International Terrorism: The Western Hemisphere Connection

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International Terrorism: The Western Hemisphere Connection

The networks of global terrorism–both formal and informal–leave no region untouched. The Western Hemisphere is no exception, as we recently learned from the tragic events of September 11th.

The Americas, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, is a breeding ground for Islamic radical and extremist organizations that take advantage of the region’s ill-equipped, and poorly trained security agencies. Canadian intelligence officials acknowledge that their country is riddled with terrorists and have identified more than 50 terrorist groups and 350 terrorists who live, work and raise money in Canada. Whereas the U.S. detains most refugees who arrive without documentation, Canada detains only those thought to be security risks.(1) The most troublesome areas for terrorist support networks are found in South America-the tri-border area of Argentina (Puerto Iguazú), Brazil (Foz do Iguaçu), and Paraguay (Ciudad del Este), as well as Colombia, Ecuador, and Uruguay. Mexico, sharing a 2,100-mile border with the U.S., has also been found to have a terrorist connection, given its use as an escape valve. Moreover, the porous borders of the Caribbean provide a strategic haven for terrorists, given the links between drugs, arms, and money laundering—an inviting environment for terrorist organizations.

Terrorism in Latin America-The Connection:

Although home grown Latin American terrorist organizations such as Peru’s Shining Path and Tupac Amaru have been diminished, Colombia’s, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the paramilitary groups (AUC), still pose a dangerous threat to the region’s stability. Only a day before the September 11 attacks, the State Department classified these groups as terrorist organizations. The FARC’s demilitarized zone provides safe-haven and training for international terrorists, as shown by the recent arrests of various militant members of the Irish Republican Army. In Ecuador, kidnappings and assassinations along the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil pipeline, linked to Colombian terrorists, have become commonplace. As for Cuba, it has become a refuge for terrorists seeking protection from persecution, including members of the FARC and the Basque separatist group ETA; and the country maintains close relations with those countries listed by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism. (2)

U.S.-Latin America cooperation is essential if the war on terrorism is to succeed. Latin America experienced an average of 193 terrorist attacks in 2000 from a world average of 423. In early April, the U.S. temporarily closed its embassies in Uruguay, Paraguay, and Ecuador, on CIA warnings of a possible terrorist attack by the bin Laden network.(3) However, it is the tri-border area, particularly Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, that has become a focal point of Islamic fundamentalism, with groups operating from Hamas and Hezbollah among the most prominent. The virtually lawless border area, where bribery and corruption are rampant, is a natural magnet and launching pad for terrorist activities. As former State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Ambassador Philip Wilcox, stated in congressional testimony, Hezbollah activities in the tri-border area have involved narcotics and smuggling in addition to terrorism. With cells in Colombia and Venezuela, as well, Hezbollah engages in fundraising and recruitment and receives guidance and logistical support from Iranian intelligence officers assigned to Iranian embassies in the region. (4)

The connection between Islamic terrorism and narcotics trafficking has been well documented. In addition to poppy cultivation in the Fertile Crescent, a guns-for-cocaine ring between Paraguay and the FARC had been operating until busted by Paraguayan counternarcotics police in October 2000; however, this may be but a temporary interruption. (5) In another instance, Mohamed Abed Abdel Aal, a leader of the largest Egyptian terrorist group, Jamaa Islamiyya, was engaged in transactions with Colombian rebels, involving some mixture of arms, drugs, and cash. He was apprehended by Colombian police, extradited to Ecuador, then mysteriously “disappeared”. (6)

A History Lesson:

In Argentina, where Arabs comprise the third largest community after Italians and Spaniards, Islamic extremists bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, killing 29; and in 1994 a car bomb exploded at a Jewish cultural center, the Asociación Mutualista Israelita Argentina (AMIA), killing 84 and injuring 300. Imad Mugniyah, a leading member of Hezbollah living in Iran, has been the principle suspect in the AMIA tragedy. In fact, an Iranian intelligence officer who defected to Germany told Argentine prosecutors that Mugniyah helped plan the Buenos Aires bombing. (Telephone intercepts by Argentine intelligence officials of conversations of Iranian diplomats working with Hezbollah corrobate this.) Mugniyah is also considered to be the mastermind in the 1983 suicide bombing against the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. In 1996, the Venezuelan state of Anzoátegui and the Isla de Margarita, a prime tourist location, were linked to terrorist cells engineering false documents for agents operating throughout the region. In 1998, Paraguayan officials arrested Hezbollah member Sobhi Mahmoud Fayad as he was surveying the U.S. Embassy, possibly in anticipation of an attack. He subsequently has been cooperating with authorities and is considered a major asset in the fight against terrorism.

