In july 1994, a new york city detective with the FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorist Task Force came to the door of Ibrahim González, a jazz musician, teacher and radio producer in the Bronx. Saying “his name came up in an investigation,” the agent questioned González about phone calls, charitable donations and houseguests. When queried by González’s wife, the detective acknowledged he was looking for terrorists.
González suspects the FBI had been aware of him for a while. Long active around such issues as Puerto Rican independence and police brutality, he hosts a talk show on the local non-commercial WBAI radio station. And in January 2002, the New York Times had featured him in a story on the growing number of Latino Muslims in the metropolitan area.1
When the detective asked about his visitors, González described the Sufi meetings he hosts at his apartment: “My brothers in religion come here to break bread and pray together.” As a gesture of good faith, González cooperated in the interview, agreeing to meet the agent at a local park. He told how he was first introduced to Islam by black Muslim neighbors in East Harlem in the 1960s, and how he now follows an order of dervishes tracing back to Central Asia, a teaching that seeks “tolerance, a greater understanding of ourselves and each other.” He says he told the detective: “Guys like me live for the moment when guys who do what you do won’t be necessary.”
For González, a co-founder of the local Alianza Islámica (Islamic Alliance), an organized Muslim group with contacts throughout the hemisphere and in Spain, Islam speaks to his Puerto Rican roots. “I was inspired by the history of Andalusia, the kingdoms of Muslim Spain, and our African ancestry also has elements of Islam—the Wolof and Fulani brought the faith—and there were Islamic Maroon rebellions.” Citing the legacy of Andalusia and the belief that one is born Muslim, many Latino Muslims speak of “reversion” rather than conversion.2
Islam is the hemisphere’s fastest growing religion, due to immigration as well as “reversion.” González’s experience reflects a worrying new atmosphere for Muslims from the Bronx to Buenos Aires.
The 9/11 attacks signaled a shift of u.s. military and intelligence efforts in the Western Hemisphere from an anti-narcotics to an anti-terror footing. On the day of the attacks, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was scheduled to meet with then-Colombian President Andrés Pastrana to discuss U.S.-Colombian anti-terror coordination. The previous day, the U.S. State Department had finally added the ultra-right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) to the official list of “foreign terrorist organizations.” Critics had protested that the blood-drenched AUC was not on the list, while Colombia’s two leftist guerrilla groups had been on the list since it was first drawn up in 1996. “I hope this will leave no doubt that the United States considers terrorism to be unacceptable, regardless of the political or ideological purpose,” said Powell. His trip to Colombia would be cut short by the attacks in the United States.3
On October 15, Francis X. Taylor, the head of the State Department Office of Counterterrorism, announced the U.S. government was prepared to use military force to fight terrorism in the Americas. Speaking with reporters at the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS) after addressing a closed-door meeting of the Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism, Taylor said, “Our strategy in this hemisphere is similar to our strategy around the world, and it involves the use of all the elements of our national power.”4
The latest State Department list of “Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations” contains 40 groups, four of which are based in the Western Hemisphere: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), its junior partner the National Liberation Army (ELN), the AUC and Peru’s Shining Path.5 But Taylor stressed the region’s growing strategic importance to Islamic terrorists.6
Also on the same day as the 9/11 attacks, United Press International (UPI) quoted former Pentagon “counter-terrorism analyst” John Moore, who claimed that Palestinian and Hezbollah militants, as well advisors from Cuba and Venezuela, were aiding the Colombian guerrillas.7
Such claims had been made before. A flurry of news accounts in 2000 claimed Russian crime syndicates were flying arms to the jungle bases of the FARC in exchange for cocaine. Amman, Jordan was said to have been a key transshipment point, where some of the weapons en-route to South America were unloaded for distribution to Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Islamic militant groups.8
In the wake of 9/11, colombian military commanders quickly got hip to the new lingo. Less than a month after the attacks, the New York Times reported: “Army officials, who usually refer to the rebel force as ‘narco-guerrillas’ or bandits, have made sure to refer to the rebels as terrorists.”9
When hard-line President Álvaro Uribe took power in Colombia nearly a year after 9/11, the White House authorized his government to use U.S. military aid directly against the guerrillas, finally dropping the façade of anti-narcotics operations. The policy change was a little-noted provision of a $28.9 billion supplemental anti-terrorism package stating that military aid to Colombia “shall be available against activities by organizations designated as terrorist organizations” by the State Department.10
The government of Mexico, facing a semi-dormant guerrilla movement in the south, also began seeing an Islamic threat. The day after 9/11, Mexico’s Federal Preventative Police claimed Hezbollah and Spain’s separatist group Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) had established cells in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero. National Security chief Adolfo Aguilar Zinser said the groups sought to use Mexico as a staging area for international attacks.11
