Latin Americas fastest-growing faith resents terror allegations from U.S. - Sun Sentinel, USA
- Latin Americas fastest-growing faith resents terror
allegations from U.S.
By Michele Salcedo
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.
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
# 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
"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," 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
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
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
"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
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