Islamist Terrorist Threat in the Tri-Border Region

After September 11th, the U.S.-led "war on terror" moved swiftly into Afghanistan. Once the heavy combat had diminished, speculation turned to what the next target would be. The Philippines, the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Yemen, Somalia, and Indonesia were all discussed as possibilities. Except for a few disparate stories, the tri-border region of South America received little attention as a locus of terrorist activity despite a recent history of Islamist terrorist activity. But this region, which already has a history of mass casualty Islamic terrorism, is also an area of concern.

The Region

The tri-border region—formed by the cities of Puerto Igauzu, Argentina; Foz do Iguazu Brazil; and Ciudad del Este, Paraguay—has a reputation for lawlessness and an historical presence of terrorist elements. For decades the region has been home to various smugglers, terrorists, drug traffickers, arms dealers, and organized crime figures from Russia, Japan, China, and Nigeria, among other countries. Terrorists from the Middle East have also been found in the area, particularly from Lebanon and Syria. Former FBI director Louis Freeh described the area as a "free zone for significant criminal activity, including people who are organized to commit acts of terrorism."[1]

Approximately 630,000 people live in the tri-border area, of which roughly 25,000 are Arabs or of Arab descent.[2] The dynamics of the area make it a haven for the outlaws who live and work among its law-abiding citizens. Political corruption allows the multitude of criminal activities and illegal markets to overlap with legitimate economic activities. Paraguay has been especially culpable in maintaining lax security and border controls in the area, helping to fuel a huge underground economy. The Brazil-Paraguay border can be crossed on foot, often with no documents, which helps to propagate illegal activities.

Bombings in Argentina

The Islamist terrorist element in the tri-border region dates back to 1992, when a car bomb exploded at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people and injuring more than 200. With the embassy bombing still unsolved, two years later, in July 1994, the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) Jewish Center was bombed, killing 86 people. The investigation eventually implicated Hizballah (Party of God), the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim militant organization, which allegedly carried out the attacks in retaliation for Israel's assassination of a Hizballah leader in February 1992, an Israeli air strike on a training camp in Lebanon in 1994, and the kidnapping of Hizballah activist Mustafa Dirani. The primary suspect in the bombings is Imad Mughniyah, a Hizballah mastermind who is reportedly living in Iran. Argentine authorities believe that the attacks were organized and planned in the tri-border area.

Usama bin Laden is alleged to have had a "subsidiary" role in both bombings, although this connection is tenuous at most. But the two bombings fit the modus operandi of the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which were carried out by al-Qai'da operatives and lend credence to reports that Hizballah provided training in explosives to al-Qai'da. Iran, a primary sponsor of Hizballah, has recently been accused of paying a $10 million bribe to then-president Carlos Menem to cover up its role in the AMIA bombing.[3]

An Al-Qai'da-Hizballah Connection?

Since September 11th, the terrorism aspect has emerged as an issue larger than the contraband that moves in and out of the tri-border area. Francis X. Taylor, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, noted in testimony to Congress last October that the tri-border region had a "long-standing presence of Islamic extremist organizations." While he did not mention al-Qai'da, he did name Hizballah and al Gammaa al-Islamiya specifically as being involved in "fundraising activities and proselytizing among the large expatriate population from the Middle East."

Since September 11th, reports of cooperation between al-Qai'da and Hizballah have steadily emerged. Western intelligence reports have speculated that al-Qai'da may be considering moving its base of operations to Lebanon. Other reports also indicate that cooperation between Hizballah and al-Qai'da cooperation dates back to the early 1990s. According to Ali Mohamed, a former member of Usama bin Laden's inner circle and who was arrested in 1998, Hizballah has on occasion provided al-Qai'da with explosives training.[4] This cooperation is at odds with conventional thinking that the Shiite Hizballah and the Sunni al-Qai'da would never cooperate. But it would add credibility to the sketchy reports of al-Qai'da operatives in the tri-border area. While those reports are tentative at best, reports of Hizballah's presence in the region are well founded.

One 1999 report, however, did link al-Qai'da and the tri-border region. Agents from Argentina's Secretariat of State Intelligence (SIDE) passed on a report to the CIA and Mossad detailing their findings that operatives from al-Qai'da were in the tri-border region and coordinating with extremist Shiite groups.[5] The report also noted that several suspected terrorists and fugitives had passed through the area. Among them was Al-Sa'id Hasan Hussein Mokhless, an Egyptian accused of carrying out the 1997 Luxor massacre in Egypt, which killed 62 people including 58 tourists. Mokhless had trained in Afghanistan and was a member of al Gammaa al-Islamiya. Additionally, U.S. intelligence sources report that they have obtained information about al-Qai'da activities in South America during operations in Afghanistan. At least one official says there are indications that al-Qai'da is working in Latin America preparing for a future attack.[6]

Recent reports of cooperation between Hizballah and al-Qai'da stretch the reach, resources, and capabilities of both groups.[7] Citing U.S. and European intelligence sources, the Washington Post reported that the two organizations are increasingly cooperating on logistics and training. The cooperation involves mid- and low-level operatives—the type who might be residing in an area such as the tri-border region, away from the "headquarters" of both operations in the Middle East or Central Asia. The Post article, citing former NSC terrorism expert Steven Simon, observed that Hizballah had "reactivated some of its overseas assets in South America, Europe, and Central Asia."

