The Real Issue on the Latin American Landscape

My colleague Andrew Cochran’s post on the threat (or not) to the Panama Canal seems to me to miss the larger picture of the threat from Latin America.

That threat is contained in the recent statements by Adm. James Stavridis, head of the US Southern Command at a recent CSIS conference.

Stavridis warned that “the connectivity between narcoterrorism and Islamic radical terrorism could be disastrous in this region. What I worry about in this region with outside actors coming into it is the potential for those streams to cross, if you will, for the fuel of narcoterrorism to become engaged in Islamic radicalism here in the Americas.”

That is it in a nutshell. It is the Iran-Venezuela-Nicaragua nexus, built on a foundation of already-existing Hezbollah and Hamas operatives who have been economically active in the region for decades.

These groups have primarily focused on the laundering and procurement of cash for their home groups, not carrying out direct acts of terrorism against targets in this hemisphere.

That does not mean that that will continue to be the case. Look at the attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina a decade ago to see how the Iran/Hezbollah connection can go operational with devastating consequences.

What has changed, with advent the Chavez/Ahmadinejad alliance, is that Iran (and by extension Hezbollah) now have numerous state platforms from which to launch attacks in this hemisphere, should it be judged to be necessary. The trigger would likely be military action against Iran.

In this context, I think, the potential threat against targets like the Panama Canal need to be reassessed. There may not be a huge and quantifiable threat at this time. But it is unlikely there are not contingency plans drawn up for action if action is deemed necessary.

Given Iran’s official entree now in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, it is highly unlikely they want or can abstain from making serious mischief.

Chavez has the money, and exercises a great deal of influence with Colombia’s FARC rebels. The FARC, in turn has extensive access to the drug trade, something Hezbollah knows a great deal about and can benefit from.

Nicaragua is a key part of the pipeline that moves illicit goods and services (from people to drugs and weapons) to and from the Mexican corridor into the United States.

That, to me, is a disturbing constellation of realities on the ground. There almost always is a connectivity among different illicit groups operating in the same region. There are few borders among them, in part because, even as they vie with each other on some issues, they can and do use each other extensively.

This to me is the broader threat that can and likely will pose a threat to the Canal and other areas. In a narrow sense, the threat can be seen as overblown. In the rapidly-changing Latin American context, however, I would argue that the threat is real.


Quantify and Prioritize Risks to Hemispheric Security
By Andrew Cochran

I certainly agree with Doug Farah that "the Iran-Venezuela-Nicaragua nexus, built on a foundation of already-existing Hezbollah and Hamas operatives who have been economically active in the region for decades," could be disastrous for the security of the Western Hemisphere in the near future. I also think that the Hezbollah presence in the hemisphere could become operational, as it did in Argentina years ago. But I would be surprised if the Panama Canal is one of those "soft targets" in the Western Hemisphere at high risk of terrorist attack. Why?

1. An attack on the Canal, which I assume would be with the intention to do major structural damage, would be logistically quite difficult, compared to the ease with which numerous other "soft targets" (economic and diplomatic) can be attacked, and the actual impacts are quite unknown. The Canal itself is composed of a series of enormous lock gates and chambers. The chamber side walls are from 45 to 55 feet thick at the bases and taper in steps to 8 feet near the top. The lock gates are seven feet thick. Can you imagine how much in explosives it would take to compromise just one of those chambers? Recall that the 1993 and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center did not actually achieve the results intended or forecast by the terrorist planners, rank amateurs in using explosive materials. The 1993 attack did not collapse either tower as desired, and the 2001 attacks did not shear the towers off and destroy nearby buildings, as OBL's intended and hoped.

2. There are so many easier targets to hit in this hemisphere, with so many potentially major economic consequences, that the Canal doesn't appear worth pursuing. The 1994 Argentina attack by Hezbollah, cited by Doug, actually makes my point; it was a soft target. I shop regularly at one of the largest shopping malls in the United States, the Tysons Corner mall in northern Virginia. It's a pushover. Add the Mall of America in Minnesota, both Disney theme parks, any three blocks of 5th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, and half a dozen other huge shopping areas in the U.S... why would I waste time putting together, shipping, and/or storing explosives in Panama? Or think about any Amtrak train and remember terrorists' penchant for hitting trains (e.g., Madrid, London, Mumbai). For that matter, if they really want to hit a shipping chokepoint, there are mush easier chokepoints to hit closer to Iran and with multiples of the oil traffic flowing through them, compared to the volume through the Canal.

3. An attack on the Canal, whether successful in halting shipping or not, would be counterproductive in that it would destroy an integral part of the Iran-Hezbollah structure in the Western Hemisphere. The long-time Panamanian-based Hezbollah business network - the key suspects on the ground in the aftermath of the attack - would be dissembled by Panama and the U.S. within two days, cutting a key flow of funds and compromising the information flow back to Iran. I would be amazed if the principals behind that network would sacrifice it for a single attack on the Canal, especially one with little promise of success and with no possibility of testing elsewhere. I would also add that Larry Johnson's latest e-mail to me on this subject notes, "I have met and dealt with three families that have been identified as Hezbollah sympathizers and financiers. They are first and foremost merchants."

Doug referred to comments by the Admiral who heads the US Southern Command on the nexus. Nothing that Admiral Stavridis said at any point in his appearance (listen or watch from the CSIS site) points to the Canal, or any ship using the Canal, as a perceived terrorist target. In fact, here is what he actually said: What he "worries about most for this region" is the "connectivity" between FARC narco-terrorism and Islamic terrorism. But FARC is "not hooked up yet with Islamic terrorism." He said there is financing, recruiting, and proselytizing in the region, but he explicitly said, "I do not believe there is an active, operational terrorist cell in the region." Listen to the 32:30-34:30 segment of the audio file yourself.

Counter-terrorism planners quantify the risk to hemispheric targets and prioritize them in the development and deployment of precious and expensive military and non-military assets. Perhaps one reason for the lack of a major Hezbollah attack in the hemisphere since 1994 is because the cost of that attack to the Iran-Hezbollah nexus far exceeded the benefit. We can think about the actual security risks to the hemisphere as least as intelligently as the terrorists.


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