Fighting International Terrorism in Our Neighborhood: An Agenda for ActionWilliam Pope, Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism
Remarks to the Conference on the Middle East Terrorist Connection in Latin America and the Caribbean
March 3, 2004
(Remarks as delivered)
Good afternoon. I would like to thank the American Jewish Committee and CSIS [Center for Strategic International Studies] for organizing this conference and for drawing attention to the fight against terrorism in our own hemisphere. This is an area in which the State Department and the U.S. Government have worked hard to stay a step ahead of international terrorists, who seek to transform any location on the globe into a battleground.
We are fortunate that, to date, the Global War on Terror has not arrived in full force in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, it remains our belief that no country, no territory, no place on earth is a bystander in this conflict. We need look no further than Istanbul, Bali, Casablanca, Riyadh, Jakarta, and elsewhere to understand that there are no zones considered off limits by the terrorists. The major bomb attacks in Buenos Aires against the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA Jewish cultural center provide sober reminders that Latin America is neither unscarred by international terrorists nor immune to future threats.
Fortunately for this region, however, it has not been one of the hottest zones of international terrorist activity in recent years. As for al-Qaida, at this time we have no credible intelligence of an established al-Qaida presence in Latin America. Nor do we have hard information of operational terrorist cells of other international terrorist groups, such as Hizballah. In the view of the U.S. Government, the region’s main challenges are related to terrorist fundraising networks and potential abuse as a safehaven by terrorists feeling the heat from the international coalition in Asia and Africa.
With the exception of the devastating attacks in Buenos Aires, most of the terrorist activity in the region has been related to domestic groups such as the FARC in Colombia and Shining Path in Peru. As this conference is focused on the “Middle East terror connection,” I will not discuss in depth U.S. Government support to Colombia and Peru in their fight against domestic terrorists. Rather, I will only note that our assistance over the years has been steady and has contributed to the positive gains seen in those struggles in recent years. In Peru, the Shining Path remains deadly, but it is a shadow of its former, vicious self. In Colombia, as my colleague General Bishop has described, the government under President Uribe is steadily gaining ground on the FARC, AUC and ELN. Coca cultivation and kidnapping for ransom – two financial pillars of Colombian terrorist organizations – are down; terrorist desertion rates are up, the AUC is engaged in peace talks; the Colombians are improving in their efforts to target the FARC leadership. But while much of the news from Colombia is encouraging, we also remember that the FARC still holds three American civilian contractors hostage after more than a year, and the FARC are increasingly taking their terrorist bombing campaign to heavily populated urban areas. The road ahead is sure to be long and difficult before the Colombian people can arrive to lasting peace and security.
Some areas of the world – such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and northern Africa – have seen their long-standing Middle Eastern- and/or Islam-related insurgencies take inspiration from the al-Qaida orchestrated attacks of September 11, 2001. Their members were often among the tens of thousands who trained in al-Qaida’s camps in Afghanistan. Latin America and the Caribbean largely lack this kind of established Islamic or Middle Eastern-related insurgency. Aside from the failed coup attempt in 1990 in Trinidad & Tobago, we have not seen a radical Islamic movement seeking to overthrow a regional government. In that case, the homegrown Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JAM) led by Abu Bakr sought to establish a fundamentalist Islamic republic in Trinidad & Tobago. He failed, and in the last 14 years, the JAM has lost much of its original fundamentalist vision and political agenda, and instead has dedicated itself largely to narco-trafficking and other criminal activities.
Throughout the Latin American and Caribbean region, however, there are vibrant pockets of Muslim and Arab Christian communities that have become essential parts of national societies, contributing to the commerce and culture of each nation in the region. It is clear to us that the vast majority of the members of these communities have nothing to do with terrorism and do not support it. However, our assessment is that small, radicalized elements are present in various regional pockets. For that reason, we remain vigilant to the possibility that those elements would be willing to provide safehaven to terrorists fleeing from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.
Our concerns are not hypothetical. One need look no farther than the two Buenos Aires attacks to understand that terrorists have identified targets here and have the capability to mount attacks. The United States continues to follow the ongoing trial in Argentina with great interest. We have provided FBI investigative assistance on several occasions and are willing to do so again, if asked. We share Argentina’s and the international community’s desire to seek justice in this case for the victims and their families.
In addition to these attacks, we have seen other instances of terrorists utilizing the region. Several suspected al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya terrorists fled to the oft-mentioned Triborder Area (TBA), for example, after the savage 1997 massacre of tourists at the Luxor Temple in Egypt. It is believed that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the operational mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, visited the TBA for several weeks in late 1995. Although dated, this information confirms that the TBA is known to international terrorists and was, at one time at least, perceived as a safehaven.
What level of support do we receive from countries in the region in the war on terror? I am pleased to report that the vast majority of countries in the region are firm partners in the war against terrorism. We enjoy an excellent counterterrorism relationship with almost every country in the region. We do not forget that the OAS [Organization of American States] was the first international organization to issue a statement of condemnation on September 11, from Lima where the OAS foreign ministers and Secretary Powell were gathered to celebrate the region’s advances in democracy. The Rio Treaty of Mutual Assistance was quickly invoked to determine that the attacks of September 11 were attacks against all treaty states. The Inter-American Convention Against Terrorism of 2002 was the first international legal instrument against terror adopted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and it has already come into force.
We remember this solidarity from our neighbors. Let me assure you that we see that spirit take tangible form time and again as we make requests of our neighbors for assistance or respond to their requests of us. One recent example is the outstanding cooperation received from Mexico on aviation security during the late 2003 holiday threat period. We worked through the issues together with Mexican authorities and greatly appreciate the spirit of solidarity that allowed our collaboration on security countermeasures to move so quickly and decisively.
