The Southern Front- Islamic Terrorism and Failed States, South and Central America

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Concern over the potential threat of Islamic terrorism operating from South and Central America to strike the United States is not new. As early as 1992, Iranian proxy Hezbollah utilized the lawless enclave known as the Tri-border Area (TBA) which conjoins Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay to strike Jewish and Israeli targets in Argentina . Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hezbollah are all believed to conduct organization and fundraising in the area. In 2002, Paraguay’s public prosecutor for drug trafficking and terrorism stated that since 1995 around $50 million dollars had been remitted to Hezbollah by Lebanese businessmen in the TBA , with as much as $300 to $500 million being transmitted to all of the active Islamic terrorists both Sunni and Shiite.

So it has long been known that terrorist groups were active in Latin America, which is why the recent report by the Washington Times in which U.S officials candidly admitted that Hezbollah was utilizing Mexican Cartel controlled smuggling routes into the United States is not frightening because it is news; as it is frightening because it is not news.

Latin America has long been an unsung battle ground in the fight against radical Islam and its terror networks.  Typically when thinking of Islamist terror, the public imagines places like the remote areas of Waziristan on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border or the Bekaa Valley in Syria, or else the slums of Baghdad, Mogadishu and Gaza city. The truly forward thinking among us have for years now expressed warnings about Brussels, London and the other capitals of Europe as the Muslim population there is increasingly radicalized by Saudi funded mosques.
Obviously it is the matter of proximity which is most worrisome about Latin America and terror. But there is more to it than that. There are substantial areas in both South and Central America that contain the elements necessary to serve as Islamist bases of operations. That is no-go areas of increased lawlessness or complicit authority and wide-spread corruption.
In addition to the already mentioned tri-border area (TBA), Islamist terror groups are actively working with existing criminal networks in Columbia’s city of Maicao, Venezuela’s Margarita Island and the Chilean city of Iquique. All are so-called “free trade” areas close to unregulated borders rife with organized transnational crime organizations.

It’s estimated that 60% of terrorist organizations have ties to the international drug trade. Hezbollah is known to engage in drug trafficking, as evidenced by the June 2005 cocaine ring broken up by Ecuadorian police which is believed to have funneled tens of millions of dollars to the “Party of God.” The Taliban also continues to fund itself through Afghanistan’s opium harvest, with as much as $400 million a year   available for terror activities generated by the distribution of 90% of the world’s heroin.

In addition to the lawless “free trade” regions of South America where terrorists and drug cartels mingle, there are the complicit governments like that of Venezuela, which has tightened its relationship with Hezbollah’s Iranian backer. The two rogue states have done $20 billion dollars worth of business together, including arms and explosives smuggling since 2000. Chavez in turn has continued to align himself with the Islamist bloc, going so far as to announce support for Hamas during Operation Cast Lead, leading to a diplomatic row with Israel. Iran has also expanded its consulates and embassy staff in Uruguay, Colombia, Nicaragua and Mexico in addition to Venezuela, all of which U.S officials believe to be cover for infiltration, espionage, and terror-related activities.  Another new opening for Iran is the recent election of El Salvador’s FMLN, a group of supposedly reformed Marxist guerillas heavily supported by Venezuela’s Chavez.  El Salvador’s newest vice -president Sanchez Ceren led an FMLN anti-America march celebrating the 9/11 terror attacks by Al Qaeda just days after the attacks, and the FMLN has maintained ties with Colombia’s Marxist narco-guerillas the FARC. Documents recovered by Colombian Special Forces have shown extensive ties between Chavez’s Venezuela, Venezuela’s anti-American ally President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and the FARC.

With the assistance of anti-American regimes in Latin America, and with wide-spread corruption of government institutions caused by the flow of drug money, Islamic terrorists are finding the southern front an attractive option for infiltrating in the United States. In 2003, a Mexican investigation into a passports for cash scheme led to indictments and firing among the Mexican Embassy in Beirut Lebanon. One man who received a passport in the scam was Mahmoud Kourani, a Hezbollah operative who paid 3,000 dollars for the Mexican credentials. In 2008, three Afghani men were arrested by Indian authorities while en-route from New Delhi to Paris, France.  They reportedly paid $10,000 for the genuine, but altered passports. In 2006, Colombian police arrested 19 Muslim men with ties to Al Qaeda in a Colombian passport investigation which began in 2002 with 3 Iraqis who were captured with false passports in Bogota.

Yet if the present states of affairs in South America are discouraging, the future could be far worse.

Mexico- a Latin Waziristan?
Northern Mexican cartels are estimated to have killed 7,000 people last year in a ferocious wave of violence which included kidnappings, assassinations, and even beheadings in a manner reminisce of Al Qaeda’s bloody tactics in Iraq’s Al-Anbar providence. According to a 2008 Joint Operating Environment Study conducted by the Department of Defense, Mexico was ranked alongside Pakistan as a nation on the brink of failure,

“The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state.”

The goal of the Mexican cartels is to demoralize and wear down the Mexican state with a series of terroristic threats, violence, and assassination. If successful, the cartels could carve out a law-free zone of urban fiefdoms comparable to Beirut of the Lebanese civil war, complete with terrorists right on the American border. As Small Wars Journal authors John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus explain:

“Worst of all, a failed state situation within Mexico would provide an ample staging area for terrorists seeking to operate in the Americas. It is in America’s national interest to ensure that Mexico does not become a large version of Ciudad del Este in the South American tri-border region, where all manner of criminals and terrorists have taken up residence. Mexican gangs already smuggle hundreds of thousands of foreigners across the border, there is an increasing likelihood that some of them will be terrorists.”

As we have learned from the continued conflict with the Taliban, which mounts its terror attacks against coalition forces from their protected areas in Northwest Pakistan, as well as in Somalia, Gaza, and Southern Lebanon, terrorists thrive in those areas where the rule of law is absent. There is no organization with more experience in how to establish an autonomous state within a state than Hezbollah, so news of cooperation with Mexican Cartels should be troubling indeed for lawmakers.

America has long had a dream of itself as being impenetrable, bordered East and West by vast oceans, and North and South by friendly partners. That pleasant fiction was temporarily battered on 9/11, but if narco-terrorists are allowed free reign on our southern border, that dream may be replaced with a very real nightmare.

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About the Author

Kyle Shideler
Kyle Shideler is the Director of Research and Communications for the Endowment for Middle East Truth

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