U.S., Latin allies fear Islamic State threat after Mosul
PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD | As Islamic State’s territorial base shrinks in Syria and Iraq, U.S. and Latin American defense leaders half a world away are bracing for the fallout amid fears the group will return to more traditional acts of terrorism.
The security environment after the expected recapture of the Islamic State’s stronghold in Mosul, Iraq in the coming weeks dominated regional security talks held here last week between the Obama administration and countries across Central and South America.
“The passage of time has indeed drawn us ... into new theaters of war which demand responses to a plethora of unprecedented and insidious threats,” said Keith Rowley, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, in opening remarks for the regional security conference. “This is a reflection of the increasingly volatile globalized world in which we live.”
U.S. Southern Command chief Adm. Kurt Tidd underscored the need for heightened vigilance over the Islamic State’s virulent ideology gaining ground in Latin America at the Pentagon.
As the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, “continues to morph and metastasize, I think all around the world we must all be mindful of where might it pop up,” he told reporters after participating in a meeting of anti-Islamic State coalition defense chiefs at Andrews Air Force Base earlier this week.
As the Islamic State faces mounting military pressure by the American-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, the group has begun a dangerous transition from a de facto state able to hold territory to an amorphous, transnational terror group — more akin to al Qaeda, the terror network that spawned and has been largely surpassed by the Islamic State.
“I don’t think it’s safe for anybody to now say that, ‘Well, it would never happen here,’” said Adm. Tidd. “We’ve seen that it’s a phenomena that we’re just going to have to wrestle with” long after the fall of Mosul, he added.
While Islamic State splinter operations have hammered European countries the hardest to date, the group has made efforts to expand into new “markets,” including Latin America and the Caribbean.
In July, the Brazilian extremist group Ansar al-Khilafah pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, days before the opening ceremonies for the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The Islamic State’s formidable online propaganda wing has begun translating its edicts and messages into Spanish and Portuguese.
Prior to the rise of the Islamic State, Central and South American nations had primarily been targeted by Iran. Tehran exploited the region’s vast illicit smuggling and narcotics trafficking networks to raise funds for Shiite terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Adm. Tidd said earlier this year that the number of Islamic State fighters and affiliated extremists is now “in the hundreds” across Central and South America. “Radicalization within our region is occurring,” he said in March.
The four-star admiral declined to comment on the Islamic State’s ties to groups in Brazil or elsewhere in the region, but did note that the flow of foreign fighters from battlefields in Iraq and Syria into Latin America has dropped significantly.
“As the coalition has had significant success in Iraq and Syria, I think the outflow has been significantly curtailed,” he said. “But as we’ve seen ... they are advocating, if you can’t come over [to the Middle East], conduct attacks at home,” Adm. Tidd added.
That message to Islamic State affiliates and sympathizers struck a nerve among Central and South American defense leaders at the Trinidad and Tobago defense symposium here.
“ISIS will be defeated ... in Iraq and Syria, and that will mean this evil movement cannot claim to have a physical home” in either country, said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
However, “there are some [Islamic State] cells around the world ... [and] countries in this region, which included the United States, are going to be on the watch for anyone who tries to come back who has been radicalized,” he added.
As the Islamic State continues to head further underground, intelligencesharing between the countries in the hemisphere is increasingly critical, said Mr. Carter.
“Each of us [needs] all the awareness that we can possibly have,” he added.