Even in a region where some of the United States’ closest military partners are steadily improving national stability and security, the threat of violent extremism is spreading, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said in Brasilia on April 24.
During a weeklong trip that included stops in Bogotá, Colombia; Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Santiago, Chile, the secretary met with military and political leaders to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to help with common defense challenges.
Increasingly, one of those challenges involves violent extremist organizations and the growing engagement of Iran in the region.
“We always have a concern about, in particular, the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and efforts by the IRGC to expand their influence, not only throughout the Middle East but also into this region,” Panetta said during a briefing en route to Colombia.
“In my book,” he added, “that relates to expanding terrorism.”
In March, in written testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Air Force Gen. Douglas M. Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, detailed the regional activities of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shi’a Muslim militant group and political party, and Iran.
Southcom’s area of responsibility includes Central America, South America and the Caribbean.
“We do see evidence of international terrorist groups benefitting from the intertwined systems of illicit trafficking and money laundering in our AOR,” Fraser said.
In South America, funding for Hezbollah is raised through charitable donations as well as through drug trafficking and dealing in counterfeit and pirated goods, he said.
In 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department identified the Lebanese Canadian Bank as a “primary money laundering concern” for its role in facilitating money laundering activities of Ayman Joumaa and his Lebanon-based drug trafficking network, which also channeled financial support to Hezbollah.
Joumaa also is accused of smuggling U.S.-bound cocaine through Central America and Mexico and laundering money for Mexican narco-trafficking cartel Los Zetas, and many Colombian and Venezuelan suppliers.
“In addition to Hezbollah supporters throughout South America, the region is home to a small number of violent extremist organizations, Fraser said.
“We remain vigilant for the potential radicalization of homegrown extremists,” the general added.
“We take Iranian activity in the hemisphere seriously and we monitor its activities closely,” Fraser said.
The expansion of terrorism is an area of concern for the region and its partners, Panetta said.
“I hope we can work together,” the secretary added, “to make sure that all the steps are taken to ensure that anything that encourages terrorism can be fought against.”