As the brutal attacks of 9/11 taught us, terrorist activity anywhere in the world is a threat to all of us, and any such activity that goes unaddressed is an invitation for terrorists to strike. In the case of Latin America, where financing and money laundering are the main activities of Islamic terrorists, the threat has long operated under the radar. But indicators of a growing problem have been evident for at least a decade.
The 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Argentina signaled the presence of the radicalism and the violence that have haunted the Middle East for decades. They also clearly illustrated that terrorist groups such as Hezbollah are ready, willing and able to carry out attacks in our hemisphere and possess the capabilities to undertake efforts against the United States.
In the aftermath of the AMIA bombings, Hezbollah has continued to maintain networks in the tri-border area of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina engaged in activities that have primarily focused on recruitment and fundraising. An estimated $6 billion per year in illegal funds are being laundered in Ciudad del Este alone. It is reported that various investigations had shed light on Hezbollah sympathizers and financiers and their additional activities in Iquique, Chile; Maicao, Colombia; on Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela; and in Colon, Panama.
Though its presence in Latin America is smaller, Hamas shares the regional priority of fundraising. Likewise, the Egyptian Islamic Group maintains a presence in Latin America of experienced members of the group, with several members having been arrested in Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia since 1998.
A number of recent reports have raised concerns of an increasing al Qaeda presence in the Western Hemisphere. Officials in both the United States and El Salvador confirmed earlier this year that Mara Salvatrucha, a violent gang with roots in the Salvadoran civil war and branches in several U.S. states, had met with al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda at the door
Reports from the summer of 2004 indicate that al Qaeda terrorist Adnan El Shukrijumah was apparently moving with ease between Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico. More recently, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has reportedly instructed his followers to travel to Brazil with the eventual goal of entering the United States through Mexico to carry out terrorist attacks. Thus, it would appear that al Qaeda has already established a foothold in our own backyard.
There are further examples of the use of neighboring countries in the region as staging areas or transit points into the U.S. In 2002, two Lebanese men were convicted of financing Hezbollah with $2 million in illegal cigarette sales in the United States -- one of whom gained U.S. entry from Venezuela. Another, a Lebanese individual from Detroit, charged with supporting Hezbollah financially, was described by the U.S. Attorney in the case as a ``fighter, recruiter, and fundraiser.''
We must take immediate steps to address this growing problem in our sphere of influence before the threat escalates any further. Toward this end, I worked arduously with my House colleagues to develop legislative provisions in the 9/11 bill enacted last year regarding U.S. policy actions on current and emerging terrorist sanctuaries, as well as multilateral terrorism interdiction efforts.
As Machiavelli wrote: ''Political disorders can be quickly healed if they are seen well in advance; when, for lack of diagnosis, they are allowed to grow in such a way that everyone can recognize them, remedies are too late.'' The proliferation of Islamist terrorist networks in our own backyard poses an existential threat to the United States and to our neighbors. We cannot afford to wait.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, chairs the Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia of the House Committee on International Relations.
Great story on the Herald.com site by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Here is another sensible Hispanic voice speaking out on border security. Read it here.