Latin American countries make headlines daily, usually about illegal immigration into the United States or narcotics trafficking. Both are important topics for concern and discussion; however an often overlooked topic in the construct of Latin American affairs is the emergence of radical Islam in Central & South America and the Caribbean. Researching this was my personal mission during my travels throughout Latin America in the summer of 2007. I asked locals for nearby Mosques, and I inquired into where I could find Kalashnikovs to fire (apparently northern Nicaragua). I kept my ears open for Arabic, Farsi, Urdu or Pashto spoken. I only crossed paths with these indicators briefly. My travels seemed to provide a small amount of “proof”of radical Islam in Latin America, and there are numerous references to this issue. The problem is, where do you find the professional sources?
Utilizing my contacts, I reached out to see what I could find. An associate of mine, often referred to as the “Drug Czar” (or head of a Counter-Narcotics division in New Jersey,) stated that the connection between Middle Eastern terrorist organizations and Latin American drug cartels was no secret. He insisted that Hamas was an active element in Latin
America and that it was involved in narcotics trafficking and gun running. I vetted this contact for what he knew. I was cynical about this information at first, but eventually he convinced me.
While in search of further confirmation of my beliefs I contacted another associate of mine who was working as a contractor for a Private Intelligence firm (he has a Graduate degree in Counter-Terrorism to his name.) I asked him what he knew about connections between Middle Eastern Terrorism and Latin America. He, within minutes, forwarded me a number of articles he easily acquired via open source methods. He said that this was merely the tip of the iceberg; there is a lot more going on south of the border than what we see in daily news.
A few years ago, an Intelligence Analyst working along the Mexican Border (on conditions of anonymity) told me that there were connections between the types of explosives found in Columbia and the types found in the Middle East. He also claimed that there have been a number of Latin American individuals discovered to have been recruited by Al Qaeda. This Analyst insisted on a direct connection between Hamas and Columbian rebels. Around the same time, another intelligence operator claimed that he recalled hearing about Islamic radicals who planned to attack an Intelligence post in southern Arizona.
Over the years I continued to search for evidence. I reached out to more contacts of mine, and slowly, the answers started flowing in. A Counter-Intelligence acquaintance of mine stated that “most insurgent movements in Latin America are leftist-based, and thus ideologically opposed to most of the goals of Islamic Terrorists. [But] there is also the possibility of links between Islamic Extremists and Latin American drug cartels, as a lot of the raw materials come out of the Arab world (particularly poppies for heroin.) [Also] let’s face it, drug dealers will generally work for anyone if the price is right. I would submit that the links are […] ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ type links.”
Latin America and Islam have had direct and indirect connections for much of history. To start with, since the time of the Muslim Moors in the Iberian Peninsula, there has been a great Arab-Muslim influence on Spanish culture. A student at Ocean County College studying Arabic and Spanish compiled a list of over a thousand similarities between the two languages. Artistically, one can see the similarities as well. Proof of the transmission of culture from the Middle East to Spain, and consequentially to Latin America is easily observed when viewing the architecture of the American southwest and Latin America. The convergence between Latin culture and Islamic culture dating back to the Caliphates expansion into Spain (via the Moors) is undeniable.
Latin America, despite its survival of the revolutions of the 1980’s, has still not emerged out of its ‘developing nation’ status. The region has made significant progress with increased trade; however, most parts of Latin America are still considered ‘third world.’ With this in mind, one cannot deny the ripeness of the region for revolutionary change. Radical Islam promotes this change. Radical Islam has demonstrated that revolution can be a lucrative model that Latin America can adopt. In poverty stricken regions there is an increased chance of adopting the principles of Islamic Radicalism; we have seen exactly this in Palestine and Iraq.
As for strategic planners of radical Islam—particularly those of Al Qaeda and the proponents of Hamas and Hezbollah—Latin America is a prime spot for infiltration into North America. The vulnerability of Latin America for anti-American operations, especially for intelligence and logistical reasons, is not new or exclusive to Islamic radical cells. The use of Latin America in proxy-operations can be traced back to the Soviets in the Cold War and even as far back as operations by Nazi Germany during World War II. The nation-states in Latin America are more susceptible to foreign influence than the United States itself. Latin American has, since the birth of the United States, been the back door into the struggle against US interests.
Unlike Nazi German or Russian Soviet spies, however, radical Islamic extremists have a lot more in common with the native Latino community. These commonalities make it easier for them to infiltrate Latin America than previous threats in the region. Most notably, there is the appearance of racial similarity. Many Middle easterners are quite close in appearance to Latinos; this makes rapport building easier. These similarities in appearance also create a more difficult environment for border patrol; they cannot discern whether they are encountering a Mexican entering our borders for work or a terrorist from Yemen with more sinister intentions.
