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.
Iran broke off diplomatic ties with Chile in 1980, closing its embassy to protest Pinochet’s human rights violations. Full relations were reestablished in 1991, after Pinochet left power. Since then, anti-Islamic national security pundits have increasingly fretted about Santiago’s allegedly lax position vis-à-vis Tehran. Iván Witker, in an edited collection titled Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America, writes that Chile is “a sleeping giant in the broader regional anti-terrorism effort, [and] is increasingly serving as a zone of entry/exit for Iranian agents to move undetected in the region.” According to the Small Wars essay, there are 4,000 Muslims living in Chile, “many of whom are converts,” which “confirms that the recruitment process Iran and Hezbollah employ is effective.” There are also, apparently, a growing number of mosques and “cultural centers” in Chile. “It is worth mentioning,” concedes the essay’s author, “that not all Chilean converts are radical Islamists or Hezbollah sympathizers, yet the greater numbers of Muslims in the country is telling of the functionality of the mosques and cultural centers.”
Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s director of Homeland Security—who previously served as the head of Southcom, through which the Pentagon projects its influence in South America—shares this concern with Chile. In his 2015 Southcom “posture statement,” Kelly warned that “Iran has established more than 80 ‘cultural centers’ in a region with an extremely small Muslim population” and noted that “the purported purpose of these centers is to improve Iran’s image, promote Shi’a Islam, and increase Iran’s political influence in the region. As the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, Iran’s involvement in the region and these cultural centers is a matter for concern, and its diplomatic, economic, and political engagement is closely monitored.” Beyond Chile, “Iranian legislators visited Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua to advocate for increased economic and diplomatic cooperation.”
Meanwhile, “Sunni extremists,” Kelly warned, “while small in number, are actively involved in the radicalization of converts and other Muslims in the region and also provide financial and logistical support to designated terrorist organizations within and outside Latin America.” According to Kelly, the Venezuelan government detained 19 Trinidadian Muslims for “conducting training with high-powered weapons,” an assertion that contradicts standard accusations that Venezuela promotes Islamist radicalization. Just this month, a very thinly sourced CNN report about the alleged supply of passports to Islamist terrorists prompted a bipartisan letter, signed by anti-Cuba stalwarts Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman, and Bob Menendez, a Democratic senator, urging Trump to crack down on Caracas.
According to Stars and Stripes, Southcom’s current head, Navy Admiral Kurt Tidd, returns to the idea of a “‘dense web’ of criminal enterprises threaded throughout” Latin America “that includes conduits to spread ideology used to recruit troops and lone-wolf attackers for the Islamic State group.” “You want to spread an extremist message in the Caribbean and recruit fighters for ISIL? We have a worrisome number of networks engaged in that,” Tidd recently told the Atlantic Council, a beltway think tank. Fears of jihadists probing the US’s soft southern border conflate stupidities old and new, suturing together the Cold War and the War on Terror. In 2011, Michele Bachmann cited “reports” that Hezbollah “had established training sites in Cuba and might even set up missile sites 90 miles from U.S. soil.” Anti-Mexican militias patrol the US-Mexican border, believing they are preventing a stealth reconquest of the Southwest or the cat’s paw of Islamist terrorism. “This is our Gaza,” said one.
Early in 2016, General Kelly estimated that between 100 to 150 people from Latin America and the Caribbean travel to Syria to join ISIS a year, an assertion I can find no citation or evidence to support. Other Pentagon officials warn of militants coming in over the border, mixing in with Mexicans and Central Americans: “In a Southern Command briefing with Stars and Stripes this month, officials said the Islamic State group online publication Dabiq said that human-smuggling networks could be used to move its members.” A Southcom spokesman, however, admits that “I haven’t heard our experts say that has happened already.”
Fifteen years and counting, and the sleeper cells are still sleeping. What’s so striking about the superficial and over-the-top portrayals of the religion in the region is that they aren’t from the fringe, but are voiced, in two of the examples cited above, by the men who run one of the Pentagon’s largest regional commands, one of whom who is now in charge of US domestic security.
Islam, of course, has deep roots in Latin America and the Caribbean, reaching back to the beginning of the Conquest and bound up in centuries of slavery and labor migration. My colleague at NYU, Aisha Khan, has written on the topic in an excellent book, Islam and the Americas, and I asked her a few questions to help cut through the alarmism and provide a more nuanced take. Below are her answers.
