Islam and the Global War on Terrorism in Latin America
National Defense University Washington, D.C.
The Pew Forum co-sponsored a symposium with the National Defense University’s School for National Security Executive Education on “Religion, Conflict and the Global War on Terrorism in Latin America.” A panel entitled “Islam and the Global War on Terrorism in Latin America” featured Col. Curtis Connell, USAF, and Vitoria Peres of Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora/MG, Brazil. The panelists examined Islam in Latin America, including recent U.S. security concerns over the activities of Islamic groups in the Tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, and the implications for U.S. security policy in the region.
Other symposium speakers focused on “Christianity and Conflict in Latin America” and “Religion, Security and the Future of Latin America.”
Vitoria Peres de Oliveira, Assistant Professor, Department of Religion Sciences, Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora
Colonel Curtis C. Connell, Chief of Americas Division, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, International Affairs
David Spencer, Assistant Professor, Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies
DAVID SPENCER: This panel will be on “Islam and the Global War on Terrorism in Latin America,” a subject that consistently crops up in the discussion of Latin America and the potential for terrorism against the United States from that quarter. We have two distinguished speakers on that subject. The first we’ll be hearing from is Dr. Vitoria Peres de Oliveira, who is an associate professor in the Department of Religion Sciences at the Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora in Minas Gerais. She received her doctorate from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and has spent a year in the U.K. doing research. Since the 1990s, she has focused her research on Islam, particularly Sufism, and is an expert on Muslim communities in Brazil.
Next to me is Colonel Curtis C. Connell, who is the chief of the Americas Division in the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Air Force International Affairs. He is responsible for service-to-service relationships with air forces in the Western Hemisphere. As all military men do, he has filled a wide range of assignments. In 2004, he was John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies fellow at Harvard University, and his research was on understanding Islam and its impact on Latin America. The paper that he produced was subsequently published by the Airpower Research Institute, and he will be discussing the findings of his paper in this presentation.
VITORIA PERES DE OLIVEIRA: The greatest challenge given me by the Pew Forum was not to come here or to speak in English or about Islam, but to do it in such a short time. So, in the interest of saving time, I would like to ask you please to try to focus your attention simultaneously on the map and charts behind me as I talk.
The number of Muslims in Latin America, according to Muslim sources, is about 6 million, or 1.2 percent of the population of almost 500 million. According to other sources, it’s much lower. In most Latin American countries the Muslim population is less than 1 percent of the total, except in Argentina, Trinidad, Tobago, Guyana and Suriname. Most of these numbers are estimates given by Muslim sources and may have been inflated. In Brazil there is a wide discrepancy between the Muslim estimate — 1 million to 1.5 million and the official census figure, 27,239; and also among the Muslim sources themselves. Some say half a million, some say 1 million, some say 1.5 million.
Of that total, there are many Muslims in name only. Not all are practicing or worshipping in the mosque. In Brazil, at most of the mosques visited, there is a discrepancy of one-third or greater between the number of the faithful present and the number of the faithful that the mosque says it has. This also seems to be the case in other countries. The Muslim population is mostly Sunni, basically in line with the proportion worldwide, which is about 84 percent Sunni and 16 percent Shi’ite.
We can talk about two models of communities in Latin America. First, communities founded by immigrants. We have immigrants from India, Pakistan or Indonesia who came to Suriname, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago. The proportion of Muslims in these countries in relation to the population is the largest in Latin America, but in absolute terms, their number is low. Both Guyana and Suriname are members of the Organization of Islamic Countries, so the population numbers in those countries are more reliable.
The second model is Muslim communities founded by immigrants. Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian immigrants arrived at the end of the 19th and first half of 20th centuries. This is the case for most countries of South America. These communities followed similar stages, and because of their economic success ran the risk of being diluted into the society at large. That’s why the aim of the first organizations founded in the 1920s was to bring the communities together around the native linguistic and religious traditions. Thus, their religion acquired an ethnic character. The communities were started as closed groups and were not open to diffusion outside of the original group. This ethnic character began to lose strength from the end of the 1990s when Islam entered the international scene in a big way, and individuals began to show interest in conversion.
