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Terrorism in the Americas

October 16, 2017
The information age has created a paradox: though our access to news articles is greater than ever, it is also easier to miss news, particularly that which does not seem alarming or directly relevant to our lives. One such topic is the recruitment by and funding of terrorist organizations in the Western Hemisphere. While terrorist attacks—whether successful or foiled—conjure prominent headlines, the issues of recruitment and funding are often largely overlooked by the media.

By Claire Lisker

However, the issue is a priority for policymakers and merits our attention as well. The Western Hemisphere has received terrorist threats, intercepted and neutralized plots, and fallen victim to attacks, particularly by lone-wolf attackers or other sympathizers of terrorist organizations. As such, it is essential to confront the complex issues of recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters and the financing of terrorism, each of which is inextricably linked to complex, deep-rooted sociopolitical problems common in the region.

Our region—defined here as the Americas and the Caribbean—is composed of countries that have historically struggled to balance the imperatives of reducing economic disparities and socioeconomic and cultural divides with a strong democracy. Today, this is perhaps most evident in the pervasiveness of corruption, marginalization of certain groups, and illegal flow of people and goods. Notably, there is a geographic correlation between these issues and the financing of terrorism. The epicenter of such financing may be the Tri-Border Area (also known as the Triple Frontier), the location where Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil share a border. Called a “lawless” region by Reuters in 2016 [1], this area “has long been used for arms and drug trafficking, contraband smuggling, document and currency fraud, money laundering, and the manufacture and movement of pirated goods.” [2] Furthermore, it reportedly has ISIS sleeper cells and is a major source of fundraising for Hezbollah.[2]

The focal point for terrorism recruitment is in the Caribbean. Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), a dual-island nation northeast of Venezuela, is the biggest recruitment hub in the Western Hemisphere for jihadi groups and globally ranks “14th per capita as a source of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.” [3] In February 2017, National Security Minister Edmund Dillon said that almost 130 nationals have left T&T to pursue terrorist activities abroad. [4] According to the existing research, recruits tend to be Afro-Muslims who have historically felt marginalized in their country. Recently, T&T has seen an increase in crime, corruption, and violence, which—compounded with an economic recession and pre-existing ethnic tensions—feeds violent extremism. [5] Indeed, many recruits are former delinquents who struggle to find employment and reintegrate into society, and some “were gang members who either converted or were radicalized in prison, while others have been swayed by local imams who studied in the Middle East.” [6]  ISIS offers various incentives to vulnerable individuals including the promise of a sense of belonging, religious purpose, education for children, and remuneration. [7]

Image: Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami. Source: goo.gl/SNSB9jImage: Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami. Source: goo.gl/SNSB9j

One of the greatest assets to terrorists for recruitment has been the Internet, an avenue for the dissemination of propaganda. The Internet has also been a valuable medium for threats. For example, in 2015, ISIS threatened then-president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner over email, also threatening Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and the chief federal police officer of Argentina, Román Di Santo. [8] Also, in 2016, a video from ISIS threatened that Argentina would suffer the “same fate as France”—alluding to a series of prominent terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015—for sending airstrikes to Syria. [8] Finally, cyberspace has become a fundamental—and at times the sole—platform for coordination between terrorists. On July 21, 2016, Brazil arrested ten individuals who were developing a terror plot prior to the Olympic games in Rio. The suspects, arrested through “Operation Hashtag”, hardly knew each other, having primarily communicated over Telegram (a mobile messaging app). Such communications must be stifled. Yet, intercepting social media activities to identify terrorist suspects requires that the government be authorized to infiltrate users’ accounts. The result has been a challenging policymaking endeavor to maximize security without undercutting privacy. While this power can result in the successful interception of dangerous plots, it can also enable unwarranted surveillance.

Unfortunately, the latter outcome was exemplified this summer in Mexico, where surveillance power was misused to harass innocent citizens. In June 2017, a spyware called Pegasus—which was sold to the Mexican government by an Israeli firm—was used to intimidate journalists, activists, and investigators working to expose government corruption. According to the New York Times, “The spying took place during what the investigators call a broad campaign of harassment and interference that prevented them from solving the haunting case of 43 students who disappeared after clashing with the police nearly three years ago.” [9] As such, the spyware accomplished the contrary of what it was intended for: it further silenced those combatting crime.

