A new report warns Latin America against believing it can remain above the fray of conflicts involving radical Islamic groups, although the evidence suggests the threat such networks pose is more criminal than ideological.
The report by the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (Instituto Español de Estudios Estrategicos – IEEE), entitled "Islamic Radicalism in Latin American: From Hezbollah to Daesh" (pdf) traces the historic and current presence of radical Islamic networks in the region.
Beginning with the arrival of Lebanon's Hezbollah to the triple frontier region of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil in the 1980s, the IEEE notes groups including Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, and the Jihad Media Battalion have all reportedly established some kind of presence in the region.
These networks have used Latin America for financing themselves, spreading propaganda and recruiting and planning attacks, according to the report.
The IEEE examines the two terrorist attacks carried out in the region over this period, both in Argentina in the early 1990s and both attributed to Hezbollah, as well as the numerous cases demonstrating their ties with regional organized crime networks, a relationship the report describes as a "marriage of convenience."
More recently, the IEEE states, the threat of ISIS (Daesh in its Arabic acronym) has emerged in Latin America. According to the report, authorities believe at least 100 citizens from the region have traveled to Syria and Iraq to enlist with ISIS, 70 of them from Trinidad and Tobago.
It also highlights the case of the self-proclaimed Brazilian jihadist group Ansar al-Khilafah, which declared its allegiance to ISIS and threatened attacks on the eve of this year's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
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Although IEEE highlights how ISIS and other such groups have little political motivation to attack Latin America and how its Muslim population does not face the same levels of social exclusion as in Europe and the United States -- a key motivating factor in radicalization -- it warns Latin American governments against the "false perception" that radical Islamist groups are a distant problem and that the region is safe from terrorist attacks perpetrated in their name.
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Although the IEEE is prudent to warn against complacency in such matters, there is little solid evidence to suggest radical Islamist groups are establishing a firm foothold in Latin America or are likely to carry out attacks.
The presence of the groups highlighted in the report remains extremely limited and they have little motivation to launch attacks; the region's governments, with the exception of Panama, have not joined in the campaign against ISIS, and where they have intervened in the conflicts of the Muslim world it is often in opposition to the US-led "war on terror."
However, this is not to suggest such networks pose no threat to the region. As the IEEE point out, numerous cases have shown the "marriage of convenience" between groups such as Hezbollah and regional organized crime networks. These relations could well deepen as these networks seek to finance themselves or source weapons by capitalizing on the same conditions that have facilitated the growth of Latin American organized crime: corruption and weak state institutions.