The cooperation of the two groups in achieving common objectives (striking U.S. or Western targets) at the minimum suggests that the tri-border area merits attention because of Hizballah's established presence, which may now involve an al-Qai'da element. This may be of greater significance since al-Qai'da has now struck targets within the United States, something that Hizballah has never done. Al-Qai'da's desire to bring the battle to the United States would make the proximity of South America all the more appealing. Hizballah's increasing capabilities are notable as well. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage testified before a joint House-Senate intelligence committee that Hizballah now has a capacity similar to al-Qai'da to organize an attack against primary U.S. targets and he noted its presence in South America.[8] Other administration officials assert that over the long term Hizballah may be more dangerous than al-Qai'da.[9]

The Financial Angle

The tri-border's most attractive feature to a terrorist cell may be the relative ease with which money is laundered and transferred to and from regions overseas. Evidence linking al-Qai'da financial and operational activity to the tri-border region is sparse at best, yet this small corner of South America possesses all the characteristics necessary for an al-Qai'da lair. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are quite certain that money is being raised for Hizballah in the tri-border region, giving the purported links between al-Qai'da and Hizballah even greater import.

Al-Qai'da needs an area where organized crime proliferates or the local government is willing to turn a blind eye to criminal activity (such as Pakistan). Document forgery, money laundering, gunrunning, and drug smuggling are a part of everyday life in the tri-border region. This relative lawlessness would make it easier for terrorists to go unnoticed.

Paraguay's weak government and pervasive corruption leave the door wide open for criminal and terrorist activity. Bribes are paid to government authorities to procure passports and visas as well as to buy influence among leading legislators, police, and judges.

The corruption of local security services is also evident in the court case involving the AMIA bombing. Despite seven years of investigations, no one directly responsible for the bombing has been brought to trial.[10]

Terrorist organizations in the tri-border region also capitalize on the quasi-legitimate funding that comes from local business, social and welfare associations, charities, and NGOs. Hizballah financier Assad Ahmad Barakat was part owner of Galeria Page, one of Ciudad del Este's largest shopping malls. Argentinean intelligence sources believe Barakat used the mall as a front to recruit Hizballah volunteers and as a large source of financial support for terrorist activities including the Israeli embassy and the AMIA bombings.

Criminal and terrorist groups can raise funds and launder money with impunity in the tri-border area. Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay all rank toward the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index.[11] A terrorist finance network could likely operate undetected, laundering money and covering the money trail amid the large sums of money regularly sent in remittances out of the country.

Conclusion

In the aftermath of September 11th, President Bush sought to prepare the American people and the world for a long, wide-ranging war on terrorism. The pre-emption of terrorist attacks could take several forms, some overt, some covert. It could be the discovery and destruction of an operation already underway or the disruption of a financial network. The type of attack could also be diverse, ranging from another suicide hijacking to a truck bomb to the detonation of a radiological device.

Under any of these scenarios, the tri-border area is another region U.S. officials are rightly monitoring closely. Its history of being a home to terrorists and fugitives, as well as rampant corruption, make it an ideal location in which subversive groups can operate. Its potential as a location for planning, financing, and carrying out a "conventional" terrorist attack has already been proven. U.S. authorities should continue to push countries in the region to rid the area of widespread corruption and terrorist elements.

A Mini-Chronology of Islamic Terrorist Activity in the Tri-border Region

March 17, 1992

Terrorists bomb the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people. Islamic Jihad claims responsibility for the bombing, stating that it is in reponse to Israel's slaying of Shiite leader Sheik Abbas al-Musawi in February 1992. The State Department believes the Islamic Jihad claim is a cover for Hizballah.

July 18, 1994

Terrorists bomb a Jewish community center, the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), in downtown Buenos Aires, killing 86 people.

July 19, 1994

A suicide bomber blows himself up on a commuter aircraft in Panama, killing twelve Jewish businessmen and nine other passengers. The State Department speculates that this may have been a Hizballah operation.

April 28, 1996

Israeli military officials indicate that a Hizballah guerilla squad has been arrested and detained in the tri-border area, as it prepared to carry out an attack against Jewish institutions.

April 4, 1997

In a video shown on Argentine television, the brother of a former Hizballah leader acknowledges Hizballah's involvement in the 1992 Israeli embassy bombing.

