PORLAMAR, MARGARITA ISLAND, Venezuela — Margariteños cannot figure out how their picturesque island off the coast of Venezuela became a battleground in the war on terrorism.
No bomb ever exploded here, no shot fired. But the Bush administration has the island, and other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, under scrutiny as a place where terrorists might live, raise money or move contraband.
“The television commentators are distorting information,” said Sulenma Reyes, who, like other villagers of El Magüey, learned from television reports that the United States suspected their village was a terrorist training camp. “I haven’t seen anything they were talking about.”
Three high-profile arrests and two bombings of Israeli targets in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s are the main reasons the United States eyes the region as a potential threat. That, coupled with sometimes dated media reports that al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden may have ties to the region, has cast a pall over Muslims in the Southern Hemisphere.
“Everyone feels this is a red zone, but there is little documentation,” said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington think tank. “The visits seem to have been directed toward fund-raising and establishing links. But hard plans? Nothing turned up.”
Ultimately, American fears may be based much less on evidence of terrorism than on the clear, explosive growth of Muslim communities in nearby countries that exert little control over vast sections of their territories and on a broader definition of terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, to include criminal activity long known to exist in these areas.
Growing communities Fueled by immigration from the Middle East and conversion, especially among Afro-Caribbeans attracted by the promise of a color-blind society described in the Quran, Islam has become the fastest-growing religion in the Latin America and Caribbean region.
Many resent American suspicion of them. Most are secular, commonly intermarry with Christians and Hindus, and never supported either the Taliban in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
“There is a feeling that Muslims are targeted more and more worldwide and an unjust war is being waged upon them,” said Yacoub Ali, president of Trinidad’s Anjuman Sunnatal Jamaat Association, a group of orthodox Sunni Muslims.
Terrorism and the Iraq war in particular have had big and little side effects on Muslims in South America and the Caribbean. For example:
# In the Caribbean, American and European tourists unnerved by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and by subsequent reports of training camps in South America are staying away, severely damaging the region’s tourist-based economy. Sporadic violence and kidnapping in Guyana, reports of gunrunning for drugs in Suriname, and vague reports of al-Qaida connections in Trinidad and South Florida have all turned off would-be visitors.
# In Venezuela, rumors of a terrorist camp in Margarita along with 16 months of political unrest in Caracas have prompted officials and prominent members of the Muslim community to go on a public relations offensive. In Caracas, however, Muslims try to stay invisible.
Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians began migrating to South America with the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800s. More recently, civil war in Lebanon, violence in the Middle East and economic stagnation have driven more Muslims to the New World. Muslims are found in every country in the region, from Mexico to Argentina. Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, Brazil, are home to an estimated 1.5 million each.
“There is no distinction among the races, as there is in other faiths,” said Ali, “In Trinidad, we have a large influx of people of African origin who are rediscovering Islam as a faith. They feel….. more accepted among Muslims, and the fate of Islam is more in line with how they’d like to see themselves in the world.”
A ride along the broad, brown water of Guyana’s Demerara River shows how much Islam has spread. About 45 minutes south of Georgetown, past clusters of Hindu prayer flags, a half-dozen green and white mosques stand along the East Bank Public Road. Ten years ago, Guyana had 100 mosques; today it has 130, with well over 100,000 followers among the country’s 750,000 people.
Saudi Arabia, founded on the principle to spread Islam, has financed the construction of mosques and Islamic centers in Caracas, Buenos Aires and Brazil, including one in Foz do Iguaçu, on the Brazilian side of the triple border area.
The Sheik Ibrahim mosque in Caracas, the continent’s second largest, was built with funding from the Ibrahim bin Abdul Aziz Al Ibrahim Foundation, according to Iman Omar Kaddoura. The Saudi royal family established the foundation to help the spread of Islam. But according to published reports, the FBI uncovered ties between the foundation and Osama bin Laden while investigating U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998.
The Saudis also built the Islamic Center in Buenos Aires, dedicated last year. The $25 million complex in the upscale neighborhood of Palomar sits on land that former President Carlos Menem donated to the Saudi government. The center, of polished marble, combines a mosque and library. Unlike mosques in other parts of the city, this one demands that everyone entering announce himself, state his business and clear security. The building is open to the public only at designated times, and only members of the diplomatic community worship there.
Signs of terrorism In a low building tucked behind a business park near Miami’s Doral Country Club, military analysts talk of a potential hotbed of terrorism near our shores.
Here at U.S. Southern Command there are concerns that the ingredients for nurturing Islamic terrorist groups already exist to the south: A large and growing Islamic population with historical roots to Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and India; rugged terrain and dense jungle that make it easy to hide; guerrilla groups willing to exchange drugs for arms; governments in the grip of economic downturns; police and military struggling to cover large territories with too few men, and too little training and resources. Legal systems are weak. Law enforcement agencies rarely cooperate with colleagues across borders.
Now, with Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary groups moving their firefights from the countryside to the cities, and the re-emergence of groups such as the Shining Path in Peru, the U.S. Southern Command, responsible for the hemisphere’s security, wants Washington to act. Without U.S. aid to cash-strapped governments, terrorist groups in Latin America and the Caribbean could grow, forge alliances among each other and make the conflict in Colombia and its threat to our national security look like a schoolyard fight.
A senior Defense Department official, who traveled to Santiago, Chile, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in November, downplayed military concerns in a background briefing.
