Is there a credible Islamist threat in Latin America?

Some observers and policymakers suggest there is, but a cold look at the facts suggests fears may be overblown. Whatever the case, a nuanced approach to diplomacy will be required to build partnerships capable of thwarting any terrorist ambitions.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran (L) is welcomed by Venezuela's then-President Hugo Chávez (R) in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 9, 2012. Of concern to some observers have been alleged links between Iran and Latin America.

A version of this post ran on LatinAmericaGoesGlobal. The views expressed are the author's own.

There is an Islamist threat in the hemisphere. But if it dominates the thinking of policymakers to excess, there is the risk of alienating our partners in the region and making it more difficult to secure the sort of cooperation we need to keep US citizens safe.

Individuals from Caribbean countries have left to join Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, raising the real risk that they will return as rogue terrorists, much like those that have been behind a number of attacks on civilians in Europe.  There were the 1992 and 1994 alleged Hezbollah-Iran linked bombings in Argentina against the Israeli embassy and the Israeli Mutual Aid Society (AMIA). There was the recent arrest and now sentencing of the Hezbollah member Mohammed Hamdar in Peru for quite likely scoping out the country for potential targets.  And there is the troubling series of allegations that the recently promoted Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami had and may maintain ties with Hezbollah.

But more on that later because it deserves a section of its own. First, there are the disproven or inflated claims that risk driving US policy.

Many of the more extreme claims have been disproven by credible sources. Among those discredited allegations have been: the existence of Iranian-controlled uranium mines on the banks of the Orinoco River in Venezuela; an operating Hezbollah training camp in Venezuela’s Isla Margarita; active Hezbollah training camps in the tri-border area of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina; and the placement of surface-to-air missiles in the Paraguaná peninsula in Venezuela. None of them is true.

A 2012 report by the Washington-based independent think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) poked holes in many of the allegations. As the report acknowledges, “Within the hemisphere, Iran has sought links with a broad range of countries, from democratic, free market states to a handful of authoritarian, anti-U.S. regimes.” At a bilateral economic relations level most of those have focused on establishing Iranian manufacturing facilities in things such as “tractor factories, dairy facilities, and cement plants, plus hydrocarbon and mineral exploration” that the report says are often unprofitable for Iran but serve to promote the country’s status as a globally engaged player. In Venezuela – the focal point of much alarmism – the report concludes that many of even those benign projects have come to nothing as a result of bureaucratic wrangling. Concerning the allegations of Iran-Venezuelan collaboration on uranium mining, CSIS recognized that Venezuela “does not seem to have as much uranium as Iran, nor the capability to process and concentrate it,” leading to the question: What is the rationale for their alleged (and disproven) joint uranium venture?

In conclusion the report states, “Iran’s activities in the Western Hemisphere raise a number of warning flags, although some may be distractions,” and earlier it says perhaps quite presciently, “Overestimating a potential Iranian threat could lead to reactions more damaging than anything Iran could do by degrading U.S. relations with neighboring governments and publics.”

Another extensive report by the investigative reporting non-governmental organization ProPublica revealed that there were indeed efforts to share information and intelligence between the governments of former President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The report, though, gives the impression that the US government is on top of it. For example, in one case it points out that “the U.S. Treasury Department designated a Venezuelan diplomat and a Venezuelan businessman as terrorists for allegedly raising funds for Hezbollah, discussing terrorist operations with Hezbollah operatives, and aiding travel of militants from Venezuela to training sessions in Iran.”

The main concerns

In a recent article in The National Interest entitled “The Looming Islamist Threat… in Latin America” the author makes three main claims, the first being that the tri-border area between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay has become a training and financial hub for Hezbollah. 

The idea that the tri-border area is a hotbed of terrorism training and camps has been around for decades, yet has also been consistently debunked. Numerous State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and embassy investigations have scoured the area so much that it must be one of the most studied areas by the US intelligence community in the Western Hemisphere. For example, a Wikileaks page containing a State cable summarizing a 2007 inter-agency conference in Asunción, Paraguay, concluded “Hizbollah [sic] has a small direct, non-operational presence on the ground but most Lebanese in the TBA [tri-border area] are Hizbollah sympathizers, if not financial supporters.” To put it bluntly, Lebanese communities – as has been reported repeatedly – in the tri-border area are likely raising money for Hezbollah for its activities elsewhere, but the region is not an operating base for terrorist attacks in the Americas.

