Over the years, there has been disturbing information about the presence of radical Islamic terrorist groups in Latin America.  The Americas Report has published several articles regarding this subject including a recent article on how terrorists have and could use fake or doctored passports to enter the United States to carry out attacks.[1] In light of this information, it is important to know which Islamic terror groups are present in the region and the threat they could pose to regional security.

Active Islamic Terror groups in Latin America and the Caribbean:

 

The “Jamaat al Muslimeen” (JAM)

The “Jamaat al Muslimeen” is a Sunni terrorist organization that operates in Trinidad and Tobago. So far, it has been the only subversive group in the region to attempt a coup d’ Etat to install a sharia-based government. In 1990, over a six-day period, JAM’s leader Yasin Abu Bakr held members of the government including then-Prime Minister Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson, hostage while chaos and looting broke out in the streets of the capital city, Port of Spain.

The coup failed and subsequently, the JAM aligned itself with the United National Congress (before the 1995 general elections) and later with the People’s National Movement (PNM); the party which forms the current government. Bakr continues to lead the Jamaat al Muslimeen and authorities have re-arrested him on several occasions over the years. Bakr is currently being prosecuted with conspiracy to murder several of the group’s former members who had spoken out publicly against the Jamaat al Muslimeen and its practices.[2]

In March 2007, three members of the Jamaat al Muslimeen confessed to kidnapping, raping, and murdering of an Indo-Trinidadian businesswoman, Vindra Naipaul – Coolman. According to a U.S. undercover agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, Bakr’s group shipped heroin from Afghanistan to the U.S. via Trinidad. In June of that same year, a joint Guyanese/Trinidadian/FBI investigation culminated in the arrest of four men who plotted to blow up gas lines leading to the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. The individuals were American, Guyanese, and Trinidadian. One of the plot leader’s, Abdul Kadir, is an acquaintance of Abu Bakr in Trinidad. Members of the group allegedly met with JAM members to obtain support for their plot. Kadir is a former Guyanese parliament member. The JAM is currently under surveillance by the local National Security Agency as well as by the CIA for suspected terrorist relations with the Middle East.[3]

 

Hezbollah

Hezbollah has had a presence in Latin America since the late 1980′s, particularly in the Tri-Border Region, where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet. Approximately 50,000 individuals of Arab descent live in three key cities in the 40 square kilometer triangle that forms this area. Most tri-border Arabs are of Lebanese origin and are heavily represented in commerce. Many of them moved to the area in the wake of the turmoil of the Lebanese civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. Of those that adhere to Islam, approximately two-thirds are Sunni, while the remaining are Shia. The area hosts several Islamic schools or “madrassas” and various Arab – language television channels.[4]

It is common to find young men on the streets of Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, one of the two major cities that make up the TBA, with Hezbollah tee shirts. From this area, cells of Hezbollah with the help of the Iranian government planned the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA). The infamous Imad Mugniyah, who was in charge of the group’s foreign operations, coordinated the first bombing. In March 2003, after a nine-year old investigation plagued by irregularities, an Argentinean judge indicted four Iranian officials in connection with the bombing. The suspects included the former head of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the former cultural attaché at the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires. In another incident that many attribute also to Hezbollah, that occurred on July 19, 1992, a Lebanese suicide bomber boarded a commuter flight in Colón, Panama, and detonated a bomb, killing all 21 people aboard, including 12 Jewish and Israeli businessmen, and three U.S. citizens. The bomber carried a fake U.S. passport.[5]Hezbollah activities are financed mainly by drug trafficking, money laundering and terrorism. The group also engages in fund-raising, recruitment and receives logistical support from Iranian intelligence officials assigned to Iranian embassies in the region. Local businessman, Assad Ahmad Barakat, was the leader and chief financier of Hezbollah in the TBA until 2002 when he was arrested. He is now in jail in Paraguay for tax evasion. He lived and worked in the area with his brother Hattem. He also has businesses in Iquique, Chile. His brother took over until he too was arrested in Paraguay for document fraud. Assad Barakat has another brother who is a sheikh at a Hezbollah mosque in Lebanon. Paraguayan authorities found numerous documents when they arrested him including a letter from Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, thanking Assad for the money he sent (U$3,535,149) to the “martyrs program.”  Meanwhile, authorities have also linked Barakat to al Qaeda by claiming he owned the “Mondial Engineering and Construction Company” suspected of having made contributions to bin Laden’s group. The tri-border remittances to Hezbollah totaled $60 million since 1995.[6]

