- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2004

Brazil said recently that it will bolster policing of its part of the Triple Border Area with Paraguay and Argentina. The move is welcome, if overdue. The Triple Border Area has long been identified as a fund-raising, training and procurement haven for diverse terrorist groups, including al Qaeda and Hezbollah.

Brazil’s federal police said last week that they have established a new unit and will increase river and air patrols in the area. Authorities said they will combat drugs and arms smuggling, but adhering to a traditional state of denial, they did not mention terrorism. Still, terrorist groups would be affected by the policy, since they are heavily involved in smuggling and other activities to raise funds, which they send around the world. As much as $50 million is believed to have been transferred from the Triple Border to Hezbollah accounts, Sebastian Junger reported in a 2002 Vanity Fair article.

In his April statement to the September 11 commission, Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the University of St. Andrews, identified the Triple Border Area as one of the world’s blind spots of terrorism, where organized crime has fused with politically motivated violence. There are a number of factors that have facilitated that fusion, such as corruption in law enforcement and governments of the three countries. The borders are porous, and jungle-like geography provides convenient cover.

Also significant is the fact that the CIA and Argentine intelligence officials ruptured ties in the 1990s, leading to a couple of lost years of cooperation. The CIA reportedly commissioned Argentine intelligence to surveil the border region. When the Argentines came back with a 1999 report that said al Qaeda and Hezbollah were in the area, the CIA rejected the findings as overly alarmist. U.S. intelligence officials have mended the rupture and sharpened their focus on the area. The CIA reportedly had a team of investigators there the day after September 11. Still, progress also depends on the resolve of local authorities.

In the past, the region was a potential gold mine of intelligence. Chatter about the impending September 11 attacks and about terror attacks in Argentina (1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center) reportedly came out of the area. Terror groups may now be more difficult to infiltrate and al Qaeda has become less globalized, but South America may still provide easier opportunities for infiltration than the Middle East and South Asia, since groups tend to mix with locals for business transactions. Also, some of the groups’ footmen in the region could be less hardened and committed to their cause.

Brazil’s decision to step up its policing is positive, and compliments Argentina’s strengthened resolve to improve its intelligence efforts. U.S. officials should continue to prod, cajole and aid these kinds of initiatives.

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