Islamist extremism has been present in Latin America for around four decades, with a growing level of activity that is facilitated by a series of factors, such as widespread corruption, Islamist-friendly governments like the ones belonging to the “Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas” (ALBA) group, the possibility of exploiting illicit trafficking networks, especially for drugs and money laundering, and the lack of proper counter-terror laws.
It is interesting that to date, despite its longstanding presence in Latin America and the freedom to move and operate they have there, Islamist organizations have only perpetrated three major terror attacks, all against Jewish targets, all in Argentina, and all perpetrated by Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. This could mean that Islamists prefer to use the Latin American Continent as a hub for logistics and revenue-generating activities, as it will be discussed in the report, rather than to conduct attacks.
The pioneering Islamist organization in Latin America is without a doubt Hezbollah, which has been present and operational since the early 1980s. The Lebanese “Party of God” relied on a vast networking operation, implemented by Iran after the 1979 revolution. Hezbollah has also been widely involved in drug trafficking and money-laundering activities, especially from its base in the Triple Frontier—the intersection point where the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet.
However, Hezbollah is not the only terrorist organization that found a safe haven in Latin America. Starting in the 1990s, several other groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Group (Gamaa al-Islamiyya), Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Al-Qaeda, and more recently the Islamic State (ISIS) have all found footholds in Latin America.
Information retrieved from the diary of top Al-Qaeda operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational planner of the 9/11 attacks, revealed that he and Usama bin Laden visited a mosque in the city of Foz do Iguazo, on the Brazilian side of the Triple Frontier, in December 1995.
The Muslim Brotherhood is active in most Latin American countries, especially in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Peru. The Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS), the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood, is likewise known to be widely present in South America and focused on gaining support from various governments for their cause against Israel. For example, HAMAS had a warm relationship with Hugo Chavez, the ruler of Venezuela from 2002 until his death in 2013.
ISIS has found a conspicuous number of sympathizers in Latin America, especially in Trinidad and Tobago where, between 2013 and 2016, around 240 nationals joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq, a striking number in a country with a total population of 1.3 million. As will be examined in chapter two, Trinidad and Tobago has a long history of Islamist extremism that relates to the American Black Power movement and the growth of militant Salafi ideology on the island. ISIS cells have also been discovered in Brazil.
There is growing concern in Brazil about the spread of Salafism among the population of the favelas. This phenomenon has been detected in Peru, though as it will be explained in chapter three this has provided an opening not for ISIS, but for the “participationist” Islamists like the Brotherhood and Tablighi Jamaat. This aspect is not accidental given that extremist and jihadist ideology easily break through where institutions are absent and be exacerbated by a high poverty rate.
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