In 2004, authorities in Paraguay arrested Lebanese businessman, Ali Khalil Mehri, for selling millions of dollars worth of pirated software and illegally sending the profits to Hezbollah. Mehri fled Paraguay before he could be prosecuted.[7]Paraguayan authorities have accused Mohamed Tarabain Chamas, a Hezbollah member and manager of a five-story commercial building in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay (part of the TBA), of being responsible for counter-intelligence operations for Hezbollah in the TBA.[8]

 

Hezbollah Latin America

Hezbollah Latin America has two cells: one in Venezuela and the other in Argentina. Its connection with Hezbollah is unclear but the group claims solidarity with Hezbollah, Iran, and the Islamist revolution. In Venezuela, the majority of its members are from the Wayuu tribe, a small indigenous group that converted to Islam a few years ago under their leader, Teodoro Darnott. In 2006, Venezuelan officials found explosive devises in Caracas near the U.S. Embassy, which did not detonate, but contained pro-Hezbollah pamphlets. Venezuela Hezbollah took responsibility for the bombs and threatened further attacks. Authorities subsequently arrested and convicted Darnott. It is not known who took over.[9]

In Argentina, the group has direct ties to Iran through the Arab Argentine Home and the Argentine-Islamic Association-ASAI of La Plata, which cooperate and are financed by the Iranian Representation in Buenos Aires.

 

Al Qaeda

Osama bin Laden operative and 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, spent nearly 20 days in Brazil in 1995 to visit members of the Muslim community there. While there, authorities claim that Mohammed founded a charity to help finance Osama bin Laden and reportedly was hosted by Khalid Rezk El Sayed Take El Din, the mentor of the “Holy Land Foundation” in the Tri-border area. He remains in the region. U.S. Treasury officials have designated “The Holy Land Foundation” as a terrorist supporter, frozen its assets, stating that the Foundation was sending funds to Hamas.[10]

In 1996, the Brazilian police reportedly discovered that Marwan al Safadi, an explosives expert accused of having participated in the first attack on the U.S. World Trade Center in 1993, was living in the Tri-border area. In January 1997, Paraguayan authorities learned that Islamic groups in the Tri-border region were planning to blow up the American Embassy in Paraguay to coincide with the first anniversary of the bombing of the Saudi National Guard headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Police raided Safadi’s apartment in Ciudad Del Este and found it filled with explosives, pistols equipped with silencers, double-barreled rifles, false Canadian and American passports, and a large amount of cash. Brazilian authorities captured Safadi and extradited him to the United States. Although sentenced to 18 months in prison, U.S. authorities extradited him to Canada, where he received a nine-year jail sentence for drug trafficking. Safadi escaped from prison three times, finally fleeing back to South America with a false passport.[11]

Adnan el Shukrijumah, currently on the U.S. FBI’s BOLO (Be on the Look Out For) is an al Qaeda operative. He was in Panama in April 2001 surveying the Panama Canal for a possible attack. When Khalid Sheik Mohammed was captured by U.S. forces in March 2003, he confirmed Shukrijuma was an Al Qaeda member. Shukrijuma has American, Guyanese, and Trinidadian passports. On June 30 2004, the Honduran Security Ministry said that el Shukrijumah had been in Honduras just in May meeting with members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang.  His whereabouts remain unknown.[12]

In 2002, Ali Nizar Darhough was arrested in Paraguay. He is the nephew of Mohammad Dahrough, a well-known Sunni leader in the Tri-border area. The Paraguayan police said that Ali Nizar and his uncle were the al Qaeda point men for the TBA. Mohammad Dahrough’s name was found in an address book belonging to Abu Zubaydah, a high-ranking al-Qaeda official captured by the U.S. Mohammad escaped the TBA in September 1998 and has since joined al Qaeda. A report claims that Ali Nizar sent $10 million in 2000-2001 from the TBA to U.S. dummy corporations that al-Qaeda and HAMAS used as fronts. Ali Nizar was convicted in Paraguay in 2003 of tax evasion and he received a five-year sentence. There is no information on whether he was released.

Al Qaeda follower and Islamic cleric, Jamaican Sheikh Abdullah el Faisal, was convicted in Britain in 2003. He was found guilty of encouraging murder and fueling racial hatred. During his trial, tapes of his sermons were played where he ordered his listeners to “kill Hindus and Jews and other non Muslims, like cockroaches.” During his four-week trial, followers watched as the court heard el-Faisal’s voice exhorting young Muslims to accept the deaths of women and children as “collateral damage” and to “learn to fly planes, drive tanks… load your guns and to use missiles.”

