Feds charge ex-Venezuelan pol with recruiting terrorists to attack U.S. interests

Tom Winter and Pete Williams and Rich Schapiro

A former Venezuelan politician was charged Wednesday with participating in a vast narco-terrorism conspiracy in which he traded drugs for weapons and recruited terrorists from Hezbollah and Hamas to orchestrate attacks against U.S. interests.

The charges against Adel El Zabayar come two months after the Justice Department unsealed a sweeping indictment against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and several politicians, accusing them of taking a leading role in an international drug trafficking network.

New York federal prosecutors say El Zabayar, acting under the direction of the president of the Venezuelan assembly, traveled to the Middle East in 2014 to obtain weapons and recruit members of Hezbollah and Hamas to train at hidden camps in Venezuela.

Image: Adel El Zabayar (DOJ)

The goal, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, was to “create a large terrorist cell capable of attacking United States interests on behalf of the Cartel de Los Soles.”

U.S. authorities say the Cartel de Los Soles, or the Cartel of the Suns, is a criminal organization focused primarily on exporting cocaine to the U.S. The Justice Department has previously said the cartel works with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other designated terror groups.

The charging documents say that El Zabayar imported rocket propelled grenade launchers, AK-103s and sniper rifles from the Middle East to Venezuela.

“As alleged, Adel El Zabayar was part of the unholy alliance of government, military, and FARC members using violence and corruption to further their narco-terrorist aims,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a statement. “ El Zabayar was allegedly a key part of the apparatus that conspired to export literally tons of cocaine into the U.S.”

El Zabayar, who is of Syrian descent, is closely associated with Maduro, federal prosecutors say.

Image: Adel El Zabayar, Nicolas Maduro and wife (DOJ)

The complaint, quoting a DEA confidential source, says El Zabayar had a conversation with Maduro while El Zabayar was in the Middle East. The source said Maduro congratulated him “for his work fighting the United States in the Middle East," which the source said was “a reference to El Zabayar traveling to Syria and Palestine to obtain weapons and recruit terrorists for the Cártel de Los Soles.”

El Zabayar has spoken out against the United States in multiple interviews, including one in which he expressed support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to the court documents.

"It is important to support the Assad regime to counter the 'global Zionist lobby,' which influences the United States," he said in 2011, according to the complaint.

El Zabayar, 56, was hit with multiple charges, including conspiring to import cocaine to the U.S. and using machine guns and other destructive devices in furtherance of the narco-terrorism and cocaine importation conspiracies.

“Today’s charges against Adel El Zabayar for trading arms for cocaine, and recruiting extremists, further demonstrates the corruption inside the Maduro regime,” said DEA Acting Administrator Timothy Shea.

The U.S. has long been at odds with Maduro, who was elected president in 2013. Maduro declared himself the victor in a widely-disputed election in 2018, but the U.S. and more than 50 other countries back his rival, Juan Guaido, as the country’s legitimate president.

According to the indictment unsealed in March, Maduro "helped manage and ultimately lead" the Cartel of the Suns. Under his leadership, the cartel "sought not only to enrich its members and enhance their power, but also to flood the United States with cocaine and inflict the drug's harmful and addictive effects on users in this country," according to the indictment.

The Trump administration also announced a $15 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Maduro.

Maduro responded by calling President Donald Trump a “racist cowboy” and warning against an invasion of his country.