Latin America since the Attack:

There has been speculation that Ecuador, with a vast Arab population located in Guayaquil, and Uruguay have been used as operating centers for terrorist cells linked to Osama bin Laden. FBI and CIA agents will be traveling there to join an investigation of a possible local presence of bin Laden’s network. Peru has also been cited as a home to Iraqi-based Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal and a “rest area” for bin Laden agents. Panama has also been in the limelight as a possible financial link to bin Laden organization’s al Qai’da organization; officials are investigating reports that the Al Taqwa Management organization is linked to bin Laden. Radical Arab groups have been found in Maicao, Colombia, bordering Venezuela, as well as Brazil, a nation which is home to 1.5 million Muslims. In fact, Brazilian authorities have been especially vigilant since the September 11 attacks. The Mayor of Chui, a town with 1,500 Arabs bordering Uruguay, Mohammed Kassem Jomaa, has been accused of being a Lebanese national with close links to bin Laden and questionable Saudi comrades. On September 21, Paraguayan anti-terrorist authorities detained 16 foreigners (almost all from the Middle East) for questioning in Encarnación, a riverside town with a large Arab community and a known smuggling center.(7) Lastly, in Tijuana, Mexico 35 Iraqis were arrested shortly after the attack due to improper documentation while trying to cross into U.S. territory.

U.S.-Latin American Cooperation:

In President Bush’s speech to the nation before a joint session of Congress on September 20th, he made it clear that “you are either on the side of the U.S. or on the side of the terrorists.” For our hemisphere neighbors, in particular, “non-alignment” is not an option in the war against global terrorism. In response to the challenge, Brazil introduced a resolution before the OAS to formally enact the 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, commonly known as the Rio Treaty, which stipulates that any attack on a member nation is considered an attack on all. Additionally, the OAS held a meeting of foreign ministers on Friday, September 21st in an effort to discuss new and vital anti-terrorism measures, a necessary move given the region’s susceptibility to terrorist infiltration. (8)

The recent terrorist attacks mark the continuation and intensification of a worldwide, protracted assault on Western civilization, on in which no differentiation is made between civilian and military targets. The human loss of this nightmare has been felt on a global scale. The victims of the September 11th attacks include citizens of over 60 countries, including many from Latin America: 250 Chileans, 200 Colombians, between 20-100 Brazilians, Ecuadorians, and Salvadorans, and up to 20 killed or missing from Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. (9)

U.S.-Latin American cooperation is vital in the struggle against international terrorism. The U.S. must dramatically reform its intelligence and security organizations, especially in the areas of analysis, information sharing, coordination and deployment of human assets. In Latin America, the problems are even more severe, hampered by poor and insufficient resources (physical and human), corruption (of police and judicial systems), lack of cross-country coordination, and, in more than a few cases, infiltration of security agencies by terrorists or their agents. One need only look at the current Argentine bombing trial that began on September 24th. No suspected terrorists are on trial–only five Argentine nationals, including four police officials, who are accused of purchasing and delivering a stolen van to the terrorists. (10)

Waging a successful war against global terrorism will require nothing less than the realization by Western hemisphere governments that unity of purpose, dedication of resources, constant vigilance, cooperation and swift response–both unilaterally and collectively–are indispensable elements of a winning campaign. (11) The fruits of democracy, economic growth, free trade, and social justice in the Americas cannot be harvested without each and every nation ensuring the basic security of its citizenry. The tragic events of September 11th serve as a clarion call that this, indeed, should be the Western hemisphere’s highest priority. (12)


1) DeNeen Brown, “Attacks for Canadians to Face Their Own Threat, The Washington Post, September 23, 2001, A36.

2) “Search Extends to Latin America,” Stratfor, September 19, 2001; also see Michael Radu, “Latin America Has its Own Problems with Terrorism,” The Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2001.

3) “Bin Laden Threats Close Embassies,” NewsMax.comWires, April 7, 2001.

4) “International Terrorism in Latin America,” Ambassador Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., Testimony to the House of Representatives, Committee on International Relations, September 28, 1995.

5) U.S. Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism, April, 2001.

6) “Terrorist with Bin Laden Connections Arrested in Colombia,” Stratfor, October 23, 1998.

7) “Paraguayan Authorities Detain 16 in Terrorist Investigation,” Bloomberg Latin America, September 21, 2001.

8) The OAS’s stance on terrorism is not a new development. The organization adopted a convention to prevent and punish terrorism in 1971 and followed up with more comprehensive language and framework in 1996 and 1998.

9) ‘Grief Spreads Around the Globe As Countries Count their Missing.” The Washington Post, September 19, 2001, A1& A23.

10) Kevin G. Hall, “Main Suspect Avoids Argentine Bomb Trial,” The Miami Herald, September 21, 2001, 3A.

11) “Anuncian encuentros para sincronizar la seguridad en la Triple Frontera,” El Clarín, September 23, 2001.

12) For additional information on terrorism, terrorist organizations, and the connection to Latin America see: ; ; ; ; ; ; ;

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