By Florencia Montaruli
June 24, 2021
On June 6, 2021, Peruvians voted for their new president in a tight race between Pedro Castillo of the socialist Peru Libre party and Keiko Fujimori of the right-wing Fuerza Popular. Nine days after the election, Peru’s National Office of Electoral Processes (ONPE) finished counting the ballot papers and announced Castillo had won by 44,058 votes. Who is Pedro Castillo, and why could his victory be of benefit to the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah?
José Pedro Castillo Terrones, the president-elect of Peru, is an ultra-leftist schoolteacher who led a massive teachers’ strike in 2017. This would prove the springboard to his running for president three years later. The social policies in Castillo’s manifesto include the creation of paramilitary groups and the militarization of Peruvian youth to promote “revolutionary” values, calling on citizens to arm themselves and enact justice through the “socialist administration”, and the introduction of the death penalty in the country. Castillo has also called for stricter regulations on the Peruvian media.
According to Castillo, abortion and LGBT rights in Peru are “not a priority”. Castillo has also defended Nicolás Maduro government in Venezuela, describing it as “a democratic government”.
The success of another leftist movement is by itself unremarkable, joining the recent trend in Latin America marked out by Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia. More concerning, though, are the new leading party’s links to Hezbollah. Days after the election, while counting was still underway, the Peruvian media announced that Edwar Husain Quiroga Vargas, founder of a group called Inkarri Islam, had been identified as one of Pedro Castillo’s most staunch activists. In fact, Quiroga Vargas had been Castillo’s head of operations throughout the election campaign.
Who is Edwar Husain Quiroga Vargas and What is Inkarri Islam?
Quiroga Vargas, a Shiite Muslim convert, considers Pedro Castillo a “brother in struggle”. Both have participated side by side in various protests. “Our support for Pedro Castillo is because he is our comrade in struggle,” Quiroga Vargas recently said. “We have been in many strikes for education and, likewise, in different protests against transnational mining.”
During the count, Quiroga Vargas openly declared to the Peruvian journalist Fernando Lucena: “There are economic and political favours. If things turn over for Keiko [Fujimori], then I’ll move quickly, I am waiting and the people are ready, it will get very violent.”
He added: “If not [if it doesn’t], I won’t call for human rights, that she go to jail – I’ll take a machete and slit her throat.”
Joseph Humire, director of the Centre for a Secure Free Society (SFS) and an expert in global security issues with a focus on Islamic extremism, warned as early as 2017 that Quiroga Vargas was also the spokesperson of an Iranian military intelligence network in Apurímac, Peru. The network, he said, was formed to recruit and indoctrinate army reservists and local indigenous people.
In 2009, Quiroga Vargas studied in Iran for three months alongside Mohsen Rabbani, a cultural attaché at the Iranian embassy in Argentina widely thought to have been a key orchestrator of the 1994 AMIA bomb attack in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and left hundreds more injured.
Quiroga Vargas has also declared himself a follower of Peru’s controversial Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights (Movadef): the political arm of Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”), a revolutionary organization that used terror attacks and violence against civilians to further Maoist-inspired aims in Peru.
Inkarri Islam was founded by Quiroga Vargas in 2012. Officially dubbed the “Islamic Centre of Peru”, it fuses the Andean culture of Peru with fundamentalist Islam. The movement is based on ethnocacerism, which seeks to establish an authoritarian dictatorship based on race, and has been publicly disavowed by umbrella organization the Islamic Association of Peru.
Inkarri Islam has a long history of spreading antisemitic propaganda. The Counter Extremism Project holds that it does so with the support of the Iranian state and its proxy, Hezbollah. Its reports on extremism in Peru also note that Hezbollah maintains an active presence in the Apurimac region, where Inkarri Islam is based.
