WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. military is confronting an “extremist Islamist movement” in the Americas that has been linked to the use of illicit trafficking networks by criminals and terrorists, likely working together, revealed U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) chief Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd during a roundtable discussion with reporters.
While briefing Pentagon reporters on Wednesday, Tidd described the use of illicit networks by criminals and terrorists as the greatest security challenge facing the United States in Latin America and Caribbean, adding that more often the lines blur between the two groups as a result of their combined activities.
“We know that extremist groups are ideologically driven and want to harm the United States,” explained the admiral in SOUTHCOM’s annual posture statement, submitted to Congress earlier this year. “We know that criminal organizations are profit-driven and will engage in illicit activities that increase their bottom line.”
“We also know that both operate in the same dark underworld of illicit finance, fraudulent documents, and weapons trafficking and that violent extremist organizations have availed themselves of some of these criminally provided services,” he added.
He warned Pentagon reporters Wednesday that Islamic terrorist groups are attracted to illegal trafficking networks in Latin America.
“The biggest security challenge when you look at Latin America and the Caribbean … is the illicit networks,” declared the Navy admiral.
In the annual posture statement, he warned that “there is a risk that violent extremist organizations could exploit established networks, established smuggling routes, or other regional vulnerabilities — including lax immigration and border security, corrupt government officials, or the enabling capabilities of criminal organizations — to enter and move through the [Western Hemisphere] region undetected.”
SOUTHCOM expressed concern about the movement of special interest aliens (SIAs) from the Middle East to the Americas on multiple occasions. SIAs refer to migrants from countries that have been officially linked to terrorism by the U.S. government — such as Iran, Syria, and Pakistan.
“I think we are beginning to see people coming into this hemisphere who have very, very questionable backgrounds, and our law enforcement agencies are paying close attention to that,” Tidd told reporters.
According to SOUTHCOM, some transnational criminal networks in Latin America specialize in smuggling SIAs into the United States.
Adm. Tidd suggested that the U.S. and its allies should focus on the trafficking networks rather than what they are smuggling.
SOUTHCOM has warned that radicalization inspired by jihadist groups, such as the Sunni Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) and Shiite Iran’s Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah, is taking place in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Radicalization is occurring,” reiterated Adm. Tidd on Wednesday.
Tidd reiterated this week that between 100 and 150 recruits from Latin America and the Caribbean have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, adding that a “small number” have attempted to return to the region.
The admiral noted that senior security chiefs from across the region have recognized that Islamic extremist groups, namely ISIS, are encouraging supporters to launch “lone-wolf attacks” if they are unable to travel abroad.
“[What] I find much more worrisome — if they can’t get there, they’ve been told to engage in lone-wolf attacks where they’re located,” Tidd told reporters. “Those are the ones that have most of our regional security partners concerned because they’re so difficult to detect.”
“It’s the extremist Islamist movement, and that very corrosive engagement that you’re seeing on the internet that they’ve demonstrated an effectiveness in,” he added.
The networks used by criminals and terrorists across Latin America support illicit activities, such as trafficking drugs, wildlife, bulk cash, weapons, humans, in addition to illegal logging and mining, indicated the admiral.
In March 2015, Tidd’s predecessor Gen. John Kelly raised the alarm on the risk that jihadist groups, namely ISIS, could exploit the knowledge of criminal trafficking organizations in the region to infiltrate the United States.
The majority of terrorist networks in the region engage in some form of criminal activity to raise money, pointed out Tidd on Wednesday.
He cited Hezbollah as one example, saying the Shiite jihadist group has posed a longstanding threat to the Western Hemisphere, “raising money in one region and funneling it to nefarious activities in other regions, and that certainly continues.”
In the report submitted to Congress earlier this year, SOUTHCOM warned:
Whether Sunni or Shiite extremists would wittingly collaborate with criminal groups to accomplish their goals is up for debate….
We know that extremist groups are ideologically-driven and want to harm the United States. We know that criminal organizations are profit-driven and will engage in illicit activities that increase their bottom line. We also know that both operate in the same dark underworld of illicit finance, fraudulent documents, and weapons trafficking and that violent extremist organizations have availed themselves of some of these criminally-provided services.