In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the possibility of al-Qaeda infiltrating Latin America became a priority for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials. However, the most publicized incidents of radical Islamist activity in Latin America have not been linked to al-Qaeda but instead to the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah, which is ideologically and politically close to Iran. These include the March 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina and the July 1994 attack against the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AIMA), also in the Argentine capital, allegedly in retaliation for Israel’s assassination of former Hezbollah leader Sheikh Abbas al-Musawi and his family in February 1992.
Hezbollah officially denies responsibility for these attacks and remains emphatic that it only operates in the Israel-Lebanon theatre, in what it declares to be the defense of Lebanese soil and sovereignty against Israeli threats and occupation. Many questions still surround the attacks in Argentina. Some observers suggest that the attacks were in fact out of character for Hezbollah, and instead point to al-Qaeda’s possible involvement. This controversial theory throws into question the date of al-Qaeda’s earliest attack, which is generally believed to be the failed December 1992 attack against U.S. servicemen en route to Somalia in a hotel in Aden, Yemen that killed two Austrian tourists instead. It also raises the possibility of a link between the attacks in Latin America and the first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993.
Many observers believe the evidence implicating Iran and Hezbollah in these incidents is scant and, at best, circumstantial. Yet this did not prevent opponents of Argentine President Carlos Menem from exploiting the attacks in an effort to discredit him. Menem’s tenure in office was mired by corruption charges, which included allegations that he accepted a USD10 million bribe from Iranian intelligence to cover up Tehran’s alleged role in directing the attacks through Hezbollah. Some even pointed to Menem’s Syrian Christian origins as evidence of his alleged pro-Hezbollah leanings. These reports stem from the testimony of a former Iranian intelligence agent known by his alias, Abolghasem Mesbahi, who defected in 1996 and whose credibility has been the subject of intense speculation .
Subsequent legal action against Iran for its alleged role in the attacks led to the brief detainment of Iranian officials, including former Iranian Ambassador to Argentina, Hadi Soleimanpour, who was apprehended in the United Kingdom in 2003. However, a London court rejected the evidence provided by Argentine officials against the Ambassador and his colleagues.
The Nexus between Terrorism and Organized Crime
In June 2005, Ecuadorian security officials uncovered a drug smuggling ring led by a Quito-based restaurateur of Lebanese descent identified as Rady Zaiter. Under the auspices of “Operacion Damasco,” local security forces disrupted his syndicate, which stretched to the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East. Although little evidence has emerged confirming that Zaiter was anything other than a prolific drug dealer, Ecuadorian sources are emphatic that Zaiter had ties to Hezbollah and was in fact laundering money for the group . This seems to fit a pattern in Latin America, as more countries attempt to curry favor with Washington by claiming solidarity in the war on terrorism by linking narcotics traffickers to terrorism.
Zaiter was also known by his aliases David Assi Alvarez and Almawla Fares. He is accused of cocaine trafficking and money laundering through a network of local drug smugglers and contacts in the sizable Arab and Muslim immigrant communities of Maicao, a free-trade zone in northeastern Colombia, as well as the capital Bogota. Like Zaiter, the majority of Maicao’s Arab Muslim population is of Lebanese descent. Others trace their origins to Syria and, to a lesser extent, Palestine .
Margarita Island, Venezuela, another free-trade zone that is home to a sizeable Arab Muslim (and Arab Christian) community, is also cited as a potential terrorist base. The alleged threat emanating from Margarita Island is receiving far more attention in Washington, but is as much a product of the simmering tensions between the Bush Administration and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Both Maicao and Margarita Island, along with the banking centers on the island of Curacao and elsewhere in the Netherlands Antilles, Colon, Panama, the Cayman Islands, and the rest of the Caribbean Basin, are part of a multifaceted network that facilitates the transfer of illicit funds from drug and weapons sales, as well as counterfeiting, piracy, and human smuggling. The warring factions in Colombia’s civil war also have a lucrative stake in this system.
The Tri-Border Area (TBA) that binds Puerto Iguazu, Argentina; Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; and Foz do Iguacu, Brazil, is another center of lawlessness and lucrative criminal activity in South America that includes Russian and Asian gangs, in addition to South American criminal syndicates. Hezbollah is reported to operate extensive operations involving fundraising and money laundering amidst the region’s sizeable Arab community in the TBA.
The Black Market Peso Exchange (BMPE), the largest and most sophisticated system of laundering money in the Western Hemisphere, along with other Alternative Remittance Systems (ARS), including hawala, an Islamic form of money transfer traditionally used by Muslims that facilitates the movement of funds through informal and anonymous channels, are endemic to Latin America and a central feature of organized crime and the drug trade in the region .
Despite a lack of hard evidence demonstrating collaboration between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda in Latin America and elsewhere for that matter, many observers worry that al-Qaeda may be using the same networks exploited by Hezbollah and other organizations to generate funds. Members of the Egyptian Gammat al-Islamiyya, including Al-Sayid Hassan Mukhlis, who is tied to the 1997 attack against tourists in Luxor, Egypt, have been linked to the TBA, allegedly as a local fundraiser for the group. Mukhlis was arrested in El Chui, Uruguay in January 1999 and eventually extradited to Egypt in 2003 . Gammat al-Islamiyya is known to have links to al-Qaeda.
Islam in Latin America
Latin America is home to a sizeable and diverse Muslim population with deep roots throughout the region. Most Muslims are of Arab descent, typically of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian origin, although Christian Arabs from the Levant far outnumber their Muslim kin. There are also sizeable South and Southeast Asian Muslim communities with roots in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Indonesia in Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere in the Caribbean Basin. The region is also experiencing a steady stream of migration from the Middle East and South Asia in recent years, especially in vibrant free-trade zones such as Iquique, Chile and Colon, Panama.