Most of the population of Apurimac is of Inca indigenous heritage. Through Inkarri Islam, Quiroga Vargas promotes radical Shiite views to the population by linking Shiite Islamic narratives with Inca indigenous narratives. He has also called for indigenous people’s “liberation” from what he terms “Zionist colonization”.
Elsewhere, Quiroga Vargas has opened five additional cultural centres throughout Peru and operates an Iranian-Inca cultural exchange program. Through these projects, he has arranged for at least 25 students to study with Mohsen Rabbani in Iran.
The “Rabbani network” and Hezbollah in Peru
Mohsen Rabbani was a cultural attaché at the Iranian embassy in Argentina during the 1980s. The Argentine public prosecutor Alberto Nisman, shortly before he was assassinated at his home in Buenos Aires, accused Rabbani of being the mastermind behind both the 1992 bomb attack on the Israeli embassy in Argentina and the AMIA bombing in 1994.
Today, Rabbani is back in Iran working as a professor at the University of Qom. From there, he oversees the recruitment of Hezbollah operatives in Latin America. Interpol issued a red notice for his arrest in 2007 and he is not thought to have left the Islamic Republic since.
Rabbani has trained disciples in different countries to help further the regime’s motives overseas. The “mentor” chosen for Peru was Edgardo Rubén Assad, also known as Suhail Assad: a Qom seminary graduate and religious program presenter for the IRIB’s HispanTV, who regularly goes on recruiting missions to Latin America.
Dr. Hugo Guerra, a researcher on Hezbollah’s terrorism in Latin America, stated in a presentation in Lima, Peru in 2016 that Assad was an “agent of the Islamic Republic of Iran in charge of recruiting and proselytizing in Latin America”. Guerra also confirmed that Assad was a disciple of Mohsen Rabbani who had converted to Shia Islam in his youth after studying theatre and acting.
Assad’s first point of contact in Peru, according to Dr. Guerra, was Edward Quiroga Vargas. Assad provided him with the necessary instruction to establish Inkarri Islam and facilitated the contact with Mohsen Rabbani to organize students’ trips to see him in Qom.
Dr. Guerra emphasized that the Islamic Republic’s target audience in Peru, through Quiroga Vargas, is made up of retired civilians, military personnel and indigenous people and their descendants, who feel disillusioned and oppressed by Western influence. The first group of Peruvians are understood to have travelled to Tehran for training and indoctrination between December 2011 and February 2012. A second trip then took place in September 2012.
Then in October 2014, the Lebanese citizen Muhammad Ghaleb Hamdar was arrested in the Peruvian capital of Lima and charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism. The authorities found explosive materials and photos of possible targets, including popular tourist spots in Peru, in his apartment. While in detention, Hamdar confessed that he was a member of Hezbollah’s External Security Organization and had worked in Peru on the designated terror group’s behalf.
Despite this, a Peruvian court absolved Hamdar of the terrorist conspiracy charge in April 2017. His earlier statement nonetheless confirmed that by now, Hezbollah was actively operating in Peru as well as other Latin American countries.
Why did Hezbollah choose Peru?
Peru has several strategic advantages for Iran. For one thing the Apurimac area, where Inkarri Islam’s headquarters are located, is known to sit on uranium reserves.
The Peruvian border with Bolivia and Chile is also a comparatively lawless zone, not unlike the Tri-Border area between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, where a lack of oversight and corruption makes it the ideal corridor for the trafficking of drugs, weapons, explosives, and people.
Peru also has a large indigenous population. Hezbollah attempts to draw on non-existent but arguable similarities between the two groups to win people over to its supposed “revolutionary” worldview. As in Venezuela and Bolivia, there exists a dangerous convergence in Peru between Iranian cells and longer-standing revolutionary socialist groups.
The relationship between the new president-elect of Peru and Islamic Republic facilitator Edwar Quiroga Vargas is the latest manifestation of this. The Iranian regime is expanding its influence network all over Latin America and without adequate scrutiny, poses an active threat to both democracy and development in these countries.