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Venezuelan Muslims Resent Terror Allegations

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  • ummyakoub
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 4, 2003
      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
      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 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
      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 said.

      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
      terrorist organizations."

      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 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."

      Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel



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