As a result of intermarriage and conversion, Islam is becoming one of the fastest growing religions in Latin America. There is evidence to suggest that Muslim missionaries based in Spain and their regional affiliates are making inroads into disenfranchised and underserved indigenous communities that were once the target of evangelical Christian sects for conversion . The competition between Muslim and Christian missionaries for prospective converts has even led to confrontation and violent clashes in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
Spain’s al-Murabitun (The Almoravids, after the African Muslim dynasty that ruled North Africa and Spain in 11th and 12th century) is believed to be the most prolific missionary movement operating in Latin America . The group is an international Sufi order founded in the 1970s by Sheikh Abdel Qader as-Sufi al-Murabit, a controversial Scottish Muslim convert born Ian Dallas. Although no hard evidence has surfaced tying the group to international terrorism, let alone al-Qaeda, Dallas has been accused of harboring extremist leanings. Aurelino Perez heads the Murabitun’s campaign in Chiapas, where he competes with Omar Weston, a British-born Muslim convert who resides in Mexico City and heads the Centro Cultural Islamico de Mexico (CCIM), for adherents in Chiapas and the rest of Mexico. Known locally as Muhammed Nafia, Perez is a Spanish convert to Islam who hails from the southern Spanish city of Granada in Andalusia.
The Murabitun’s ambitious efforts to gain adherents in Mexico include an unsuccessful attempt to forge an alliance with Subcommandante Marcos and his Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), following the group’s armed rebellion in Chiapas in 1994 . The Murabitun are comprised predominantly of Spanish and European converts to Islam. There are also reports that Muslim missionaries are finding adherents among indigenous peoples in Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America .
In an effort to win over converts in Latin America, the Murabtiun emphasize the cultural links between the Arab world and Latin America through Spain’s Moorish heritage. In doing so, the Murabitun and like-minded movements advocate a collective reversion to Islam, which in their view signifies a return to the region’s true heritage, as opposed to what many see as conversion to the Muslim faith. In this sense, Islam not only represents an alternative to the colonial traditions imposed on the indigenous and mestizo peoples of Latin America, namely the Roman Catholic Church, but is also a nativist tradition that has been suppressed. The Murabitun also claim that Islam is not tainted by European and Western colonialism and imperialism, but instead serves as a remedy for the oppression and destruction brought about by the Spanish conquest.
Given al-Qaeda’s documented successes in recruiting Muslim converts in Europe and the U.S. to its cause, many observers worry that Muslim converts in Latin America provide fertile ground for new recruits due to their perceived ability to circumvent travel restrictions and blend into Western cities more effectively.
There is no evidence to suggest that the recent trend toward conversion to Islam in Latin America stems from a turn to political and religious radicalism. On the contrary, most Muslim converts see Islam as a vehicle for reasserting their identity. They also see conversion as a form of social and political protest in societies where they are marginalized and experience discrimination . In this context, it is no surprise that groups such as the Murabitun, with their message of social, political, and cultural empowerment, are making inroads into disenfranchised and impoverished indigenous communities. The group also supports local education, social welfare, and other projects that include Arabic language instruction and the publication of the Qur’an in Spanish and other local languages.
Although the evidence pointing to an alleged al-Qaeda presence in the region is often overshadowed and/or confused with the reported activities of Hezbollah and other groups, it is important for policymakers to consider each of these organizations separately and not fall into the trap of linking them as part of a unified network with a common agenda. At the same time, the diverse array of criminal organizations active in the region—from local drug gangs to radical Islamists—demonstrates that weak institutions, political instability, corruption, and poverty provide ample opportunities for groups such as al-Qaeda and others to share the spoils.
1. Miguel Bonasso, “Un silencio de diez millones: Las estremecedoras declaraciones del testigo secreto Irani,” Pagina 12 (Argentina), September 30, 2001.
2. Sandra Moran Castillo, “Desmantelan a presunta banda de narcotraficantes vinculada con Hizbuláh,” CRE Satelital (Ecuador), June 21, 2005.
3. Sakia Hassan Rada, “Los Musulmanes de Colombia,” WebIslam: Islam en Latinoamerica (No. 277) January 4, 2005. http://www.webislam.com/numeros/2005/277/noticias/musulmanes_colombia.htm
4. Britanico Julio Quesada, “Mercado Negro del Peso : Como se lavo dinero en la zona libre de Colon,” El Siglo (Panama), June 25, 2003.
5. Julian Halawi, Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo) 17-23 July 2003, Issue No. 647.
6. Thelma Gomez Duran, “Muslalmanes en Chiapas,” WebIslam: Islam en Latinoamerica (No. 132) July 20, 2001. http://www.webislam.com/elementos_wi/WI_Latino/Musulmanes_Chiapas.htm
7. For more information on Spain’s Murabitun Movement, see the Comunidad Islamica en Espana website at www.cislamica.org
8. Natascha Garvin, “Conversion and Conflict: Muslims in Mexico,” International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World Review15 (Netherlands), Spring 2005.
9. Aliefudien Al-Almany, “Da’wa in Latin America,” Tehran Times (Iran), October 2, 2005.
10. See transcript of presentation by Yahya Juan Suquillo, Imam of the Islamic Center of Quito Ecuador, “Islamic Principles in Latin America” at the Fourth Annual Conference of Latin American Muslim Leaders in Curacao [Curacao], 16-18 September 2003 in the Latino Muslim Voice (November 2003), official newsletter of the Latino American Da’wa Organization.