“The sense that we have is that there are few areas where certain specific groups in the Middle East like Hezbollah have contacts and raise money, probably lots of money,” the official said. “Do they have active terrorist cell operations here? No, we haven’t seen evidence of that. We are looking. We are looking very hard. We certainly don’t want that to happen here.”
When Rumsfeld met with the media, he would only voice concern about ungoverned areas, a sentiment echoed more this spring by Brian Whitman, a deputy secretary of defense.
“They are ripe for terrorists to operate from,” Whitman explained. “Anytime you have a country where you can operate without government security, you could have a problem.”
Illegal activity In March, Gen. James T. Hill, SouthCom’s commander, pushing for help to fight the potential threat, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that three Middle Eastern groups on the State Department’s terrorist list may have a presence in South America — Hezbollah (Party of God), Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) and Gama’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group).
“Radical Islamic supporters have long gathered in areas such as the tri-border region between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, known for its deep links to a full range of transnational criminal activities,” Hill said.
Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations the but that many Lebanese view as political parties, have operated out of the area for years. Businessmen have raised millions of dollars through voluntary donations and sometimes extortion to support the families of militants killed in suicide attacks. Those activities include human and arms trafficking, false documentation and money laundering, Hill said.
Now there are indications that drugs, already the financial fuel for guerrilla groups in Colombia and Peru, have met Middle Eastern politics.
“They see a perfect [business] model in the FARC and the ELN,” said one U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity, referring to guerrilla groups in Colombia. “With all these elements put together, it’s so easy to get involved in the drug trade. There’s very little government presence, and they can make money while they’re at it. It’s perfect grounds for anything.”
While the proceeds from drug trafficking and the sale of arms and counterfeit goods provide financing that could keep terrorist groups operating, officials say, the manufacture and sale of false travel documents are potentially more dangerous.
“There is a huge and growing market for forged and illegal immigration documents,” Hill told a hemispheric security conference sponsored by the University of Miami’s North-South Center in March. “Narcoterrorists and radical Islamic groups are feeding this market.”
The State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security investigates 3,500 reports of passport and visa fraud annually, resulting in the arrests of 500 people, according to its Web site. Many of those arrested are involved in narcotics trafficking, alien smuggling or are fugitive felons.
Criminal court cases are pending against the former Paraguay consul in Miami, Carlos Weiss, and Vice Consul Jose Luis Coscia. Weiss is accused of having issued 150 irregular visas, 18 to Arab citizens living in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, according to a report published by the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank. The former consul of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, Tomás Lopez Caballero, has been arraigned on charges of furnishing irregular visas to Koreans and Pakistanis.
Foreign diplomats do not have the false travel document market cornered. In 2000, Thomas P. Carroll, an official in the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana, was arrested for selling an estimated 250 visas for $1 million.
Still, local officials deny the existence of terrorist cells and training camps in the region.
Paraguayan officials insist they have shut down whatever active agents were in the triple border area, including Assad Ahmed Barakat, thought to be Hezbollah’s point man in Latin America.
“There is no concrete evidence of terrorism in this region,” said Augusto Anibel Lima, secretary general of the Tripartate Command, a task force of federal police from Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, and a spokesman for Paraguay’s national police. “No concrete evidence exists that businesses’ owners here are sending money abroad to questionable groups. Barakat is the only one suspected of aiding terrorist organizations.”
In March, federal investigators announced they were searching for Adnan El’Shukri-Jumah, a Pembroke Pines man named by a top al-Qaida operative as a trained terrorist. The son of a respected Guyanese missionary, he had visited relatives in Georgetown during Ramadan 2001. Federal officials traced his travels to Trinidad and Canada but lost track of him.
Because El’Shukri-Jumah’s father, Gulshair El’Shukri-Jumah, taught at the Darul Uloom Institute and Islamic Training Center in Pembroke Pines, suspicion turned to the Darul Uloom in Conupia, a 45-minute drive from Trinidad’s capital, Port-of-Spain. Because the two schools share a name, investigators looked at whether they were part of a network for training and financing terrorists.
But Darul Ulooms throughout the world are no more linked than are the world’s yeshivas, said Mufti Waseem Khan, principal of the Conupia school. In Arabic, darul uloom means “institute of knowledge.”
“We don’t get aid from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon or anyone,” said Waseem Khan. “What we get here is from here, whatever Allah provides for us. Whatever goes on in the Darul Uloom is open to the eyes of the public. We only have our word that we can give you that we are trustworthy.”
Loose ties These often disjointed connections and seeming affiliations are just what worry South America’s Muslims.
“When the twin towers fell, many agencies came to identify terrorists, including the CIA and Mossad,” said Rogério Bonato, general director of the newspaper in Foz do Iguaçu. “They rounded up 200 people, closed businesses and walked people out with their hands over their heads. It was humiliating.”
Muslims throughout the Caribbean and South America publicly condemned the 9-11 attacks but still feel stereotyped “as people prone to violence and likely to become terrorists than the average citizen in the United States, North America or Europe,” said Trinidad’s Ali.
“This is a fallacy because Muslims in these parts have had a history of being law-abiding citizens and have merged properly in mainstream societies where we live. While there may be people who do have extremist — not terrorist — views, I do not think they would embark on a terrorist mission,” he said. “We are not prone to taking up those types of challenges.”