Greg Grandin: So, first, the basics: How many Muslims are there in Latin America?
Aisha Khan: According to the World Religion Database, in 2015 there were around one and a half million Muslims in Latin America (1,458,468) who comprise about a million Sunni (1,015,061) and something under about half a million Shiite (433,158); for the Caribbean in 2015, the database records 115,000 Muslims, divided between 110,000 Sunni and 6,000 Shiite. Clearly these are approximations, because not only do the numbers literally not consistently add up, but different sources offer varying statistics. Also, the Levantine (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria) populations in the region that current observers have a keen eye on historically have been Christian; as Alma Keshavarz notes, in that Small Wars Journal essay you cite, the Lebanese population experienced a major upsurge during Lebanon’s civil war. These contemporary populations certainly must include both Christians and Muslims.
Can different periods of immigration be identified?
Vast geographical expanses, extensive passage of time, great cultural heterogeneity, and religious variability characterize the flow of Muslims and Islam to the Americas. Some take the position that there was pre-Colombian exploration of North and South America by Muslims from Africa and Spain. More commonly, the periodization of immigration waves is divided roughly into four phases, the first three associated with colonization. First, beginning in 1492, there were the Africans who likely were among the enslaved Africans brought to the New World on Spanish ships, as well as some of the mariners who manned the Spanish ships. Next, from about the 17th to the 19th centuries, came the African Muslims who were part of the enslaved, indentured, and free African populations. The geographic source of Muslims shifted at the inception of Europe’s (primarily Britain’s) post-emancipation indentured labor scheme, which brought Indians from the subcontinent and what was then Dutch Indonesia to Caribbean sugar plantations. Today Muslim diasporas move throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as refugees from wars, immigrants looking for a better future, and kin looking to unite with families.
Can you break it down by Sunni and Shiite?
It’s not simply an academic question to look at what criteria are at play when identifying (and tracking) Muslims in the region. By the mid-20th century, Muslims from every corner of the globe and adherents of multiple schools of thought (not limited to Sunni and Shiite) were immigrating to the Americas from South and Southeast Asia, the Levant, and parts of Africa and the Middle East. It is more likely, for example, that today the distinction between Sunni and Shiite is more significant than it was in the 19th-century Caribbean, when the colonial system of indentured labor was settling into place. Although the almost half-million Indian (South Asian) laborers who came to the Caribbean were surely aware of the different schools of thought in Islam—despite the fact that fewer than 10 percent of them were Muslim, the majority being Hindu—that does not necessarily mean those differences were important or useful either to them or to their colonial bosses in that new environment, where they were simply “coolies” first and foremost. Even today in the Caribbean, the differentiation between Islam’s schools of thought—e.g., Sunni, Shiite, Ahmadiyyah, etc.—while certainly known among Muslims, is not a major organizing principle in most Muslim communities. One could speculate that today Sunni and Shiite loom large in US discourse because they have important significance in the parts of the “Old World” where the United States has long been involved.
That’s a fascinating point, because as you say, so much of the “national security” discourse is founded on breaking down Islam into those two categories, yet at the same time collapsing the two into a single, unified threat. Let’s bomb Shiites in Paraguay to confuse Sunnis in Afghanistan!
In Latin America and the Caribbean—historically not a seedbed of Islamist political movements (except, importantly, those connected to major slave revolts in the 18th and 19th centuries), although certainly a home for Muslim immigrants for a half-century—the threats of the so-called “dark economy” (such as narcotics, money laundering, smuggling, and the like) seem the most plausible. When it is challenging to make the case for an organic rise of “extremism,” however, immigrants can be targeted as bringing with them, as it were, fifth columns. Additionally, Muslim educators and missionaries, who have been visiting the region for over a century at least, can become part of this suspect constituency. But ideology is not free-floating; it must take root in a specific place where there is already fertile ground for its development, where some kind of resonance exists that is more specific than general discontent—which, unfortunately, is, in one expression or another, a global condition. Sometimes substituting for the lack of historically rooted Islamist ideologies are arguments about the vulnerability of certain regions and, hence, the need to offer support and protection.
The overarching vision of Trump’s foreign policy, when it comes to “security,” is a resurrection of the Nixon Doctrine, that is, the strengthening of the repressive capacity of allies to focus on “internal threats,” now largely understood as radicalized Islam.