Then we have other kinds of communities — Muslim communities founded by new Muslims or converts, which is a quite recent phenomenon. We have a few examples of those communities in Mexico, Haiti, Cuba and Ecuador. These new Muslims are generally students who converted to Islam while studying in Europe and the United States; some then go to Muslim countries to learn more about Islam and diffusion. These communities are much more active and dynamic than those started by immigrants. Muslim sources suggest that converts account for approximately 1 percent of all Muslims throughout Latin America.
The case of Mexico is interesting because, despite some sources stating that 10 percent of the Syrians and Lebanese who immigrated there were Muslims, the Muslim community was only started in 1994 by a new Muslim who converted to Islam while he was studying in Florida. He then studied in Saudi Arabia for two years, went back to Mexico and is working hard to spread Islam in Mexico. There is also a unique situation that Virginia also mentioned. That’s 300 native Mayan Indians from the Chiapas region [in Mexico] were converted by a small group of Spanish Muslims, who went there to spread the word of Islam.
So now I will present some facts that can help us understand the presence of Islam in Latin America.
First, the Arab immigrants who started these communities now belong to an economic social and cultural position that is well above average in the societies of which they are part. Unlike European Muslims, these societies are not associated with social exclusion. This factor must be taken into account: The position and easy absorption of Muslims immigrating into Latin American cultures is an important factor to consider when examining Muslim communities in Latin America.
Number two: New Muslims or converts are playing a growing role. Currently, they represent the only possibility for Islamic growth in Latin America, because the immigration of Muslims has been declining. New Muslims and converts place greater emphasis on the religious and puritanical aspects of their practice and make greater efforts to attract new participants. Their presence in the communities founded by immigrants produces some tension between them and people who were born Muslim, with the converts complaining that the older members are not very open to them, and that there is little dynamism with regard to the spread of religion. In Brazil, new Muslims are starting to engage in activities designed to spread Islam to Brazil. The presence of converts has led to greater emphasis on the demand for religious rights for the Muslim community in the public sphere and a lessening of interest in international political questions related to the Middle East.
Number three: It is important to consider the transnational character of this religion and the constant movement of its members through Muslim countries. Sheikhs come to run religious activities; born and new Muslims go to study and to the pilgrimage to Mecca. In Brazil now we have two Brazilian-born Muslims who studied in Saudi Arabia and became sheikhs, who speak Portuguese in our Brazilian culture, and are now leading Muslim activities in our country. There are new Muslims also studying Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan, including one ex-evangelist minister, who is in Syria. This transnationality is not a characteristic of Islam but rather of religion in our times, and is an ingredient that makes the discerning of possible trends seem more complex.
Number four: The role of international help by Muslim countries in the Latin American community is another significant feature of Islam in Latin America. It is a duty of a Muslim country to support the practice of religion of Muslims abroad. Let’s not forget that other religions do that too. Most of this financial assistance comes from the Saudi government and international organizations. According to Latin American Muslim Unity (LAMU), the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait have invested about $20 million in the expansion of Islam in Latin America (LAMU, 2000).
Saudi Arabia follows what’s called Wahhabi Islam. This is a rigid and puritanical version of Islam. Wahhabism is not a Muslim sect, such as the Shi’ite sect, for example, but is a reform movement within Sunni Islam. Reform movements are aimed at refining the religion and to returning to the origins that are common to all religions. Wahhabism, however, has been used as an influence by radical and extremist Muslim sectors. This does not mean that the Saudi Wahhabi movement is necessarily connected to radical groups. The Wahhabi influence has led to Latin American Islam becoming more rigid and puritanical in its religious practice, but it has not been related to political activities. In the Brazilian mosques studied, Wahhabism is one influence, but is not the only one.
Number five: Related to the problem of influence is the role the Internet has played for new Muslims. Visiting different sites is common and thus they have contact with varied tendencies within Islam.
