MIAMI – There is real danger that Islamic extremist groups such as al-Qaida and Hezbollah could form alliances with wealthy and powerful Latin American drug lords to launch new terrorist attacks, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
Extremist group operatives have already been identified in several Latin American countries, mostly involved in fundraising and finding logistical support. But Charles Allen, chief of intelligence analysis at the Homeland Security Department, said they could use well-established smuggling routes and drug profits to bring people or even weapons of mass destruction to the U.S.
“The presence of these people in the region leaves open the possibility that they will attempt to attack the United States,” said Allen, a veteran CIA analyst. “The threats in this hemisphere are real. We cannot ignore them.”
Added U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operations chief Michael Braun: “It is not in our interest to let that potpourri of scum to come together.”
Their comments came at a two-day conference on the illegal drug threat in the Americas hosted by the U.S. Southern Command and the 35,000-member AFCEA International, a trade group for communications, intelligence and national security companies.
Much as the Taliban tapped Afghanistan’s heroin for money, U.S. officials say the vast profits available from Latin American cocaine could provide al-Qaida and others with a ready source of income. The rebel group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has long used drug money to pay for weapons, supplies and operations – and is also designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S.
“We’ve got a hybrid that has developed right before our eyes,” Braun said.
Latin America’s drug kingpins already have well-established methods of smuggling, laundering money, obtaining false documents, providing safe havens and obtaining illicit weapons, all of which would be attractive to terrorists who are facing new pressures in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Allen, of the Homeland Security Department, said there was currently a “low probability” of cooperation between terrorists and drug organizations, but the “fertile ground” of Latin America – where government corruption is common and institutions often weak – means that the possibility deserves renewed U.S. attention.
“It would be an unprecedented act. But we cannot rule it out,” he said.
The officials said the key to preventing such an alliance is increasing cooperation between government agencies and with nations in the region. They singled out for praise the governments of Mexico and Colombia for making huge strides against drug groups, while criticizing Venezuela for its failure to do so.
Braun said the DEA can be a particularly critical component because of its wide use of human informants and telephone wiretaps to track those in the drug trade. Those sources often provide tips about other types of crime and could be key to identifying terrorists in Latin America.
“They use the same money launderers, the same document forgers,” he said. “You are naturally going to bump up against terrorist organizations.”