1999

Undercover Argentine SIDE (Secretariat of State Intelligence) agents report that they "had detected the presence of agents from the organization of Saudi terrorist Usama bin Laden in the border area, and had discovered that, for the first time in history, extremist Sunni and Shi'ite groups were working together in Ciudad del Este and Foz do Iguacu."

January 1999

El Said Hassan Ali Mohamed Mukhlis, an Egyptian living in Ciudad del Este who was allegedly tied to Egypt's Islamic Group and with a terrorist cell tied to Usama bin Laden's al-Qai'da network, is arrested in the capital of Uruguay. Mukhlis is alleged to have had a role in both bombings in Argentina and the Luxor attack in Egypt.

December 22, 1999

Acting on information that simultaneous terrorist attacks in Paraguay, Argentina, and Canada are imminent law enforcement officials conduct simultaneous operations in their respective countries and in the tri-border area to intimidate sympathizers of Hizballah and Hamas whose leaders are reportedly planning attacks on Jewish targets in the Southern Cone and North America to undermine Middle East peace talks.

March 22-23, 2000

A former Iranian intelligence officer testifies at the Argentine Embassy in Mexico, accusing former Argentine president, Carlos Saul Menem, of accepting a bribe of $10 million to conceal Iran's implications in the AMIA bombing in 1994.

April 2001

According to the CIA, al-Qai'da allegedly plans two attacks against U.S. embassies in Quito, Ecuador, and Montevideo, Uruguay. The attacks have not taken place to date.

September 19, 2001

In an interview with a Brazilian newspaper, former Brazilian drug czar Walter Fanganiello Maierovitch alleges that Usama bin Laden is setting up an al-Qai'da cell in the tri-border region.

April 18, 2002

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage speaks before the House Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee stating that the U.S. government suspects that al-Qai'da and Hizballah are operating near Ecuador's borders with Colombia and Peru.

May 21, 2002

The U.S. Department of State annual report on terrorism indicates that intelligence and security organizations have not detected the presence of al-Qai'da, but have found groups linked to Hizballah and the Hamas in the tri-border area. [This contrasts Richard Armitage's assertion in his April 18 testimony.]

May 24, 2002

Cairo's Al-Qanat newspaper, citing "security sources in Washington," alleges that the U.S. Army has formed a special commando unit to attack Hizballah facilities in the tri-border region.

Late 2001-2002

Using information uncovered in Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence agencies identify a group of Middle Eastern men in South America suspected of having ties to Usama bin Laden.

Resources

Magazine and Journal Articles

  • Mark Katz, "Osama bin Laden as Transnational Revolutionary Leader," Current History, February 2002, pp. 81-85.
  • JoAnn Kawell, "NACLA Report on the Americas," North American Council on Latin America, November/December 2001, pp. 50-53.
  • Paul Smith, "Transnational Terrorism and the al Qaeda Model: Confronting New Realities," Parameters–U.S. Army War College Quarterly (Summer 2002), pp. 33-46.
  • Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, "Terrorism and the Triple Frontier," Noticias, Spring 2002.
  • Robert E. Sullivan, "The tri-border area: Smugglers and shoppers delight," Earth Times, February 15, 2002.
  • Douglas Waller, "The Global Search for Osama bin Laden," Time, November 13, 2001, www.time.com.
  • Kim Burger, "One Step Ahead." Jane's Defence Weekly, February 20, 2002.
  • John Daly, "The Suspects–The Latin American Connection," Jane's Terrorism and Security Monitor, October 1, 2001.
  • Jane's Information Group, "Al-Qaeda and Argentina," Jane's Intelligence Digest, October 26, 2001.
  • Tamara Makarenko, "On the Border of Crime and Insurgency," Jane's Intelligence Review, January 1, 2002.
  • "Hamas, Hizbullah Find Haven in South America," Middle East Newsline, May 15, 2002.
  • Mario Daniel Montoya, "War on Terrorism Reaches Paraguay's Triple Border," Jane's Intelligence Review, December 1, 2001.
  • Daniel Sobelman, "Israel Takes Special Interest in Triple Border Area," Jane's Intelligence Review, December 1, 2001.

Internet Resources

  • Blanca Madani, "New Report Links Syria to 1992 Bombing of Israeli Embassy in Argentina," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, March 2000.
  • Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, "Competition Among South American Hizballah Resumes," Iran Report, July 17, 2000.
  • The International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, www.ict.org.il.
  • Yoni Fighel and Yael Shahar, "The Al-Qaida-Hizballah Connection," International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, February 26, 2002.
  • Council on Foreign Relations, Terrorism, www.cfr.org.