Number six: Each community or mosque is independent of the rest and therefore has its own characteristics, more resembling Protestants than Roman Catholics. The sheikh, mainly in a Sunni community, is a religious leader but is not seen by the participants as someone whom they necessarily have to obey. The fact that the communities are outside of Muslim countries also leaves the members free to follow or not follow precepts preached.
Some observations about the triple frontier in Margarita Island: There are Muslim communities in two cities, Foz Iguazú in Brazil and Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. There is no community in Puerto Iguazú, Argentina. Between the first two cities there is a daily circulation of the population with only a bridge separating them. There are various other ethnic groups. A particular characteristic of this community is that the number of Shi’ites represents almost half of all Muslims in Foz Iguazú, which is not typical of communities elsewhere in Brazil and in Latin America. The sheikhs who live the local religious practice only speak Arabic. The communities have no new Muslims or converts yet. At the end of 1999 and after September 11th, many people left the region, and the population has fallen by about one-third. According to a Muslim source, in spite of having a population of 4,000 Muslims in Foz Iguazú, only about one hundred frequent the mosque there regularly.
Margarita Island has a population of about 4,000 Muslims, mostly Lebanese and Palestinian, mainly merchants. It can be said, then, that both the communities have a more ethnic character and their immigration is more recent. In this type of community it’s quite common for people to stay in contact with their home countries and show interest in their political issues. As for setting up terrorist cells, this has never been proven. An Argentine researcher who started investigating the area told me she had the impression the media had exaggerated the threat in relation to the Muslim communities of the region and that the reality is quite different than that portrayed. The communities are no different than the other ones studied. A large illicit economy thrives in the area, but this does not necessarily mean that the Muslim community as a whole is involved.
Personally, I believe that what should be fought is the terror and the criminals. They are not Muslims, Buddhists or Christians; they are criminals and terrorists. The communities are integrated or in that process, and in general, they love the countries to where they have moved. It is important to get to know them and not to associate Islam with terror there. It is important not to demonize those Latin American Muslim communities. This will not be good for anyone. Islam is a religion like any other, and their communities are a concrete manifestation of the religion experience by individual human beings. Recently, in Rio de Janeiro the Muslim community expelled two members because they started a site called Islamic Jihad where they espoused radical and nationalistic ideals. The community said they did not want to have anything to do with them.
In closing, for Islam to grow in Latin America, it will need Latin American converts because the migratory movement of Muslims has declined. In my opinion, the presence of the converts is already bringing strong changes to the original communities. I can’t say whether Islam will grow in Latin America, but what can be said is that their numbers are very, very small and their visibility is more because of the international media than because of their actual presence. Let’s try and understand this religion in Latin America and its followers without any fear of prejudice, and I am happy about what we are doing here.*
MR. SPENCER: Thank you very much. We’ll now hear from Colonel Connell.
COLONEL CURTIS C. CONNELL: I’ve got to tell you, I was really encouraged just hearing Dr. Peres’ presentation because — I’m not an academic — I’m a practitioner, but as she was going through some of the statistics, I can concur I found much the same thing. I’m going to adjust my discussion a little and maybe focus a little less on demographics because that’s really not new information after hearing Dr. Peres’ remarks. You just heard a very good presentation, and you know what, it is exactly what I found, and there was no collusion here. I’ll explain briefly how I got involved in this project.
When I was doing my fellowship at Harvard for a year I was torn between two topics. I was thinking about studying radical Islam because at that time — it was 2003 — it was a hot topic; a lot of people were looking at it, but it was still fairly new. We were trying to figure that out as a nation. And I had Latin American experience in Argentina — I was an attaché down there for three years, been to the Tri-border area probably 10 or 15 times, so I was pretty familiar with that area and considered researching something there. I observed the building of a mosque in Buenos Aires that King Fahd [of Saudi Arabia] had funded on a very choice piece of real estate. So it was kind of fascinating. I always wondered, why are they doing these things, why is this in the press, and I had a research project to do. A professor at Harvard suggested, why don’t you put the two topics together — spend some time understanding Islam, which I did in the paper, and then turn the lens toward Latin America, which is the goal of the paper. And that’s what I sought to do.
