Friday, December 01, 2006

Suspected Venezuela-Islamist Links Worry Lawmakers

By Kevin Mooney Staff Writer December 01, 2006 ( - Counter-terrorism operatives should broaden their focus beyond the Middle East to include hotspots in the remote tri-border region of Latin America and in Venezuela where President Hugo Chavez's leftist government is working to undermine U.S. security, key congressional figures and policy analysts say.Chavez is running for re-election on Sunday.Islamic extremists and other rogue elements are exploiting the smuggling resources available in Central and South America to gain entry into the U.S., Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told Cybercast News Service.At the same time, McCaul charged, Venezuela is providing identification documents to individuals from other parts of Latin America and from countries overseas that can be used to facilitate entry into the U.S. in a seemingly legal manner. The "intersection" between transnational criminal enterprises and terrorist activity is the subject of a report on U.S. border security, issued through the House Homeland Security Committee's subcommittee on investigations.McCaul, its current chairman, said he was working with other members of Congress to "help bring greater awareness to the growing dangers" in Latin America in general and in the tri-border region in particular.The region - which lies at the junction of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay - is a special point of concern, McCaul said, because its lawless nature allows terrorist outfits and other criminal elements to function unimpeded.U.S. intelligence officials cited in the House report believe America's southern flank is overly exposed and requires "aggressive" engagement. They also point out terrorist suspects currently held in Guantanamo Bay are not being questioned about their connections to Latin America.Gen. James Hill, commander of U.S. Southern Command, sees a heightened risk to Americans from Mideast terrorists moving into the tri-border region and other parts of Latin America. In the report, Hill describes the tri-border region - along with Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela - as "smuggling hot spots" used to "channel funds to terrorists around the world."Radical Islamic groups thought to be operating in Latin America are suspected to have ties to terrorist organizations including al Qaeda, Hamas and Hizballah, according to the report.Because of this concern, lawmakers like Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) feel it is imperative for the U.S. to better secure its border with Mexico.Culberson told Cybercast News Service the sharp increase in the number of illegal aliens crossing into the southwestern U.S., and who originate from countries other than Mexico - a category known as OTM - could be suggestive of terrorist infiltration.In fiscal year 2006, more than 100,000 illegal aliens falling in that category were apprehended while trying to cross from Mexico, U.S. border patrol statistics show. But for every OTM that is captured, Culberson said, an unknown number elude detection.The report says some of those apprehended originate from countries of potential concern, including Iran, Syria and Pakistan. Culberson also pointed out that the FBI has determined that some illegal aliens who travel from countries where al Qaeda is active are changing their Islamic surnames to sound more Hispanic so they can better blend into the Latin American environment. Culberson pointed to testimony in this regard by FBI Director Robert Mueller in March 2005.The McCaul report also calls attention to the challenges presented by false identification and singles out Venezuela as a key player in the production of documents "that could prove useful to radical Islamic groups."Thus far Venezuela has issued thousands of "cedulas" to individuals from other parts of Latin American and from overseas that can, in turn, be used to obtain Venezuelan passports and even visas to enter the U.S., the report states. 'Weird connection' According to Chris Brown, director of education and research programs at the Washington-based American Security Council Foundation (ASCF), the dangers that have been present in the tri-border region for decades are now significantly magnified by the presence of Chavez, who it says is working to galvanize the forces of anti-Americanism in the hemisphere.Brown worries that Washington is ignoring Latin America."A lot of our intelligence assets were ripped out of this area after the September 11 attacks," Brown said. "Because of the obsession with Iraq we are losing the rest of the globe."An ASCF report on the tri-border region says the absence of definitive borders, lack of any distinct legal jurisdiction, and flexible banking laws in nearby Uruguay all contribute to the problems there.It also says collaboration between Islamic radicals and other extremist elements in the area goes back decades.For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood, which in the pre-war years cooperated with the Nazis in anti-Semitic campaigns, continued in partnership with Nazi officials after World War II when the fleeing Germans moved to Latin America and to the tri-border region in particular.Brown says that in 1966 communist organizations were drawn to Latin America, when Cuba's Fidel Castro launched the tri-continental congress with an eye toward infiltrating all the criminal and narcotics networks throughout Latin America.It was at this conference that "forerunners of the modern Islamists" movement developed stronger ties with communists. "You had a lot of ideological cross pollination at this key point in time," Brown said. "There developed a weird connection between a philosophy that believes in no God and a philosophy that believes in everything about God. If you read Islamist economic materials you feel like you are reading Marx."

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