The fact that “Global terrorism and international drug trafficking are partners”1 is no secret. Criminal organizations make and break alliances as they see fit. Narcotics trafficking and narcotics use has risen in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is standard for post-conflict regions. There is a direct connection between the narcotics trade and terrorism in the Middle East, and as time progresses we are seeing even more of a connection between these two networks in Latin America. "It is very likely that any future 'September 11th' type of terrorist event in the United States may be facilitated, wittingly or unwittingly, by drug traffickers operating on both sides of the United States-Mexico border," a recent DEA report says.2
In this same report Rep. Ed Royce of California stated "Hearings I held in Laredo [Texas] last year, and this DEA report show that our southern border is a terrorist risk." Mr. Royce continued "Law enforcement has warned that people from Arab countries have crossed the border and adopted Hispanic surnames. The drug cartels have highly sophisticated smuggling and money-laundering networks, which terrorists could access."3 Later, in the same article by Sara A. Carter, it was stated that “these terrorist groups, or sleeper cells, include people who speak Arabic, Spanish and Hebrew and, for the most part, arouse no suspicion in their communities.” There has been such an increase in this area that an El Paso, Texas law enforcement report documents the influx of "approximately 20 Arab persons a week utilizing the Travis County Court in Austin to change their names and driver's licenses from Arabic to Hispanic surnames."4
Radical Islamic groups have already had their hands in terrorist operations in Latin America. Frank C. Urbancic, the Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, has claimed that “Hizballah has been implicated in the bombing of the Israeli Embassy and the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994.”5 Urbancic goes on to warn that state sponsored terrorism is not just a Middle Eastern threat. He elaborates on the support that certain Latin American nation-states have given to Middle Eastern nations with direct ties to Islamic terror cells: “The Chavez government has concluded a number of agreements with Iran, ranging from investment pacts, to cultural exchanges, to pledges of support against military aggression—ostensibly by the United States.”
“Venezuela has fomented close relations—including intelligence cooperation—with state sponsors of terrorism Iran”. Urbancic does not stop there: “[t]he Government of Venezuela…has publicly championed the cause of terrorists in Iraq.” Urbancic also adds to this threat be describing Venezuela as a nation whose weapons magically make their way into criminal syndicates: “although it is unclear how they were obtained, some weapons seized from Colombian narco-terrorists have come from official Venezuelan stocks and facilities.” This is a serious threat. If the government of Venezuela supports Islamic terrorism, and if they have allowed their weaponry to be used by other terror cells; what stops Venezuela from supporting Islamic terror cells who pander for help in Latin American?
Despite the immediacy of the aforementioned concerns, helping weapons get into the hands of terrorists is far from the US’s foremost anxiety. Most of these weapons are easily and readily available in any black market. Entrance into the United States is what is truly concerning. Since September 11th, 2001, our greatest fear is another terrorist attack on American soil. So how could a potential state sponsor of terrorism (such as Venezuela) help further terrorism within the US borders? Urbancic stated that “we are detaining at our borders increasing numbers of third-country aliens carrying falsified or fraudulently issued Venezuelan documents.”
Many naysayers refuse to admit that there is an Islamic threat poised out of Central and South America. These people are turning a blind eye to the fact that it has already been attempted: “Islamic radicals from Iraq and Afghanistan planned a terrorist attack on a U.S. Intelligence center” in southern Arizona.6 The plot targeted Fort Huachuca, an Army base located about 15 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border. Last May, the base beefed up security after receiving reports that as many as 60 Afghan and Iraqi radicals had been smuggled into the US via tunnels built by Mexican drug cartels. Each of these Islamic radicals paid the cartels as much as 20,000 dollars (or the equivalent in weaponry) for assistance in smuggling them into the United States.
Too many Americans assume that there is no credible Muslim population in Latin America. However, www.IslamicWeb.Com illustrates that there is a significant Muslim population in much of South America. In countries like Guyana and Suriname the Muslim population reaches nearly one out of every three people. It is interesting to note that both of these countries border Venezuela, as we know that Venezuela currently harbors anti-American sentiments.
In 2005, the House Committee on Homeland Security wrote a report on the vulnerability of America’s southwestern border. In it, they found that “Border Patrol [had] apprehended approximately 1.2 million illegal aliens; of those 165,000 were from countries other than Mexico. Of the non-Mexican aliens, approximately 650 were from special interest countries. Special interest countries are those ‘designated by the intelligence community as countries that could export individuals that could bring harm to our country in the way of terrorism.’” This same report goes on to say that “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigations have revealed that aliens were smuggled from the Middle East to staging areas in Central and South America, before being smuggled illegally into the United States” and that “members of Hezbollah have already entered the United States across the Southwest border.”7
So why, with so much proof, is our southern border ignored as potential terrorist vulnerability? All of the indicators and signs are present. Islamic terrorists are in Latin America. Many have already entered the United States through its southwestern border. They are funded by wealthy Middle Eastern sponsors, aided by Latin American cartels, and further aided by Latin American state sympathizers like Venezuela. There is a lot of money involved, and the narcotics, weaponry and human trafficking flow is continuous. All of the tools are there; the region is ripe for potential radical catalyst, and it has a historical tie to Islamic influence and culture.
With all of these signs present, and the fact that previous attacks have been planned, how has nothing been done? These narco-terror criminal syndicates are building up a vast network of infrastructure and support that spans the globe. If the United States government does not preemptively strike against this looming threat, they assuredly will soon be lamenting their failure to act.
What began as a personal investigation and journey through the heart land of Latin America ended with a fear of what is to come. Though I initially had trouble finding Jihad in Latin America; Jihad will have no trouble finding us. When that day comes I will be sure to be sipping my Mojitos and waiting, poised to strike.
1 “A War on Drugs and Terror” By Andre Hollis, Washington Times.
2 “Terrorists teaming with drug cartels” By Sara A. Carter August 8, 2007
3 Rep. Ed Royce of California, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs terrorism and nonproliferation subcommittee
4 Arabs Utilize Travis County Court in Austin to Change Names”, 15 August 2007, Texas Insider.org
5 Statement before the House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation. Washington, DC. July 13, 2006
6 "Fort Huachuca was Targeted for Attack” Agence France-Presse November 26, 2007
7 House Committee On Homeland Security Subcommittee On Investigations - Michael T. McCaul, Chairman.
Brandon Scott is currently supporting the Global War on Terrorism in Central Asia. He spent a summer traveling Latin America visiting a total of 9 countries for the field research for this paper.