Terrorists in Our Neighborhood?
Keeping Perspective on the Islamic Terrorist Threat from South America
By Guest Contributor, Jeffrey Carr | June 7, 2007
There's a truism in the intelligence community that goes "The greater the degree of uncertainty, the greater the need to align facts, assumptions and judgments. The more we rely on judgment over facts, the more likely we are to err in our decisions."
The recent JFK plot has shed a new light on terrorist activities in Central and South America. There are some legitimate causes for concern, however it's important to not jump to unsubstantiated conclusions that could easily result in an avoidable mis-step by the U.S. There is a difference between evidence justifying cause for concern, and evidence justifying cause of action. The best unclassified evidence available to us today clearly demonstrates that there is a definite cause for concern.
The Tri-border area (TBA) of Ciudad de Este, Paraguay, Foz do Iguacu, Brazil, and Puerto Iguazu, Argentina is a lawless region that operates as the hub of a multi-billion dollar business in money laundering, arms sales, drug trafficking, and other criminal enterprises according to a 2006 report issued by the U.S. State Dept.
Fortunately, the governments of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay are cooperating with U.S. agencies like ICE (Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement/DHS) to set up Trade Transparency Units, which consist of highly-trained financial intelligence specialists to track the "gray" money moving through the region. As of 2006, these units were operating in Argentina and Brazil. The Paraguay unit was planned for but not yet operational. A proprietary software tool called The Data Analysis and Research for Trade Transparency System (DARTTS) analyzes foreign exchange transactions and other secret bank data and forwards the leads to field agents for follow-up.
Venezuela, under the leadership of President Hugo Chavez, has become the go-to place for criminals and terrorists looking to secure false passports and citizenship papers. In 2006, Cuba's Department of the Interior contracted with the Government of Venezuela to run that program for them. Cubans, in effect, are managing Venezuela's citizenship records, according to testimony of a U.S. State Dept. official given before the House Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation last summer. Fortunately, anyone attempting to enter the U.S. who is carrying a Venezuelan passport is automatically flagged for further scrutiny, so this window of opportunity for terrorists is rapidly closing.
An exhaustive open-source investigation into the presence of terrorist groups operating in the Tri-Border Area of South America was conducted in 2003 by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress and is, quite frankly, the most extensive analysis of multi-language sources (books, newspapers, journal articles, published investigations) available, to our knowledge. It should be required reading for those interested in the TBA region. The following are a few of the concluding points reached by the TBA as a Haven and Base for Islamic Terrorist Groups report:
- Various Islamic terrorist groups, including the Egyptian al-Jihad (Islamic Jihad) and al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group), Hamas, Hizballah, and al-Qaeda, probably have a presence in the TBA;
- Hizballah and al-Qaeda are probably cooperating in the region, but definitive proof of this collaboration, in the form of a specific document, did not surface in this review;
- Islamic terrorist groups are using the TBA for purposes of safe haven, fund-raising, money laundering, recruitment, training, plotting, and other terrorist-related activities; Terrorism within the TBA by Islamic terrorist groups has been limited to selective, mafia-like assassinations of business or community leaders who may be opposing their interests;
- The Islamic terrorist groups' activities in the TBA are in support of their international organizations and the Islamic jihad against the United States and U.S. allies;
- Hizballah has reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profits from narcotics and arms trafficking, product piracy, and other illicit activities in the TBA; and
- A substantial number of members of the Islamic terrorist groups in the TBA have probably moved out of the region since late 2001 to other areas of South America, such as Chile, Uruguay, and Venezuela, where they may be under less pressure by security forces than in the TBA.
While the evidence available to the general public does support the presence of Islamic terrorist groups in our hemisphere, there is not consistent agreement between law enforcement and intelligence agencies as to how prevalent or reliable the evidence is. Should increased attention be paid to this region? Of course, however it's important to note that as much as 4 years ago, the region was coming under sufficient scrutiny to cause "a substantial number" of Islamic terror groups to leave the region in favor of other South American countries. Finally, the conclusions of this report are 4 years old, and therefore should be weighed with the appropriate mix of caution and awareness, considering that today's terrorist environment is much more expansive and volatile.
Jeffrey Carr participated in law enforcement and intelligence gathering activities with the U.S. Coast Guard until 1980. Today he is an information architect for analyst software, and writes about Data Fusion and Geospatial Intelligence at his blog www.IntelFusion.net.