The second main point in the article – also mentioned in a recent Foreign Policy piece – is the well-known case of Iranian Quds forces attempting to recruit Mexican narcotics hitmen to assassinate the then-Saudi Ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, in Washington. The plot led to US Justice Department charges against two Iranian officials. So, yes, this one is true and substantiated. But there are two problems with it. First, the Mexican drug groups were never involved. Quds force representatives only met with the US undercover agent, meaning that in this much-cited example of collaboration between Iran and Mexican narco-traffickers, they were never actually involved as partners.  The second problem is that Iran’s plan wasn’t of the same scale or type being peddled by the authors of these two articles. It wasn’t a massive attack against US citizens or infrastructure; it was a targeted assassination attempt. 

The last charge made in The National Interest is more legitimate and that has to do with the potential Hezbollah ties of the current Venezuelan vice president, Tareck El Aissami. 

The question of Venezuela

None of this is to say that radical Islamist contacts and activities, including those of Hezbollah and Iran, don’t exist in the region. Whether the 2008 designation by the US Treasury Department of a Venezuelan diplomat and a Venezuelan businessman as terrorists for allegedly raising funds for Hezbollah and discussing terrorist operations with Hezbollah operatives or the tragic AMIA bombing in Argentina, Hezbollah and Iran are engaged in the hemisphere. At the same time, there is credible evidence that Venezuela’s recently appointed Vice President El Aissami, son of a Lebanese mother and a Syrian father, was active in Hezbollah in his youth and has maintained his ties to terrorist groups both while he was in the Interior Ministry and now in the vice presidency. Sources have confirmed his youthful ties to Hezbollah and raised serious concerns about the nexus between narcotics trafficking and Hezbollah while he was in the Interior Ministry.

The question is how Iran or Hezbollah will exercise this influence. Because, as the case of the Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir indicates, a massive terrorist attack in the US or on US interests launched by Iran from the Americas would bring a swift and painful response to the theocratic government. That’s not to say there are no interests or that they are benign; but a realistic assessment of the risk of a terrorist attack led and linked to a government should be in order.

Which brings me to perhaps the more legitimate terrorist risk from the region: the possibility of a returning IS fighter staging a rogue attack. According to two sources, the United States is carefully tracking a number of citizens from the region – primarily the Caribbean – that have left to join IS. The fear is that they could come back and launch self-guided attacks on US soil or against US interests in their home countries. Besides the fact that this is how the most recent terrorist attacks have occurred in Europe and – very loosely – in the United States, it also has more logic than the idea that Iran would launch an attack given all it would risk.

But addressing that concern requires cooperation with governments in the region tracking their citizens’ travels – to IS territories, back, and to the United States – and sharing that information with US intelligence services. And this includes working even with countries like Cuba to remain up to date – something that is anathema to many of those who may form a part of this administration.

At the same time, looking at the region and seeing only a terrorist threat would demonstrate a troubling lack of interest in the main concerns of most Latin Americans. Across the region, citizens are worried about climate changeeconomic growth, and crime, often much more than the threat of terrorism. If the Trump administration wants to build the sorts of alliances with governments in the region required to detect and thwart an attack, this demands leading with the issues that are of primary concern to Latin Americans.  As real as the threat may be, ignoring the demands and fears of citizens south of the border and letting radical Islam dominate our discussions with the hemisphere will only make the US less safe.

Will there be a terrorist attack on US soil by a terrorist who slips through Latin America and even across the Mexico border? It’s possible; it may even be likely. But rather than leading with a series of alarmist, unsubstantiated charges that will only distort our policy and turn off our allies, a future team in the administration should measure the demands and interests of partners in the south and look for ways to build off those to address legitimate concerns of Islamism in the region. Doing so will not only consolidate cooperation in the region, it will also further – in the long term – improve US security from radical Islam, from any source and from any region.

Christopher Sabatini, PhD, is the editor of and a lecturer at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, N.Y. From 2005 to 2014 he was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas and the founder and editor in chief of the hemispheric policy journal Americas Quarterly.

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