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What is the real threat of Islamic terrorism in Latin America?

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Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Geoffrey Ramsey's work here.

Islamic militant and terrorist groups do not seem to have an active presence in Latin America, but the possiblity that they could develop strategic links with drug trafficking organizations poses a serious threat to security in the hemisphere.

On July 31, the US State Department released its annual Country Reports on Terrorism for 2011, which profiles terrorist activity in countries around the world. In the Western Hemisphere, the State Department documented a disturbing trend: a five-year high for terrorist attacks. The reports claim that 480 attacks were committed in the Western Hemisphere in 2011, 40 percent more than the previous year.

While at first glance this sounds like cause for alarm, the statistic is not quite what it seems. The reports classify attacks on military targets as terrorist attacks, and according to State Department researchers, the “vast majority” of these incidents were the work of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s largest and oldest insurgency. The reports do not break down the number of attacks in the region by target, but because the FARC stepped up their military offensive in 2011, it is likely that this surge in terrorist activity was due more to attacks on security forces than attacks on civilian populations.

This is an important distinction to make, as the threat of terrorism in Latin America has become a major talking point in US policy-making circles. In a reflection of a post 9/11 security mindset, much of this attention has focused on the presence of Islamic terrorist organizations in the region.

In September 2011, for instance, aspiring presidential candidate Michelle Bachman raised eyebrows when she spoke out against normalizing relations with Cuba due to the alleged presence of Hezbollah “missile sites” on the island. Former US diplomat Roger Noriega and Foreign Policy’s Jose R. Cardenas have also voiced concerns about the influence of Islamic terrorist groups, co-authoring a paper for the American Enterprise Institute entitled “The Mounting Hezbollah Threat in Latin America,” which singles out Venezuela as the “principle safe haven” for the Lebanese group.

As InSight Crime has pointed out, much of this alarm is exaggerated, if not completely unjustified, and the State Department apparently agrees. A section in the terrorism reports on Latin America noted that in 2011 there were “no known operational cells of either al-Qa’ida or Hizballah in the hemisphere, although ideological sympathizers in South America and the Caribbean continued to provide financial and ideological support to those and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia."

It might be more relevant to examine the nature of this financial and ideological support than continue the politicized debate over the presence of Islamic terrorist cells in the hemisphere. In recent years evidence has emerged that groups like Hezbollah may share some financial support networks with major criminal organizations in the hemisphere. In December 2011, US authorities accused a Lebanese man of providing the Zetas drug cartel with Colombian cocaine, and recently indicted several Hezbollah-linked Lebanese individuals in Venezuela and Colombia on money laundering charges.

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This could point to a trend. Latin American security expert Douglas Farah argues that drug trafficking organizations and terrorist groups in the hemisphere are increasingly using the same intermediaries to obtain arms, launder money, and move illicit products across borders via “terrorist-criminal pipelines.” According to him, these connections are most often temporary associations based primarily on necessity, which are constantly shifting and evolving. This would mean that Hezbollah links to drug trafficking groups like the Zetas – if indeed they exist – are short-term circumstantial arrangements rather than strategic partnerships. Both Hezbollah and drug cartels rely on experts who can easily transfer and legitimize illicit funds internationally, and these “super-fixers” (as Farah refers to them) are driven more by economic incentives than ideology.

But there are also reports of more direct collusion between drug cartels and Islamic militant groups, such as the alleged October 2011 plot by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards to hire members of the Zetas to murder the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington. As InSight Crime noted at the time, the details of the plot are sketchy, but if there is even an element of truth to the story it would be worrisome.

If the relationship between drug trafficking groups and Islamic terrorists were to evolve into longer-term strategic partnerships, perhaps involving Islamic militants working with criminal networks to organize attacks,·this is more likely to take place in the Southern Cone than in Mexico or Venezuela. The tri-border area between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina has long been a hotspot of support for Islamic terrorist groups, owing to a large Arab immigrant community there. US government researchers have identified both Hezbollah and Al Qaeda presence in the tri-border area, and believe the zone to be “highly conducive to the establishment of sleeper cells.” The weak rule of law in the region also makes it an ideal smuggling corridor for drugs and counterfeit goods, which attracts organized criminal groups. This is a dangerous mix, and could pose a major security threat to the hemisphere, especially as Argentina continues to develop into a haven for top drug traffickers.

Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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