Nov 5, 1998 | 06:00 GMT

4 mins read

Terrorist Networks Being Broken in South America

On October 27, a suspected member of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah was arrested in front of the U.S. embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay. Sobhi Mahmoud Fayad was reportedly reconnoitering the facility, possibly in advance of a terrorist attack. According to Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color on November 1, Fayad has begun cooperating with authorities, providing them with the names of Hezbollah leaders in the area. Fayad has also reportedly supplied information on both Hezbollah and Hamas activity in the tri-border area of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. Fayad's arrest is the latest in a series of arrests of Islamic militants in Latin America in recent months, representing a major victory for security personnel in the region. In particular, Fayad's reported cooperation with authorities may serve to effectively curtail Islamic terrorist activity in South America.

On October 23, we reported on Colombia's arrest and deportation of Mohammed Abed Abdel Aal, a leader of Egypt's largest Islamic militant organization, with ties to terrorist Osama Bin Laden. At the time, it was unclear what happened to Abdel Aal after his deportation to Ecuador, and expressed some concern that he had fallen through the cracks. It has since been reported that Abdel Aal has been turned over to the Egyptian authorities.

On October 8, Iranian citizen Mohamad Astaraki was arrested in Asuncion, apparently reconnoitering the Israeli embassy. Astaraki is believed to be a relative of Fayad. Another Lebanese citizen, traveling with a passport belonging to suspected Hezbollah terrorist Khalid Mohammed Gharib Makki, was arrested in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay on September 19. Authorities initially identified the man as Gharib, but later determined that the man's fingerprints did not match those of the terrorist. On September 4, an anti-terrorist operation conducted by Paraguayan police captured yet another Lebanese citizen, Ayman Hachem Ghotme, suspected of being a member of Hezbollah. He was placed under house arrest based on information from the CIA and FBI that Ghotme has links to the Hezbollah.

While this series of arrests in the last few months lends credence to concerns voiced by authorities that the tri-border area hosts a significant contingent of Islamic militants, it also demonstrates that efforts against the network may be paying off. Militants operating out of the tri-border area are thought to have had a hand in the attacks on the Israeli embassy and Jewish cultural center in Argentina. There have also been reports of Middle Eastern terrorist cells operating in Colombia and Venezuela. In December of 1996, it was reported that the Anzoategui and Margarita states in Venezuela were home to Hezbollah cells that provided counterfeit identification to Hezbollah agents traveling and operating in Latin America.

With information extracted from Fayad, anti-terrorist units are likely to be more effective in countering the threat posed to the region by Islamic terrorist groups. Even if Fayad's information is fraudulent or a complete fabrication by the authorities, the mere report that he is cooperating with anti-terrorist agents may be sufficient to frighten his militant compatriots. Hezbollah and Hamas personnel in the tri-border area can no longer be sure of their safety. This will force them to either maintain an extremely low profile, or leave the area completely. At the same time, any terrorist operations that may have been planned throughout the region are now likely to be scrapped for fear that they have been compromised. These operations would include not only just traditional terrorist acts of violence, but any type of support operation. And if information can be obtained from Abdel Aal, it could help further unravel Islamic terrorist networks in Latin America.

Without a doubt, the recent captures of Fayad, Abdel Aal, Astaraki, and Ghotme have dealt a serious blow to Islamic groups in South America. The prospect that Fayad and others may have cooperated with authorities will shake the confidence of Islamic militants in the region, and could, in the short-term, have a stabilizing effect on the region.

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