A month later, the magazine ProcesoSur cited a “confidential document” from the Mexican intelligence service linking southern Mexico’s Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) to both Colombia’s FARC and the Real Irish Republican Army (Real IRA). The magazine also claimed anti-terrorist vigilance on Mexico’s Gulf Coast had been increased and that authorities had detained an unspecified number of Iraqis in the state of Yucatán.12 Washington hailed Mexico’s spirit of cooperation.13
Washington has identified South America’s “tri-border region,” where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, as the top nexus of Islamic terrorism in the Western Hemisphere. In November 2002, CNN cited unnamed “intelligence sources” alleging that several top terrorist operatives had recently met in the area to plan attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets in the Americas. Representatives of Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Egypt’s Gama’a al-Islamiyya, all on the State Department list, reportedly attended the meeting held on the Paraguayan side of the border in Ciudad del Este. “Argentine intelligence documents obtained by CNN” supposedly detailed links between these groups and mosques and businesses in the area. Specifically cited was an old Lebanese suspect named Imad Mugniyah, who had been indicted in the United States for a deadly 1985 hijacking of an Athens-to-Beirut commercial flight. Authorities call him Hezbollah’s operations director for South America.14
The tri-border region, known for its black markets, came under a dragnet following 9/11, with Paraguayan police raiding several businesses and rounding up 20 suspects—mostly later released. Argentine officials say that thousands of U.S. dollars bearing Lebanese bank stamps were found in the region along with tens of thousands of counterfeit dollars and receipts from wire transfers from the Middle East. Argentine intelligence claims that since 9/11 many terrorist operatives have dispersed to the Brazilian rainforest or Chile’s northern desert. Police in Iquique, Chile recently seized 48 fake Pakistani passports, which they said were destined for use by terrorists.15
Not surprisingly, Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela is Washington’s number-two hemispheric terrorist hotspot. In a March 2003 speech at Miami’s North-South Center, U.S. Southern Command chief Gen. James Hill said militant Islamic groups are deeply involved in Latin America’s “narco-terrorist” networks. He especially named Venezuela’s Margarita Island, an Antillean vacation outpost with a sizeable Muslim community.16
“Narco-terrorism fuels radical Islamic groups associated with Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Gamaat and others,” said Gen. Hill. “These groups, operating out of the tri-border area, and other locales, like Margarita Island off Venezuela, generate hundreds of millions of dollars through drug and arms trafficking with narco-terrorists. Simply put, direct drug sales and money laundering fund worldwide terrorist operations. That is fact, not speculation.”17
An article in U.S. News & World Report published in 2003, titled “Terror Close to Home,” charged that Venezuela is emerging as “a potential hub of terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.” The magazine claimed Venezuela has given ID cards to thousands of foreigners, including many from Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and Lebanon, and it warned that such largesse could enable terrorists to obtain passports and U.S. visas. The report also claimed that U.S. intelligence officials were investigating whether a Venezuelan of Arab descent had ties to the 9/11 hijackers.18
Chávez often invokes anti-imperialist solidarity in his dealings with the Islamic world. The U.S. government briefly called home its ambassador from Venezuela in late 2001 after Chávez condemned the bombing of Afghanistan as “fighting terrorism with terrorism.” He went on TV holding up photographs of Afghan children killed in the bombing and said their deaths had “no justification, just as the attacks in New York did not either.” Chávez demanded an end to the “slaughter of the innocents.”19
The perceived insurgent stance of islam against u.s. imperialism increasingly gives the faith a certain cachet among Latin America’s popular sectors. Most Latin American countries have seen large and angry protests against the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Immediately after 9/11, the Zapatista National Liberation Front, the civil counterpart of the armed group, held an anti-war protest in front of Mexico City’s U.S. Embassy. “We are all Arabs,” read a popular poster at the demonstration.20
Whether or not there is any basis for claims of a Hezbollah presence in Mexico, Islam has become a part of the cultural mix in Chiapas. After 9/11, Gov. Pablo Salazar rejected any implication that the state’s Zapatista rebels are terrorists, noting that Mexico’s Congress recognized their struggle as legitimate in the 1995 dialogue law.21 A group of Mexican federal legislators, many involved in the Chiapas peace dialogue, issued a statement affirming that none of the country’s rebel groups were “terrorists.” But in June 2002, the state news agency, Notimex, reported that Mexican authorities had deported several Spanish missionaries working for an Islamic group in Chiapas, having supposedly uncovered links to Basque terrorists.22
The group, the Mission for Dawa in Mexico, has converted a number of locals from the village of Chamula, and remains active in Chiapas, running a carpentry workshop for its flock. The missionaries were reportedly expelled for failing to apply for status as a religious organization—not for any supposed links to terrorism. But authorities did say they began investigating the group following 9/11.
