If you asked the average person which Western country, per capita, had the greatest number of citizens join ISIS, few would guess Trinidad and Tobago, the twin Caribbean island nation near the coast of Venezuela. Between 2013 and 2016, however, the government reported that 130 Trinidadians left the country to join ISIS. With a population of 1.4 million, that translates to approximately 96 ISIS recruits per million people, nearly twice the radicalization rate of Belgium, the Western country generally recognized as the leading producer of foreign fighters per capita for ISIS. Trinidad’s role as a hub for extremist recruitment was revealed in 2016, when Shane Crawford, also known as Abu Sa’d at-Trinidadi, was prominently featured throughout ISIS’s magazine, Dabiq. The Trinidad example has thus far not been widely replicated, yet it’s important for drawing attention to a problem that has largely flown under the radar: jihadism in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Of all continents (save Antarctica), South America may be the least associated with violent Islamism. There are some good reasons for this. The region is strongly Catholic, with fewer than 1 million Muslims (0.1 percent of the total population). Studies show that most Latino Muslims embrace Islam as a spiritual, rather than a political pursuit, and are generally well integrated into society, unlike the reality in many European nations. Additionally, no Latin American country is directly involved in Middle Eastern political/religious conflicts. While Latin America is arguably the most violent region on Earth, the causes are largely homegrown—drug trafficking, crime, corruption, and poverty—not jihadis. However, there are some worrying trends on the horizon.
The Tri-Border Area: A Perennial Concern
Shortly after 9/11, the U.S. government declared the Tri-Border Area (TBA), where Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil meet, an area of “terrorist activity.” In a report on the region published jointly by the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) and the security and intelligence firm Asymmetrica, the TBA is characterized as a “Golden Hydra” that serves as the “lucrative regional entry point of many ‘heads’ of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) that all lead to the underworld of illicit trade.” The area—a hotbed of smuggling, money laundering, and illicit trafficking in drugs and firearms—has also become a proverbial mecca for extremists. Reports document the extensive presence and ongoing activities of Hezbollah in the region, as well as al Qaeda and Hamas. In addition, leftist guerillas from Colombia and Spain, as well as white supremacists, have been known to train in the area.
The Organization of American States’ Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism’s 2019-2020 work plan took aim at combating terrorist financing in the TBA, recommending harmonizing laws among the three countries, sharing intelligence, and building the capacity of financial institutions to interdict money laundering and terrorist financing. Similarly, in 2019, discussions to revive the 3+1 Group (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay + the United States) focused on governance challenges in the vast TBA region. The bottom line is that, despite some collective efforts at interdiction, “the TBA sends US $43 billion a year to criminal and terrorist coffers.” Clearly, much more needs to be done.
Hezbollah’s Tentacles Spreading
The violent Islamist organization with by far the deepest ties in Latin America is Hezbollah. The group has exploited a variety of ongoing criminal enterprises, including money laundering, and Lebanese expats in the region have funneled the illicit proceeds back to Lebanon, bankrolling the group’s violent activities around the world for decades. Hezbollah’s long-established presence and criminal infrastructure in the region enabled the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish Community Center in 1994, both in Buenos Aires.
Hezbollah has likewise entrenched itself within larger patterns of organized crime in Latin America. The group’s operatives have laundered money for Colombian drug cartels. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has uncovered evidence of Hezbollah directly participating in cocaine trafficking from South America to the U.S., West Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Most recently, Hezbollah has been involved in the trafficking of “black cocaine,” the process of camouflaging cocaine as charcoal to bypass customs agents.
Hezbollah has also benefitted from Venezuelan state corruption. Tareck El Aissami, a current Venezuelan government minister and former vice president, has been implicated in the issuance of hundreds of Venezuelan passports to members of Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He is currently wanted by both the U.S. State Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The New Crime-Terror Nexus?
“The convergence of criminal and terrorist milieus [is] the new crime-terror nexus,” terrorism scholars Rajan Basra, Peter Neumann, and Claudia Brunner assert. While radicalization and recruitment efforts in Trinidad, as well those deployed by U.S.-Specially Designated Global Terrorist and Islamist propagandist Abdullah al-Faisal in Jamaica, closely hued to themes used in the Middle East, the form that violent Islamism has assumed in Latin America is vastly different. There, Hezbollah especially has adapted its goals and operations as a means to mine criminal financial opportunities, rather than attempt to win over converts to its ideology. In the TBA, Hezbollah exploited an area of weak state control to serve the larger purpose of jihadis, alongside those of other criminals.
Latin America has a long history of crime-terror hybrids, with the profit-driven terrorism of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel and the narcoterrorism of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) being cases in point.
However, Islamism’s ingratiating itself into the local flavor of Latin America’s criminal culture is a particularly noteworthy and concerning development, not just because of its impact in the Western hemisphere, but around the world, given Hezbollah’s broad reach and desire to project terror on behalf of its creator and patron, Iran.