Panetta: Violent Extremism Threatens Latin America

RIO DE JANEIRO, April 24, 2012 — Even in a region where some of the Unit­ed States’ clos­est mil­i­tary part­ners are steadi­ly improv­ing nation­al sta­bil­i­ty and secu­ri­ty, the threat of vio­lent extrem­ism is spread­ing, Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta said here yes­ter­day.

Dur­ing a week­long trip that includes stops in Bogo­ta, Colom­bia; Brasil­ia and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and San­ti­a­go, Chile, the sec­re­tary is meet­ing with mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal lead­ers to reaf­firm the U.S. com­mit­ment to help with com­mon defense chal­lenges.

Increas­ing­ly, one of those chal­lenges involves vio­lent extrem­ist orga­ni­za­tions and the grow­ing engage­ment of Iran in the region.

“We always have a con­cern about, in par­tic­u­lar, the [Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps] and efforts by the IRGC to expand their influ­ence, not only through­out the Mid­dle East but also into this region,” Panet­ta said dur­ing a brief­ing en route to Colom­bia.

“In my book,” he added, “that relates to expand­ing ter­ror­ism.”

Last month, in writ­ten tes­ti­mo­ny before the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, Air Force Gen. Dou­glas M. Fras­er, com­man­der of the U.S. South­ern Com­mand, detailed the region­al activ­i­ties of Hezbol­lah, the Lebanon-based Shi’a Mus­lim mil­i­tant group and polit­i­cal par­ty, and Iran.

Southcom’s area of respon­si­bil­i­ty includes Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, South Amer­i­ca and the Caribbean.

“We do see evi­dence of inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ist groups ben­e­fit­ting from the inter­twined sys­tems of illic­it traf­fick­ing and mon­ey laun­der­ing in our AOR,” Fras­er said.

In South Amer­i­ca, fund­ing for Hezbol­lah is raised through char­i­ta­ble dona­tions as well as through drug traf­fick­ing and deal­ing in coun­ter­feit and pirat­ed goods, he said.

In 2011, the U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment iden­ti­fied the Lebanese Cana­di­an Bank as a “pri­ma­ry mon­ey laun­der­ing con­cern” for its role in facil­i­tat­ing mon­ey laun­der­ing activ­i­ties of Ayman Joumaa and his Lebanon-based drug traf­fick­ing net­work, which also chan­neled finan­cial sup­port to Hezbol­lah.

Joumaa also is accused of smug­gling U.S.-bound cocaine through Cen­tral Amer­i­ca and Mex­i­co and laun­der­ing mon­ey for a group called Los Zetas, and many Colom­bian and Venezue­lan sup­pli­ers.

“In addi­tion to Hezbol­lah sup­port­ers through­out South Amer­i­ca, the region is home to a small num­ber of vio­lent extrem­ist orga­ni­za­tions, Fras­er said.

“We remain vig­i­lant for the poten­tial rad­i­cal­iza­tion of home­grown extrem­ists,” the gen­er­al added.

For exam­ple, a small num­ber of Sun­ni extrem­ists are involved in the rad­i­cal­iza­tion of con­verts and oth­er Mus­lims, Fras­er told the pan­el.

“These efforts can be seen through the influ­ence of pub­lic per­son­al­i­ties like Jamaica’s Shaykh Abdul­lah al-Faisal, who was con­vict­ed in the Unit­ed King­dom for incit­ing ter­ror­ism,” the gen­er­al said.

Al-Qai­da senior oper­a­tive Adnan el-Shukri­jumah has held valid pass­ports for the Unit­ed States, as well as Guyana and Trinidad and Toba­go, where he has fam­i­ly and asso­ciates, Fras­er added.

Despite recent con­vic­tions in a 2007 plot to attack the John F. Kennedy Inter­na­tion­al Air­port in New York, one alleged co-con­spir­a­tor remains at large in Guyana, he said.

Iran­ian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ahmadine­jad has vis­it­ed the region six times in six years, and Iran con­tin­ues its over­tures to coun­tries there to try to cir­cum­vent inter­na­tion­al sanc­tions, Fras­er said.

Iran has estab­lished mod­est eco­nom­ic, cul­tur­al and secu­ri­ty ties, the gen­er­al added, most­ly with nations aligned with a group known as the Boli­var­i­an Alliance for the Peo­ple of our Amer­i­c­as, called ALBA. These include Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba.

Iran also has estab­lished 36 Shi’a cul­tur­al cen­ters in the region, Fras­er said.

The Fun­da­cion Cul­tur­al Ori­ente is an Iran­ian out­reach cen­ter ded­i­cat­ed to strength­en­ing Iran’s ties to Latin Amer­i­ca, Fras­er said.

The cen­ter is run by rad­i­cal cler­ic Moshen Rab­bani, who is on the Inter­pol Red List for involve­ment in the 1994 bomb­ings of a Jew­ish cul­tur­al cen­ter in Buenos Aires, the gen­er­al said, adding that Rab­bani over­sees sev­er­al media out­lets and has recruit­ed stu­dents from the region to study in Iran.

“We take Iran­ian activ­i­ty in the hemi­sphere seri­ous­ly and we mon­i­tor its activ­i­ties close­ly,” Fras­er said.

“The U.S. government’s suc­cess­ful detec­tion and thwart­ing of the plot to assas­si­nate the Sau­di ambas­sador to the Unit­ed States,” he added, “rein­forces the impor­tance of that mon­i­tor­ing and the effec­tive­ness of U.S. coun­ter­mea­sures.”

The expan­sion of ter­ror­ism is an area of con­cern for the region and its part­ners, Panet­ta said.

“I hope we can work togeth­er,” the sec­re­tary added, “to make sure that all the steps are tak­en to ensure that any­thing that encour­ages ter­ror­ism can be fought against.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)