Twice in recent weeks, the influential Brazilian newsmagazine Veja has published explosive articles revealing the extent to which radical Islamists move freely in South America raising money and recruiting young Latin Americans for training and indoctrination in Iran.
The magazine cites Brazilian intelligence documents asserting that operatives from Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, and Egypt’s al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya use or have used Brazilian territory “as a hideout, logistics center, fundraising source, and planning center for terrorist attacks.”
The so-called Tri-Border region of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, home to some 12,000 Muslims, is well-known to U.S. authorities as a hub for smuggling and Hamas and Hezbollah fundraising. (Osama Bin Laden and top lieutenant Khalid Shaikh Mohammed reportedly traveled there in 1995.) But the Veja reports reveal that the problem is far more extensive and dangerous than what has been made public.
Identified as Iran’s point man in the region is Mohsen Rabbani, who is wanted by Interpol for his involvement in terrorist attacks against Jewish targets in Argentina during the 1990s that killed more than 100 people. Despite being the subject of an Interpol “Red Notice,” Rabbani continues to travel in and out of Brazil scouting for Islamic converts to send back to Iran for religious indoctrination and military training. He is said to particularly focus on the poor and marginalized.
Alberto Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor leading the investigation of the 1990s attacks, told Veja, “Rabbani is a serious security threat, including in Brazil. In Argentina, he spread his vision of radical, extremist, and violent Islam, which resulted in dozens of casualties during the Buenos Aires terrorist attacks. Now, based in Iran, he continues to play a significant role in the spread of extremism in Latin America.”
Brazilian officials refer to the flights, whose passenger lists are kept private by the Venezuelans, as “Aero-Terror.”
Another individual identified by Veja is Khaled Hussein Ali, a Lebanese who lives in São Paulo and runs a propaganda network on behalf of Al Qaeda, as well as providing logistical support for operations. He was arrested by Brazilian authorities in 2009 and charged with inciting crime and racketeering. (Brazil has no anti-terrorism statutes in its books.)
After 21 days in custody, he was released by the authorities, who declined to pursue the charges in court.
Veja also reports that in 2005 Brazilian authorities uncovered an illegal immigration operation allowing Islamic extremists to establish residency in Brazil by arranging fake marriages to young Brazilian women. In the bust, police seized 1,200 foreign passports, most of which were stolen. Costing some $11,000 each, the passports were being used to facilitate extremists’ travel internationally.
Two other individuals reported to be living in Brazil are Hesham Ahmed Mahmoud Eltrabily and Mohamed Ali AbouElezz Ibrahim Soliman, wanted in Egypt for participating in the infamous 1997 terrorist attack in Luxor in which 62 tourists were murdered.
Again, however, accountability was denied when Brazil refused Egypt’s extradition requests.
Unfortunately, it is that reluctance on the part of the Brazilian political establishment to come to terms with Islamic extremist activity — Hamas and Hezbollah are not considered terrorist groups, for example — that is leading to these groups further entrenching themselves in Brazilian society and supporting terrorism abroad.
One hopes the Veja articles will serve as a wake-up call, not least because of the fact that the country is now preparing for two world-class events in the soccer World Cup (2014) and the Summer Olympics (2016), the sort of platforms that could prove irresistible to terrorists.
But Brazil also has a responsibility to its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere, as well as countries abroad whose populations are being victimized by wanton terrorist violence to do its part to combat this menace.
On a positive note, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff appears to be distancing herself from the accommodating posture of her mentor and predecessor President Lula da Silva towards Iran.
One hopes she also moves to re-empower her security services to check and roll back the pernicious activities of extremist groups and collaborate with other democratic societies in this endeavor.
Similarly, U.S. policymakers should continue to quietly press the Brazilian government for action and results on this front.
The U.S. enjoys strong ties with the Brazilian security establishment. But what Brazilian security needs most of all is support from its own government — before it’s too late.
José R. Cárdenas served in several foreign policy positions during the George W. Bush administration (2004-2009), including on the National Security Council staff. He is a consultant with Vision Americas in Washington, D.C., and edits the website www.interamericansecuritywatch.com and blogs at http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/.