WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jihadist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) are engaged in efforts to “radicalize and recruit” people in Latin American regions home to violent street gangs that maintain links with U.S. counterparts, namely MS-13, according to the top American commander in the area.
Adm. Kurt Tidd, the head of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), noted that collaboration between criminal and Islamic terrorist groups operating in Latin America is “not totally impossible.”
The argument about whether criminal and terrorist networks collaborate or keep their distance from one another in Latin America distracts from the most important point. Both groups inhabit the same illegal orbits. They both seek to circumvent or subvert the rule of law. They both exploit the same permissive environment and could use the same key facilitators (money launderers, document forgers, and corrupt officials) to support their operations.
The most dangerous scenario is that terrorist organizations will exploit criminal capabilities or human smuggling routes to enter the United States. The most chilling manifestation, of course, is the possibility that terrorists with chemical or biological weapons—or the knowledge of how to build and employ them—will move through the region and attempt to infiltrate our Southwest border.
His written testimony came in the form of SOUTHCOM’s annual posture statement to lawmakers.
SOUTHCOM is in charge of American military activities in Latin American countries below Mexico and the Caribbean
According to the 2017 posture statement, “Violent extremist organizations like ISIS seek to radicalize and recruit vulnerable populations in the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America.”
Last year, Adm. Tidd noted that “Central America is still awash in weapons and street gangs such as MS-13 and M-18, both of which originated in the United States and have close, direct, and growing ties with their U.S. counterparts.”
“As an indication of how dire the situation is in El Salvador, its Supreme Court designated these groups as terrorists by ruling they violate the fundamental rights of the population and seek to usurp state power,” the admiral also said in the 2016 posture statement.
Citing the FBI, the American commander acknowledged at the time that MS-13 was operating in 42 U.S. states, “with a significant presence in Houston, Long Island, Charlotte, and Washington, DC.”
The SOUTHCOM chief explained on Thursday why collaboration between criminals and Islamic terrorists in Latin America is not as far fetched as previously thought.
Conventional wisdom downplays the possibility that criminal and terrorist networks would actively collaborate in this part of the world. Observers are correct when they say that drug traffickers are likely reluctant to work with terrorists, and vice-versa. But here are the shortcomings I and many of our interagency partners see with this view: it presumes criminal networks exercise absolute oversight and control over their smuggling routes.
It presumes they conduct thorough background checks and screen everyone and everything that moves along the region’s illicit superhighways. It presumes that just because witting collaboration might not take place, unwitting collaboration couldn’t. While this scenario may be unlikely, we and our partners know it is also not totally impossible.
Adm. Tidd told lawmakers it is accurate to “assume” ISIS will try to enter the United States through its border with Mexico, noting that SOUTHCOM is “very concerned” about the jihadist group’s operations in the Western Hemisphere.
The commander cited a recent article in ISIS’s propaganda magazine Dabiq in which the terrorist group urges jihadists in the region to attack the United Sates, citing California and Florida as potential targets.
In the article, which features Trinidadian foreign fighter Shane Crawford, ISIS noted that its followers could exploit already established smuggling routes to enter the United States.
The Associated Press (AP) recently reported that the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is the “largest per-capita source” of ISIS recruits in the Western Hemisphere, adding that up to 125 jihadists and their relatives have traveled from country to join the terrorist group in the Middle East.
Adm. Tidd also acknowledged that Iran’s narco-terrorist proxy Hezbollah remains active in his area of responsibility (AOR).
“Hezbollah members, facilitators, and supporters engage in licit and illicit activities in support of the organization, moving weapons, cash, and other contraband to raise funds and build Hezbollah’s infrastructure in the region,” he pointed out.
“Still other networks have diversified into the smuggling of weapons and people, including individuals who pose a potential threat to national security—through the region and into the United States,” he continued.