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The US Department of State’s Counterterrorism Office released its annual report, "Patterns of Global Terrorism", on April 30th and said that, "The Triborder area (TBA) — where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay converge — has long been characterized as a regional hub for Hizballah and Hamas fundraising activities, but it is also used for arms and drug trafficking, contraband smuggling, document and currency fraud, money laundering, and the manufacture and movement of pirated goods. Although there were numerous media reports in 2002 of an al-Qaida presence in the TBA, these reports remained uncorroborated by intelligence and law-enforcement officials."
The triborder area, also known as the Triple Frontier, has been vilified as an "ungovernable zone" loaded with Arab radicals waiting to pounce.
Reuters covered the release of this report in a short brief for their Latin America subscribers. The story was translated into Portuguese and Spanish, but did not run in English, so it makes sense to review it here because fever over the idea that Islamic terrorists were plotting revenge from a remote area in the South American tropics originated here in the US.
It started quietly in Paraguay in late October 2000, 11 months before the terrorist attacks of September 11th, when a Lebanese businessman named Ali Khalil Mehri was arraigned for selling pirated CDs and not-so-pirated CDs that had messages espousing Hizballah’s ideals. The State Dept ran their "Patterns" report for that year on April 30th, 2001, where the arrest was cited along with the incarceration of a Palestinian man named Salah Abdul Karim Yassine who "allegedly threatened to bomb the US and Israeli Embassies in Asuncion." (I don’t know where the man is now or if the allegation even turned out to be factual.) It was the only mention of Arabs in Latin America. It took up exactly three paragraphs.
After that, this tiny region of the world, a blackmarket Wal-Mart where one can buy pirated Microsoft products and domestic electronics on the cheap, became a potential second-base to Osama bin Laden (according to an Agence France Presse report on Sept 19, 2001), a scary hideout for Islamic extremists (according to UPI on Oct 11, 2001 and El Pais International, S.A. on Nov 9, 2001) and a report by the BBC on Sept 10, 2002 by Andrea Machain said that US officials "strongly suspected" Al Qaeda to be operating in the region.
In the Jan 2002 issue of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, run by US-Israeli front group, the U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon (ideological home to the ususal suspects like Elliot Abrams, Eleana Benador, Douglas Feith and Richard Perle and now trumpeting the ‘fact’ that Syria has weapons of mass destruction aimed at Israel) and the Middle East Forum (run by Daniel Pipes, a man who sees anti-Semites on every college campus), there was a long report on Hizballah’s activities in the region. This entire story relies on the arrests of the aforementioned and their financial ties to the organization.
But the triborder region became truly infamous after Jeffrey Goldberg, a New Yorker magazine reporter, wrote his series called "In the Party of God", published last October. After that, it almost became official. Yup…Hizballah and Osama’s mafia are drinking mate and caipirinhas somewhere outside Foz do Iguacu, Parana, a large, red-earthed state south of Sao Paulo.
Goldberg wrote in the New Yorker that "intelligence officials in the region and in Washington said the place is crawling with terrorists, many of them associated with Hizballah, some with Hamas, and some with Al Qaeda."
Apparently, those same officials are now saying that they are wrong, at least in part. There are no Al Qaeda cells operating in the region.
In March, Reed Lindsay, an American reporter in Buenos Aires, spoke with a Security Secretary at the Justice Ministry in Argentina. The Argentinian official wished to be kept anonymous. He told Lindsay that Argentina had no knowledge of terrorist groups operating in the Triborder area or that money from illegal activities such as CD piracy and drug trafficking was going directly to fund terrorist activities.
"Terrorist cells do not exist in the Triple Frontier," the Security Secretary said. "When people start talking about terrorist hot spots that don’t exist, it does tremendous damage to our countries. There might have been activities of financing terrorist organizations, just like any other community. Just as Argentines in North America send money to Argentina, I imagine that the Muslim community must help people in places like Lebanon, and part of that money might be sent to terrorists."
Goldberg had already invested heavily in Al Qaeda "links" with an immense New Yorker piece in the spring of 2002, purporting to establish an Al Quaeda-Saddam link. The article was extremely influential. It was also rubbish, convincingly demolished by a less credulous journalist Goldberg described the region as, "a community, or perhaps less disingenuous journalist from the London Observer. Goldberg’s excursion to the Three Frontiers region was a reprise. Unknown officials supposedly told Goldberg that Hizbollah runs weekend training camps out in the rain forest near Foz do Iguacu, where young soldiers and even children are "indoctrinated into Hizballah ideology — a mixture of anti-American and anti-Jewish views inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini." None of these officials were ever quoted in the mainstream press in Brazil and if they were ever quoted in Argentina, at least one key government official knows nothing about it.
The "threat" of terrorism in what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has defined as "ungovernable areas" in Latin America has led to a diplomatic disaster just waiting to unfold. Stories of terrorist cells in these nations are seen as a pre-text to greater US military involvement in national affairs.
Nations are in disagreement over the US definition of terrorism. And there is almost zero agreement on how to fight it, especially given the fiasco that led up to the US invasion of Iraq on the pretext that Hussein was backing terrorists and had weapons of mass destruction. Both notions hang like a loose tooth at best.
The Organization of American States was to hold a hemispheric security meeting in Mexico City this month, but it was cancelled by heads of state in Latin America. It is likely that it was cancelled because no one wants to play by Rumsfeld’s rules, that US defined "ungovernable areas" are a hotbed for illegal activity that can lead to terrorism that strengthens US security.
Brazilian Defense Minister Jose Viegas Filho recently described the first-ever meeting of South American Defense Ministers on April 23 in terms that will not please the Rumsfeld team. Filho said that South American states should strengthen their military and work together in an affirmative action to protect their own sovereignty and create civilian-military projects that foster economic development and security. Such a move, if ever implemented, would be an obstacle to the much more punitive US plans to turn the region into a terrorist and druglord hunting ground for the Pentagon’s new Roman Legion Army.
KENNETH RAPOZA, an American reporter, divides his time between the US and Brazil. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org