Skip to comments.Middle East Terror Groups Find Sanctuary, Revenue in South America
Posted on 01/16/2004 8:43:29 AM PST by Ooh-Ah
Tri-Border Area Hotbed for Crime-Terror Nexus, Hezbollah Firmly Established
In the frontier town of Ciudad del Este, in February 2003, Paraguayan state security officials raided a store owned by Ali Khalil Mehri, a 32-year old businessman of Lebanese descent. They recovered Hezbollah propaganda and documentation of money transfers to Canada, Chile, the U.S. and Lebanon totaling more than $700,000. Also found were fundraising forms for an organization in the Middle East called Al-Shahid, which is dedicated to the "protection of families of martyrs and prisoners." After a thorough investigation, Paraguayan prosecutors charged Mehri with selling millions of dollars of pirated software and channeling the proceeds to the Hezbollah terrorist group. Mehri, released on bail after his arrest, crossed into Brazil and then flew from Sao Paulo to Paris. Authorities now believed he is in Syria.
Mehri's arrest was the first major breakthrough in the investigation of illicit Hezbollah activities in the Tri-Border Area, an almost lawless area shared by the cities of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; Foz do Iguacu, Brazil and Puerto Iguacu, Argentina. The area is known for money laundering, extortion, forgery, prostitution and illegal gambling. It has long been a resting place for drug traffickers and South American terrorist organizations such as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), but in the past decade or so it has emerged as a hotbed of Islamist terrorism as well.
As of 2002, approximately 630,000 people live in the Tri-Border Area, more than 25,000 are Arabs or of Arab descent. The Brazilian and Paraguayan cities, which are only separated by the short Puente de la Amistad ("Friendship Bridge"), are areas where the first settlements of immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian territories emerged about 50 years ago. There is a high level of Islamist political activity in the Tri-Border Area and members of international terrorist organizations, it has been reported, including Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), al-Fatah, and al-Qaeda have been sighted there.
Regional officials and in several U.S. agencies have also investigated connections between Islamist terrorists and drug trafficking. On May 10, 2003, police in Paraguay arrested Hassan Abdallah Dayoub as he was preparing to ship an electric piano stuffed with more than five pounds of cocaine into Syria. Dayoub is a relative of Assad Ahmad Barakat, the chief Hezbollah operative in South America. He has thus far refused to answer investigators' questions about the identity of those with whom he did business.
Due to a crackdown on terrorist funding worldwide and growing international pressure on state sponsors of terrorism, terrorist groups have been turning more and more to drug trafficking to raise funds for their activities. The Taliban earned an estimated $40-50 million per year from taxes related to opium production in Afghanistan. According to the website TerrorismAnswers.org, produced by the Council on Foreign Relations, Hezbollah smuggles cocaine from South America to Europe and the Middle East and has smuggled opiates out of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
In addition to operating in the Middle East and South America, Islamist terrorists have also been arrested in the U.S. for drug smuggling. In January 2002, the Drug Enforcement Administration apprehended 136 people in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Fresno and Carlsbad, California in a massive operation that resulted in the seizure of 179 pounds of methamphetamine, 36 tons of the over-the-counter cold medicine ingredient pseudoephedrine (which is often used to make the illegal drug methamphetamine), $4.5 million in cash, eight pieces of property and 160 automobiles. The raid prompted an investigation that yielded the first evidence of a direct flow of money from drugs in the U.S. to Islamist terrorism in the Middle East. In addition, federal agents announced in early 2002 that they have exposed an effort involving legal immigrants and visitors to use credit card thefts, cigarette sales, charitable funds and cash smuggled in airline luggage to supply funds to anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorist groups operating in the Middle East.
Islamist terrorists operating in the South American drug trade is not a new topic on Capitol Hill. In a May 2003, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) brought up Dayoub's arrest in Paraguay, saying that it demonstrates "the narco-terrorist financing operations needed to support Barakat and Hezbollah." Hatch elaborated that the Tri-Border Area "has long been characterized as a regional hub for radical Islamic groups, which engage in arms and drug trafficking, contraband smuggling, money laundering and movement of pirated goods."
