December 5, 2005
Radical Islam in Latin America
By Chris Zambelis
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the possibility of al-Qaeda infiltrating Latin America became
a priority for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials. However, the most publicized incidents of radical Islamist
activity in Latin America have not been linked to al-Qaeda but instead to the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah, which is ideologically
and politically close to Iran. These include the March 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina and
the July 1994 attack against the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AIMA), also in the Argentine capital, allegedly in
retaliation for Israel’s assassination of former Hezbollah leader Sheikh Abbas al-Musawi and his family in February
Hezbollah officially denies responsibility for these attacks and remains emphatic that it only operates in the
Israel-Lebanon theatre, in what it declares to be the defense of Lebanese soil and sovereignty against Israeli threats and
occupation. Many questions still surround the attacks in Argentina. Some observers suggest that the attacks were in fact out
of character for Hezbollah, and instead point to al-Qaeda’s possible involvement. This controversial theory throws into
question the date of al-Qaeda’s earliest attack, which is generally believed to be the failed December 1992 attack against
U.S. servicemen en route to Somalia in a hotel in Aden, Yemen that killed two Austrian tourists instead. It also raises the
possibility of a link between the attacks in Latin America and the first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993.
observers believe the evidence implicating Iran and Hezbollah in these incidents is scant and, at best, circumstantial. Yet
this did not prevent opponents of Argentine President Carlos Menem from exploiting the attacks in an effort to discredit him.
Menem’s tenure in office was mired by corruption charges, which included allegations that he accepted a USD10 million
bribe from Iranian intelligence to cover up Tehran’s alleged role in directing the attacks through Hezbollah. Some even
pointed to Menem’s Syrian Christian origins as evidence of his alleged pro-Hezbollah leanings. These reports stem from
the testimony of a former Iranian intelligence agent known by his alias, Abolghasem Mesbahi, who defected in 1996 and whose
credibility has been the subject of intense speculation .
Subsequent legal action against Iran for its alleged
role in the attacks led to the brief detainment of Iranian officials, including former Iranian Ambassador to Argentina, Hadi
Soleimanpour, who was apprehended in the United Kingdom in 2003. However, a London court rejected the evidence provided by
Argentine officials against the Ambassador and his colleagues.
The Nexus between Terrorism and Organized Crime
June 2005, Ecuadorian security officials uncovered a drug smuggling ring led by a Quito-based restaurateur of Lebanese descent
identified as Rady Zaiter. Under the auspices of “Operacion Damasco,” local security forces disrupted his syndicate,
which stretched to the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East. Although little evidence has emerged confirming that Zaiter was
anything other than a prolific drug dealer, Ecuadorian sources are emphatic that Zaiter had ties to Hezbollah and was in fact
laundering money for the group . This seems to fit a pattern in Latin America, as more countries attempt to curry favor
with Washington by claiming solidarity in the war on terrorism by linking narcotics traffickers to terrorism.
was also known by his aliases David Assi Alvarez and Almawla Fares. He is accused of cocaine trafficking and money laundering
through a network of local drug smugglers and contacts in the sizable Arab and Muslim immigrant communities of Maicao, a free-trade
zone in northeastern Colombia, as well as the capital Bogota. Like Zaiter, the majority of Maicao’s Arab Muslim population
is of Lebanese descent. Others trace their origins to Syria and, to a lesser extent, Palestine .
Venezuela, another free-trade zone that is home to a sizeable Arab Muslim (and Arab Christian) community, is also cited as
a potential terrorist base. The alleged threat emanating from Margarita Island is receiving far more attention in Washington,
but is as much a product of the simmering tensions between the Bush Administration and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Maicao and Margarita Island, along with the banking centers on the island of Curacao and elsewhere in the Netherlands Antilles,
Colon, Panama, the Cayman Islands, and the rest of the Caribbean Basin, are part of a multifaceted network that facilitates
the transfer of illicit funds from drug and weapons sales, as well as counterfeiting, piracy, and human smuggling. The warring
factions in Colombia’s civil war also have a lucrative stake in this system.
