Latin America must have the sleepiest of sleeper cells. It’s been more than 15 years since one of George W. Bush’s minor neocon ultras, Pentagon Under Secretary Douglas Feith, suggested, just after 9/11, that the United States hold off invading Afghanistan and instead bomb the tri-border region separating Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, home to a large Lebanese and Syrian population that reportedly supported Shiite Hezbollah. The attack, Feith suggested, would “surprise” Sunni Al Qaeda and throw it off guard. No doubt.
In those early, heady days of the “Global War on Terror,” millions upon millions of dollars flowed liberally to defense intellectuals, many of whom identified Islam in Latin America as a particular threat. Much of their attention focused on the tri-border region, a honky-tonk frontier zone centered on Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este that should have been celebrated by the right as liberated territory, due to its large number of merchants selling tax-free goods. Instead, it was identified as a shadowy place where, as a 2002 article in Military Review observed, “all the components of transnational lawlessness seem to converge.”
After US troops found what CNN breathlessly described as “a giant poster of Iguaçu Falls” (Latin America’s most-visited tourist destination, a few miles from Ciudad del Este) hanging on the wall of an Al Qaeda operative’s abandoned house in Kabul, concern about the region increased. At the time, the theory advanced was that Islamist extremists, denied a state patron in Afghanistan, would make common cause with secular transnational criminals trafficking guns, money, or people. The region became, according to terrorist scholar Jessica Stern, “the world’s new Libya, a place where terrorists with widely disparate ideologies—Marxist Colombian rebels, American white supremacists, Hamas, Hezbollah, and others—meet to swap tradecraft.” Another national security expert affirmed that “militant Islamists who established training facilities in this sector are reportedly using the region as a launching pad to recruit throughout Latin America.”
Fast-forward to 2017, and the “white supremacists” Stern worried about in Paraguay are in the White House. But we are still waiting for the sleeper cells run by “Hamas, Hezbollah, and others” to be activated. Since 9/11, no terrorist attack carried out by radicalized Islam originating in Latin America has, as far as I know, taken place. But with the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, the alarm is once again being sounded.
The Small Wars Journal ran a recent essay titled “Iran and Hezbollah in the Tri-Border Areas of Latin America.” Note the plural. There’s the standing peril emanating from the old tri-border area of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. And now there’s a new tri-border threat, this one coming from the area separating Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, which “Iran and Hezbollah are capitalizing on…to institute another base of operations.” Apparently, wherever you have three countries coming together, you have radical Islam.