Few in Latin America are even thinking about the possibility of an ISIS terrorist attack in the region, but — following the recent attacks in Brussels, Paris and Tunisia — it may be time to do so.
It’s not a matter of academic speculation. Latin America had two major Middle East-sourced terrorist attacks in the 1990s, when suspected Iranian terrorists blew up the AMIA Jewish community center and the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.
And, judging from what I heard in an interview last week with Luis Almagro, secretary general of the 34-country Organization of American States, there are good reasons to start preparing for a possible new Middle Eastern terrorist strike in the region.
Almagro, whose organization presides over the Inter-American Committee against Terrorism, told me that an undisclosed number of Latin American youths have been recruited by ISIS on the Internet, and have joined the terrorist group in Syria.
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“We also know that people from the Americas and the Caribbean are returning to their home countries, some of them after having participated in the Syrian war,” Almagro said. “We cannot speculate how many, but enough to undertake [terrorist] actions.”
At least 27,000 foreigners from 86 countries have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS since 2011, including 250 from the United States and 76 from South America, according to a study by the Soufan Group, a New York-based private security intelligence firm.
On March 9, a man who identified himself as an ISIS follower murdered a well-known Jewish merchant in Paysandú, Uruguay. In 2011, the FBI charged two Iranians in an alleged plan to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States, bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington and carry out a bomb attack in Argentina.
U.S. law enforcement officials said the plot was discovered in Mexico, where one of the Iranian would-be terrorists shared his plans with an undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration source.
Anti-terrorism experts say that ISIS is being militarily defeated in Syria and Iraq, where it seeks to establish its Islamic caliphate, and is therefore shifting to growing terrorist activities abroad.
While it is likely to continue focusing on Europe and the United States, ISIS may seek to strike against U.S., European or Israeli embassies in Latin America in an effort to show the world — and its own followers — that it is still alive, and that it has a global reach.
In addition, there are many other Middle Eastern terrorist groups already active in Latin America — such as the Iran-backed Hezbollah — which have a growing presence in Venezuela and other countries, U.S. officials say.
In testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee last year, Gen. John Kelly, at the time commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said that “partner nation officials throughout the region have expressed concern over the increasing number of suspected Islamic extremists from the hemisphere who are traveling to Syria to participate in jihad.”
“Some take part in military and weapons training before departing. Last year, 19 Trinidadian Muslims were detained in Venezuela for conducting training with high-powered weapons,” Kelly said.
He added, “When these foreign fighters return, they will possess operational experience, ties to global extremists, and possible intent to harm Western interests.”
Kelly added that Iran has established about 80 “cultural centers” in Latin America, and that “as the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, Iran’s involvement in the region and these cultural centers is a matter for concern.”
My opinion: What’s most worrying is not that some Latin American youths are going to Syria to join ISIS — there are losers searching for a cause in every continent — but the fact that most Latin American countries lack serious intelligence agencies that are focusing on global terrorism.
When ISIS carried out its recent attacks in Brussels and Paris, it was only a matter of hours until the terrorists were identified, and we could see their faces on TV. In Latin America, more than two decades have passed since the bombings in Buenos Aires and we still don’t know who the terrorists were.
What’s worse, most intelligence agencies in Latin America are geared to spy on government opponents, not foreign terrorists. It’s time for the region to take a serious look at ISIS, Hezbollah and other Islamic terrorist groups. There are already enough warning signs out there.
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Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español