Rumors that ISIL terrorists plan to attack the United States through Mexico have been spread recently, even by members of Congress. While experts say an attack by ISIL may not be realistic at this time, there are other terrorist organizations in Latin America with the ambition to hit the United States.
“I’ve heard of specific cases where these groups in Venezuela are planning to strike the United States,” said Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and coordinator of the American Enterprise Institute’s program on Latin America.
Noriega said U.S. security agencies in the last 8 to 12 months have “started to see this is a threat of a group that wants to reach into the United States.”
The groups, he said, include Hezbollah and others in Venezuela. Noriega could not discuss directly the details or name the group planning to attack the United States, however, due to the nature of the threat and his advisory role for U.S. security agencies.
What he could detail, however, is the deep roots that Hezbollah has sunk into both the political and criminal elements in Venezuela.
Not everyone agrees, however. Robert Bunker, past Minerva chair at the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College, said ISIL may actually help prevent such an attack. The Sunni Muslim ISIL is targeting the forces of the Shiite denomination of Islam. Shiite Iran, which largely controls Hezbollah, is at odds with ISIL, just as the United States is.
Bunker doubts Iran would allow Hezbollah to attack the United States at the current time. He added, more generally, “If Hezbollah ever hit the U.S. homeland you can assume Iran would also face blow back. So I see nothing gained by Hezbollah actually hitting the U.S. homeland.”
Max Abrahms, a terrorism expert and political science professor at Northeastern University, said while it is always possible for an individual self-starter to launch an attack, he does not believe there could be a coordinated attack on the United States at this time.
Given that the United States is lessening its footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan, Abrahms said, “Right now this is probably the heyday of Hezbollah happiness with U.S. policy.” Regarding ISIL, he said it’s unlikely they currently have the capability to attack the United States.
Terrorists in Latin America
Still, the claims that terrorists in Latin America want to attack the United States are credible. There are many terrorist cells operating in Latin America, and Hezbollah has played a strong hand in growing these networks.
Noriega and fellow researcher José Cárdenas detailed Hezbollah’s growing influence in Latin America in a 2011 report. They found that Hezbollah, with the support of Iran, “is using the Western Hemisphere as a staging ground, fundraising center, and operational base to wage asymmetric warfare against the United States.”
Hezbollah, they found, is indirectly targeting the United States by building networks and training terrorists in Latin America.
“Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and other anti-American governments in the region have facilitated this expansion by rolling out the welcome mats for Hezbollah and Iran,” their report stated, noting that Hezbollah’s sphere of influence had at the time already spread to Ecuador and Bolivia.
History of this network’s influence speaks for itself.
In July 2010, Jameel Nasr was arrested in Tijuana, Mexico, for trying to establish a Hezbollah training network in South America. Mexican police had allegedly been monitoring Nasr, including his travels to Lebanon, where Hezbollah recently helped form a government, and a two-month trip he took to Venezuela in 2008.
In May 2011, Kareem Ibrahim, an imam from the Caribbean island of Trinidad, was convicted of plotting to attack New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, after his arrest in 2007. His plan, according to the Department of Justice, was to blow up fuel tanks and the fuel pipeline under the airport.
Ibrahim’s network included an al-Qaeda leader and the leader of the Trinidadian militant group Jamaat Al Muslimeen. According to a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice press release, he also had ties to the Iranian revolutionary leadership, “including [Hezbollah operative] Mohsen Rabbani, the former cultural attaché indicted for his leading role in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.”
Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez hosted a terror summit in 2010, attended by leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Palastinian Islamic Jihad in Caracas. Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled admitted in 2010 that Hezbollah had protection from the Venezuelan government and was operating cocaine labs.
An Aug. 15 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service notes that Cuba and Venezuela are on the State Department’s list of countries “determined to be not cooperating fully with U.S. antiterrorism efforts” and that that senior Venezuelan officials are supporting the drug and weapons trafficking activities of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
FARC, the report states, commits the majority of terrorist attacks in the Western Hemisphere.
The ISIL Conundrum
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama authorized airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. He said, “If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region—including to the United States.”
ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has changed its name as its ambitions have grown. It was previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It now refers to itself simply as the “Islamic State.”
The terrorist organization emerged from the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) following the end of U.S. military operations in the country. It has since christened its creation with a campaign of extreme brutality.
Obama noted the United States has not yet detected “specific plotting” by ISIL to attack the United States. He added, however, “Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners—including Europeans and some Americans” have joined ISIL, and “these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
Obama’s mention of the possibility of an attack on U.S. soil was a nod to the growing concern circulating in recent weeks that ISIL may try to attack the United States.
The rumors started around Aug. 31. Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog organization, posted a statement warning, “Islamic terrorist groups are operating in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez and planning to attack the United States with car bombs or other vehicle-born improvised explosive devices.”
Breitbart and Fox News published exclusive stories the same day. All three reports seem to reference the same three-page unclassified bulletin, which was dated Aug. 28 and released to law enforcement. It states the Joint Intelligence Operations Center received information from a counterterrorism division in Texas about ISIL members discussing potential attacks on social media.
The document states ISIL is “showing an elevated interest in the belief that they can infiltrate the southwestern border of the United States for terrorist attacks.” According to Fox News, it also included a message from an ISIL Twitter account saying the time was right for such an action because ‘the US–Mexican border is now open, large numbers of people crossing.'”
If a terrorist organization wanted to attack the United States through Mexico, the drug cartels could be one of largest hurdles.
There are competing theories as to whether or not the cartels have worked with terrorist organizations—or whether it’s something they’d risk.
Retired NSA agent Terry Minarcin told Epoch Times in a previous interview that Hezbollah agents had trained Mexican drug cartels on constructing tunnels and building improvised explosives.
Noreiga cited former DEA chief Michael Braun as saying the DEA had meetings every day on cooperation between drug traffickers and terrorists.
Other experts doubt there are ties between terrorist groups and the Mexican drug cartels.
A former owner of a private security firm that operated in Mexico told Epoch Times the cartels tend to avoid Islamists in order to avoid drawing attention from the United States.
Bunker said, “An unwritten understanding exists with the cartels that if they engage in certain activities they will get the full wrath of the U.S. government down upon them.”
He also said “It would not make business sense for Mexican cartels to facilitate an ISIS [or other Islamist] attack on the U.S.” since they’re in it for money, and doing so would be bad for business.
Noreiga noted, however, that cooperation between drug traffickers and terrorist organizations is well documented in South America. He added, “Congress created new authorities to allow the DEA to hit terrorist organizations because there is this sort of systematic cooperation.”
At the end of the day, however, the possibilities of a terrorist attack on the United States come down to capability.
Abrahms and Bunker said no group currently seems to have the systems in place to launch a large or successful attack on the United States.
Abrahms said that moving forward, the largest threat from terrorists is the possibility of groups vying for attention. He said, “Terrorists use violence competitively in order to outbid rival groups,” and believes there will be small attempts in the near future.
According to Bunker, however, the only terrorist group that comes close to being able to attack the United States is al-Qaeda, and if it could do it, it would have done so already.
He added, however, that if left unchecked new threats could emerge: “In some ways ISIS could be considered the next evolutionary stage in these groups—both far more violent and appealing to the disenfranchised and fully radicalized Sunni Muslims that they are recruiting.”