June 15, 2003
Terrorism takes root in jungle of S. America
Region linked to funds for Hezbollah, Hamas
By MARCUS STERN
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – When U.S. counterterrorism officials began a worldwide search for terrorists after Sept. 11, 2001, one of the more unlikely places they looked was a remote jungle patch in South America known as the Tri-Border Area.
Home to the Western Hemisphere's most spectacular waterfalls, a horseshoe-shaped congregation of 275 separate cascades known as the Iguazu Falls, the area also is renowned as a hub of cigarette smuggling, money-laundering, phony documents production, counterfeiting, drug trafficking and gun-running.
More recently, it has become a major source of money, recruiting and proselytizing for two Middle Eastern terrorist groups, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Hamas, a Palestinian group threatening President Bush's Middle East peace initiative and dedicated to the destruction of Israel.
Hamas has gained the international spotlight in recent days by taking responsibility for deadly terrorist attacks in Israel seen as attempts to sabotage Bush's road map for peace in the Middle East.
Bush this week blamed Hamas for the violence and issued a worldwide plea "to cut off money to organizations such as Hamas."
Few links to al-Qaeda have been found in the Tri-Border Area, which is bounded by Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. But experts worry that it could become a staging ground for terror attacks in Latin America or the United States.
Since the 1980s, the area has become home to tens of thousands of Middle Easterners, including many who fled Lebanon during a 16-year civil war that ended in 1991.
Over the years, the newcomers have sent millions of dollars – some say tens of millions of dollars – to Hezbollah and Hamas. Police believe the money comes from criminal enterprises.
The unwelcome attention directed at the area's Arab community came with a deadly 1992 car bomb attack against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and a 1994 attack on an Israeli cultural center there. The combined death toll was 115. The investigation led to the Tri-Border Area and implicated Hezbollah.
Francis X. Taylor, formerly the State Department's top terrorism official, last fall told Congress that the area has a "longstanding presence of Islamic extremist organizations" engaged in "fund-raising activities and proselytizing among the large expatriate population from the Middle East."
When a Brazilian news magazine this year published a front-page story alleging Osama bin Laden had visited the area in 1995, locals launched a tongue-in-cheek tourism campaign that featured slogans like, "If bin Laden risked his neck to visit (the area) it means it is worthwhile," or, "When he is not blowing up the world, Osama bin Laden enjoys himself" in the Tri-Border Area.
Just how much of a terrorism threat exists in the region is a matter of debate. The State Department sees little direct evidence of al-Qaeda, but it's working with the governments of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil to learn how much money the region is funneling to Hezbollah and Hamas.
There is wide agreement that Hezbollah and Hamas are deeply involved in many of the illicit business enterprises there, including drug trafficking.
"Hezbollah has a hand in everything that takes place down there," said Walter Purdy of the Virginia-based Terrorism Research Center.
But with all the attention to terrorist activity in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, Latin America remains a blip on the counterterrorism radarscope.
"It's not considered a hot zone," said one U.S. counterterrorist official, adding a note of caution: "We don't know what we don't know."
Purdy, who visited the area last year, said he received reports of terrorist training camps in the Tri-Border Area.
"We have no information to confirm that," he said.
"There's a lot of denial going on down there," added Purdy.
The State Department considers Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina to be fully cooperative in the war on terrorism. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, scores of businessmen in the Tri-Border Area were arrested based on suspected links to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.
Last month, a relative of Assad Ahmad Barakat, the reputed head of Hezbollah in the Tri-Border Area, was arrested at the airport in Asuncion, Paraguay, after authorities found 5 pounds of cocaine in an electronic keyboard piano he was trying to take on board the plane to Syria.
Police believe the relative, Hassan Abdallah Dayoub, was acting as a mule for Barakat in a scheme to sell drugs in Syria and that at least some of the proceeds would go to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.
Barakat, a Lebanese-born Paraguayan, is himself in custody in Brazil awaiting extradition to Paraguay. Raids on his businesses found evidence that he transferred $50 million to Lebanon.
Egyptian Mohamed Mokhles, who lived in the Tri-Border Area until 1998, was arrested in Uruguay in 1999 based on his alleged role in a massacre of tourists at Luxor, Egypt.
In March, authorities in London arrested a Venezuelan trying to board an airplane at Gatwick Airport after they found a hand grenade hidden in his luggage. He, too, had links to the Tri-Border Area.