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Latin America’s fastest-growing faith resents terror allegations from U.S. - Sun Sentinel, USA

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    Latin America’s fastest-growing faith resents terror allegations from U.S. By Michele Salcedo Staff Writer Posted September 1 2003
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 4, 2003
      Latin America’s fastest-growing faith resents terror
      allegations from U.S.

      By Michele Salcedo
      Staff Writer
      Posted September 1 2003


      PORLAMAR, MARGARITA ISLAND, Venezuela -- Margariteños
      cannot figure out how their picturesque island off the
      coast of Venezuela became a battleground in the war on

      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



      "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 about."

      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 Hemisphere.

      "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 these areas.

      Growing communities
      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

      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

      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

      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 worship there.

      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."

      Illegal activity
      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," Hill

      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 said.

      Now there are indications that drugs, already the
      financial fuel for guerrilla groups in Colombia and
      Peru, have met Middle Eastern politics.

      "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 market."

      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

      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 terrorist

      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

      Loose ties
      These often disjointed connections and seeming
      affiliations are just what worry South America's

      "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."

      Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
      For more information on Laino Musilims see:

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