Revealing the threat

In May 2003, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing, “Narco-Terrorism: International Drug Trafficking and Terrorism—A Dangerous Mix," took a hard, cold look at the problem. The nearly 1-inch thick fine print transcript of the hearing documented Hezbollah and other Middle East terrorist organizations’ undeniable presence in the region.

Two years later, in April 2005, the Defense Department’s Foreign Military Studies Office explored the problem in its report, "Terrorism in Mexico and Central America ."

More recently, US Southern Command senior analyst Renee Novakoff wrote in the article "Islamic Terrorist Activities in Latin America: Why the Region and the USShould be Concerned ," in Air & Space Power Journal that "while the world is focused on the war in the Middle East and countering Islamic terrorist group activities there and in South Asia and to a lesser extent the US and Europe, there is only periodic focus on other regions vulnerable to Islamic terrorist activity," like "Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa."

Novakoff’s paper "describes a consistent pattern of Islamic extremist activity over the past twenty years [throughout Latin America] that ranges from revenue generation and logistic support to more sinister activities. This paper makes the case for why US, Latin American, and Caribbean leaders need to be diligent in halting the ongoing terrorist-related activity in those regions."

Novakoff reiterated her concerns in interviews with Homeland Security Today, noting that she found the findings of Operation Cazando Anguilas disturbing.

Earlier this year, the RAND Corporation explored terrorist infiltration in Latin America in its larger study of the security threat south of the border, “Security in Mexico: Implications for US Policy Options .”

In April, Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble, a former top US Justice Department official, warned attendees of a little-covered meeting of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers that Al Qaeda’s ties to the ruthless Central American gangs MS-13 and M-18 (whose members have been tapped to provide transportation security for terrorists being smuggled to the United States) pose a clear and present danger to the American homeland.

These are the very same Latino gangs that the August Homeland Security Today reportrevealed not only serve as henchmen for Mexico’s narco-cartels—including running cartel operations in the US—but who also have been recruited to provide security for suspected terrorists being smuggled into the United States. What’s more disconcerting, though, is that gang members are being converted to fundamentalist Islam, according to Operation Cazando Anguilas.

As far back as 2000 there were discussions among US counter-gang law enforcement officials about unconfirmed rumors that MS-13 members had converted to Islam, but few took the rumors seriously because it was believed at the time that these and other Latino gangs wouldn’t work for terrorist organizations no matter how much money they were offered.

But this belief was misplaced.

As Max Manwaring, a Latin American specialist who holds the General Douglas MacArthur Chair and is Professor of Military Strategy at the US Army War College, told Homeland Security Today, “the nexus between gangs, other transnational criminal organizations and Islamic fundamentalists is what gangs do and have done for centuries,” and that “gangs acting as carriers, security escorts, moving currency, and acting as ‘enforcers’ is also what gangs do and have done for centuries (in the case of the Maras, it’s only been since the 1990s).” Gangs have always reached agreements, made treaties and pacts and negotiated with potential partners,he added.


Analysis

What’s new and of growing concern to counterterrorists is that there’s substantive and compelling evidence of significant gang members’ conversions to radical Islamist beliefs in major gang strongholds throughout Central America.

The Operation Cazando Anguilas report provided photographs of fundamentalist Islamist slogans spray-painted on the sides of buildings, fencing, etc.—sometimes next to a gang’s identification markings—in numerous gang controlled territories in a number of Central American countries.

US counterterrorist officials and agents are very concerned about the conversions of members of these gangs to fundamentalist Islam because they are concerned that this trend could begin to spread among these gangs’ members in the United States, especially among those who are involved in running Mexico’s cartels’ stateside narco-operations and those who are escorting persons of interest of Islamic origins into the United States.According to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics for fiscal year 1999 through June 17 of this year that were provided to Homeland Security Today, 2,872 citizens of just a few Muslim nations were apprehended trying to enter the United States. The vast majority, 1,179, were from Pakistan, followed by 318 from Iran, 316 from Indonesia, 295 from Egypt and 189 from Afghanistan.But these weren’t the only apprehensions of citizens of Muslim nations who were caught illegally trying to enter the United States-many more were caught entering the country from yet other Islamic countries.Coinciding with mounting concerns over the smuggling of PIIOs into Latin America and the United States as described in the Unholy Trinityarticle, CBP plans on training roughly 800 agents in "Islamic Terrorism and International Terrorism," "Sunni Islamic Extremism" and "Shia Islamic Extremism," the latter of which will focus on Hezbollah and Hamas-two terrorist organizations that have made inroads into Central and South America.

These classes are intended to impart "knowledge and insight into extremist strategies, operational tradecraft, counter-techniques for those strategies, advanced officer safety techniques, as well as basic understanding of extremists’ clandestine tradecraft, political and military doctrine," CBP said in a statement announcing the training program.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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