Not all is good news, however. Despite the steady political will, actual capacity to degrade and destroy terrorist capabilities in the region remains sorely lacking in many countries. Many countries lack even the basic legislation necessary to convict individuals of terrorist activity. Current laws may not even directly label terrorism as a crime, so these countries must resort to laws of a secondary criminal nature to obtain a conviction, including money laundering, tax evasion, or criminal association.
The United States is working hard with the resources available to strengthen priority countries in the region, particularly in the areas of counterterrorism finance regimes. Our interagency Financial Systems Assessment Teams have visited Paraguay, Brazil, Panama, and Venezuela to assess how U.S. agencies can assist the regional fight against the financing of terrorism. We have delivered seminars on the financial underpinnings of terrorism and training on how to recognize suspicious activity in the banking system. A U.S.-provided Resident Legal Advisor is providing consultative advice to Paraguay in the drafting of anti-money laundering and counterterrorism-related laws.
A financial crimes expert also recently arrived in Asuncion to provide guidance on how to conduct financial crimes investigations. With State Department funding, the U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) provides a variety of technical and consultative assistance to financial intelligence units in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.
On a regional level, the United States is an active participant and supporter of the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force, and the South American Financial Action Task Force (GAFISUD), both of which are focused on combating terrorist financing and money laundering. In the OAS, the United States is the largest financial donor to the development of the OAS Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism, or CICTE. CICTE has been lauded by the chairman of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee as being the most advanced of all regional organizations in its efforts to institutionalize the long-term fight against terrorism. CICTE’s success is critical to the U.S. strategy to cooperate in the fight against terrorism in the region because CICTE’s focus on capacity-building is targeted toward the region’s greatest needs.
CICTE’s mission is to help OAS member states to help themselves in the fight against terrorism – a kind of multilateral force-multiplier – and that is a mission well worth our investment. We encourage other OAS member states to consider whether they can start or increase their financial or in-kind support to CICTE. It is still a young organization and will need time and attention to grow into the counterterrorism training provider that all of us would like it to be, but as you have heard from our honored speaker from Uruguay, already it is undertaking activities that the region desperately needs.
On a subregional level, responding to the concerns of terrorist links in the Triborder Area, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil formed the “3+1 Counterterrorism Dialogue” in 2002. We launched this Dialogue with the goal of increasing counterterrorism capacity-building in the region, particularly in the fight against terrorism financing. Ambassador Cofer Black’s first overseas trip as the Coordinator for Counterterrorism was to Buenos Aires and to the Triborder Area to participate in the launch of the “3+1.”
To date, the “3+1” partners have met three times to prioritize areas of cooperation and mutual capacity-building. I led the interagency U.S. delegation to the most recent meeting in Asuncion last December, and I came away impressed by how rapidly the level of four-way coordination and cooperation has developed.
The “3+1” seeks to not only exchange information but to engage in specific actions to increase counterterrorism capacity. In Asuncion, we resolved to plan a conference of our financial intelligence units for this spring. That will take place in Buenos Aires in May, and with CICTE co-sponsorship. Again with CICTE co-sponsorship, senior-level border security officials from the Triborder countries will visit the United States this spring to review our border security procedures and cooperation with Mexico on the U.S.-Mexican border. Finally, all four countries agreed to the Brazilian proposal to establish a regional intelligence center in the Triborder Area.
It is also important to point out that Southern Cone countries have worked bilaterally to weaken Middle Eastern terrorist links to the region. Suspected terrorist fundraisers Sobhi Fayad and Ali Nizar Dahroug are serving multi-year sentences for tax evasion in Paraguay; Assad Ahmad Barakat, a Hizballah financial kingpin in the region, was extradited from Brazil to Paraguay in November on the same charge and will face trial sometime this spring; al-Said Hassan Mokhles was extradited from Uruguay to Egypt in June to face trial for his suspected involvement in the 1997 Luxor Temple attack. These actions provide tangible evidence of the region’s commitment to deter terrorists from the region.
Need for More Resources
As much as we are already doing to help fortify the region against terrorist operational and support activities, the need for counterterrorism capacity-building remains enormous. We have limited Anti-Terrorism Assistance resources, both in terms of funding and staff. Thus, we are forced to make difficult choices when we look at the worldwide needs and decide where to dedicate the money that we receive from Congress. We have no choice but to fight the immediate fires first – in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia – and then carefully target a smaller amount for Latin America and the Caribbean.
I know that Ambassador Black and the State Department would like to do more in the Latin America/Caribbean region because we would not only increase tangible counterterrorism capacity, we would also reinforce the political will of our partners. This is very important, as the horror of the 9/11 attacks recedes and other priorities clamor for attention on national agendas. The United States is committed to this struggle for the long term; anti-terrorism assistance is a tool that benefits the security of the United States in both direct and indirect ways.
In particular, there are vulnerabilities in the Caribbean – our “third border” – that need to be addressed, including air and seaport security, national entry-exit systems, and regional police counterterrorism training. These are not small-budget items. While some efforts are already underway by individual U.S. Government agencies – such as State/INL’s overhaul of Jamaica’s entry-exit system – our large numbers of US citizens and businesses in the region at any one time deserve more and better security, as do the citizens of our friends in the region. CARICOM and regional states have expressed their willingness to cooperate with the U.S. and have demonstrated it since 9/11; yet their ability so far to effectively do so is limited.
It seems to me that this conference has served its worthy purpose to raise awareness of the counterterrorism concerns and vulnerabilities in the region. I urge all those in attendance can work to meet the task ahead of us. The organizers from the American Jewish Committee and CSIS are to be commended for putting this event together, as well as Senator Coleman and Congressman Menendez for sponsoring it on Capitol Hill.
Thank you very much, and now I would be pleased to take your questions or comments in the time I have remaining.
Released on March 12, 2004