Latin American Terror Trials
In the past couple of years, the threat of Islamist terror has grown throughout the Western Hemisphere, with operatives from Hezbollah, the Islamic State and other global terror organizations expanding their reach beyond their theaters of operations. The radical Islamist movement has various faces and dimensions, but the planning, organizing, financing, and execution of acts of terror have drawn increasing attention in Latin America, despite the region’s lack of effective legislation and infrastructure to combat it.
On the 23rd anniversary of the AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the largest case of Islamist terror in Latin America, SFS hosted a signature panel of regional experts to discuss recent “Latin American Terror Trials.” The panel consisted of SFS international fellow Ricardo Neeb, Brazilian federal judge Marcos Josegrei da Silva, and Peruvian public prosecutor Moises Vega de la Cruz, and was moderated by EFE Washington correspondent Lucía Leal.
Ricardo Neeb, former chief of Chile’s counterintelligence agency, argued that his country’s attitude to terrorism was deeply influenced by historical and ideological considerations. This has resulted in a failure to properly define what constitutes terrorism for Chilean authorities. Furthermore, what legal statutes do exist prevent intelligence officials from conducting covert operations with terrorist groups, unless the activity is related to narcotics trafficking. When the legal framework doesn’t address terror, Neeb explained, it is easier for groups to operate under the radar and harder for authorities to fight real or potential threats. At present, terror organizations such as the anarchists and Mapuches have dominated the scene but they bear watching as they often seek alliances with groups abroad.
Peruvian Prosecutor Moises Vega de la Cruz gave a detailed account of the case of Hezbollah member Mohamad Hamdar, who used false documentation to gain access to Peru, was found to be collecting information for potential terror targets on his electronic devices, and was discovered to be handling explosives when tested for the same upon being arrested. Hamdar was eventually absolved of the charges despite extensive evidence of his involvement in terrorism-related activities. Vega de la Cruz Cruz argued that Peru’s lack of a policy on international terrorism and the country’s dismissive attitude toward the potential threats of Hezbollah and other radical Islamist groups mean that security operatives are not well prepared to take on the challenges. Despite plentiful evidence to support a terrorism conviction for Hamdar, the lack of an effective counterterrorism strategy has made it very difficult to prosecute suspects of his ilk. Peru’s lack of understanding that an international terrorist group could have horrific consequences for the country and its people, and the government’s failure to designate such groups as terrorist, means the country is unprepared to defend itself against such attacks.
Brazil’s Marcos Josegrei da Silva, a federal judge charged with the case of Brazilian ISIS recruits arrested for plotting a terror attack on the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, discussed the country’s latest attempt to create a legislative framework for addressing terror. The new law (#13,260, the Anti-Terrorism Act passed in March 2016) seeks to define terrorism more explicitly and to attach penalties not simply after an attack has taken place, but criminalize the public promotion and planning of such activities as well. While Brazil’s legislators sought to protect freedom of speech and guarantee civil rights, a distinction in the new law stipulates against groups whose primary methods are explicitly violent or that seek to hide behind civil libertarian protections. Da Silva discussed the growing number of mosques and cultural centers in Brazil, despite relatively small numbers of Muslims residing in the southern hemisphere’s largest nation. With a population of over 200 million and only about 35,000 registered Muslims, the number of mosques has increased from about 58 some years ago to triple that number today. Groups such as “Defenders of Sharia,” to which the Rio suspects were affiliated, and other radical Islamist organizations serve as the breeding ground of terror cells such as that captured by Operation Hashtag, the police and security offensive against the plotters in the Rio Olympics.
The discussion turned to relative threats in the region that have fomented a regional discourse and efforts to create the appropriate legal structures for countering terror activities. Defining the nature of the enemy, and indeed of what constitutes terrorism itself, seems difficult given the hemisphere’s sense of estrangement from Middle Eastern troubles and a general attitude that resists focusing beyond domestic concerns. Opposition to terrorism legislation also comes from civil rights and protest movements intent on making radical social change in their own countries, who believe these laws might be turned against them.
SFS executive director Joseph Humire argued that instead of syncing all laws or coordinating extensive counter-networks, a prospect fraught with difficulties and conflicts, a first step out of the current situation is for countries to begin explicitly designating certain individuals and groups as terrorist. Like the United States, which prior to 9/11 had not designated certain organizations as terrorist, the countries can begin by making such designations and therefore allow their security and intelligence communities to pursue individuals, groups, and supporters who constitute logistic and financial infrastructures for these organizations.
In a round-up of the discussion, Neeb addressed the audience of congressional staff and others by pointing to the need for the U.S. to refocus its attention on Latin America. Neeb stressed that there are extra-regional actors concentrating with ever more precision on the Western Hemisphere and that these other actors are exploiting the absence of the U.S. in Latin America. Terrorism is but one area in which nefarious actors are preparing the battleground in our near abroad.
The event was the first of its kind, focused on alerting Congress to the changing climate in Latin America and the developing discussion on the need for legal frameworks that both honor the values of a free society and provide vigilance and security against terrorism.