Could Paraguay be one of the nerve centres of the global jihad against the west?
This is a question that has vexed some of the ardent al-Qaida hunters for a decade – and according to a couple of the many cables released by WikiLeaks – is now troubling the US diplomatic corps. It is a tale that might have sprung out of Hollywood: a “global village for outlaws” deep in the jungle, diplomats assigned to covertly collect information and a shootout with a special forces team working undercover on special assignment, which killed a hapless thief who got in their way.
The beating heart of Islamic fundamentalism in South America, according to a growing body of writing that began a little over a decade ago, is the place where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay converge, commonly known as the Tri-Border Area or TBA. The main town is Ciudad del Este, where petty crime and smuggling appear to be rampant, not far from the world-famous Iguazu waterfalls.
Sebastian Rotella, a Los Angeles Times writer who visited the area in 1998, wrote a breathless article that began: “The gangsters came a long way to die.” He went on to describe the “Lebanese terrorists, Colombian drug smugglers, yakuza hoodlums from Japan, Nigerian con artists” that made up a “polyglot mix of thugs epitomizes a foremost menace of the post cold war world: the globalization of organised crime.”
Fast forward to 2002, when journalist Sebastian Junger, author of the “The Perfect Storm”, came to visit. In a Vanity Fair article titled “Terrorism’s New Geography”, he described Ciudad del Este as “an operational epicenter for terrorist groups. In addition to Islamist groups such as al-Qaida and Hezbollah, the region has become a base for neo-Nazi operatives, as well as groups from European countries.”
Junger told CNN after he returned that he had interviewed an Argentine ex-police officer who claimed to have trained “in a camp on the Paraguayan border, in the jungle. He saw IRA, Irish Republican Army, obviously, ETA from Spain, terrorists from all over the world, including al-Qaida and Hezbollah.” A New York Times article published at about the same time called the Tri-Border Area “a sort of Casablanca, a centre of intrigue scrutinised more intensely than ever for its suspected links to Islamic terrorists.”
These articles quickly made its way into the lore of the jihad-watchers. Reports from rightwing magazines like Front Page and Washington thinktanks like the Nixon Centre (pdf) filled the echo-chamber.
The Pentagon appears to have become convinced that this was worth looking into. Less than two years later, Scott Shane of the New York Times described a small team of special operations troops that was dispatched to Paraguay to seek intelligence on “terrorists thought to be operating, planning attacks, raising money or seeking safe haven”. The soldiers did not inform the US embassy in Asunción of their presence, but instead, checked into a hotel. One day, the team was confronted by a robber armed with a pistol and a club, who attacked them as they stepped out of a taxi. The team shot him dead.
“The episode embarrassed senior embassy officials, who had not been told the team was operating in the country,” wrote Shane. “(They) were pulled out of the country.”
Pretty soon, the state department was roped into investigating the legend of al-Qaida in South America. The latest WikiLeaks documents include a couple of cables that describe further US government efforts to check into the same theories. In a cable issued on 24 March 2008, local US officials were asked to gather information on “the presence, intentions, plans and activities of terrorist groups, facilitators and support networks – including, but not limited to, Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Gama’at al-Islamiya, al-Qaida, jihadist media organisations, Iranian state agents or surrogates – in Paraguay, in particular in the Tri-Border Area (TBA).”
A second cable signed by US ambassador Clifford Sobel in Brazil on 8 January 2008, according to blogger Jesse Freeston, “reveal a US embassy hell-bent on getting the Brazilian government to collaborate in tracking potential ‘Islamic extremists’ in Brazil’s Arab communities. The administration of President Lula da Silva had been adamant that such terrorist activities don’t exist, and rejected US calls for him to pass a Brazilian anti-terrorism law. These new cables reveal however that the US has been working directly with Brazilian intelligence agents and police forces, without the knowledge of Brazil’s elected leadership.”
Sobel recorded in his embassy cable that the US government feeds the names of suspects to Brazilian police who will “often arrest individuals with links to terrorism, but will charge them on a variety of non-terrorism related crimes to avoid calling attention of the media and the higher levels of the government. Over the past year, the federal police has arrested various individuals engaged in suspected terrorism financing activity but have based their arrests on narcotics and customs charges.”
Now, I have to admit that other than a two-hour layover in Asunción 18 years ago, I have never spent any time in Paraguay. So I asked around to find out if Ciudad del Este was truly a hub for global jihad. I soon tracked down Benjamin Dangl, who teaches Latin American history and politics and globalisation at Burlington College in Vermont, who had visited the area about three years ago to investigate this very issue. Dangl sent me an article he wrote for Fairness and Accurary in Reporting. “When we arrived in Ciudad del Este, we were petrified,” he says. “The US media’s portrayal of this city, the centre of a zone on the frontiers of Argentina and Brazil known as the Tri-Border Area, left us expecting to see cars bombs exploding, terrorists training and US flags burning.”
Pretty soon, he discovered the hysteria was a little overblown. “The press attaché for the governor of Alto Paraná, the state where the city is located, was shocked to see us: we were the first two foreign journalists to speak with him. He denied any terrorist activity in the area,” write Dangl and April Howard. “We saw children playing baseball in a park, couples walking hand in hand, people fishing in a nearby river and Brazilians on vacation snapping photos. It looked like any other sleepy Latin American city on a Sunday.”
Now, it is possible that Dangl, who is an “anti-war and anti-globalisation” activist, had failed to see what Junger and other more intrepid war reporters had uncovered a few years prior. But it is also possible that the US government officials and experts were simply talking to the wrong people. An excellent article by Chris Chivers in the New York Times shows that US embassy officials on the other side of the world in Tblisi, Georgia were completely unable to predict that the Georgians were about to invade South Ossetia in 2008, because “diplomats appeared to set aside scepticism and embrace Georgian versions of important and disputed events.”
Finally, there is a third possibility: that the state department and the Pentagon were feeding dramatic conspiracy theories to a compliant media and associated thinktanks to promote their own nefarious plans to undermine leftwing governments in South America.
I spoke to Adrienne Pine, an assistant professor of anthropology at the American University, In Washington, DC, who specialises in Latin America. She told me that the US government worked to defeat the communists back in the 1960s by using “strategic propaganda for the creation of hegemonic political ideology favorable to US economic and military interests”. Now, she fears, that the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism is being used for exactly the same purpose.
It is hard to tell which of these three theories is true. And it is entirely possible that Pine and Dangl will be proven wrong. After all, as Junger mused in 2002:
“Looking very, very far down the road, one can imagine that virtually all terrorist groups, international mafias, and even political agitators, might see a common goal in eroding western dominance in the world, they are all upset for their own particular reasons about the same basic reality: The United States, its allies and its corporate armies can do pretty much as they want and, at the moment, no one can stop them. Except, possibly, an unholy union of international mafias, Western terror groups, and al-Qaida.”
Fortunately, we have the brilliant minds at the state department and the Pentagon working overtime to prevent that. Unless WikiLeaks gets in the way.
Pratap Chatterjee, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress.