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US Working to Keep al-Qaida Out of South America - 2002-09-19

South America has not figured prominently in the war against the al-Qaida terrorist group, but U.S. officials are keeping a close eye on areas of the continent where they fear the terrorists could be getting clandestine support.

Defense officials make clear they have no hard evidence and cannot prove al-Qaida has any presence or support network in South America.

But they tell VOA they suspect some members of the terrorist group may have used the continent as a transit point. They also suspect al-Qaida may be garnering other support from Muslim communities in at least two areas well known for illicit activities like arms dealing, drug smuggling, and money-laundering.

Chief among these is the tri-border area where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. Another is where Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay come together.

Both have significant Muslim populations. In the tri-border area with Paraguay, for example, U.S. military experts estimate the Arab community numbers about 30,000.

"We do not have any indication that those populations are engaged either in conducting terrorist operations or in training terrorists in this hemisphere," said John Merrill, the Pentagon's director for Western Hemisphere Affairs. "We have no confirmation that there is an al-Qaida presence among those populations. What we do know is that those populations or elements of them either wittingly or unwittingly contribute financially to Middle Eastern groups with which they have cultural and historic links including Hamas and Hezbollah."

The Arab community in the tri-border area with Paraguay has been linked previously to terrorism, including a 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Argentina and a 1994 explosion at a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. The attacks claimed more than 100 lives.

Mr. Merrill says that in addition to significant Muslim communities and a suspect history, these tri-border areas are attractive as terrorist havens because of a relative lack of government control.

"Government presence has never been what it ought to be in those areas, and the populations appear to move and operate largely without respect to national borders," he said.

Defense officials say the United States has been working closely with government officials in South America to ensure terrorists cannot find a foothold on the continent.

But Mr. Merrill warns that areas like the tri-border regions pose risks.

"There are a number of what we tend to call ungoverned areas in Latin America in which one can only speculate about the range of illegal activity," he said. "But clearly there are places in this hemisphere where falsification of transit documents exists, where there is corruption, and one can imagine a scenario in which people would move through ungoverned areas in Latin America or transit the region facilitated by some form of corruption but that said, that represents a potential risk. It does not represent a situation in which we have evidence of movement of al-Qaida or similar operatives specifically through the region to the United States."

At least one credible report places a key al-Qaida figure in South America in the early 1990s, about the time of the terrorist bombings in Argentina.

The figure is Ayman al-Zawahiri, who reportedly visited Argentina. At the time he was leader of the Islamic Jihad terrorist group, but he later allied with Osama bin Laden. He is alleged to be a key planner of last year's September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Zawahiri is on the United States most-wanted list, with a price on his head of $25 million. His whereabouts remain unknown.

But defense officials do not believe he is in South America.