Latin America Must Prepare to Counter Islamic Terrorism

Countries of the Western Hemisphere lack a comprehensive legal framework to share information and disrupt terrorist cells of any faction.
Lorena Baires/Diálogo | 19 March 2019

Transnational Threats

Argentine firemen and police search for wounded people after a bomb exploded at the Argentine-Israelite Mutual Association, in Buenos Aires. Argentine authorities accused the Iranian government and terrorist organization Hezbollah of being behind the 1994 attack. (Photo: Ali Burafi/AFP)

As Islamic terrorism grows worldwide, Latin America must improve its strategic information sharing systems on security, and acknowledge the region is a potential target. “As the criminal world forms a more united front, Latin America needs to advance its law making process to disrupt Middle Eastern terrorist organizations that are infiltrating our countries,” said Joseph Humire, executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society, a national security think tank in Washington, D.C. On January 25, 2019, Humire spoke in El Salvador to a group of religious leaders and public security and terrorism scholars. National nongovernmental organizations, concerned about the growing presence of Islamic groups in Central America, summoned the gathering.

Latin American legislation does not recognize Islamic terrorist groups. “This becomes a weakness in a globalized world that fights to eradicate them. The more prepared the region is, the more effectively it can implement measures to counter this threat,” Humire said. “Iran’s goal is to have a military presence to threaten the United States.”

Heads of the Salvadoran Armed Force’s Strategic Higher Studies College (CAEE, in Spanish), the country’s top institution for global security, agrees on the need to overcome these challenges. “Terrorist organizations leverage the operational flaws, political weaknesses, and legal vacuums a state may have to [proceed]. We are not immune, because we don’t have the right organizations to combat this kind of threat,” said Salvadoran Army Colonel Roberto Artiga, commandant of CAEE .

“Since the 1979 revolution, Iran develops intelligence operations through its diplomatic network or cultural centers in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Uruguay,” Humire said. “On the surface, they teach Islamic culture and offer scholarships to study in Iranian universities. But inside, they use an intelligence system connected to the embassies to understand how Arab communities or gangs work. That’s how they train leaders who use religion as an alibi to move forward with the network.”

Among opportunities for the region, CAEE aims at high-level political coordination to help create government strategies to counter the advances of terrorist groups. “We analyze the future and the large influence of these unconventional operators, who have great talent for adapting and transforming their actions, either individually or collectively,” said Col. Artiga.

Information exchange

Protests erupted to repudiate terrorism in Colombia, after the National Liberation Army detonated a car bomb at the General Santander Police Academy in Bogotá, killing 21 people and leaving dozens more wounded, January 17, 2019. (Photo: Daniel Garzon/NurPhoto/AFP)

Latin America became a more relevant diplomatic scenario for Iran when the Persian nation participated as an observer to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America in 2004, after Hugo Chávez took office in Venezuela. Both countries’ relations strengthened when they became business partners in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Through this platform, Iran has connections with Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

In contrast, Argentina severed relations with Iran over its refusal to turn in several Iranian officials suspected of taking part in the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association bombings of 1994, in Buenos Aires. Argentine authorities accused the Iranian government and paramilitary organization Hezbollah of being behind the attack.

According to Humire, another event worth looking into is the attack against the General Santander National Police Academy in Bogotá, Colombia, in January 2019. The National Liberation Army (ELN, in Spanish) terrorist group, which used 80 kilograms of explosives for the attack, took responsibility and pointed to José Aldemar Rojas Rodríguez as its perpetrator. Colombian intelligence also identified Rojas as a member of ELN, trained in explosives.

“The massive use and type of explosives in this attack is a characteristic of Islamic terrorist groups,” said Humire. “They want to destroy everything, and they’re experts in secrecy, hence the urgent need to activate coordinated mechanisms of information exchange among Latin American countries. That’s why counterintelligence is important.”

U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) cooperates in the region. “We had a significant number of foreign fighters come out of some of our Caribbean nations and go over to Syria. We’ve seen some come back. We’ve worked with partner nations to thwart some attacks, and very successfully. And we’ve got our eye on that ball every day,” said U.S. Admiral Craig S. Faller, SOUTHCOM's commander, in an interview with Voice of America.

Regional cooperation and constant and swift information sharing among regional armed forces are important strategies to counter these groups. “We must work as a region to counter this problem. As such, united toward the same peace goals, we will be able to counter organized crime and international terrorism,” said Col. Artiga.

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