The Tri-Border Area (TBA) that
binds Puerto Iguazu, Argentina; Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; and Foz do Iguacu, Brazil, is another center of lawlessness and
lucrative criminal activity in South America that includes Russian and Asian gangs, in addition to South American criminal
syndicates. Hezbollah is reported to operate extensive operations involving fundraising and money laundering amidst the region’s
sizeable Arab community in the TBA.
The Black Market Peso Exchange (BMPE), the largest and most sophisticated system
of laundering money in the Western Hemisphere, along with other Alternative Remittance Systems (ARS), including hawala, an
Islamic form of money transfer traditionally used by Muslims that facilitates the movement of funds through informal and anonymous
channels, are endemic to Latin America and a central feature of organized crime and the drug trade in the region .
a lack of hard evidence demonstrating collaboration between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda in Latin America and elsewhere for that
matter, many observers worry that al-Qaeda may be using the same networks exploited by Hezbollah and other organizations to
generate funds. Members of the Egyptian Gammat al-Islamiyya, including Al-Sayid Hassan Mukhlis, who is tied to the 1997 attack
against tourists in Luxor, Egypt, have been linked to the TBA, allegedly as a local fundraiser for the group. Mukhlis was
arrested in El Chuy, Uruguay in January 1999 and eventually extradited to Egypt in 2003 . Gammat al-Islamiyya is known
to have links to al-Qaeda.
Islam in Latin America
Latin America is home to a sizeable and diverse Muslim population
with deep roots throughout the region. Most Muslims are of Arab descent, typically of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian origin,
although Christian Arabs from the Levant far outnumber their Muslim kin. There are also sizeable South and Southeast Asian
Muslim communities with roots in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Indonesia in Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and
elsewhere in the Caribbean Basin. The region is also experiencing a steady stream of migration from the Middle East and South
Asia in recent years, especially in vibrant free-trade zones such as Iquique, Chile and Colon, Panama.
As a result
of intermarriage and conversion, Islam is becoming one of the fastest growing religions in Latin America. There is evidence
to suggest that Muslim missionaries based in Spain and their regional affiliates are making inroads into disenfranchised and
underserved indigenous communities that were once the target of evangelical Christian sects for conversion . The competition
between Muslim and Christian missionaries for prospective converts has even led to confrontation and violent clashes in the
Mexican state of Chiapas.
Spain’s al-Murabitun (The Almoravids, after the African Muslim dynasty that ruled
North Africa and Spain in 11th and 12th century) is believed to be the most prolific missionary movement operating in Latin
America . The group is an international Sufi order founded in the 1970s by Sheikh Abdel Qader as-Sufi al-Murabit, a controversial
Scottish Muslim convert born Ian Dallas. Although no hard evidence has surfaced tying the group to international terrorism,
let alone al-Qaeda, Dallas has been accused of harboring extremist leanings. Aurelino Perez heads the Murabitun’s campaign
in Chiapas, where he competes with Omar Weston, a British-born Muslim convert who resides in Mexico City and heads the Centro
Cultural Islamico de Mexico (CCIM), for adherents in Chiapas and the rest of Mexico. Known locally as Muhammed Nafia, Perez
is a Spanish convert to Islam who hails from the southern Spanish city of Granada in Andalusia.
ambitious efforts to gain adherents in Mexico include an unsuccessful attempt to forge an alliance with Subcommandante Marcos
and his Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), following the group’s armed rebellion in Chiapas in 1994 .
The Murabitun are comprised predominantly of Spanish and European converts to Islam. There are also reports that Muslim missionaries
are finding adherents among indigenous peoples in Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America .
In an effort to win
over converts in Latin America, the Murabtiun emphasize the cultural links between the Arab world and Latin America through
Spain’s Moorish heritage. In doing so, the Murabitun and like-minded movements advocate a collective reversion to Islam,
which in their view signifies a return to the region’s true heritage, as opposed to what many see as conversion to the
Muslim faith. In this sense, Islam not only represents an alternative to the colonial traditions imposed on the indigenous
and mestizo peoples of Latin America, namely the Roman Catholic Church, but is also a nativist tradition that has been suppressed.