Government corruption in the region has also impeded anti-terrorism efforts through other means. For example, from 2008 to 2012, Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami issued Venezuelan passports to 173 individuals from the Middle East (Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Iranians, and Iraqis) including some connected to Hezbollah. [10] Despite the revelation of his actions—which ostensibly facilitated the travel of terrorists—El Aissami holds his position as Vice President today.

Nonetheless, efforts to counter terrorism and extremism are growing in the region, and international cooperation has been effective. For example, Operation Hashtag in Brazil demonstrated national, international, and inter-institutional cooperation. The careful monitoring that led to the arrest involved the joint work of the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN), the Search International Terrorist Entities Intelligence Group (SITE Intelligence Group, in DC), Brazilian police, and “French, German, British, Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies”. [11]

Furthermore, the last few decades have seen the advent of institutions committed to counter-terrorism, as well as the strengthening of pre-existing entities. In academia, students and experts are engaging in this mission. Examples include Duke University’s Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellowship Program, [12] George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, and The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism And Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, which is considered a “Center of Excellence” by the Department of Homeland Security. [13] In the inter-governmental sphere, the Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism (CICTE) at the Organization of American States (OAS) is a prime counter-terrorism institution in the region. CICTE was created in 1999 and since then, has provided technical, legislative, and capacity building assistance to the Member States of the OAS—which include 34 countries from the region—in order to help them counter violent extremism and terrorism. More specifically, CICTE specializes in areas such as cyber security, border controls, tourism, and the financing of terrorism.

As policymakers, governments, inter-governmental institutions, academia, and other entities continue to grapple with the complex threat posed by terrorism in the region, so too should our citizens remain informed of the issue at hand. Recruitment and the financing of terrorism may not sound as alarming as terrorist attacks, yet one cannot ignore that the former issues are the harbingers of the latter.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

References

  [1] Lisandra Paraguassu and Anthony Boadle, “Brazil arrests 10 for ‘amateur’ terror plot against Olympics”, Reuters, July 21, 2016, https://goo.gl/hXd6Rt

  [2] Congressional Research Service, 12/5/16, https://goo.gl/rC1fYoz

  [3] Robert Looney, “Once a Caribbean Success Story, Trinidad and Tobago Faces an Uncertain Future”, World Politics Review, January 13, 2017, https://goo.gl/jit8AD

  [4] “More Than 100 Trinis Linked to Terrorist Activities Overseas” Carribean360, February 1, 2017, https://goo.gl/Ol43pv

  [5] Robert Looney, “Once a Caribbean Success Story, Trinidad and Tobago Faces an Uncertain Future”, World Politics Review, January 13, 2017, https://goo.gl/jit8A

  [6] Frances Robles, “Trying to Stanch Trinidad’s Flow of Young Recruits to ISIS”, New York Times, February 21, 2017, https://goo.gl/XF8HjF

  [7] John McCoy and W. Andy Knight, “Homegrown Violent Extremism in Trinidad and Tobago: Local Patterns, Global Trends”, Taylor and Francis Online, June 29, 2016, https://goo.gl/mMnXEV

  [8] “Argentina teme al ISIS: ya habían amenazado antes con atacar al país” El Intransigente, July 27, 2016, https://goo.gl/Npcaue

  [9] Azam Ahmed, “Spyware in Mexico Targeted Investigators Seeking Students”, New York Times, July 10, 2017, https://goo.gl/KNDqYj

  [10] Scott Zamost, Drew Griffin, Kay Guerrero and Rafael Romo, “Venezuela may have given passports to people with ties to terrorism”, CNN, February 14, 2017, https://goo.gl/IF3Npn

  [11] Lisandra Paraguassu and Anthony Boadle, “Brazil arrests 10 for ‘amateur’ terror plot against Olympics”, Reuters, July 21, 2016, https://goo.gl/jYPXro

  [12] “Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellowship Program”, Duke University, https://goo.gl/3K5B2Y

  [13] “A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism” START, https://goo.gl/he1GvL

