A poor, agrarian, landlocked country in South America with a nearly 100 percent Christian population is hardly the place one would expect to become a hotbed of Islamic extremism in the Western Hemisphere.
But a recent report by the Open Source Center (OSC) of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence says it's so.
There are only 1,000 Muslims in Bolivia, a country of 9.7 million people, but the connection between some of the community’s religious leaders and Iran — as well as with fundamentalist factions in the Palestinian territories — has U.S. officials and terror experts keeping a watchful eye on them.
The report revealed a number of Muslim organizations in Bolivia whose leaders have publicly denounced U.S. foreign policy and have direct associations with extremists in the Middle East.
“There’s a theory that they may believe — Latin America, particularly with its Leftist leanings in recent years, may be more receptive to the anti-American-type rhetoric that we’ve been accustomed to hearing from Iran,” said a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
One Muslim leader named in the OSC report is Mahmud Amer Abusharar, founder of the Centro Islamico Boliviano (CIB) in Santa Cruz. Abusharar emigrated from the Palestinian territories in 1974 and claims to have built Bolivia’s first mosque in 1994 so that he would not lose touch with his religion.
But public statements by Abusharar and other members of his mosque reveal clear anti-US sentiments. In a 2007 interview with a local Bolivian university, Abusharar told a student that he didn’t know Muslims in jail who weren’t there “especially due to the United States’ influence in Bolivian politics.” The CIB’s Web site also posts an article by its administrative director, Isa Amer Quevedo, that rebukes the U.S. for launching an attack on the Taliban after 9/11, stating: “Today we see the U.S. declaring armed Jihad against terrorism. They aim their bombs at UBL and Afghanistan, whom they financed and trained.”
The CIB is also the Bolivian headquarters for the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), a Saudi-based major fundraiser for the Muslim community. According to U.S. State Department documents, one of its regional offices in Northern Virginia was raided by the FBI in connection with terrorist activities in 2004.
Another Muslim leader in Bolivia, Husayn Salgueiro, is a staunch supporter of the Palestinian government and a known critic of Israel. While there are no public records of Salgueiro speaking out against the U.S., a local news interview earlier this year shows him urging Palestinians to continue their armed struggle against the Israeli people.
Other leaders of Islamic groups in Bolivia, according to the OCS report, have shown evidence of sympathies with Islamic radicals. Fayez Rajab Khedeer Kannan, leader of the Asociacion Cultural Boliviana Musulmana (ACBM), has openly praised Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi and asked the wealthy Islamic organization, The Libyan International Center for Studies and Research of the Green Book, to heighten its missionary efforts in Bolivia. Roberto “Yusuf” Chambi Calle, president of the Fundacion Cultural Islamica Boliviana (FCIB) is friendly with a possible associate of Moshen Rabbani, a known Iranian terrorist and the former director of a Buenos Aires mosque.
Some Latin America analysts say religious organizations like these could provide cover for more radical groups.
“Clearly, jihadists, or potential jihadists, would look very intensely at ways of diversifying their sources of revenue, potential candidates for missions — intelligence missions, infiltration — people whose profile, whose point of origin leads people to be less suspicious,” said Ray Walser, a senior policy analyst specializing in Latin America at the Heritage Foundation. “I think there is a potential in these types of organizations — that may exist in Bolivia or elsewhere — of becoming the kind of points of diversification of radical groups in the Middle East.”
Latin America has already seen the influence of Muslim extremists. In 1994, Hezbollah — the Islamic terror organization based in Lebanon — bombed the Argentine-Jewish Mutual Association in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and wounding many more. Moshen Rabbani was believed to be one of the main operatives. In 1992, Hezbollah bombed Argentina’s Israeli embassy, killing 29.
“We’re aware that certain groups have the capability to conduct operations in the region,” the U.S. intelligence official told FOXNews.com. “So that is something that we’re constantly on the look-out for — signals that something like that could be going on. So it’s a definite concern on a general level that could be used again in the future or for an operation by similar groups as well.”
U.S. relations with Bolivia have deteriorated since President Evo Morales took office in 2005. In 2008, Morales kicked U.S. Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg out of Bolivia, claiming that the ambassador was plotting a coup d’etat to overthrow him. Three months ago, Bolivia broke diplomatic ties with Israel, a close U.S. ally, to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
But Morales has found support and camaraderie in Iran and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the past year, Iran has made some large investments in the impoverished Andean nation, pouring millions into various sectors: Bolivia’s natural gas reserves (the second largest in South America); the agricultural sector, by setting up new milk processing plants and donating agricultural tools; and the medical industry, by planning two clinics in Bolivia that will employ Bolivian staff but be managed by Iranians. Morales recently announced he will build a new embassy in Iran.
“It’s about anti-Americanism,” Mr. Walser told FOXNews.com. “It’s about, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Some Latin America watchers are wary of the influx of Iranian money into Bolivia and warn that economic investment could provide a convenient mask for extremist groups’ illicit activities.
“There’s always a concern from a security perspective when there’s the perception of extremism being exported to other nations in innocuous forms — whether that’s by charitable works of social services or educational efforts,” said Marisa Porges, former policy adviser on counterterrorism at the U.S. Defense Department. “It does have a radicalizing influence. And we see the populations that are receiving medical services or educational services or religious support then having more and more extremist tendencies. And eventually that can lead to radicalization and violence.”
“The goal of the revolution is not just for Iran, but they feel an obligation to spread it,” the U.S. intelligence official told Foxnews.com. “So we see their outreach as not just an economic one, but also a cultural one. Now, is there potential that that could be capitalized by some other for some more nefarious purposes? There’s a lot of possibilities out there.”
But other foreign policy experts say that the warm relationship betweenIran and Bolivia is based not on terror, but on trade.
“Iran certainly is one of many countries — and that includes Russia, India,South Africa — who are extremely anxious to lay their hands on South American commodities,” said Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Still, Birns says, strong economic ties between Bolivia and Iran — with or without the spread of radical Islam ideology — could nonetheless pose a threat to U.S. interests.
“In terms of the pending worldwide shortage of commodities, there’s a real ... the equivalent of an arms race," Birns said. "But it’s a commodities race, to sew up as many commodities dealers as they can find. There’s a genuine fear in the United States of being left out.”