Government Resources

  • Ambassador Francis X. Taylor, Remarks at the Seminar on Preventing Terrorism and Organized Crime in the Tri-Border Area, December 19, 2001.
  • Dennis M. Lormel, Chief, Financial Crimes Section, Federal Bureau of Investigation, "Al-Qaeda Financial Review Group," Statement before the House Committee on Financial Services, U.S. Congress, February 12, 2002.
  • J. T. Caruso, Acting Assistant Director, Counterterrorism Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation, "Al-Qaeda International," Statement before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism, U.S. Senate, December 18, 2001.
  • Rep. Cass Ballenger, Opening Statement for Hearing on Terrorism in Latin America, October 10, 2001.
  • U.S. State Department, "Patterns of Global Terrorism," www.state.gov.

Newspapers/Miscellaneous Resources

  • Martin Arostegui, "Search for Bin Laden Links Looks South," UPI, October 12, 2001.
  • Peter Hudson, "There Are No Terrorists Here; In a Lawless No Man's Land Deep In the Heart of South America, Muslims Face Down A Suspicious World," Newsweek, November 19, 2001, p. 39.
  • Dana Priest and Douglas Farah, "Terror Alliance Has U.S. Worried: Hezbollah, Al Qaeda Seen Joining Forces," Washington Post, June 30, 2002, p. A1.
  • Larry Rohter, "Iran Blew Up Jewish Center in Argentina, Defector Says," New York Times, July 21, 2002, www.nytimes.com.
  • Sebastian Rotella, "Deadly Blasts and an Itinerant's Tale; Hazy Figure May Hold the Key to Anti-Semitic Bombings in Argentina," Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1999.
  • Sebastian Rotella, "Jungle Hub for World's Outlaws," Los Angeles Times, August 24, 1998, p. A1.
  • Richard Sale, "Bin Laden Threats Close Embassies," UPI, April 5, 2001.
  • Harris Whitbec and Ingrid Ameson, "Terrorists Find Haven in South America," CNN, November 7, 2001, http://archives.cnn.com.
  • Daniel Santoro, "Las huellas de Bin Laden que la SIDE encontró en la Triple Frontera," Clarín, September 16, 2001, http://edant.clarin.com.
  • Miguel Bonasso, "Las estremecedoras declaraciones del testigo secreto Iraní: Un silencio de diez millones," Pagina/12, September 30, 2001, www.pagina12.com.ar.
  • Miguel Bonasso, "El misterioso regreso del testigo 'C'," Pagina/12, July 23, 2002.
  • Walter Goobar, El tercer atentado : Argentina en la mira del terrorismo internacional, (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1996).

Sources:

[1] Sebastian Rotella, "Jungle Hub for World's Outlaws," Los Angeles Times, August 24, 1998, p. 1.
[2] Estimates of the Arab population in the region vary widely, from 10,000 to over 75,000. This statistic is not meant to imply that a significant number of Arabs within the population has any correlation with terrorist or criminal activities.
[3] Miguel Bonasso, "Witness: Menem Took $10M Bribe to Conceal Iran's Implication in AMIA Bombing," Pagina/12, September 30, 2001; cited in FBIS 20010930000023.
[4] "The al-Qaida-Hizballah Connection," ICT, www.ict.org.il.
[5] Daniel Santoro, "Las huellas de Bin Laden que la SIDE encontró en la Triple Frontera," Clarín, September 16, 2001, www.clarin.com. A request for the report from the CIA through the Freedom of Information Act was denied for reasons of national security although the CIA would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the report.
[6] Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough, "Inside the Ring," Washington Times, 23 August 2002, p. 11.
[7] Dana Priest and Douglas Farah, "Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah Team Up: Experts," Washington Post, June 30, 2002, p. A1; "Hizballah Has Capability of Striking US Washington," Middle East Newsline, 25 September 2002.
[8] House-Senate Intelligence Committees Joint Hearing on Iraq, September 19, 2002.
[9] "U.S. Sees Hizbullah as More Lethal Than al-Qaida," Middle East Newsline, 6 September 2002.
[10] Antonio Garrastazu and Jerry Haar, "International Terrorism: The Western Hemisphere Connection," Dante B. Fascell North-South Center of the University of Miami, www.revistainterforum.com.
[11] The CPI is a measure of perceptions of the degree of corruption as seen by business people, academics and risk analysts, and ranges between 10 (highly clean) and 0 (highly corrupt). On the 2002 Index, Argentina scored 2.8, Brazil 4.0, Paraguay 1.7. By contrast the USA scored 7.7 and Finland ranked first overall as least corrupt with a score of 9.7. See www.transparency.org.

October 1, 2002
About

Jeffrey Fields analyzes the Islamic terrorist threat emanating from the tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, and provides a brief chronology of terrorist activity in the region.

Authors
Jeffrey Fields

Research Associate, Center for Nonproliferation Studies

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.