Terrorism in Latin America (Part One): The Infiltration of Islamic Extremists
The threat from Islamic extremists in Latin America remains an overlooked aspect of U.S. national security strategy. And the threat is worsening – not “waning” as the Obama administration claimed about Iran in 2013. The Trump administration should shift U.S. priorities in Latin America to strategies that preemptively disrupt the financial networks of Islamists, aid allied governments with legal and law enforcement support, and increase intelligence-gathering capabilities in the region.
The Process Began Decades Ago. Islamic extremists have used Latin America as a base of political and financial support since the immediate years preceding the formation of Israel in May 1948:
- A handful of Arab officials and Arab-Palestinian sympathizers began fundraising efforts and circulated anti-Israeli literature throughout parts of Latin America not long after the first Arab-Israeli war (1948- 1949).
- As networks developed and diplomacy turned to violent activism, more militant groups moved in; for instance, in the 1960s, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) used established networks to build their own base of support among guerrilla factions, local anti-Semitic organizations and Arab civic groups in Argentina.
- Furthermore, the PLO and others also collaborated with rebels in Nicaragua in the 1970s and with the Cuban government in the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict.
Aided by these local networks, Iran began settling its agents in Latin America in the early 1980s and operatives from Hezbollah ‒‒ a militant Islamist group based in Lebanon and proxy force of Iran ‒‒ soon followed.
Latin America Is Important for Relationships and Money. Today, international Islamists, especially Iran and Hezbollah, employ much more sophisticated fundraising and recruitment operations that reach far and wide. Former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States Roger Noriega told Congress in March 2012 that Iran now has 80 Hezbollah Islamist operatives in at least 12 Latin American nations –‒ including Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Chile. In fact, the U.S. Treasury Department froze the assets of Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami in February 2017 for his collaboration with drug organizations and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.
Separately, author and senior Pentagon consultant Edward Luttwak describes the lawless triborder region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, 800 miles north of Buenos Aires, as the most important base for Hezbollah outside of its headquarters in Lebanon. The $6 billion-a-year illicit economy in this Hezbollah stronghold has allowed a variety of terrorist organizations to earn an estimated $10 million to $20 million a year from arms trafficking, counterfeiting and drug distribution, among other illegal activities.