LATIN AMERICA'S FASTEST-GROWING FAITH RESENTS TERROR ALLEGATIONS FROM
Michele Salcedo, Sun-Sentinel, 9/1/03
PORLAMAR, MARGARITA ISLAND, Venezuela -- Margariteños cannot figure
out how their picturesque island off the coast of Venezuela became a
battleground in the war on terrorism.
No bomb ever exploded here, no shot fired. But the Bush
administration has the island, and other parts of Latin America and
the Caribbean, under scrutiny as a place where terrorists might live,
raise money or move contraband.
"The television commentators are distorting information," said
Sulenma Reyes, who, like other villagers of El Magüey, learned from
television reports that the United States suspected their village was
a terrorist training camp. "I haven't seen anything they were talking
Three high-profile arrests and two bombings of Israeli targets in
Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s are the main reasons the United States
eyes the region as a potential threat. That, coupled with sometimes
dated media reports that al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden may have ties
to the region, has cast a pall over Muslims in the Southern
"Everyone feels this is a red zone, but there is little
documentation," said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council
on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington think tank. "The visits seem to
have been directed toward fund-raising and establishing links. But
hard plans? Nothing turned up."
Ultimately, American fears may be based much less on evidence of
terrorism than on the clear, explosive growth of Muslim communities
in nearby countries that exert little control over vast sections of
their territories and on a broader definition of terrorism since
Sept. 11, 2001, to include criminal activity long known to exist in
Fueled by immigration from the Middle East and conversion, especially
among Afro-Caribbeans attracted by the promise of a color-blind
society described in the Quran, Islam has become the fastest-growing
religion in the Latin America and Caribbean region.
Many resent American suspicion of them. Most are secular, commonly
intermarry with Christians and Hindus, and never supported either the
Taliban in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
"There is a feeling that Muslims are targeted more and more worldwide
and an unjust war is being waged upon them," said Yacoub Ali,
president of Trinidad's Anjuman Sunnatal Jamaat Association, a group
of orthodox Sunni Muslims.
Terrorism and the Iraq war in particular have had big and little side
effects on Muslims in South America and the Caribbean. For example:
In the Caribbean, American and European tourists unnerved by the
Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and by subsequent reports of training
camps in South America are staying away, severely damaging the
region's tourist-based economy. Sporadic violence and kidnapping in
Guyana, reports of gunrunning for drugs in Suriname, and vague
reports of al-Qaida connections in Trinidad and South Florida have
all turned off would-be visitors.
In Venezuela, rumors of a terrorist camp in Margarita along with 16
months of political unrest in Caracas have prompted officials and
prominent members of the Muslim community to go on a public relations
offensive. In Caracas, however, Muslims try to stay invisible.
Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians began migrating to South America
with the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800s. More
recently, civil war in Lebanon, violence in the Middle East and
economic stagnation have driven more Muslims to the New World.
Muslims are found in every country in the region, from Mexico to
Argentina. Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, Brazil, are home to an
estimated 1.5 million each.
"There is no distinction among the races, as there is in other
faiths," said Ali, "In Trinidad, we have a large influx of people of
African origin who are rediscovering Islam as a faith. They
feel ..... more accepted among Muslims, and the fate of Islam is more
in line with how they'd like to see themselves in the world."
A ride along the broad, brown water of Guyana's Demerara River shows
how much Islam has spread. About 45 minutes south of Georgetown, past
clusters of Hindu prayer flags, a half-dozen green and white mosques
stand along the East Bank Public Road. Ten years ago, Guyana had 100
mosques; today it has 130, with well over 100,000 followers among the
country's 750,000 people.
Saudi Arabia, founded on the principle to spread Islam, has financed
the construction of mosques and Islamic centers in Caracas, Buenos
Aires and Brazil, including one in Foz do Iguaçu, on the Brazilian
side of the triple border area.
The Sheik Ibrahim mosque in Caracas, the continent's second largest,
was built with funding from the Ibrahim bin Abdul Aziz Al Ibrahim
Foundation, according to Iman Omar Kaddoura. The Saudi royal family
established the foundation to help the spread of Islam. But according
to published reports, the FBI uncovered ties between the foundation
and Osama bin Laden while investigating U.S. Embassy bombings in
Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998.
The Saudis also built the Islamic Center in Buenos Aires, dedicated
last year. The $25 million complex in the upscale neighborhood of
Palomar sits on land that former President Carlos Menem donated to
the Saudi government. The center, of polished marble, combines a
mosque and library. Unlike mosques in other parts of the city, this
one demands that everyone entering announce himself, state his
business and clear security. The building is open to the public only
at designated times, and only members of the diplomatic community
Signs of terrorism
In a low building tucked behind a business park near Miami's Doral
Country Club, military analysts talk of a potential hotbed of
terrorism near our shores.
Here at U.S. Southern Command there are concerns that the ingredients
for nurturing Islamic terrorist groups already exist to the south: A
large and growing Islamic population with historical roots to Syria,
Palestine, Lebanon and India; rugged terrain and dense jungle that
make it easy to hide; guerrilla groups willing to exchange drugs for
arms; governments in the grip of economic downturns; police and
military struggling to cover large territories with too few men, and
too little training and resources. Legal systems are weak. Law
enforcement agencies rarely cooperate with colleagues across borders.
Now, with Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary groups moving their
firefights from the countryside to the cities, and the re-emergence
of groups such as the Shining Path in Peru, the U.S. Southern
Command, responsible for the hemisphere's security, wants Washington
to act. Without U.S. aid to cash-strapped governments, terrorist
groups in Latin America and the Caribbean could grow, forge alliances
among each other and make the conflict in Colombia and its threat to
our national security look like a schoolyard fight.
