Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, the nominee to lead the U.S. Special Operations Command, recently said the United States must maintain “situational awareness, resolution and reach” in countering terrorism. He stressed the importance of keeping weapons of mass destruction away from radical Islamist and other extremists “who have no problem using them.” If concerned about prevention, Gen. Votel should take a close look at the Western Hemisphere.
Hezbollah activities in the Americas are well documented and continue to expand in scope and sophistication. The terrorist group has been actively studying and operating in the Americas since the 1980s, but it was the July 18, 1994, bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires that clearly demonstrated Hezbollah’s effectiveness in the region and its global reach beyond the greater Middle East. Twenty years later, Hezbollah is further diversifying its activities, using illicit networks as well as legitimate businesses as front companies to augment its capacity.
While its Latin America enterprise has a global purpose, Hezbollah, along with its state sponsor and strategic partner Iran, never loses sight of the United States as a primary target. Unfortunately, the threat from radical Islam in the Americas does not end with Hezbollah.
In 2005, U.S. and Salvadoran officials confirmed that members of the violent gang Mara Salvatrucha, which originated in El Salvador but has significant membership in the United States, had met with al Qaeda. Also in 2005, there were reports that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then-leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, had instructed his followers to travel to Brazil with the eventual goal of entering the United States through the porous border with Mexico to set up cells and carry out attacks on the U.S. homeland.
Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III announced in May 2004 that there were indications that al Qaeda operative Adnan El Shukrijumah was one of seven radical Islamists planning attacks in the U.S. for later that year. Subsequent reporting confirmed Shukrijumah had been traveling in Central America — potentially looking for access points into the U.S. and support from the likes of Mara Salvatrucha.
Shukrijumah is on the National Counterterrorism Center’s 2014 terrorist calendar and is one of the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists, pursuant to a 2010 indictment for his alleged role in a terrorism plot against New York City’s subway system and other targets in the United States and the United Kingdom. Shukrijumah was also described in June 2007 news reports as “al Qaeda’s operations leader on a nuclear terror plot targeting the United States,” having been picked by Osama bin Laden “to detonate nuclear bombs simultaneously in several U.S. cities.”
This helps bring into focus Gen. Votel’s concerns about the desire of violent extremist organizations to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear materials to use as weapons. There are a few examples worth noting of developments in the Western Hemisphere.
In August 2012, two months after Iran’s president at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited La Paz, Bolivia, police in that country seized two tons of uranium being stored at a building near the U.S. and Spanish embassies. Four suspects were arrested, but the source and destination of the material were never confirmed. Amid local fears of radioactive contamination, Bolivian authorities later raised the possibility that the substance was tantalum instead of uranium. Possession and attempted sale of such quantities of tantalum would nevertheless merit further inquiries. Commodity and scientific reports note tantalum can also be used in the manufacture of chemical equipment, nuclear reactors and missile parts.
Continuing the disturbing trend, Mexico was the focus on June 8 when a device containing radioactive substances was stolen from a government research facility in Mexico City. Albeit a small or trace amount of nuclear materiel, this was the third theft of a radioactive substance in just over six months. In December, armed robbers intercepted and stole a truck transporting cobalt-60 from a hospital in Tijuana. The material was later recovered, and six men were charged. Mexican officials assert there is no evidence indicating the radioactive materials were specifically targeted in these cases. Frankly, it is too soon to reach such conclusions.
The thefts in both Bolivia and Mexico reveal significant vulnerabilities that terrorists could capitalize on to build radiological bombs — “dirty nukes” — or other deadly weapons.
If confirmed as the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, Gen. Votel should apply to the Western Hemisphere the methodology and lessons learned throughout his career in other spheres. Only through the application of both an offensive and defensive strategy can the United States hope to prevent the countries in the region from becoming terrorist sanctuaries or conduits for jihadists and other violent extremists seeking to cause great harm to Americans, our interests and allies.
Yleem D.S. Poblete is former chief of staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.