WASHINGTON, DC — Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, warned lawmakers that Sunni extremists are radicalizing converts and other Muslims in Latin America, adding that the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) may exploit trafficking organizations in the region to infiltrate the United States.
Latin American countries lack the ability to track Islamic terrorists, noted the general.
He said that Sunni groups such as ISIS could move without impediment across the region.
Gen. Kelly also expressed concern about the presence of Lebanese terror group Hezbollah and the Iranian influence in Latin America. Hezbollah is backed by Iran.
According to the Southcom commander, Iran has established more than 80 “cultural centers” in the Latin American region in an effort to promote Shiite Islam.
The general’s comments came during a hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. He briefed reporters at the Pentagon a few hours after.
“In addition to thousands of Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence, foreign nationals from countries like Somalia, Bangladesh, Lebanon, and Pakistan are using the region’s human smuggling networks to enter the United States,” said Gen. Kelly in written testimony prepared for the Senate panel hearing. “While many are merely seeking economic opportunity or fleeing war, a small subset could potentially be seeking to do us harm.”
“Last year, ISIS adherents posted discussions on social media calling for the infiltration of the U.S. southern border,” he noted. “Thankfully, we have not yet seen evidence of this occurring, but I am deeply concerned that smuggling networks are a vulnerability that terrorists could seek to exploit.”
Breitbart News reported that nearly 500 immigrants from terrorism-linked countries such as Syria and Iraq were apprehended trying to enter the U.S. illegally in 2014 alone.
According to Gen. Kelly, Sunni jihadists in Latin American are currently radicalizing converts and other Muslims in the region.
“Sunni extremists, 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,” he told the members of the Senate panel.
Moreover, U.S. allies in Latin America are concerned about the growing number of jihadists from the Western hemisphere who are traveling to Syria where ISIS controls large swaths of land.
“Partner nation officials throughout the region have expressed concern over the increasing number of suspected Islamic extremists from the hemisphere who are traveling to Syria to participate in jihad,” Gen. Kelly told the members of the Senate panel. “Some take part in military and weapons training before departing; last year 19 Trinidadian Muslims were detained in Venezuela for conducting training with high-powered weapons.”
“When these foreign fighters return, they will possess operational experience, ties to global extremists, and possible intent to harm Western interests—and they will reside in a region rife with smuggling routes that lead directly and easily into the United States,” he added.
The Southcom chief told lawmakers that Iran is seeking to counter U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere.
“Over the last 15 years Iran has periodically sought closer ties with regional governments, albeit with mixed results. Iranian legislators visited Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua to advocate for increased economic and diplomatic cooperation,” said the general. “Iran’s outreach is predicated on circumventing sanctions and countering U.S. influence.”
“Additionally, Iran has established more than 80 ‘cultural centers’ in a region with an extremely small Muslim population. 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,” he added. “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.”
Among other issues, Gen. Kelly briefed reporters at the Pentagon about the threat of ISIS entering the U.S. through the southern border.
Latin American countries “don’t have nearly the ability to track people like we do… when you’re in this part of the world you travel pretty freely between countries,” he told reporters. “There are legal ways to do it, but then there are just simply people walking across borders.”
The high level of trafficking and sophistication of the smuggling networks “overwhelms our ability to stop everything,” also said Kelly, adding that once terrorists reach Latin America “it’s pretty easy for them to move around.”
During the Senate panel hearing, the general warned that drug cartels in Latin America could smuggle terrorists and weapons of mass destruction into the U.S.
“While there is not yet any indication that the criminal networks involved in human and drug trafficking are interested in supporting the efforts of terrorist groups, these networks could unwittingly, or even wittingly, facilitate the movement of terrorist operatives or weapons of mass destruction toward our borders, potentially undetected and almost completely unrestricted,” testified the general.
The U.S. maintains a close military relationship with most countries in Latin America that involves the sharing of intelligence and information, he said.