General Kelly, now the director of Homeland Security but previously the head of Southcom, has stated that Washington has partnerships with countries that, unlike the United States, do not have such safeguards against “Islamic extremists and terrorists” as the TSA, FBI, CIA, NSA, and large militaries. Kelly’s issue is that “nuts can cause an awful lot of trouble down in the Caribbean because they don’t have an FBI” and their militaries are very small, so they require US assistance. Regional and global security is decidedly a major and serious concern, as the United States and many other countries have already experienced first-hand. But the implication of partnerships based on these particular premises is that under-policed sites are tabula rasas, blank-slate sitting ducks waiting to be imprinted by Islam’s influences that the US presumes will be terror-oriented. Also influencing this assumption is the echo of early 19th-century Monroe Doctrine thinking.
Is there any chance that the kind of Islamophobia that fires up so much of the US right and their allies in the White House would spread to Latin America, now that the political right is once again on the ascendance in the region?
We already know that international criminal elements, despite diverse agendas, make strange bedfellows, especially if their recourse does not include state sponsorship (or acknowledged state sponsorship). But it takes certain kinds of foundations, fertile ground, for local politics, whether conservative or progressive, to embrace Islamophobia. For example, in the 19th-century British West Indies slave societies and in the same period in Brazil’s slave society, African Muslims’ clear and unequivocal role in organized resistance against colonial authority did not primarily generate Islamophobia, even when it was clear to colonial authorities that the leadership in most cases was largely Muslim. Rebellions and revolts were feared, but the “ism” that played a more significant role was race rather than religion.
Kelly, as head of Southcom, repeatedly warned of Islam in Latin America, saying that 100–150 people from Latin America, mostly from Venezuela, join ISIS a year. Do you know of any evidence to support this claim?
I can think of no irrefutable or conclusive evidence that would support this claim of exact numbers, although it’s possible that some individuals from any Latin American or Caribbean country might be inclined to join ISIS, and perhaps have done so. The question is how to extrapolate bigger pictures from the practices, however concerted, of individuals or small groups. The issue, it seems to me, is not whether Islam itself poses some kind of special threat to the world’s peace, stability, and well-being (because I think it doesn’t), but rather what kinds of structural conditions in, say, Latin America and the Caribbean seem to generate socially destructive practices in the name of resistance, and resistance to what? Even if this entails some kind of predictive capability, it also necessarily requires the wisdom of hindsight, as well. We have to be mindful of how we are predicting possibilities, and what implicit and explicit assumptions we are working with. Although, as General Kelly assured the Voice of America (linked to above) the “vast majority” of the followers of “Islamic faith are, you know, good, law-abiding folks,” our US narrative about Muslims and Islam, particularly since 9/11, still has a hard time not criminalizing Islam by means of a flexible symbol of “terror”—whether it refers to jihadis per se or to the allegedly slippery gateway crime of drug trafficking.
As political and cultural theorist Mahmood Mamdani pointed out some time ago, the link between terrorism and Islam has “turned religious experience into a political category, differentiating ‘good Muslims’ from ‘bad Muslims’, rather than terrorists from civilians.” The problem in the West, including the Americas, is that this political category is not typically approached in terms of local knowledges (religious, political, or otherwise), but rather in terms of preconceived, boilerplate criteria that generalize bias. The dangers posed by such possible sleeper cell sites as the “tri-border areas” of Latin America—whether formerly Argentina-Brazil-Paraguay or currently Chile-Bolivia-Peru—along with the Caribbean are ostensibly a universally recognized constellation of security problems. But this notion of sleeper cells, too, is actually an ambiguous classification; another powerful example of the combination of preconception and open-endedness. Such concepts preclude, for example, people who practice Islam, as part of their heritage or as converts, in working toward gender, class, and other forms of social justice, whether among Chiapas Maya in Mexico, Afro-Trinidadians in Trinidad, or Muslim Haitians in Port-au-Prince. Conversion to Islam in Latin America and the Caribbean today seems to be, at least for some observers, a red flag in a way that is not comparable to conversion to other religions there—e.g., Latin American Catholics’ now long movement toward evangelical Protestantism; Caribbean Christians’ increasing embrace of Afro-Atlantic religions—but conversion is not synonymous with certain kinds of directed action. In other words, embracing a particular religious tradition is no predictor of what adherents or converts will do with it, or how they will use it to motivate or justify actions. The question is, even if you anticipate something to be problematic, how much of it, and in what forms, do you need to see in order to identify or anticipate trouble?