In an October 2002 interview on the National Public Radio show On Point, Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, emphasized his belief that the war against Saddam Hussein's regime should be followed up with a strike on Syrian training camps and the Iranians who finance Hezbollah. He said the three reasons he sees Hezbollah and its supporters as a greater immediate threat than Iraq are:
In September 2002, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage declared that Hezbollah would eventually become a U.S. target, to which Hezbollah's spokesman, Hassan Ezzeddin, replied "The American administration will be held accountable for any offensive against Lebanon, and we emphasize that we are in full readiness to confront any eventuality and defend our people."
Jeffrey Goldberg, author of "In the Party of God", which appeared in The New Yorker in October 2002, was also a guest on the radio show. Goldberg spent over a month in the Middle East and three weeks in the Tri-Border Area researching Hezbollah and their international funding and activities. He recounted crossing the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay with extreme ease, and being offered an AK-47 rifle for $375. The price even included a hotel delivery. When he asked about acquiring explosives, he was told that was also possible.
"In the Party of God" details how terrorist organizations make money from even legitimate businesses in the area. The Islamic fundamentalists extort business owners and force them to make a monthly "donation" - one that will save their shop and family from "possible harm." Investigators in South America believe that over the past few years, Islamist terrorists have raised tens of millions of dollars - one Paraguayan official even told Goldberg that in one year Hezbollah raised $12 million in the Tri-Border Area alone. In addition, Paraguay has no anti-terror law, which in many countries allows for the seizure of terrorist funds and bans donations to terrorist organizations. The lack of such a law makes donating money to a terrorist organization in the Tri-Border Area as easy as donating to the Red Cross is in the U.S.
The absence of anti-terror laws makes it almost impossible for U.S. and regional authorities to arrest suspects. Because the organization and channeling of money is similar to the way organized crime operated in the 1930s in the U.S., the only charge officials can try to arrest the terrorists on is tax evasion. In addition, many officials believe that Paraguay in particular is extremely hesitant to prosecute or conduct investigations into Middle Eastern terrorists because the Tri-Border Area is the largest center of commerce in the country and the Arab community there is often described as the "pillar" of economic activity. If the Arab community abandons the region en masse, Paraguay's already unstable economy would further deteriorate.
Paraguay is the one country of the three that has done the least to curb Islamist terrorists in the area because of the massive corruption at even the highest levels of the government. In the article "Paraguay's Ciudad del Este and the New Centers of Gravity" by Colonel William W. Mendel, U.S. Army (ret.), published in the March-April 2002 issue of Military Review, the journal of the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College, Paraguayan police estimate that about 70 percent of the 600,000 cars in Paraguay were purchased on the black market, with at least a portion of the profits likely going to terrorist groups.
Corruption runs to the topmost ranks of government in Paraguay. Court officials and police say that even the President's BMW and his wife's Mercedes were purchased on the black market and were probably stolen. Both cars claimed the same title document, which was issued for a Toyota. And, in September 2001, the Paraguayan consul in Miami was arrested for selling over 300 passports and visas since 1999.
Many believe the U.S. has not done enough in the Tri-Border Area to halt the terrorism. According to Jonathan Goldberg (no relation to Jeffrey Goldberg), in his December, 2002 article "Blind Eye" in The American Prospect, the U.S. agenda for the region puts fiscal crises, trade negotiations, and local terrorist groups such as the FARC above Islamist terrorism. And although the DEA and State Department have representatives investigating drug-related activity in the Tri-Border Area and throughout Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, little attention is paid to the corruption within the highest ranks of the governments. Meanwhile, according to Juan Belikow, a professor at Argentina's School of National Defense, Islamist terrorists and their supporters in South America are branching out into other regions such as Panama's Colon Free Trade Zone, Iquique, Chile; Maicao, Colombia; and Chui, Brazil.