TerrorismConcerns over terrorist groups gaining foothold in Latin America

Published 17 August 2012

At the moment, Islamic militant and terrorist groups do not seem to have a presence in Latin America, but concerns are growing that these groups could develop strategic links with drug organizations, posing a serious threat to security in the hemisphere

At the moment, Islamic militant and terrorist groups do not seem to have a presence in Latin America, but concerns are growing that these groups could develop strategic links with drug organizations, posing a serious threat to security in the hemisphere.

The U.S. State Department (USSD) released its annual Country Reports on Terrorism for 2011, which profiles terrorist activity in countries around the world. The USSD documented a disturbing trend: The reports claim that 480 attacks were committed in the Western Hemisphere in 2011, 40 percent more than the previous year.

The Christian Science Monitor notes, however, that the numbers are a bit misleading, however. The reports classify attacks on military targets as terrorist attacks and according to the USSD, the “vast majority” of these attacks were the work of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FRAC), Columbia’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.

The Monitor reports that reflecting the post 9/11 security preoccupation, much of the focus on possible terrorist activities in the hemisphere has centered on the presence of Islamic terrorist organizations in the region.

One example is from 2011 when Representative Michelle Bachman (R-Minnesota) spoke out against normalizing relations with Cuba because of the alleged presence of Hezbollah “missile sites” on the island. Former U.S. diplomat Roger Noriega and Foreign Policy’s Jose R. Cardenas have also expressed their concerns about the threat of Islamic terrorist groups, as they co-authored 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.

Many have expressed their growing concern with Islamic terrorism in Latin America, but according to InSight Crime, a non-profit research organizations specializing in studying organized crime in the Western Hemisphere,  much of the alarm about the terrorist threats is exaggerated, even unjustified. The USSD is in agreement, as they noted that in 2011 there were “no known operational cells of either al-Qa’ida or Hizbellah in the hemisphere.”

The biggest fear is that these groups will share a financial support network with major criminal organizations. In December 2011, U.S. 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.

Latin American security expert Douglas Farah argues that drug trafficking organizations and terrorist groups are using the sources to obtain arms, launder money, and move illicit products across borders through terrorist-criminal pipelines. Farah also thinks that these connections are not the result of a combined effort but rather short term circumstantial arrangements. Both Hezbollah as well as the drug cartels rely on experts in the field of money laundering and weapons trafficking.

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 an element of truth to the story it would be worrisome.

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