A senior Defense Department official, who traveled to Santiago,
Chile, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in November,
downplayed military concerns in a background briefing.
"The sense that we have is that there are few areas where certain
specific groups in the Middle East like Hezbollah have contacts and
raise money, probably lots of money," the official said. "Do they
have active terrorist cell operations here? No, we haven't seen
evidence of that. We are looking. We are looking very hard. We
certainly don't want that to happen here."
When Rumsfeld met with the media, he would only voice concern about
ungoverned areas, a sentiment echoed more this spring by Brian
Whitman, a deputy secretary of defense.
"They are ripe for terrorists to operate from," Whitman
explained. "Anytime you have a country where you can operate without
government security, you could have a problem."
In March, Gen. James T. Hill, SouthCom's commander, pushing for help
to fight the potential threat, told the Senate Armed Services
Committee that three Middle Eastern groups on the State Department's
terrorist list may have a presence in South America -- Hezbollah
(Party of God), Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) and Gama'a al-
Islamiyya (Islamic Group).
"Radical Islamic supporters have long gathered in areas such as the
tri-border region between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, known for
its deep links to a full range of transnational criminal activities,"
Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations the but that many Lebanese view as
political parties, have operated out of the area for years.
Businessmen have raised millions of dollars through voluntary
donations and sometimes extortion to support the families of
militants killed in suicide attacks. Those activities include human
and arms trafficking, false documentation and money laundering, Hill
Now there are indications that drugs, already the financial fuel for
guerrilla groups in Colombia and Peru, have met Middle Eastern
"They see a perfect [business] model in the FARC and the ELN," said
one U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity, referring to
guerrilla groups in Colombia. "With all these elements put together,
it's so easy to get involved in the drug trade. There's very little
government presence, and they can make money while they're at it.
It's perfect grounds for anything."
While the proceeds from drug trafficking and the sale of arms and
counterfeit goods provide financing that could keep terrorist groups
operating, officials say, the manufacture and sale of false travel
documents are potentially more dangerous.
"There is a huge and growing market for forged and illegal
immigration documents," Hill told a hemispheric security conference
sponsored by the University of Miami's North-South Center in
March. "Narcoterrorists and radical Islamic groups are feeding this
The State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security investigates
3,500 reports of passport and visa fraud annually, resulting in the
arrests of 500 people, according to its Web site. Many of those
arrested are involved in narcotics trafficking, alien smuggling or
are fugitive felons.
Criminal court cases are pending against the former Paraguay consul
in Miami, Carlos Weiss, and Vice Consul Jose Luis Coscia. Weiss is
accused of having issued 150 irregular visas, 18 to Arab citizens
living in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, according to a report published
by the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank. The former
consul of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, Tomás Lopez Caballero,
has been arraigned on charges of furnishing irregular visas to
Koreans and Pakistanis.
Foreign diplomats do not have the false travel document market
cornered. In 2000, Thomas P. Carroll, an official in the U.S. Embassy
in Georgetown, Guyana, was arrested for selling an estimated 250
visas for $1 million.
Still, local officials deny the existence of terrorist cells and
training camps in the region.
Paraguayan officials insist they have shut down whatever active
agents were in the triple border area, including Assad Ahmed Barakat,
thought to be Hezbollah's point man in Latin America.
"There is no concrete evidence of terrorism in this region," said
Augusto Anibel Lima, secretary general of the Tripartate Command, a
task force of federal police from Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, and
a spokesman for Paraguay's national police. "No concrete evidence
exists that businesses' owners here are sending money abroad to
questionable groups. Barakat is the only one suspected of aiding
In March, federal investigators announced they were searching for
Adnan El'Shukri-Jumah, a Pembroke Pines man named by a top al-Qaida
operative as a trained terrorist. The son of a respected Guyanese
missionary, he had visited relatives in Georgetown during Ramadan
2001. Federal officials traced his travels to Trinidad and Canada but
lost track of him.
Because El'Shukri-Jumah's father, Gulshair El'Shukri-Jumah, taught at
the Darul Uloom Institute and Islamic Training Center in Pembroke
Pines, suspicion turned to the Darul Uloom in Conupia, a 45-minute
drive from Trinidad's capital, Port-of-Spain. Because the two schools
share a name, investigators looked at whether they were part of a
network for training and financing terrorists.
But Darul Ulooms throughout the world are no more linked than are the
world's yeshivas, said Mufti Waseem Khan, principal of the Conupia
school. In Arabic, darul uloom means "institute of knowledge."
"We don't get aid from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon or anyone," said
Waseem Khan. "What we get here is from here, whatever Allah provides
for us. Whatever goes on in the Darul Uloom is open to the eyes of
the public. We only have our word that we can give you that we are
These often disjointed connections and seeming affiliations are just
what worry South America's Muslims.
"When the twin towers fell, many agencies came to identify
terrorists, including the CIA and Mossad," said Rogério Bonato,
general director of the newspaper in Foz do Iguaçu. "They rounded up
200 people, closed businesses and walked people out with their hands
over their heads. It was humiliating."
Muslims throughout the Caribbean and South America publicly condemned
the 9-11 attacks but still feel stereotyped "as people prone to
violence and likely to become terrorists than the average citizen in
the United States, North America or Europe," said Trinidad's Ali.
"This is a fallacy because Muslims in these parts have had a history
of being law-abiding citizens and have merged properly in mainstream
societies where we live. While there may be people who do have
extremist -- not terrorist -- views, I do not think they would embark
on a terrorist mission," he said. "We are not prone to taking up
those types of challenges."
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