Dispatches - Islamist Inroads in the Americas
GUATEMALA CITY—For most experts on Islamic terrorism, Latin America is something of an afterthought. Likewise, the same holds true for many Latin American security and defense experts, who view radical Islam as a foreign concept, with little relevance to their region. This state of affairs prevails at an official level as well, with most Latin American governments failing to incorporate counterterrorism measures into their national security strategies, thereby creating the necessary political space for Islamic extremism to expand throughout the region.
Over the last decade, the high-profile relationship between the late Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chávez and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad raised the profile of Islamic extremism in the Americas. As time has gone on, however, it has become apparent that Venezuela represents only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the presence of radical Islamic terrorist groups in the region. Today, a variety of Islamic extremist movements and actors are broadening their activities in the region, from Mexico down to Argentina.
The Caribbean is of particular note in this regard. The offshore islands, which have long been a haven for criminal enterprise, are being exploited by terrorist franchises that take advantage of the lax oversight and weak institutions within the Caribbean states.
Over the last decade, several high-profile cases have shed light on this emerging synergy, particularly in Trinidad and Tobago off the Caribbean coast of Venezuela. In 2004, it was revealed that Jamaat Al-Muslimeen (JAM), a Sunni organization that attempted a coup d’état in Trinidad and Tobago in 1990, was linked to Hamas and several jihadist websites from Afghanistan. JAM was reported to have been recruiting and proselytizing from within Trinidad and Tobago, introducing many of its citizens to radical Islam over the course of several decades. Two years later, in May of 2006, this proselytization proved effective when two citizens of Trinidad and Tobago (Barry Adams and Wali Muhammad) were detained and jailed in Canada for their involvement in acts of terrorism. A year after that, a larger terrorist plot was uncovered involving Kareem Ibrahim, an Islamic leader in Trinidad and Tobago, who, along with former Guyanese parliamentarian Abdul Kadir, planned to bomb John F. Kennedy airport in New York. Both were arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2007 for an attack that—if successful—could have rivaled those of 9/11 in scope.
Jamaica is another hub of Islamist activity. According to WikiLeaks, Jamaican-born Islamic cleric Sheikh Addulah el-Faisal (also known as al-Jamaikee) was responsible for establishing multiple terrorist cells on the island over the course of the past two decades. He was arrested by British authorities in the mid-2000s for his role in soliciting murder and fueling racial hatred. Tellingly, one of the perpetrators of the 2005 attempted bombing of the London metro, Germaine Lindsay Maurice, was also born in Jamaica and supposedly had been influenced by Sheikh Addulah el-Faisal.
While proselytization has become a concern in the Caribbean, a larger concern is the complicity of these countries in illicit immigration schemes linked to the Middle East. Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines are all known to have produced travel documents for Iran’s operatives and proxy agents, namely Lebanese Hezbollah. For instance, in July of 2008, it was disclosed that the Islamic Republic signed an agreement with Dominica allowing its citizens to obtain a second citizenship and passport from the island, thereby providing Iranians with easy access to Great Britain, since Dominica is a part of the commonwealth of the United Kingdom.
But while Iran and Hezbollah have made inroads in the Caribbean, their largest presence is arguably in South America. The largest country on the continent, Brazil, is also home to Latin America’s largest Islamic population (estimated at one million). Hezbollah has increasingly used this population to conceal its operatives and provide cover for illicit activities. Most recently, on November 9, 2014, the leading Brazilian newspaper O’Globo reported close ties between Lebanese Hezbollah and the largest criminal gang in Brazil—First Capital Command (Primero Comando da Capital, or PCC). This relationship involved the provision of weapons to the PCC in exchange for the protection of Hezbollah operatives incarcerated in Brazilian prisons. In the last few years, several prominent Hezbollah members have been jailed in Brazil for criminal racketeering—including Hamzi Ahmad Barakat, the brother of the infamous Assad Ahmad Barakat, who, according to the U.S. Treasury, is considered one of Hezbollah’s most “prominent and influential members.”
At the same time, the threat has increasingly migrated northward, toward the U.S. border. Mexican intelligence, known as Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional (CISEN), admitted in September 2011 that it “cannot discount the risk that a possible presence of Islamic terrorism is present in our territory.” The statement was prescient; the following month, evidence surfaced of a failed effort to bomb the U.S. Embassy in the Distrito Federal (Mexico City) by the Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab. A year later, an American citizen from San Francisco, Rafic Labboun, was arrested in Merida, Mexico, for smuggling Hezbollah operatives through Mexico into the United States using forged Belizean identification documents.
The growing network of Islamists throughout Latin America is supported and financed by the powerful narco industry that is prevalent throughout the region. Mexico is ground zero for this drug activity. In 2011, the extent of this crime-terror nexus was revealed when U.S. authorities arrested Lebanese drug-trafficker Ayman Joumaa for trafficking several tons of cocaine from Colombia through Mexico and laundering vast sums of money for Lebanese Hezbollah. The court documents in the cased revealed close ties between Hezbollah and Mexico’s powerful Los Zetas drug cartel.
Yet while local law enforcement authorities and intelligence agencies throughout Latin America know that Islamic terrorists operate in tandem with transnational organized crime, most national governments in the region refuse to acknowledge the gravity of this threat. As the events of recent years have made clear, they do so at their own peril.
Dr. Pedro Trujillo Álvarez is the director of the Political Science and International Relations Department of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín (UFM) in Guatemala.