The Murabitun also claim that Islam is not tainted by European and Western colonialism and imperialism, but instead serves
as a remedy for the oppression and destruction brought about by the Spanish conquest.
Given al-Qaeda’s documented
successes in recruiting Muslim converts in Europe and the U.S. to its cause, many observers worry that Muslim converts in
Latin America provide fertile ground for new recruits due to their perceived ability to circumvent travel restrictions and
blend into Western cities more effectively.
There is no evidence to suggest that the recent trend toward conversion
to Islam in Latin America stems from a turn to political and religious radicalism. On the contrary, most Muslim converts see
Islam as a vehicle for reasserting their identity. They also see conversion as a form of social and political protest in societies
where they are marginalized and experience discrimination . In this context, it is no surprise that groups such as the
Murabitun, with their message of social, political, and cultural empowerment, are making inroads into disenfranchised and
impoverished indigenous communities. The group also supports local education, social welfare, and other projects that include
Arabic language instruction and the publication of the Qur’an in Spanish and other local languages.
the evidence pointing to an alleged al-Qaeda presence in the region is often overshadowed and/or confused with the reported
activities of Hezbollah and other groups, it is important for policymakers to consider each of these organizations separately
and not fall into the trap of linking them as part of a unified network with a common agenda. At the same time, the diverse
array of criminal organizations active in the region—from local drug gangs to radical Islamists—demonstrates that
weak institutions, political instability, corruption, and poverty provide ample opportunities for groups such as al-Qaeda
and others to share the spoils.
1. Miguel Bonasso, “Un silencio de diez millones: Las estremecedoras
declaraciones del testigo secreto Irani,” Pagina 12 (Argentina), September 30, 2001.
2. Sandra Moran Castillo, “Desmantelan
a presunta banda de narcotraficantes vinculada con Hizbuláh,” CRE Satelital (Ecuador), June 21, 2005.
3. Sakia Hassan
Rada, “Los Musulmanes de Colombia,” WebIslam: Islam en Latinoamerica (No. 277) January 4, 2005. http://www.webislam.com/numeros/2005/277/noticias/musulmanes_colombia.htm
Britanico Julio Quesada, “Mercado Negro del Peso : Como se lavo dinero en la zona libre de Colon,” El Siglo (Panama),
June 25, 2003.
5. Julian Halawi, Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo) 17-23 July 2003, Issue No. 647.
6. Thelma Gomez Duran, “Muslalmanes
en Chiapas,” WebIslam: Islam en Latinoamerica (No. 132) July 20, 2001. http://www.webislam.com/elementos_wi/WI_Latino/Musulmanes_Chiapas.htm
For more information on Spain’s Murabitun Movement, see the Comunidad Islamica en Espana website at www.cislamica.org
Natascha Garvin, “Conversion and Conflict: Muslims in Mexico,” International Institute for the Study of Islam
in the Modern World Review15 (Netherlands), Spring 2005.
9. Aliefudien Al-Almany, “Da’wa in Latin America,”
Tehran Times (Iran), October 2, 2005.
10. See transcript of presentation by Yahya Juan Suquillo, Imam of the Islamic Center
of Quito Ecuador, “Islamic Principles in Latin America” at the Fourth Annual Conference of Latin American Muslim
Leaders in Curacao [Curacao], 16-18 September 2003 in the Latino Muslim Voice (November 2003), official newsletter of the
Latino American Da’wa Organization.
Find this article at:
is a policy analyst with the Strategic Assessment Center of Hicks & Associates, Inc., a subsidiary of Science Applications
International Corporation (SAIC). He specializes in Middle East politics and international terrorism issues.
with permission from
by The Jamestown Foundation
3 Issue 23 (December 2, 2005)