What I did find is that there is a connection: What happens in Iran, what happens in Saudi Arabia can potentially have an impact in Latin America, even though, as we’ve seen with Dr. Peres’ presentation, the numbers are very, very small. My research also indicates the threat is probably overrated. The job of the press is to sell newspapers and magazines, so the threat does sound somewhat sensationalistic. However, I don’t want to discount that possibility totally.
The point was that our national security policymakers, some of whom I know are in the room, should be concerned because of the influence of support, especially in the TBA (Tri-border area), within these pockets of Latin America, as has already been seen, and the Caribbean. But the threat is at such a low level that there’s really no great cause for major concern or apprehension. As we’ve just seen, demographics just don’t support that very much.
The other thing that I’m going to deal with maybe a little more, because it doesn’t deal with the demographics, is if you just look at the history of terrorism in the region, a lot of it is not related to Islamic terrorism. There are other groups, whether it’s Sendero Luminoso in Peru or the FARC in Colombia — but terrorism just doesn’t exist on the Islamic side, with a few minor exceptions that I’ll point out.
The other possibility that has been looked at — and I need to also preface this — this is all from an academic perspective, so I’m not looking at it from an intel [intelligence] perspective — and I want to disassociate my presentation from that side. There has been talk of a nexus between the terrorists that would be involved — the term used now is narco-terrorist — maybe they’re involved in narco-trafficking because they’ve developed a pretty good system of moving money around, moving goods, whether it’s people, drugs — boy, if I was a terrorist I’d want to maybe tap into that because it’s already there; why invent your own system when a pretty effective system is already there?
In my research project I tried to just really unwrap what Islamic fundamentalism is. I saw in my research two perspectives of Islam — you can be what would be called a confrontationalist. That would be Sam Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations or even Bernard Lewis from Princeton: that it’s a grand scale, that this is a movement; it’s an Islamic resurgence and it is impacting the world. The other perspective would be maybe [John L.] Esposito from Georgetown, maybe a little more accomodationalist, that we’re really blowing this thing out of proportion; it’s much more fractured and it’s not really as cohesive as some like to think.
I looked at the impact of Islamic fundamentalism in Latin America. Ultimately, the thing I most wanted to address in my research was: Well, so what? What does it matter? Should we spend resources in the region or just keep an eye on it without getting overly concerned?
The other part of my research is just understanding Islam. Like most Americans, you’re trying to figure out why is there so much Islamic rage toward Americans? And you go through some of the historical explanations like, for example, colonialism. For a thousand years Islam was on the march and then at the second siege of Vienna in 1683 they got pushed back, and then, as Lewis argues, for 300 years they’ve been on their heels as colonialism moved in, so there is some anger there. What about globalization? What about the presence of troops in the region even before 9/11? There is anger there. Of course, that was one of bin Laden’s arguments.
If you look in the Palestinian territories, for example, there is this angst of humiliation. They’ve had this taken from them. Certainly, the madrassas can stir a lot of this up. But again, a lot of that exists in the Middle East, not in Latin America.
What I was led to then, as I was learning about Islam, is something that Dr. Peres pointed out. As you focus on Latin America, there is a dynamic there that’s different than what exists in the Middle East; that is, the population, as we talked about, is 17 percent Shi’ite around the world; the rest are primarily Sunni, and there are certainly some variations there. But when you look at the demographics of who came to the Americas, it came in different waves.
As we mentioned earlier, about 1 percent of the population is Islamic and that is what I had found — and I think Dr. Peres’ research is probably more in-depth because she’s in Brazil. I’m using secondary sources, other than my own experience going down there. Much of the immigration was Syrian and Lebanese, and just like our pilgrims that came to the U.S., a lot of those were Christian Catholic; they weren’t Muslim. Around 90 percent were Christian and 10 percent were Muslim. So when you look at the Brazilian population, for example, out of a total of roughly 11 million of Syrian and Lebanese immigrates, with Muslims constituting 10 percent of this total, it leads you to about the same number of around a million or so — not huge numbers. When you’ve got a country that’s probably close to 200 million people, that’s not a very high percentage of Muslims.
