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"Islamic Terrorists" on the Rio Grande? Truth and Myths.
There are exaggerations about the level of jihadists crossing the border. Yet there's a history of Islamic terrorist groups in Latin America that can't be ignored.
As the world was just beginning to take in the horrors of the Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas in Israel, Donald J. Trump waded in to point his finger at the U.S. border with Mexico. "The same people that raided Israel are pouring into our once beautiful USA, through our totally open southern border, at record numbers," Trump said on Oct. 9 on his network Truth Social. "Are they planning an attack within our country? Crooked Joe Biden and his boss Barack Hussein Obama did this to us!"
In the weeks since, as Israel has bombed the Gaza Strip to mass protests worldwide, fellow Republicans echoed Trump, either claiming that jihadists are crossing or warning they could. Comments hailed from presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, who spoke of another 9/11, Senator James Lankford, who cited “Mexican cartels trafficking in military-aged men from all over the world,” and retired colonel Douglas Macgregor, who tweeted: “We are about to learn some hard lessons from open borders. Hezbollah and Hamas have very large presences in Mexico.”
More pertinently, a message reported to be from the San Diego office of the Customs and Border Patrol warned agents to be aware of jihadists. “Foreign Fighters of Israel-Hamas Conflict May Potentially be Encountered at Southwest Border,” it said on a situational awareness bulletin, pictured below. Agents were told to look for single travelers of military age with “undetermined return plans” as well as probe for links to Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.
The subject pushes into fiery ground in today’s polarized politics. Since Al Qaeda flew jets into the Twin Towers in 2001, fear of terror attacks has mixed with the debate on border security. In the public mind, “The Border” represents a frontier between America and a dangerous world, symbolized especially by apocalyptic jihadis.
Border security was transformed after 9/11 as a gun trafficker described to me. “That changed the game,” he said. “That put the military on the border. It brought a lot of attention.”
At the same time, cartels carried out their own mass beheadings and made splatter videos that echoed those in the Middle East. The idea of these two forces conspiring became an explosive idea, soon written into Hollywood movies.
Human rights voices retort that terrorism fears are unfairly used against refugees and immigrants more generally. The juxtaposition leads to a fierce back and forth. Here you see two articles reporting the same recent news with opposite headlines. The divide over the Israel-Hamas conflict only makes it more contentious.
But what is the truth? On one side, those raising the alarm have certainly made some false or exaggerated claims. We have seen no evidence up to this publication of Hamas successfully coming over the border since Oct. 7. And there is not, as Macgregor claims, a large Hamas presence in Mexico.
Yet it’s also untrue to say there is nothing to the issue. There have been members of designated Islamic terrorist groups in Mexico and even more so across the hemisphere from Argentina to Trinidad stretching back decades. And while there are bogus reports, there have been confirmed cases of members successfully crossing the southern border, and some credible links between drug traffickers and jihadists.
Citing sources including U.S. indictments, federal agencies and Mexican military intelligence, I go through what has really happened since 9/11 on this contentious subject. There are a lot of incidents, and not space to mention them all, but this could be the most complete summary to date.
The question is also conflated with the demand to name cartels themselves as terrorists and calls to bomb Mexico to stop them. I’ll get into that can of worms in another piece; here I look specifically at the jihadist groups on the State Department list as “Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.”
Islamic radicalism in the Americas predates 9/11 by at least a decade. In 1992, a suicide bomber hit the Israeli embassy in Argentina killing 30. Credit was claimed by a front group for Hezbollah - the “Party of God” formed by Shia Clerics in Lebanon. A Lebanese-Colombian member of Hezbollah, Amer Mohamed Akil Rada, was alleged to have a hand.
Two years later in 1994, an even bigger suicide bomb hit a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires killing 86. That attack was claimed by another Hezbollah-allied group and again involved Akil Rada. It was one of the worst antisemitic attacks since Hitler, and especially alarming to South America’s biggest Jewish community in Argentina.
