The death of Osama bin Laden has refocused attention on Islamic extremist groups
throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
The death of Osama bin Laden has refocused attention on Islamic extremist
groups throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
From Ciudad del Este, Paraguay — nicknamed “contraband capital of Latin
America” — to Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad and Tobago, isolated pockets of
Muslim extremists are suspected to have been involved in uprisings, car-bombings and
other acts of violence over the years.
The worst of those attacks took place in July 1994, when the Argentine-Israel
Mutual Association headquarters in Buenos Aires was obliterated by a car bomb,
killing 85 people and injuring more than 300. Two years earlier, the Israeli Embassy
in Buenos Aires had been destroyed by a similar car bomb, killing 29. Evidence
gathered following both of these attacks clearly pointed the finger at Hezbollah
In 1990, local militants belonging to a group known as Jamaat al-Muslimeen
stormed Trinidad’s parliament building and wired then-Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson
with explosives, threatening to kill him if their demands were not met. The
attempted coup d’etat, led by Imam Yasin Abu-Bakr, left 24 dead and Port of Spain in
Possible links to al-Qaeda have been reported in Honduras and allegations of
Hezbollah activity have for years dogged the Venezuelan-Colombian border area of La
Guaira as well as the Venezuelan resort island of Margarita.
Shortly before bin Laden´s death, local media made accusations that al-Qaeda is active in Brazil with at least 20 high-profile terrorists who recruit,
raise money and plan activities for violent organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah
Prominent Brazilian journalist Sérgio Malbergier, a columnist for the
newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, suggests that the May 2 killing of Bin Laden by U.S.
forces was his “second death.”
“The first came during the recent wave of democratic protests in the Middle
East, with young people seeking modern democracy and not religious fundamentalism
and jihad as espoused by the terrorist leader,” Malbergier wrote.
“Bin Laden was killed by an American squadron in Pakistan just as Arab street
protestors finally rose up against their oppressors and dictators … But what
motivates young Syrians, Egyptians and Yemenis to face the bayonets of the Arab
dictators is not Islamic fervor shared by Bin Laden and followers, but a yearning
for freedom much closer to Western values.”
Dr. Fabián Calle, professor at Argentina’s prestigious Torcuato Di Tella and
Catholic universities and recognized specialist in South American defense matters,
agrees that the Saudi-born terrorist’s death does not necessarily mean failure or an
end to al-Qaeda.
Therefore, Brazil is not immune to the continuing threat posed by al-Qaeda.
According to the Sao Paulo-based weekly magazine Veja, Brazil is home to more than
20 terrorists engaged in fundraising, recruiting and planning activities for
al-Qaeda and other Muslim extremist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
The lengthy Veja article, replete with timelines and photographs, claims that
these clandestine activities are taking place beyond the tri-border area shared by
Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay — long suspected as a terrorist hideout.
Veja’s exposé was derived in part from information supplied by the Brazilian
Federal Police. Since publication, the article has been replicated, synthesized and
analyzed by media throughout the Western Hemisphere. While its veracity is in
question, the directness and severity of its accusations have raised eyebrows around
While the Brazilian government itself has not expressed too much concern
regarding terrorist activities on its soil, it has recognized the existence of
legitimate money transfers to the Middle East. The Veja article indicates that
terrorists are not only raising money from Brazil but also planning attacks and
coordinating communications. While Brasília is committed to counterterrorism
efforts, the article raises doubts about the adequacy of its legal system for
dealing with terrorists and terrorist suspects.
These suspects, according to the weekly magazine, include Khaled Hussein Ali,
who was born in Lebanon but since the 1990s has lived in São Paulo, where he runs an
Internet café. From there, Hussein Ali reportedly controls the online communications
arm of al-Qaeda — “Jihad Media Battalion” — which publishes speeches by leaders and
provides updates on international attacks.
Nicknamed “The Prince,” Hussein Ali was arrested by Brazil’s Federal Police
in March 2009 for suspicious activities. Found on his confiscated computer were maps
of Afghanistan and messages inciting hatred of Jews and blacks. Veja claims that
training manuals from the al-Qassam Brigade (connected to the Palestinian terrorist
group Hamas) were also found on Hussein Ali’s computer. He spent 21 days in prison
accused of racism and inciting crime, but was then released since terrorism is not
an offense according to the Brazilian criminal code.
So far Brazil has not passed any specific anti-terrorism legislation and, in
2009, it disbanded the Federal Police’s anti-terrorism service.
According to Veja, Iran’s Mohsen Rabbani — currently on Interpol’s
most-wanted “red list” for his participation in the 1994 AMIA attack in Buenos Aires
— visits Brazil occasionally on a false passport. That incident still ranks as the
single worst terrorist attack in Latin American history.
While in the country, this Hezbollah leader proselytizes poor Brazilians in
the interior about the virtues of jihad. Veja alleges that Rabbani’s last visit was
in September 2010.
On Apr. 6 — the day the Veja article was published — Rabbani participated in
a friendly radio interview with Argentine protest organizer Luís D’elía. During
their conversation, Rabbani denied traveling to Brazil on a false passport and
claimed he’s been teaching in Iran since 1997, when he left his post as cultural
attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires. He also said he wouldn’t subject
himself to the Argentine justice system, calling the accusations against him “smoke
curtains” for their lack of evidence.
Brazil is a signatory to more than a dozen counterterrorism conventions, and
cooperates with the police and intelligence units of many countries, including the
United States, through the Three-Plus-One regional mechanism. Three-Plus-One, which
groups Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and the United States together, focuses on
fighting terrorism in the tri-border area.
In November 2003, Brazil complied with a request from the Paraguayan
government to extradite Assad Ahmad Barakat, a man of Lebanese origin with ties to
Hezbollah. In Paraguay, he was eventually charged with criminal activity. Burdened
by a vast territory and porous borders, Brazil has also actively worked to improve
its monitoring of entry points.
Indeed, it’s hard to believe that Brazil would be chosen to host the 2014
World Cup games or the 2016 Summer Olympics if international authorities were
concerned about the domestic terrorist threat. In the last few years, Brazil has
shown its willingness to crack down on drug traffickers and narcoviolence in its
previously impenetrable favelas. More than a dozen of these slums — once isolated
from the outside world — are now patrolled by community police.