Also, as pointed out, in Guyana and Suriname, the two countries that are part of the Islamic conference [Organization of the Islamic Conference, OIC] are not Syrian or Palestinian. They came from India, Pakistan, Java about a hundred years ago, much like a lot of immigrants come to the Americas — jobs, opportunity, maybe there is some persecution. They’re not Shi’ite, but they’re not very good Muslims either and there has been an attempt to try to kind of reform them, send them back to Saudi Arabia; but they don’t speak Arabic. If you were a Wahhabi Sunni you’d say, these guys just don’t get it. We need to really kind of reform them and straighten them up. So, I didn’t view that region with concern because of the demographics.
If you look at the region as far as the actual number of attacks, it’s just plain low. When I was doing my research, these data kind of surprised me because I wondered why I didn’t hear about some of the attacks. In July, 1990, there was a coup attempt in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. It was in the news. But what happened just about a week later? Remember Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait? All of a sudden, boom, it’s off the front page. But, I had a chance to interview Winston Dookeran, who was then deputy prime minister. He had been a fellow at the Weatherhead Center [Harvard University], and he gave me a lot of good insights. Even that attack certainly wasn’t a Wahhabi Islam-type act. It was closer to the nation of Islam — not even that. It was primarily a black movement, and they wanted to get a permit to build a mosque. It was denied. They were angry, but it certainly wasn’t what you would think of today as Islamic terrorism.
Of course, in Buenos Aires, in’92, the embassy was blown up, and then two years later the Jewish Cultural Center, but again, to me that was very noteworthy for one reason, especially in ’92. Because just previous to the embassy bombing, if you remember, the Israelis were in southern Lebanon. They killed the military commander of Hezbollah. It was a tit for tat. And, as we’ll see a little later, that’s pretty significant because what’s changed since my research ended a-year-and-a-half ago is that Iran was there but was somewhat sleepy; it wasn’t causing problems and, as we’re seeing now, Iran is starting to be stirred up a little, so there may be potentially more direct impacts to Latin America.
There are a few smaller pockets in various areas, the north part of Chile, for example. Chiapas is a new one. If you talk to people that are from the region — it’s probably derogatory, but they call them “Turkos.” It’s a stereotype they use, but it would be like the Jews of Latin America. I mean, they have a reputation of being good at business, they figure out ways to make a little bit of money, they collect themselves in groups; but, again, they constitute small pockets. Those are the two primary areas, and as Dr. Peres mentioned, their numbers have dropped since 9/11, primarily because people don’t like to be under the microscope, so why hang around?
I don’t think you can totally discount the possibility that Islamic terrorists can have a safe haven in these small pockets, potentially where they could be protected among people that have the same ideological viewpoints. Illicit fundraising is probably a bigger factor, but I would totally agree that the Tri-border area reputation fuels the idea of a wild region. There’s a lot of lawlessness, whether it’s arms, money or trafficking. There was just an article that came out yesterday in the paper that some of that $3 billion had gone through Bank of America in New York, if anybody has seen that — a new focus on that region here in the last month from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
That’s not new, it’s just a good place to look at what’s going on, but whether it’s connected with terrorism, it’s somewhat difficult to ascertain, but I think there’s probably some there, primarily because there’s more Shi’ite Hezbollah support. They have proven with the two attacks that they can reach out when they want to. I would suspect that it’s probably still there.