Investigators followed those bombs to the lawless tri-border area, where Argentina meets with Paraguay and Brazil. Hezbollah built a network there which it used to raise funds through selling contraband. It’s still active in the region. This Wednesday, Brazilian federal police arrested two men they said were Hezbollah members plotting to blow up Jewish targets.
Over the Caribbean sea, Trinidad and Tobago boasts a surprisingly powerful tradition of radical Islam. In 1990, a former cop called Yasin Abu Bakr led 100 members of his Jamat al Muslimeen in an attempted coup. They held hostages including the prime minister and 24 people were killed.
The “Muslimeens” would later help recruit foreign fighters for the Islamic State in Syria. With estimates of between 200 and 450 volunteers, the tiny island of Trinidad claims the highest number of foreign jihadists per capita of any country in the world.
Simon Cottee, who studied the case extensively for his book Black Flags of the Caribbean, describes how the Muslimeens act in some ways like the gangs of the continent. They make cash selling guns and doing shake downs as they control neighborhoods. There are also Trini drug gangs that claim affiliation to radical Islam such as one that calls itself, “Unruly ISIS.”
But the genuine Trini jihadists include a wide range of members, Cottee says. They recruit from both the Indian-Trinidadians with a long Muslim tradition and more recent converts of African descent.
“The interesting thing about the Trinidad case is just the ages, the average age of those who went to Syria is mid thirties. And you see entire families going,” Cottee says. “A lot of them had fairly stable lives and jobs in Trinidad. There was a real range of occupations and of people. Some poor people went but some incredibly wealthy people went…You had a lawyer, a school teacher, a welder, car salesman, taxi driver, truck driver, auto mechanic, seaman, farm owner, debt collector and a professional footballer.”
Caribbean jihadists don’t ignore the United States. In 2007, a Trinidadian and three men from Guyana were arrested and later convicted in a plot to blow up JFK airport. As one said on a taped call: “To hit John F. Kennedy, wow....They love JFK – he's like the man. If you hit that, the whole country will be in mourning.”
Other jihadists turn to Mexico.
Cartels and Caliphates
The foreigners on the front line of successful terror attacks inside the United States seem to have exclusively come in at airports, not over the Rio Grande. The 9/11 hijackers themselves famously arrived on a mix of visas - business, tourist and one student. But there is a splattering of people, albeit likely less than a dozen over several decades, who came into the United States without papers and were later arrested on terrorism offenses.
The most recent case was on Oct. 17 when federal agents in New York arrested a man wanted in Senegal on terrorism charges. According to ICE, he’d been detained by the Border Patrol in Arizona on Oct. 3 and released with an order to report to authorities. It wasn’t till a week later that federal agents realized he was wanted, which raises questions.
Going back to 2001, Mahmoud Youseff Kourani, a Hezbollah fighter and fundraiser, “surreptitiously entered the country via the U.S./Mexico border,” as his indictment says. After taking up residence in Dearborn, Michigan, he was convicted of providing material aid to terrorists in 2005.
A famous case involved the three Duka brothers, convicted in 2009 of plotting to blow up the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey. Born in Albania, their parents brought them over the border when they were small children back in 1984. (The brothers claim they were unfairly entrapped in an FBI sting).
Kourani could have crossed with the help of another Lebanese man who was arrested in 2002 for smuggling hundreds of people, including Hezbollah sympathizers, from Tijuana. The link between human smugglers and jihadist groups is another angle that has caused a stir. In August, an Uzbeck man with ties to the Islamic State was found to be involved with a smuggling network, according to White House officials. Mexico’s coyotes, as human smugglers are known, are now massively entwined with cartels.
There’s also been alarm at the rocketing number arrested at the border on a “terrorist watch list.” In fiscal year 2023, the Border Patrol detained a record 172 people from the list, which is officially called the “Terrorist Screening Data Set.” This comes amid more than two million “encounters” on the southern border.
