Is al-Qaeda Seeking Allies in Latin America?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 37

U.S. officials have warned of a real danger Islamist extremists could form alliances with wealthy and powerful Latin American drug lords to launch new terrorist attacks against the United States. According to recent remarks made by Under Secretary of Intelligence and Analysis in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Charles Allen, at a two-day conference hosted by SOUTHCOM and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA); “The threat of ties between criminal and drug smuggling networks and Islamic terrorism may be less pressing than in the Near East, but the threats in this hemisphere are genuine, insidious, and not always limited to recruiting and finance.” [1]

It’s still unlikely that al-Qaeda or affiliated groups will resort to an alliance with drug dealers in a region where Islamist extremists are still rare. Revealing the existence of such an alliance would have the unwelcome consequence of Salafi-Jihadi organizations losing religious sympathizers in the Middle East. Furthermore the connection between identifying “some extremist group operatives involved in fundraising and finding logistical support” and the willingness to ally with drug dealers in terrorist attacks is unclear.

Others, however, have speculated on the possibility of an alliance between the jihadis and revolutionary leftist groups in Latin America. In an article entitled “Seven Years After September: Has al-Qaeda Achieved its Goals?,” Hamed Bin Hasan al-Qahtani, the editor-in-chief of a newly published jihadist electronic journal, predicted that nationalist and Marxist resistance movements in developing countries, and in Latin America, in particular, will switch allegiances, very soon, towards al-Qaeda as they witness the “victories of al-Qaeda, which have never been achieved by any secular movement in the world” (Qaddaya Jihadyya, Issue 2, September, 2008).

While such a prediction seems to be a new development in the rhetoric of al-Qaeda and its affiliated Salafi-Jihadi groups, it raises the pivotal question of the possibility of an alliance between Salafi-Jihadis and radical leftist groups in Latin America, based on the common cause of confronting American imperialism and hegemony.

Fred Halliday, a well-known British leftist scholar, concluded in a 2006 article; “that the Islamist programme, ideology and record are diametrically opposed to the left.” However, he wrote his article arguing that Islamist groups, because of their attacks on the United States, have won “sympathy far beyond the Muslim world, including among those vehemently opposed from a variety of ideological perspectives to the principal manifestations of its power” (, September 8, 2006). Nevertheless, Halliday’s article served as a reminder to leftists that Islamists are not credible allies.

Olivier Roy, a French specialist on Islamist movements, suggests that Salafi-Jihadis can collaborate with non-Muslim organizations, and can also include members who are not Muslim (Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2005).

While it is not possible to confirm whether violent Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda are ready and willing to be allied with secular radical Leftist groups in Latin America, al-Qahtani’s predication indicates there is some interest in the region; in terms of recruiting sympathizers and encouraging leftist radical groups to simulate al-Qaeda’s tactics.

Pablo Gamez, head of the Latin section of Netherlands International Radio, says in a story on Latin American-Arab relations that George W. Bush’s administration and its involvement in the war on terror since 9/11 has led to a loss of American influence in Latin America, which is now rarely described as America’s “backyard” in White House agendas. According to Gamez, the emergence of al-Qaeda has led to such a dramatic shift in priorities that, so far as the U.S. foreign policy agenda goes; “South America does not exist anymore” (, May 25, 2006).

Because of negative feelings against the United States, Islamic da’waa (preaching) has flourished in Latin America since 9/11, according to a Brazilian imam (, March 27, 2004).While there are an estimated four million Muslims in Latin America (about 8% of the entire population), served by well-established moderate Islamic institutions, the numbers of converts to Islam in the region is increasing (some sources estimate that 50% of Muslims in Latin America are converts). With anti-American sentiments running high, these newly converted Muslims are likely to be targeted by al-Qaeda and affiliated groups as potential jihadis unless the moderate Islamic institutions are able to assimilate these new converts.

The fact that al-Qaeda resorts to recruiting newly converted Muslims has been witnessed in several incidents, such as Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 London bombers; Kibley da Costa, a member of what is known in the British Media as “Osama Bin London’s group,” who aimed to open training camps in the UK in 2006; or the first female European suicide bomber in Iraq, Belgian Muriel Degauque. Such a strategy could be pursued by Salafi-Jihadis in Latin America.

Furthermore, it is unlikely that al-Qaeda will try to convince radical leftist secular movements to join them as they will not accept non-Muslims in their organizations; but they are defiantly in favor of such groups simulating al-Qaeda’s tactics in attacking the United States. Such attacks would ease pressure on al-Qaeda and, at same time, would confirm al-Qaeda’s role as the organization which inspires all other radical groups in the world.


1. U.S. Department of Homeland Security Press Release, Remarks by Under Secretary Charles Allen at AFCEA-SOUTHCOM “South 2008” Conference Panel: “Narco-Trafficking: What is the Nexus with the War on Terror?” October 8, 2008. See also Colombia Reports, October 9; AP, October 8).