The Triple Frontier, referred to as the Triborder Area by the United States State Department, has an Arab immigrant population exceeding 25,000 and is described as “teeming with Islamic extremists and their sympathizers, [where] businesses have raised or laundered $50 million in recent years” (Rother, NYTimes, 2002). A map of the area was found in al al-Qaeda Kabul safe house in 2001, raising concerns that al-Qaeda might have established a base here. Press reports in 2002 told of two Lebanese men who had been arrested in Paraguay raising money for the organization, but specifics have been scarce.
What is certain is that the Triple Frontier satisfies the criteria just discussed: a huge, chaotic city not far away (Sao Paulo with its international and continental linkages, its large Muslim population, and its vast expanses of poor favelas); a quiet and remote rural area with villages where Muslim merchants can establish themselves and carry on supportive activities; a malfunctioning state in the form of Paraguay that does not, for example, have an antiterrorism law; and Western targets near and far for attack. As Rother reports, the Triple Frontier has become a haven for militants, fugitives, forgers of passports and credit cards, telephone switching operators, money launderers, and enforcers. In the process, the cultural landscape in this area has drastically changed. In the neat, trimmed town of Foz do Iguaco, the tourist stopover on the way to the nearby Iguazu Falls, the television stations available in a visitor’s hotel room include Brazilian stations and CNN International but also five Arab-language stations, two of which broadcast round-the-clock sermons from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Near the town’s peak-value intersection stands a gold-domed, finely crafted mosque, and in the streets numerous women wear the burqa. Take the bridge across the Parana River to the Paraguayan side, and the town of Ciudad del Este is a vivid contrast to neat and orderly Foz – a jumble of mostly low-slung buildings in poor repair along traffic-clogged streets with broken sidewalks, a town where contraband smuggling, a busy drug trade, illegal arms sales, the manufacture and marketing of pirated goods, prostitution, and petty crime are endemic. But locals say that there are more than 40 mosques and prayer houses here, and that Islamic extremists are recruiting and indoctrinating followers.
Which raises the question whether the Triple Frontier is a staging area for a wider campaign. The Argentinean press reports that known militants’ telephone traffic, fiscal transactions, and travel patterns indicate links not only to Sao Paulo and Lebanon but also to disorderly Guayaquil, one of South America’s toughest cities, and to sprawling Maracaibo in Venezuela. Where, beyond these cities, the trails lead is uncertain, but consider this: the United States if flanked to the north by a dependable neighbor and to the east and west by wide oceans, but to the south it is exposed to access in various forms, from illegal immigration overland to stepping-stone entry via islands in the Caribbean. The logical route for terrorists would surely be from the south, and the staging area may very well be the Triple Frontier.
In recent years the situation has become still more complicated because Venezuela has taken on the characteristics of a malfunctioning state. While the situation in neighboring Colombia, also malfunctioning and under terrorist threat, has remained a largely domestic matter, President Chavez has taken Venezuela in a new direction, proclaiming ideological affinity with two terrorist groups (FARC and ELN) in Colombia and allowing Venezuelan weapons to reach them across their joint border (U.S. Department of State, 2004). President Chavez also proclaimed solidarity with Cuba’s dictator Fidel Castro, but the more alarming effect of Venezuela’s political condition is the reported appearance of radical Islamic operatives in the country, notably on Margarita Island, part of the northeastern Province of Sucre and on the doorstep of the Caribbean. A malfunctioning political system in this pivotal location is an opportunity sure to be seized by Islamic militants.
- Harm de Blij, from his book, Why Geography Matters.