On July 19, 2004, Farida Goolam Mohamed Ahmed was arrested at McAllen Miller International Airport. She was headed to New York. Ahmed had a South African passport with no U.S. entry stamps. Ahmed later confessed to investigators that she entered the country illegally by crossing the Rio Grande River from Mexico. Ahmed was carrying travel itineraries showing a July 8 flight from Johannesburg, South Africa, to London. Six days later, Ahmed traveled from London to Mexico City before attempting to travel from McAllen to New York. It was revealed in court that she was on a watch list and had entered the U.S. possibly as many as 250 times.

 

Al-Gama’ at Islamiyya

Al-Gama’ at Islamiyya is an Egyptian Islamic movement linked to Al-Qaeda that has been operating in Brazil since 1995. Mohammed Ali Hassan Mokhles, a group member, left Egypt in 1993 and established residency in Foz do Iguacu, Brazil. Authorities claim that Mokhles was sent to the TBA to collect funds for the Middle East and to conduct logistic support activities such as forging passports or other documents for Islamic jihadists. Mokhles reportedly attended a training camp in Khost, Afghanistan. An investigative expose claims that Mokhles was involved in the first World Trade Center explosion in New York. Uruguayan officials arrested Mokhles in 1999 while he was trying to cross the border from Brazil with false documents. In 2003 Mokhles was extradited from Uruguay to Egypt. Authorities claim he was involved in planning a terrorist attack that killed 58 tourists in Luxor, Egypt in 1997.

Mohamed Abed Abdel Aal, another leader of Gama’ at Islamiyya, was arrested in Colombia after arriving from Ecuador by bus in October 1998. He had been in Italy under “surveillance.” Abdel Aal was wanted by Egyptian authorities for his involvement in two terrorist massacres: the attack in Luxor, Egypt; and an incident in which terrorists killed 20 Greek tourists outside their Cairo hotel on April 18th 1996. He was subsequently deported to Ecuador. It is believed that Aal may have been trying to contact the leftist Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). He was later turned over to Egyptian authorities.

In 2002, Brazilian authorities broke up an al-Gama’ at al Islamiyya cell and detained Sunni extremist, Mohammed Ali Soliman, also wanted by Egypt for his involvement in the Luxor attacks. According to Brazilian press reports, he too was trained in camps in Afghanistan and is associated with Mokhles. Brazilian officials released Soliman in September 2002 claiming that Egyptian officials failed to provide sufficient evidence of Soliman’s involvement in the Luxor attacks. He lives in Brazil.

 

Jammat al Fuqra

Two Trinidad and Tobago citizens, Barry Adams, a.k.a. ‘Tyrone Cole’ and Wali Muhammad, a.k.a. ‘Robert Johnson,’ members of the Jammat al Fuqra, a militant Pakistan-based terrorist group, were arrested in Canada in 1994 for conspiring to set off bombs in a Hindu temple and a cinema in Toronto. Prosecutors claim that the men had lived in Texas using aliases for several years before attempting to carry out their plan. They served their full sentences without parole and Canada deported them to Pakistan upon their release.

This information shows that it is imperative for nations in the hemisphere to be vigilant against Islamic terror activities and their possible association with local subversive groups such as the FARC, the criminal cartels in Mexico and the Mara Salvatrucha gangs in Central America. There is also the possibility that these different groups could collaborate with each other since the Shia – Sunni divisions are less pronounced in the Tri-border area. What is extremely dangerous are the routes for drug and human smuggling from Mexico that many of these groups could take advantage of to enter the U.S. to carry out attacks. Another major problem is the availability of stolen forged passports used to bypass authorities. It is imperative for the region’s leaders to understand the terrorist threat that seems to be growing and to act accordingly. There is a question, however, how vigilant certain countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua will be since they have a strong connection to the Iranian government.

Nicole M. Ferrand is a research analyst and editor of “The Americas Report” of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project. She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University.

 


[1] The Americas Reports”: “Latin American Radical Grassroots Part I and Part II from March 29, 2007 and April 18, 2007; Terrorists using Latin American passports to enter the United States from January 29, 2009.

[2] Spotlight on Trinidad and Tobago’s Jamaat al-Muslimeen. June 21, 2007. The Jamestown Foundation.

[3] Ibid.[4]Hezbollah’s External Support Network in West Africa and Latin America. August 4, 2006. International Assessment and Strategy Center.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Islamic Terrorist Activities in Latin America: Why the Region and the US Should be concerned. July 1, 2008. US Southern Command.

[10] Moving Beyond the 9/11 Staff report on Terrorist Travel. September 2005. Center for Immigration Studies.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

 

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