However, the list seems to include those with ties such as being family members of terrorists and others not actually wanted for an offense. And in 2022, the Washington Examiner reported that 25 out of 27 people on it were citizens of Colombia. The country has leftist guerrilla groups like the FARC, which are classified as terrorists, although it also had a handful of Hezbollah members such as Akil Rada detailed above.
Another Colombian-Lebanese man was involved in an alleged link between the feared Zetas cartel and Hezbollah. In 2011, U.S. prosecutors indicted Ayman Joumma for selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Colombian cocaine to the Zetas and other gangsters. He was accused of laundering his profits across the world, including in banks linked to Hezbollah. “Ayman Joumaa is one of top guys in the world at what he does: international drug trafficking and money laundering,” a U.S. official told ProPublica. “He has interaction with Hezbollah. There’s no indication that it’s ideological. It’s business.” Joumma is still at large.
There have been some cases of gangster-terrorist links that look more bogus. In 2004, the Honduran security minister reported that Al Qaeda operative Adnan G. El Shukrijumah was spotted in the country meeting with the Mara Salvatrucha gang. After the story sparked a scare, it turned out it could have been more rumor that solid intel.
Another dubious case was in 2011 when the U.S. attorney general announced an Iranian agent had hired a member of the Zetas for a whopping $1.5 million to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. It emerged however, the “Zeta” was in fact a confidential informant for the DEA, and it wasn’t totally clear who really the Iranian agent was - a used car salesman called Mansour J. Arbabsiar. Prosecutors said Arbabsiar had worked with Iran’s Qods Force he was sentenced in 2013 although Iran denied involvement.
Mexican Army Intel
The rumblings of radicals have not escaped the Mexican army. Documents revealed by the so-called “Guacamaya leaks” show that soldiers found at least five cases of Islamic terrorist links to Mexico between 2015 and 2017. These include a British-Iraqi in Guanajuato who was alleged to have helped 30 to 40 volunteers from round the world travel to Syria to fight for ISIS. According to the report, the suspect, “justified the use of extreme violence like decapitations perpetrated by Daesh [ISIS] against the enemy, because it is dictated by the Koran,” as well as “threatening death to the interviewers.”
In another case, a 14 year old girl in Cuautitlán, Mexico State, was involved via internet with various ISIS fighters, and even taught herself Arabic. The ISIS members tried to get her to travel to Syria as well as carry out a stabbing in Mexico, the report says. After officials warned the parents, military intelligence concluded she did not represent a major risk. (Similar interactions were successful in recruiting “ISIS brides” from Europe.)
In 2022, the Mexican military wrote an analysis of the jihadist terror threat. “Although Mexico is not considered a target of international terrorism,” it said, “the risk comes from using the country as a jihadist platform to affect the interests of the United States.”
That looked to have been the case in 2010 when Mexican marines claimed they foiled a plot by Somalian group Al-Shabab to attack the U.S. embassy. The marines followed a Somali militant to a house in the Roma neighborhood, less then mile from the embassy, and found 22.7 kilos of explosive material along with detonators. Another Somali national linked to Al-Shabab was arrested and deported, the U.S. embassy told me at the time.
Going over the cases, you can see there is not the evidence of terrorists crossing the border to successfully set off bombs in the United States as some claim. The terror attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 have mostly been by Americans, whether by Muslims in San Bernardino and Orlando or white supremacists in El Paso or Charleston.
But the series of incidents over the decades is real, and there is no guarantee there will not be a successful attack in the future. Mexican cartels are not ideological but that means some operatives can work with bad ideological actors for money. The percentage of jihadists may well be tiny overall. But the problem with terrorism is it needs very few perpetrators and not even that many deaths to have a huge impact.
As Yuval Noah Harari writes: “Terrorists stage a terrifying spectacle of violence that captures our imagination and turns it against us. By killing a handful of people the terrorists cause millions to fear for their lives.”
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Update - The story was updated at 22-09 pm, Nov. 9 to better reflect the prosecution’s case against Manssor Arbabsiar.
Copyright Ioan Grillo and CrashOutMedia 2023
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