In the aftermath of the devastating September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States, international attention swiftly focused on a most unlikely place in the Western hemisphere–la Triple Frontera, the triple border region in South America where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet. Nearly 629,000 people, among them 23,000 Arabs of Palestinian and Lebanese descent, inhabit the region, long known to regional authorities as a smuggling zone. Despite the importance of the area in hindsight, the region’s remoteness, the sporadic regional cooperation that exists there, and U.S. arrogance all combined prior to 9/11 to stymie coordinated action in this remote Islamic extremist “badlands.” By the time of the 9/11 attacks, Argentina had been investigating the region for more than a half-decade, but its intelligence reports were initially disbelieved. Argentina’s concentration on the region was a direct result of Islamic Jihad terrorist attacks against Jewish interests in the country’s capital, Buenos Aires.
Israeli and Argentinean authorities had focused on the region since the early 1990s, but for the United States it was a sleepy backwater of little initial interest. On March 17, 1992, a car bomb exploded at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people and wounding 242. Two years later, on July 18, 1994, the Buenos Aires AMIA Jewish Center, which housed several Argentine Jewish organizations, was bombed. The attack killed eighty-six and wounded 250. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attacks.
While the Arab population in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, is only about 2,000, they have great financial influence. Many live in Foz de Iguacu, Brazil, and its surrounding hinterlands while maintaining commercial outlets in Ciudad del Este. Ciudad del Este has three mosques. The city is of immense strategic importance, as it is situated on the Pan American Highway. Argentina’s regional city is Puerto Iguazu.
In the aftermath of the two bombings Argentina was harshly criticized for the slow pace of its investigation. While initially searching for the perpetrators of the Buenos Aires attacks, Argentinean intelligence uncovered a far broader Islamic terrorist network. But when it shared its data with other nations’ security forces, its reports were dismissed until the U.S. terrorist attacks.
Argentina’s Secretaria de Inteligencia del Estado (Secretariat for State Intelligence, or SIDE) surveillance program of the region included phone taps, mail interception, covert filming and surveillance of suspects. The program was codenamed Centauro (“Centaur”), and was a joint operation between SIDE and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Both Mossad and the CIA disbelieved SIDE’s initial 1999 report when it was shared with them. The report was also provided to the intelligence services of Brazil, Paraguay, France and Germany. While initially investigating the Buenos Aires bombings SIDE had discovered bin Laden operatives in the region following the East African U.S. embassy bombings. The most disquieting fact uncovered by SIDE agents was that formerly hostile Shi’a and Sunni factions seemed to be discarding their factional differences and cooperating. SIDE operatives covertly filmed fundamentalist meetings at mosques in Foz de Iguacu and Ciudad del Este and infiltrated agents into the meetings, in addition to tapping their telephone conversations. Each mosque was mapped and matched up with the Middle Eastern extremist group functioning there.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, al Qaeda’s influence within the extremist groups grew at the expense of their earlier connections with Lebanese-based Hezbollah and Iranian groups. Al Qaida operatives did indoctrination and fundraising, provided cover for fugitives, and provided basic explosives training. Following 9/11, the most important al Qaida and Hezbollah members eventually left Ciudad del Este and Foz de Iguacu for more remote locations along the Brazilian-Bolivian frontier, or they returned to the Middle East. In 2000 Paraguayan intelligence warned that up to 460 Hezbollah agents were active in the region.
Prior to 9/11, SIDE’s investigation increasingly focused on the Egyptian Al-Sa’id Ali Hasan Mukhlis. Mukhlis had trained in Afghanistan and was a member of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, and was suspected of participating in the massacre of sixty-two tourists at Luxor, Egypt in 1997. Argentinean security suspected that the detonators used in the 1994 AMIA attack were obtained in the tri-border area. SIDE suspected that Mukhlis established terrorist cells in Foz de Iguacu to raise funds, manufacture counterfeit documents, and to maintain contact with Hamas and Hezbollah sympathizers. More than two years before 9/11 Mukhlis was arrested in the town of Chu’ on the Brazilian-Uruguayan border. The arrest took place on February 27, 1999, following a call by the CIA to detain him on charges of having participated in the Luxor attack. Egypt immediately began a lengthy legal struggle to extradite Mukhlis. In May of 1998 Argentina expelled seven Iranian diplomats suspected of complicity in the Buenos Aires bombings.
U.S.-Argentinean cooperation was severely impaired when, on January 14, 2001, the Argentinean newspaper La Pagina outed CIA station chief Ross Newland in Buenos Aires, publishing his identity and a photo. SIDE had come to resent Newland’s high-handed manner, and the CIA was convinced that SIDE deliberately leaked the information. Cooperation between Argentinean and American intelligence was subsequently downgraded to being handled by an FBI representative in the critical run-up to 9/11. In July SIDE tracked a group of Afghans in the tri-border area. By then cooperation with the CIA had been suspended and intelligence links were downgraded to being handled by the FBI’s agent in the embassy in Buenos Aires. Two months before the 9/11 attacks SIDE reported that it had arrested an Arab on smuggling charges and that the suspect had discussed upcoming terrorist attacks in the United States.
Following the September 11 attacks, Argentina put its air forces on “Alert Three” standing, and forcefully moved to control the airspace in the tri-border area. On September 26 a squadron of three IA 58 Pucara fighter aircraft were deployed to Posadas San Martin Airport, 199 miles (320 km) south of the tri-border area, in order to intercept all illegal flights. A Hercules C-130 carrying a Westinghouse TPS43 mobile radar system and eighty air force support personnel were also sent. Argentina decided to upgrade its military radar presence in the area because Brazil’s Foz de Iguacu’s air traffic control radar was unable to detect illegal flights when the aircraft’s transponder is switched off.
Other Argentinean anti-terrorist measures include the activation of a Federal Police special anti-terrorist intervention force. The force is under the command of Inspector Jorge Palacios, General Director for International Terrorism. Some members of the group are also in the Grupo Especial para Operaciones Federales (Special Group for Federal Operations, or GEOF), which previously dealt mainly with hostage situations. The National Border Guard redeployed 1,100 men to the country’s northern frontier, and 300 to Misiones and the tri-national border region.
The 9/11 attacks changed everything in the region. SIDE has been working with the FBI since September 11. Within four days of the U.S. terrorist attacks, Paraguay sent thirty intelligence officers and 500 troops to the region to maintain order in Ciudad del Este. This was after authorities closed the international Tancredo Neves Bridge across the Parana river to Foz de Iguacu, Brazil. Prior to 9/11 more than 30,000 people crossed the bridge daily.
While the United States continues to focus on al Qaida activity in the Triple Frontier, the Buenos Aires and AMIA bombings continue to draw attention. In July of 2002 the Iranian defector Abdolghassem Mesbahi made a sensational claim that former Argentinean President Carlos Saul Menem received a US$10 million bribe to bury the AMIA Buenos Aires bombing. Menem, of Muslim descent with close connections to the country’s small but influential Syrian-Lebanese community, has vociferously denied all charges.
The 9/11 attacks have decimated regional prosperity, with tourism to the spectacular Iguacu Falls down by two-thirds. Cooperation between U.S. and Latin American intelligence services continues to unravel the complex mysteries of the Triple Border region. But the obscure nexus between drug smuggling money, fundamentalism, regional corruption and Yankee arrogance ensures that the war against terror in the Triple Border region will not be an easy or swift victory.