces college the Liceo Militar, and in 2005 became a deputy for the National Assembly. Between 2007 and 2012, he then held various leadership positions and co-established the Bolivarian National Police. In 2017, Nicolás Maduro appointed him vice president and, finally, in April 2020, he was appointed Minister of Petroleum.
Tareck El Aissami's Ties to Terror Groups
El Aissami has been linked to Hezbollah principally through his relationship with Ghazi Nasr al Din, a former staffer at the Venezuelan Embassy in Damascus, and his brother Ghasan. Both were responsible for recruiting Venezuelan Arabs to be sent to Lebanon to receive training from Hezbollah.
Ghazi Nasr al Din, whose name is also rendered as Ghazi Nassereddine, was born in Beirut and became a Venezuelan citizen in 1998. According to the US Treasury, he used his position as a diplomat to provide financial support to Hezbollah. He is also accused of raising funds so that Hezbollah members could travel to and from Venezuela.
For this reason the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) placed him on its most-wanted list, emphasizing his links to a designated terror group. The FBI also identified him as having collaborated with Tareck El Aissami in drug trafficking in Venezuela.
As a similarly close associate of Nicolás Maduro, Ghazi Nasr al Din currently heads the Venezuelan think-tank Global AZ and has made several trips to France, Germany, and Italy since leaving Syria in 2011. The US authorities also suspect that a member of the Nasr al Din clan oversees Tareck El Aissami's personal security.
The incident that most clearly exposed El Aissami's close ties with Iran and Hezbollah was the case of the Venezuelan passports being illegally granted to Iranians. Over a year, the Bolivarian regime had unlawfully given at least 10,000 Venezuelan passports and other documents to citizens from Syria, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries in an operation headed by El Aissami. The passports and visas were granted in most cases by the Venezuelan Consulate in Damascus.
Colonel Vladimir Medrano Rengifo, former director-general of the Venezuelan Identification, Migration and Immigration Office, has since explained in an interview: "You had a passport that identified the person as Hassan or Hussain, but the identity card corresponded to Pedro or Pablo: people living in Venezuela, or people who had already died."
For his part, Medrano Rengifo, who now lives in the US, was shouted down by El Aissami when he tried to deport the beneficiaries of the scheme . "El Aissami, who at that time was Minister of Internal Relations, directly ordered me to let them enter the country," he added.
"People with these documents came on Alitalia flights from Damascus and arrived in Rome before leaving for Caracas. They came on a large Airbus plane that usually arrived twice a week (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) with 380 or 390 passengers [arriving] at the airport in the Venezuelan capital. Ninety per cent of the people on that flight had an irregular status.”
The Centre for a Secure Free Society, a Washington-based organization that studies security and defence issues, prepared a report on Venezuelan passports being dished out to Iranian citizens in 2014.
Identifying El Aissami as the lynchpin of the operation, and members of Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards as beneficiaries, it added: “Over the years Tareck El Aissami has developed a sophisticated and multi-layered financial network that functions as a criminal-terrorist pipeline to bring Islamic militants to Venezuela and neighbouring countries, as well as to send illicit funds from Latin America to the Middle East.”
The report cited “regional intelligence officials” as having identified about 173 suspicious passports, visas and other documents supplied to people from the Middle East seeking to enter the United States and Canada between 2008 and 2012, overlapping with El Aissami’s tenure as Minister of Interior and Justice. Among the passport recipients identified were Gahzi Nasr al Din himself, his brother Ghasan, Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda representatives Mohammed Adnan Yasin, Falh Ami Taha and Muhi Alwan Mohammed Al Qaisi, and Suleiman Ghani Abdul Waked, an explosives expert and right-hand man of Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.
Tareck El Aissami has a track record of facilitating movement between Venezuela and Hezbollah, and a pivotal executive position. As security expert Joseph Humire asserted in an interview for Business Insider: "The future of Venezuela is uncertain, but the truth is that Islamic extremism has officially taken executive control of a national government in Latin America."