- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Terrorist training camps operated by Hezbollah continue to flourish in a remote and lawless area along the shared borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, according to law-enforcement officials and a recent report by anti-terrorism authorities.

Known as the "tri-border region," the area is flanked by the freewheeling cities of Puerto Iguazu in Argentina, Foz do Iguazu in Brazil and Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, where terrorists meet for what the sources said were high-level sessions to discuss future attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets in North and South America.

Since the September 11 attacks on America, anti-terrorism investigators worldwide have intensified their focus on the tri-border region and on reports of increased cooperation between Hezbollah and al Qaeda.

Argentina's Secretariat of State Intelligence first reported in 1999 that al Qaeda members were in the region to coordinate terrorist training and to plan future attacks with Hezbollah.

U.S. intelligence officials are concerned that an alliance with Hezbollah would give al Qaeda a new base close to the United States for attacks, the sources said.

They also said that Hezbollah, implicated in the suicide truck bombings of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut in 1984, is believed to have an al Qaeda-like capacity to organize attacks against U.S. targets.

Hezbollah, which has several thousand members, has established cells in Europe, Africa, South America and North America, and receives substantial financing, training, weapons and explosives from Iran and Syria.

Former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh once described the tri-border region as a "free zone for significant criminal activity, including people who are organized to commit acts of terrorism." The FBI sent agents to the region this year after a poster of Iguazu Falls, the area's major tourist attraction, was found inside an al Qaeda bunker in Afghanistan.

A meeting of terrorist operatives took place three months ago in a camp near Ciudad del Este, the Paraguayan boomtown of 240,000, the sources said. The town is known as a haven for terrorists, arms smugglers, drug dealers, international organized-crime figures and money launderers, many of whom are tied to Middle Eastern countries.

Fueled by the area's rampant political corruption, representatives of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups including those sympathetic to al Qaeda travel nearly unchecked in and out of the region, organizing meetings, engaging in criminal activity and establishing training camps, the sources said.

The Virginia-based Terrorism Research Center (TRC) concluded in a recent investigation that the area was being used to train terrorists "to kill Americans and Jews" and was a safe haven for terrorists on the run. The report said that the region had emerged as a "conduit for raising and transferring money for terrorist groups."

TRC Director Walter Purdy said Hezbollah's military chief in the region, Assad Ahmad Barakat, is one of the area's six power brokers and co-owns one of Ciudad del Este's largest shopping malls.

Ahmad Barakat's top lieutenant, Sobhi Mahmoud Fayad, was arrested last month in Ciudad del Este on suspicion of raising funds for Hezbollah. He was detained after police spotted him writing down license-plate numbers outside a U.S.-sponsored disaster-management meeting.

The Bush administration believes Mahmoud Fayad, 34, is part of an international money-laundering operation that bankrolls terrorism. The arrest came after U.S. authorities pressed Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina to boost anti-terrorism efforts after the September 11 attacks.

Mr. Purdy said that a lack of government control on the borders, ineffective law enforcement and a support network already in place provides a "comfortable atmosphere for terrorists to operate."

He said that between 25,000 and 30,000 of the region's residents are Arab immigrants, mostly Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians. He said TRC interviews confirmed that al Qaeda terrorists were moving freely in and out of the area.

"The system is wired and in place," Mr. Purdy said. "For $5,000, you can get anyone in or out, and there'll be no trace you were ever there."

Mr. Purdy also said that the region is "one of the world's emerging threat areas" that terrorists could use to stage attacks.

"Sometimes you have to look no further than your own border," he said, noting that al Qaeda terrorists easily found immigration routes into the United States through Canada. "Terrorists in the tri-border region already have established contacts with crime cartels in Mexico."

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