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  • <h3>MapStats</h3><p> A feature of FedStats, MapStats allows users to search for <strong>state, county, city, congressional district, or Federal judicial district data</strong> (demographic, economic, and geographic).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/" target="_blank">http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Internal Revenue Service: Tax Statistics</h3><p><img width="155" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image486 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg 2x" data-max-w="463" data-max-h="596"/>Find statistics on business tax, individual tax, charitable and exempt organizations, IRS operations and budget, and income (SOI), as well as statistics by form, products, publications, papers, and other IRS data.</p><p> Quick link to <strong>Tax Statistics, where you will find a wide range of tables, articles, and data</strong> that describe and measure elements of the U.S. tax system: <a href="http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2" target="_blank">http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED®)</h3><p><strong><img width="180" height="79" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/79/481_fred-logo.rev.1407788243.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image481 lw_align_right" data-max-w="222" data-max-h="97"/>An online database consisting of more than 72,000 economic data time series from 54 national, international, public, and private sources.</strong> FRED®, created and maintained by Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, goes far beyond simply providing data: It combines data with a powerful mix of tools that help the user understand, interact with, display, and disseminate the data.</p><p> Quick link to data page: <a href="http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series" target="_blank">http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The Penn World Table</h3><p> The Penn World Table provides purchasing power parity and national income accounts converted to international prices for 189 countries/territories for some or all of the years 1950-2010.</p><p><a href="https://pwt.sas.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt71/pwt71_form.php" target="_blank">Quick link.</a> </p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Center for Education Statistics</h3><p><strong><img width="400" height="80" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/400/height/80/479_nces.rev.1407787656.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image479 lw_align_right" data-max-w="400" data-max-h="80"/>The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations.</strong> NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. NCES has an extensive Statistical Standards Program that consults and advises on methodological and statistical aspects involved in the design, collection, and analysis of data collections in the Center. To learn more about the NCES, <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/about/" target="_blank">click here</a>.</p><p> Quick link to NCES Data Tools: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4</a></p><p> Quick link to Quick Tables and Figures: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCES Fast Facts (Note: The primary purpose of the Fast Facts website is to provide users with concise information on a range of educational issues, from early childhood to adult learning.): <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/#</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>USDA Nutrition Assistance Data</h3><p><img width="180" height="124" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image485 lw_align_right" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1233" data-max-h="850"/>Data and research regarding the following <strong>USDA Nutrition Assistance</strong> programs are available through this site:</p><ul><li>Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) </li><li>Food Distribution Programs </li><li>School Meals </li><li>Women, Infants and Children </li></ul><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics" target="_blank">http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The World Bank Data (U.S.)</h3><p><img width="130" height="118" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image484 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1406" data-max-h="1275"/>The <strong>World Bank</strong> provides World Development Indicators, Surveys, and data on Finances and Climate Change.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states" target="_blank">http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>HUD State of the Cities Data Systems</h3><p><strong><img width="200" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image482 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 3x" data-max-w="612" data-max-h="613"/>The SOCDS provides data for individual Metropolitan Areas, Central Cities, and Suburbs.</strong> It is a portal for non-national data made available through a number of outside institutions (e.g. Census, BLS, FBI and others).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html" target="_blank">http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Bureau of Economic Research (Public Use Data Archive)</h3><p><img width="180" height="43" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/43/478_nber.rev.1407530465.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image478 lw_align_right" data-max-w="329" data-max-h="79"/>Founded in 1920, the <strong>National Bureau of Economic Research</strong> is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works. The NBER is committed to undertaking and disseminating unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professionals, and the academic community.</p><p> Quick Link to <strong>Public Use Data Archive</strong>: <a href="http://www.nber.org/data/" target="_blank">http://www.nber.org/data/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
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  • <h3>Congressional Budget Office</h3><p><img width="180" height="180" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/180/380_cbo-logo.rev.1406822035.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image380 lw_align_right" data-max-w="180" data-max-h="180"/>Since its founding in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has produced independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.</p><p> The agency is strictly nonpartisan and conducts objective, impartial analysis, which is evident in each of the dozens of reports and hundreds of cost estimates that its economists and policy analysts produce each year. CBO does not make policy recommendations, and each report and cost estimate discloses the agency’s assumptions and methodologies. <strong>CBO provides budgetary and economic information in a variety of ways and at various points in the legislative process.</strong> Products include baseline budget projections and economic forecasts, analysis of the President’s budget, cost estimates, analysis of federal mandates, working papers, and more.</p><p> Quick link to Products page: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products</a></p><p> Quick link to Topics: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/topics" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/topics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Aviation Administration: Accident & Incident Data</h3><p><img width="100" height="100" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image80 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 3x" data-max-w="550" data-max-h="550"/>The NTSB issues an accident report following each investigation. These reports are available online for reports issued since 1996, with older reports coming online soon. The reports listing is sortable by the event date, report date, city, and state.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/" target="_blank">http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>