Terrorism in the Americas
October 16, 2017
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 , 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.”  Furthermore, it reportedly has ISIS sleeper cells and is a major source of fundraising for Hezbollah.
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.”  In February 2017, National Security Minister Edmund Dillon said that almost 130 nationals have left T&T to pursue terrorist activities abroad.  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.  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.”  ISIS offers various incentives to vulnerable individuals including the promise of a sense of belonging, religious purpose, education for children, and remuneration. 
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.  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.  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.”  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.  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”. 
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,  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.  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.
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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.
 Lisandra Paraguassu and Anthony Boadle, “Brazil arrests 10 for ‘amateur’ terror plot against Olympics”, Reuters, July 21, 2016, https://goo.gl/hXd6Rt
 Congressional Research Service, 12/5/16, https://goo.gl/rC1fYoz
 Robert Looney, “Once a Caribbean Success Story, Trinidad and Tobago Faces an Uncertain Future”, World Politics Review, January 13, 2017, https://goo.gl/jit8AD
 “More Than 100 Trinis Linked to Terrorist Activities Overseas” Carribean360, February 1, 2017, https://goo.gl/Ol43pv
 Robert Looney, “Once a Caribbean Success Story, Trinidad and Tobago Faces an Uncertain Future”, World Politics Review, January 13, 2017, https://goo.gl/jit8A
 Frances Robles, “Trying to Stanch Trinidad’s Flow of Young Recruits to ISIS”, New York Times, February 21, 2017, https://goo.gl/XF8HjF
 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
 “Argentina teme al ISIS: ya habían amenazado antes con atacar al país” El Intransigente, July 27, 2016, https://goo.gl/Npcaue
 Azam Ahmed, “Spyware in Mexico Targeted Investigators Seeking Students”, New York Times, July 10, 2017, https://goo.gl/KNDqYj
 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
 Lisandra Paraguassu and Anthony Boadle, “Brazil arrests 10 for ‘amateur’ terror plot against Olympics”, Reuters, July 21, 2016, https://goo.gl/jYPXro
 “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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