Let’s just jump to the Hezbollah-al Qaeda connection. When I did my research on Islam, Professor Mike Doran from Princeton pointed something out. He’s an Arabist, and he said, when you research radical Islam, it’s not like when you study other topics, and you can go look at a lot of textbooks or research that other people have written; it’s just hard to find things out. And this is somebody at a prestigious institution. Usually, he said, I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I go to the Internet. That’s where I find out a lot of what’s going on. And he pointed out a good connection, not only to what’s going on in Iraq and Iran. He said, if you look at the lists of who they really dislike — and we’re talking about primarily Sunni Wahhabi-fueled radicalism — they hate the Shi’ites because they’re so apostate that they’re worse than anybody. And Wahhab had pushed that idea a lot when he started his movement. The other groups that Wahhabis probably don’t like very much are the moderate regimes that they would view as not pushing a puritanical form of Islam. The third group could be Israel or the U.S. You can swap that position around, but ultimately there is a lot of dislike between the two groups. If they’re really holding to the puritanical form of Islam, they probably wouldn’t tie themselves to Hezbollah unless, of course, they decide that maybe they aren’t going to hold to that and they have a higher goal, and then there could be some collusion. This collusion of Wahhabis and Hezbollah would be the same thing as what I mentioned earlier, an ad hoc group, and occur in a small pocket potentially where, without any direction from the top, somebody just gets an idea to say, commit an act of terrorism. You know what — this is what I believe; I’m going to act on it and do kind of an ad hoc type of terrorist activity.
Thankfully, there are really not a lot of great targets in Latin America. From the practitioner’s point of view, Sao Paolo is a big city, but who’s going to attack Brazil? There’s usually not hostility toward the Brazilians. You know, it’s a large country, the tenth-largest economy in the world, but it doesn’t foment a lot of anger. You have the diplomatic posts in the embassies that could be a potential target. The target I looked at a little was the energy sector, for example, with the liquid natural gas (LNG) coming out of Trinidad and Tobago. A lot of our LNG comes from there. The U.S. didn’t use much LNG before ’98, and now most of what we get on the East Coast comes from there. So that may be a potential target. If I was somebody from Homeland Security, I would kind of keep my eyes on that one closely. Then, of course, anything that may be related to an embassy or a diplomatic post is a target. But, ultimately, there is just not a lot down there for them to attack.
When you talk about policy application: How do we work with the Latin Americans to address what I view as a threat but not a huge threat (part of it is just our perception of the threats facing the region)? When Colin Powell was in Chile, I think in 2003, he said, we’ve got terrorism; we’re going to fight; this is a worldwide battle; it’s the global war on terrorism. That idea doesn’t really resonate for Latin Americans very well because they don’t have the problem. They view their threats primarily as threats to democracy. They have many social concerns and people are just worried about putting food on the table, not about these larger issues.
However, there a few models for good cooperation. There is a counterterrorism group that has met, beginning in the ’90s with the OAS, called the Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism (CICTE) and also Three Plus One — it’s in the Tri-border area. And the U.S. gets involved with Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. When Ambassador Rynek was in Brazil, she made a few comments stating that we are getting great cooperation from the Brazilians, which I viewed as a positive comment. A lot of times there is criticism that they’re not helping out, that there’s corruption. I will mention one story not related to this, but when we traveled to Posadas in my role as an attaché in Argentina, the Gendarmería, which is their border control, is very proud of the fact that they had three truckloads full of cigarettes. That was the kind of thing that was going across the border because, with the high tax load, moving stuff back and forth was something they wanted to stop.
Ultimately, the threat of terrorism will be reduced by improved rule of law and eradication of criminal activity. That’s what Dr. Peres and I agreed on. Just focus on that and whatever areas of Islamic radicalism may exist within those seeds; hopefully you can pick that up because that’s the primary concern.
And this last one is probably new. I view the potential growing threats from Iran as having implications in Latin America, primarily in the Tri-border area. Even though it’s small, there’s probably a group of Hezbollah and a network — I don’t have a lot of research; I’m taking a stab in the dark here — other than the two attacks that occurred back over 10 years ago — that maybe they could tap into that and cause a problem in Latin America.
What I was ultimately left with is, keep your eyes on it, but don’t overrate it. That’s what my research revealed. Thank you very much.
MR. SPENCER: Okay, thank you. Two excellent presentations.
Let’s join in a round of applause for our panelists.