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It might just be the most important terrorism case you’ve never heard of. Last fall, prosecutors in the Peruvian capital of Lima launched formal legal proceedings against a 30-year-old alleged Hezbollah operative named Mohammed Hamdar. The trial, now underway, has major regional—indeed, global—implications for the fight against international terrorism.
The case dates back to October 2014, when Peruvian police arrested the then-28-year-old Lebanese national in Lima’s Surquillo district. When he was apprehended, Hamdar had traces of suspicious chemicals on one of his hands. The same residue was also found in his apartment. He later tested positive for contact with nitroglycerine, a common ingredient in the production of explosives. Additionally, during the course of his subsequent interrogation, he admitted that he was a member of Hezbollah and that the group had asked him to conduct surveillance throughout the country. Peruvian authorities, however, believe that his writ was broader still and that Hamdar was, in fact, casing several soft targets as a prelude to a major terrorist attack—one that may have been timed to coincide with the UN Climate Change Summit, scheduled to take place in Lima later that year.
In the end, Hamdar was charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism as well as the falsification of documents (he had entered Peru on a fraudulent Sierra Leonean passport). He was placed in pre-trail detention by the judge presiding over the case. He remained there until this past August when the current trial commenced.
Latin America has long been notorious as a permissive operating environment for an array of local radical groups.
The Hamdar affair is important because it provides proof that Latin American countries are not immune from the threat posed by radical Islamist terrorism. But the case is significant for a broader reason as well. If properly adjudicated, it could supply a powerful precedent that could help spur an expansion of national counterterrorism legislation in Peru and provide a model for other countries in the region in their own dealings with Hezbollah, its chief sponsor Iran, and other radical actors.
Latin America has long been notorious as a permissive operating environment for an array of local radical groups. But the region’s empty political spaces have, likewise, afforded foreign terrorists fertile soil in which to take root. In some cases, this intrusion has been made possible by widespread corruption and a lack of effective governance. In others, however, ideological regimes—including Venezuela and several other “Bolivarian” nations—have ignored or even abetted the activities of extremist elements from the Middle East.
Arguably, the most prominent of these is the terrorist powerhouse, Hezbollah, which has maintained an active presence in South America. It has done so since the 1980s, when, with Iran’s assistance, it established a beachhead in the Tri-Border Region where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay intersect. Since then, Hezbollah has succeeded in building an extensive network of operations in the Americas—encompassing a wide range of illicit activities and criminal enterprises, from drug trafficking to recruitment to fundraising to militant training.
Over time, Hezbollah has been joined by other terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda and even the Islamic State (ISIS), in what has become an increasingly active terrorist milieu. Last month, a study by the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies, a division of Spain’s Defense Ministry, officially confirmed what regional observers have long noted—namely that “Latin America represents an important region for Islamic radicalism because conditions enable the free, almost undetectable, movement of their members throughout the region.”
That, in turn, represents a significant threat to the United States. Last summer, U.S. Southern Command—whose former commanding officer, John Kelly, is now poised to take over the Department of Homeland Security—warned that assorted extremists were using the Americas as a staging ground for operations and potential infiltration of the continental United States. Specifically, the command estimated that, in 2015, fully ten percent of the 330,000 migrants monitored entering via the country’s southern border came “from countries of terrorist concern.”
Such freedom of action is possible largely because of the region’s lack of robust counterterrorism laws. Simply put, the countries of Latin America currently lack a standard legal framework that criminalizes and blacklists foreign terrorist organizations in the same way that the United States does. An internal 2013 research survey carried out by the American Foreign Policy Council found that only one-third of the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean had laws specifically identifying terror-related activities as a crime under national law. Moreover, in many of the places where such laws do exist, there nevertheless were no provisions in place for designating foreign terrorist organizations from the Middle East.
Simply put, the countries of Latin America currently lack a standard legal framework that criminalizes and blacklists foreign terrorist organizations in the same way that the United States does.
More than three years on, very little has changed. As multiple visits to the region have made all too clear, local officials know precious little about Islamist terrorist groups and feel even less urgency to act against them. All of which has allowed assorted radicals to exist in a state of legal grace. In one famous example, a top al-Qaeda financier and recruiter named Khaled Hussein Ali operated openly for years in Sao Paulo, Brazil, despite an April 2011 expose by the newsmagazine Veja connecting him to the Bin Laden network. To be sure, money laundering, narcotrafficking, and counterfeiting, through which terrorist organizations often raise funds, are generally criminalized. However, no corresponding restrictions or penalties exist for involvement in Islamist terrorist organizations.
Peru is no exception. Although the country does possess an extensive legal framework against domestic terrorism, which was crafted in the 1990s in response to the indigenous terror threat once posed by the Shining Path militant group, the state does not have the tools in place that it needs to effectively prosecute Hamdar and future foreign terrorists. Having successfully battled Shining Path into relative passivity over the past decade-and-a-half, Peru has stopped short of developing concrete policies and protections against international terrorism more broadly.
Hamdar could change all that. If the prosecution succeeds in securing a guilty verdict, it would be tantamount to a criminalization of Hamdar’s membership in Hezbollah—a milestone in a region that currently lacks any such legal precedent. The local effects would be immediate, empowering Peruvian authorities to track down and unravel the network of operatives and supporters that Hezbollah has erected throughout the country. But a conviction would likewise send a powerful signal to Hezbollah and other threat groups now active in the region that their activities in Latin America can no longer be considered cost-free.
That makes Peru’s legal offensive one worth watching. And, for policymakers in Washington eager to spur greater international involvement in the fight against terrorism, that makes it an effort worth supporting.