Esteban López Moreno, secretary of the Mission for Dawa in Mexico, denied that any members of the group had been expelled, but said some had returned to Spain. He also denied any links to ETA or armed activity, calling terrorism “un-Islamic.”23
Back in New York, Ibrahim González admits the new atmosphere has made him question why he remains a Muslim. He notes the paradox that Islam is growing in the Americas and worldwide despite a growing atmosphere of fear. “It’s phenomenal,” he says. “As much persecution as is faced by Muslim brothers and sisters in Iraq, in Palestine, the detainees in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, this horrible war, with all of this happening, people still want to find their way to Islam. It’s beyond comprehension.”
About the author
Bill Weinberg is author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso: 2002) and editor of the online weekly World War 4 Report . He is currently working on a book about Plan Colombia for Verso
1. Daniel J. Wakin, “Ranks of Latinos Turning to Islam are Increasing,” New York Times, January 2, 2002.
2. See, for example, ttp://www.hispanicmuslims.com.
3. Juan Forero, “U.S. Blacklists Paramilitaries in Colombia,” New York Times, September 11, 2001.
4. The Associated Press, October 15, 2001.
5. Fact sheet from the U.S. State Department’s “Foreign Terrorists Organizations,” December 29, 2004, http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/fs/2004/37191.htm.
6. Fact sheet from the U.S. State Department’s “Foreign Terrorists Organizations.”
7. Richard Sale, “US Policy Morphing in Colombia,” UPI, September 11, 2001.
8. Sue Lackey with Michael Moran, “Russian Mob Trading Arms for Cocaine with Colombian Rebels,” MSNBC, April 9, 2000, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3340035/.
9. Juan Forero, “Culture Minister’s Killing Adds to Colombian Leader’s Problems,” New York Times, October 5, 2001.
10. Juan Forero, “Shifting Colombia’s Aid: U.S. Focuses on Rebels,” New York Times, August 10, 2002.
11. Milenio, Mexico, September 13, 2001.
12. ProcesoSur, Mexico, October 13, 2001.
13. Reuters, September 29, 2001.
14. Harris Whitbec and Ingrid Ameson, “Terrorists Find Haven in South America,” CNN, November 8, 2002.
15. Harris Whitbec and Ingrid Ameson, “Terrorists Find Haven in South America.”
16. U.S. State Department, press release, March 12, 2003.
17. U.S. State Department, press release, March 12, 2003.
18. Linda Robinson, “Terror Close to Home,” US News & World Report, October 6, 2003.
19. Larry Rohter, “U.S., Irritated by Criticism, Calls Envoy Home From Venezuela,” New York Times, November 3, 2001.
20. Georgina Saldierna, “Se manifestan FZLN y Eureka contra la guerra,” La Jornada, Mexico, September 26, 2001.
21. “Niegan que EZLN sea grupo terrorista,” Reforma (Mexico), October 4, 2001.
22. The Associated Press, June 16, 2002.
23. Interview with author, Chiapas, Mexico, March 2003.