Argentina and Venezuela
Opinion Piece

OPINION: Is ISIS a threat to Latin America?

Bnamericas Published: Wednesday, October 01, 2014

In recent weeks, news of the Islamic extremist group known as ISIS (as well as Islamic State and ISIL) has been linked to Latin American behemoths Argentina and Mexico. A conservative group from the US, Judicial Watch, published an article in late August claiming ISIS is already operating in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez and planning car bomb attacks against its northern neighbor.

And on September 20, Argentine police filed a complaint with local courts alleging ISIS threatened President Cristina Fernández.

Looking further at the Mexico case, the warning seems to be a load of hot air. "There is no credible intelligence to suggest that there is an active plot by ISIL to attempt to cross the southern border," US Homeland Security officials responded in a written statement.

Turning to Fernández, the threats are currently under investigation by the justice ministry and the secretary of state intelligence. The president has reportedly dismissed the gravity of the threats – which she claims were due to her friendship with Pope Francis and her belief that both Palestine and Israel exist as states – adding that if she paid heed to every threat she would "live under the bed."

Despite Fernández's indifference on the matter, the threat surely brought back harrowing memories of jihadists' 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires – a case the government is still attempting to close.

But the two recent developments come across as trivial and fail to elicit a palpable fear of the jihadists within the region. However, what are the chances ISIS could recruit militants from within the region, especially in countries with strong anti-American sentiment such as Venezuela?

Dr Luis Fleischman from the Florida Atlantic University Honors College in the US suggests Venezuela could harbor ISIS supporters. The country's late President Hugo Chávez developed relations with Saddam Hussein, some of whose former officials have now joined ISIS. Meanwhile, the father of Tareck El Aissami, who currently governs the state of Aragua and was the former interior and justice minister, represented Saddam's Baath party in Venezuela and openly identified himself with the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden, says Fleischman.

Apart from the country's ties with Islamic extremists, "Venezuela's government has a radical ideology by definition and could support everything that is hostile towards the US," Fleischman adds.

Yet despite Venezuela's tendency to adhere to anti-American causes, the neo-populist ideology of this country does not coincide with ISIS's political-religious ideology such as to justify adopting the jihadists' radical use of violence, professor José Morandé from the University of Chile told BNamericas.

Others claim it is unlikely ISIS would recruit from within Latin America. Ismene Ithai Bras from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) explains that this is mainly because the Islam practiced in this region is significantly different, having a divergent conception.

Additionally, the majority of the youth supporting ISIS are second or third generation immigrants. They are the grandchildren of those who migrated from Arab countries to Europe. Many of these youth are simply searching for an identity, as adapting to their new cultures has proven a difficult task which few have achieved, Bras told Chilean press.

In contrast, in Latin America there is a large Arab community that is much easier to adapt to, so youth are unlikely to feel compelled to fight in the Middle East, added Professor Tarik Zeraoui from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico.

And within the region's Arab community are a growing number of Syrian asylum-seekers fleeing ISIS's wrath. Some 1,300 Syrians now have official refugee status in Latin America, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Uruguay in particular has welcomed the refugees with open arms, offering a large-scale resettlement program.

In the end, ISIS does not appear to be a considerable threat to Latin America at present, especially considering the region is not involved in military campaigns against the jihadists, adds Morandé. The question remains as to whether Venezuela is ripe for recruiting Islamic extremists. Though unlikely, the scenario paints a dismal picture for a country whose citizens already experience the lowest perception of security worldwide.

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